Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today
Their names are printed on sheer fabric hanging from the ceiling, casting shadows on the century-old photos peering out from behind.
Juan, 8, Navajo, captured
Rita, 10, Navajo, purchased
Maria, 8, Ute, purchased
Their stories are not the typical tales of slavery told through the experiences of African-Americans, who were forcibly brought to this country for that purpose.
Instead, they are among more than 100 enslaved Indigenous people whose stories are now being examined through an art installation in southern Colorado by artist, activist and physician Chip Thomas, an African-American and Lumbee who goes by the moniker, jetsonorama.
The exhibition, “Unsilenced: Indigenous Enslavement in Southern Colorado,” is on display at the Fort Garland Museum and Cultural Center operated by the nonprofit History Colorado historical society.
The haunting installation sits in an adobe building constructed in 1858 that once housed Major Lafayette Head’s quarters. It incorporates historic photos of Indigenous captives and reprinted images from a census of enslaved Indigenous people in Conejos and Costilla counties collected in 1865 by Head, who went on to become Colorado’s lieutenant governor.
Thomas said the “Unsilenced” project began by listening.
“Wanting to engage the local community in difficult conversations about Native enslavement in the San Luis Valley, Fort Garland Museum held a series of Zoom conversations encouraging participants to share family stories and photos of distant enslaved family members,” Thomas told Indian Country Today in a statement also posted on his website.
“Inspired by an invitation from the Fort Garland Museum to install work related to Native enslavement, I used this opportunity to begin learning more of this obscured history,” he said.
He learned that President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued Jan. 1, 1863, applied only to enslaved people of African descent. When Andrew Johnson ascended to the presidency, he ordered reviews of others, he said.
“President Johnson was hearing reports of Native enslavement occurring in the recently acquired western territories and states, so he tasked the Indian agents in these regions to perform a survey of all the enslaved Native people in their counties,” Thomas said. “Lafayette Head was the only agent to do so.”
At the time, Head was the Ute and Jicarilla Apache Indian Agent from 1859-1868, and his home served as the site of the Indian Agency, Thomas said.
The compound is at the base of the sacred Mount Blanca, and a Navajo healing ceremony helped open the exhibit in October.
The art exhibit, which includes a second installation at a nearby slave quarters, is part of History Colorado's Borderlands of Southern Colorado initiative, an effort started in 2017 to explore the history of southern Colorado “through the intersection of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and the environment,” said Eric J. Carpio, the chief community museum officer for History Colorado and director of the Fort Garland Museum and Cultural Center.
“Since 2018, we've been researching Indigenous enslavement in the San Luis Valley by meeting with scholars, community members, and descendants,” Carpio said.
A ghostly presence
Thomas said the neatly penned census list became his focus.
“Upon seeing the Head list, I was struck by several things,” he said. “Head created his own ledger paper. His mother was a school teacher back in Missouri where he was raised. His mom emphasized the need for penmanship. As I gazed at the Head list I was moved by how beautiful and embellished his writing was of this abhorrent practice of enslavement.
"I was drawn to the beauty of the document yet repulsed by what it represented and knew that I wanted to use this document as a central storytelling device about Native enslavement,” he said.
In the installation, the 149 names on the census ledger can be read but are also transparent, forming a ghostly presence. Among the photos displayed is one of 12-year-old Gabriel Woodson, a Navajo boy forcibly taken in 1860 and sold by the Utes to a businessman. He’s shown in a Western suit and tie for his portrait.
An estimated 1,000 to 3,000 Navajo women and children were captured during the period, usually by Hispanic and Indigenous raiders who traded them typically for horses or guns.
For decades, the museum has celebrated frontiersman Christopher “Kit” Carson, who was assigned to command the remote garrison to protect settlers from raids by tribes. Carson led an 1864 U.S. military campaign aimed to defeat Navajo resistance and remove Indigenous people from their homelands.
In a strange twist, the names among the “Unsilenced” project include Juan Carson, Kit Carson’s enslaved Navajo “son,” one of three captive servants in his household. The exhibit says that Juan was 3 years old when Carson's wife, Josefa Jaramillo, traded a horse for the boy.
Carpio said Thomas was chosen for the project after they met in 2019 when he installed a mural at an abandoned school building in the San Luis Valley as part of the La Isla Memory Project. Thomas uses buildings and landscapes as key elements of his artwork, so he seemed like a natural collaborator to work within the Commandant's Quarters, he said.
“We admire the way Chip engages with the community during a project,” Carpio said. “Chip is a great listener and relationship-builder, and he has truly invested himself in the stories we're sharing."
A member of Justseeds, a printmaking cooperative, Thomas grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, the son of a doctor and a teacher. After receiving a scholarship to Meharry Medical College, an historically Black college in Nashville, he spent several years in the Navajo Nation before deciding to stay on.
He started the Painted Desert Project, where artists work with Navajo Nation youth to create public art. As someone who has spent more than 34 years living and working with the Diné on the Colorado Plateau, and as an African-American and Native American, this history intrigued him, he said.
“Many Diné friends shared stories with me over the years of family oral histories that involve distant relatives being captured in battle with other tribes and being held captive,” he said in the statement. “Learning of Native enslavement wasn’t new information for me. However, the motivations, extent, and consequences of it were.”
Carpio said History Colorado hosted a series of memory workshops with descendants, tribal partners, and others impacted by the history, and the society plans to continue to expand the story.
“The intent of this project has always been to center the experiences and voices of the enslaved and their descendants,” Carpio said.
“For a long time, this history has been erased, denied, or minimized. We hope that this installation provides the community with an opportunity to acknowledge the painful parts of our history and engage in critical dialogue.”
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