Photo by Carol Berry
Edward Nichols, president and CEO of History Colorado, spoke with Terry Knight, a cultural leader of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, at a meeting March 22 of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. The commission has been asked to help foster negotiations between the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes and History Colorado in a conflict over consultation for the Sand Creek Massacre exhibit at the History Colorado Center.

Lack of Tribal Consultation Leads to Conflict at a Denver Museum

Carol Berry
March 27, 2013

When tribes, whose ancestors are the subject of a museum exhibit, are against that exhibit and ask for it to be closed pending further consultation, it’s obvious something is amiss.

Although reluctant in the past to close the exhibit, officials of a Denver museum are now considering it to repair a damaged partnership with the affected tribes.

The controversy focuses on History Colorado Center’s exhibit on the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, when more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, mostly children, women and elders, were killed by U.S. Army volunteers in a southeast Colorado camp where they had been promised safety.

Past meetings with tribal representatives have led museum officials to correct some editorial errors in the exhibit, but that didn’t solve the deeper problem that the officials didn’t consult with tribes as much as they should have.

The Sand Creek Massacre exhibit is a cluster of small chambers with curved walls alight with shifting messages and images that characterize 19th century beliefs about Natives and non-Natives. Throughout the exhibit a recording of the late LaForce Lone Bear singing his ancestor Chief White Antelope’s death song plays. The music is interspersed with muted gunshots and cries. One message in colors shifting from blue to violet on a wall says, “Ve’ho’e is the Cheyenne term for spider as well as for white man. It represents an intelligent mischief-maker or villain.”

The mass killing at Sand Creek is neutrally attributed in the exhibit to a “collision” of cultures, but it was “one of the most heinous crimes committed on the planet,” said David Halaas, former chief historian of the Colorado Historical Society, which preceded History Colorado.

The tribes involved have repeatedly asked—and continue to ask—that the exhibit be closed until they are consulted fully about its content. Although History Colorado officials said recently that a meeting with tribes will be held before the end of March, the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs said it’s waiting to hear from the tribes. The commission has been asked to help negotiate among the government-designated partners overseeing the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site—the National Park Service, the state through History Colorado, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and the Northern Arapaho Tribe.

Although partnered management of the massacre site may not technically extend to the museum exhibit, History Colorado stresses that “partnership with the tribes is what we want to achieve and have enjoyed in the past.”

“They [History Colorado] present quotes that try to tell the story in all its fullness—but this was a massacre,” stressed Halaas, a long-time tribal friend. “They use quotes which seem to explain why the soldiers did what they did—those quotations are unacceptable.” Meetings between the museum and tribes in 2011 and 2012 concerning the exhibit were unsuccessful, he said, and tribal representatives boycotted the center’s opening last April.

Now, closing the exhibit pending tribal consultation and approval is “under consideration,” said Edward Nichols, president and CEO of History Colorado. “We’re as interested in getting to a resolution of their concerns as they are.” He believes not getting the tribes involved sooner is at the heart of the dispute and is anxious for a conversation with them.

There are further complexities to this consultation process. Gordon Yellowman, a principal Cheyenne tribal chief and a Peace Chief on the Cheyenne Council of Forty-Four, said the tribe is governed by a dual traditional/Western-style system. A required federal government-to-government consultation process was established between the National Park Service and elected tribal officials who are, in turn, supposed to bring decisions back to the traditional leaders and headmen to whom they customarily defer, but the process hasn’t run smoothly, he said.

The museum conducts audience surveys to see how the exhibit was received by patrons. But Halaas feels, “they should be more concerned about the reaction of the tribes” both in terms of whether it’s an accurate, non-eurocentric historical account and how well it describes the event’s illegality and its past and present impacts on the tribes.

The most graphic material presented in the exhibit may be in a letter from Capt. Silas Soule, who refused to follow the orders of his commander, Army Col. John Chivington, to fire on the unarmed Indians and who later testified against Chivington for atrocities committed that day. Chivington later resigned his post in disgrace. Soule wrote in a letter to Gen. George Wynkoop, only one copy of which was available to the public at the installation:

“I tell you Ned it was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized… One squaw with her two children, were on their knees, begging for their lives of a dozen soldiers, within ten feet of them all firing—when one succeeded in hitting the squaw in the thigh, when she took a knife and cut the throats of both children and then killed herself.”

