National Parks Service
An informational plaque at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site tells the story of the massacre.

How Best to Use the Sand Creek Massacre Site?

Konnie LeMay

The nearly 2,400-acre stretch of grasslands is split by a waterless creek bed. It is 25 miles or so from the nearest town that, with 609 residents, counts as the most populous in the county.

This remote section of Colorado ranch country and its dry creek reflect the stark beauty of such open places, but the blood spilled and dried on this ground 151 years ago bestowed a dark significance that echoes today.

On November 29, 1864, about 675 volunteer soldiers under Col. John Chivington descended here on the peaceful settlements of Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples, killing 160 to 200 mostly women, children and elderly men and later committing atrocities against even the lifeless bodies.

The land seems pastoral today, but the history it bears has weighed for eight years on a group of National Park Service personal, representatives of the Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples, and officials of the state of Colorado and Kiowa County as they considered the wisest management of the site commemorating the Sand Creek Massacre.

The public comment period on general management options and environmental assessment closed at the end of July, and the NPS likely will announce the adopted plan later this year.

“Every process at Sand Creek is a very deliberate process,” said site Superintendent Alexa Roberts, explaining that the site’s mandate requires the maximum input by the tribes.

Although the NPS and other planning partners preferred one alternative, the legal mandate for the NPS requires multiple options, said Tom Thomas, project manager in the NPS’s Denver Service Center. Five alternatives were presented, from no change to extensive expansion of public access.

(National Park Service)

Currently the site has little development beyond a ranch road, a small parking area near a maintenance shed and temporary visitor contact station-office trailer, picnic tables and vault toilets. The on-site station allows little more than contact with a park ranger and pick up of brochures.

“It doesn’t have exhibits and that sort of thing,” Roberts said. “It’s not a full visitor center where they can get orientation with exhibits… Under the (preferred) plan, we would move the visitor contact out of that little building…  and make it a separate very small place where it would still contain the book sales, restrooms, interpretive plaza.”

The mostly likely alternative, the plan preferred by the Park Service, tribal representatives and state and county officials, would expand on-site facilities with administrative and maintenance space, additional restrooms, a road and parking.

It would add a visitor orientation and research center, potentially in a historic main-street building in nearby Eads. “The intention is to gather Sand Creek materials from wherever they might be across the country,” Roberts said.

The plan would also expand to 1.5 miles a trail that follows the ridgeline and would allow visitors to view from the ridgeline the killing field and former village sites. It would not allow direct access to that area.

“The tribes by consensus liked it best,” Thomas said, and state and county representatives also agreed to support that alternative.

“It provides the perfect balance,” Roberts said of that alternative. “The really successful thing about this trail and the interpretation is that it starts before the visitor even enters the park, it starts as the visitor approaches in the entrance.”

The chosen general management plan will direct the physical site for the next 15 to 20 years, but it does not provide designated funding to accomplish the goals. It also does not determine the site’s interpretive direction.

Interpretive themes will be explored at a workshop in October with representatives of the NPS and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Northern Arapaho Tribe at Wind River, and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes based in Oklahoma.

The legislative mandate for the Sand Creek Massacre Historic Site, Roberts said, “is to provide the public with an understanding of the massacre and its impact” and thereby help “to prevent such atrocities from ever occurring again.”

But the NPS also is charged with preserving the site and maintaining it as a memorial, and since the historic site opened, there have been several ceremonies during which human remains—often removed as “trophies” by the soldiers that ended up in private and public collections—have been buried at the site.

“The landscape is defined,” Roberts said, “by the cultural value that the Cheyenne and Arapaho people place on it.”

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