Lack of Tribal Consultation Leads to Conflict at a Denver Museum

The Sand Creek Massacre exhibit at the History Colorado Center has sparked conflict between the museum and area tribes who feel they weren't consulted

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.”