“This is an open wound—this is not healed,” Halaas said. “Let’s sit down together, and while we’re doing that, close this thing and reopen it after full consultation—that’s what the tribes want.”

“After all,” he concluded, “it isn’t their [museum officials’] history—but it’s affected every tribal family.”



Indian Artist's picture
Indian Artist
Submitted by Indian Artist on

Halaas is correct in the last statements here, while Nichols and his organization have clearly shown, they will not give. What Nichols and his organization want is the seal of post approval and nothing more. If Nichols and his organization really wanted to do the right thing, it would be closing and FULL consultation. This is going the same route as archaeologist and tribes dealing with NAGPRA. Always after the fact and double speaking.

Phyllis Stone, Lakota Elder's picture
Phyllis Stone, ...
Submitted by Phyllis Stone, ... on

The museum didn't want consultation with the Indian people because they knew they would be told don't do the display. I mean it is a Massacre of our people, how in the world do you say something nice about that. My Grandma always told me 'if you can't say something nice about something, don't say anything'. Just take the display down and do something nice.

jackie barnes's picture
jackie barnes
Submitted by jackie barnes on

close it down till the truth is told.....the history books lie enough....set the record straight for once....the truth will set you free....

Eloisa Armida's picture
Eloisa Armida
Submitted by Eloisa Armida on

It was a massacre. It's history once again being told by non tribal members. That is wrong on so many heart sings a song of mourning for all of us the injustice and pain continues...

Eloisa Armida's picture
Eloisa Armida
Submitted by Eloisa Armida on

It was a massacre. It's history once again being told by non tribal members. That is wrong on so many heart sings a song of mourning for all of us the injustice and pain continues...

Harold Howell's picture
Harold Howell
Submitted by Harold Howell on

YOU all need to listen to the TRIBES,simple as that.Have some respect for trible customs an requests.DONT CONTINUE TREATIN THEM LIKE THEY DONT EXSIST OR HAVE RIGHTS< LIKE OUR GOVERNMENT HAS DONE FOR YEARS.

Not all of what was done to Amerinds, think this tale is ...'s picture
Not all of what...
Submitted by Not all of what... on

white washed also.

Tobacco pouches from both sexes, as well as saddle covers from female genitalia.

LostintheUS's picture
Submitted by LostintheUS on

I have worked in two museums and this exhibit should be closed. This sort of exhibit should not happen without the leadership of the affected tribes. Leadership, not consultation. The first question should have been, "Should we do an exhibition on this subject?"

Dale Hamilton Jr.'s picture
Dale Hamilton Jr.
Submitted by Dale Hamilton Jr. on

The History Colorado are doing the same thing that all the rest of the so-called historicalo books have been doing telling a story that is a slanted version, its a story that needs full consultation of the tribes aka victims. That so-called self appointed principal chief of the south has sold out by his statements and his past actions with his own tribe.

Martin Knife Chief's picture
Martin Knife Chief
Submitted by Martin Knife Chief on

Once again...the dominant culture goes ahead, thinking they are doing whats right and, yet, stepping on the ancestors of this terrible tragedy. They play dumb, like they don't know that Native people are still alive and involved in these stories. These are our stories, ones we will never forget and we want told correctly! These are our traditions and values. The public needs to be shocked by the truth. We are always connected to the past, that is what makes our future.We can never ignore or change the truth of this event that shapes Colorado history and the history of the atrocity towards all native peoples of this land. I am of Lakota ancestry...we were close allies and brothers of the Cheyenne. Their stories are our stories...we will never forget!


Around The Web

Craigslist Murder Case: Richard Beasley, Ohio man, sentenced to death for killings of 3 men
1 Calif. hiker still lost, 1 found and recovering
'Arrested Development' Season Four Gets Premiere Date