DENVER – Months after protesters tore down a statue of a U.S. soldier who took part in the slaughter of Native Americans, tribal members and descendants of those who survived the Civil War-era attack urged Colorado lawmakers on Thursday to replace it with the likeness of an Indigenous woman at the state Capitol.
The new statue would replace the one depicting a Union Army soldier who helped carry out the Sand Creek Massacre of 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people in 1864, one of the worst mass murders in U.S. history. It was toppled over the summer amid the national reckoning over racial injustice and the movement to remove symbols from public spaces that are tied to military atrocities against people of color, typically the Confederacy.
The proposed new bronze statue would depict a young woman sitting on a white flag, wearing a native Cheyenne dress, with her left arm extended. She has cut off her braids and the joint of a finger on her left hand in signs of mourning.
Ryan Ortiz of the Northern Arapaho Tribe testified virtually in favor of the new statue for the Capital Development Committee. He said the massacre is the origin of historical trauma for the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes and that the statue would be a chance to right previous wrongs.
“It’s not very often in history do we have a chance to atone for our ancestors’ mistakes,” Ortiz said.
Otto Braided Hair, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member and descendent of a Sand Creek survivor, has worked on education surrounding the massacre for the last 20 years. He shared details passed down by his great-grandfather.
“He was part of a recovery crew to go down and look for survivors and couldn’t get near the village because the whole valley permeated with burnt bodies,” Braided Hair said. “And so that’s what the soldiers did and the soldier represents for us.”
On November 29, 1864, Col. John Chivington led around 700 U.S. volunteer soldiers to a village of nearly 500 people camped along the banks of Big Sandy Creek. Chivington ordered his men to attack and kill mostly women, children and elderly at the camp. The village had believed they were under the protection of the U.S. Army, and people even approached the unit with white flags.
Over the next two days, the troops shot and hunted fleeing women and children in a 35-square-mile (90-square-kilometer) area. Chivington never faced a trial for his actions.
The Sand Creek Massacre site is tucked away in rural southeastern Colorado and honors the victims.
“We should be your neighbors. We should be living amongst you. But we were forced out of the area,” Ortiz said to the committee.
State Rep. Susan Lontine, a Democrat and chairwoman of the Capitol Building Advisory Committee that reviews art, memorials and architectural designs, said she supported the statue after hearing from tribal members.
“We are at a moment of social reckoning, and we have, as a state, our own sins to atone for,” she said.
Lontine, whose committee approved the replacement in November, said the statue’s placement is important to the tribes because after the massacre, soldiers came back to Denver, displaying the victims’ body parts as trophies and ended their parade at the steps of the Colorado Capitol.
“We’re also dealing with Indigenous people to our state who have suffered numerous broken promises, and I feel that the approval of the committee is a step toward a promise to fulfilling and placing their memorial on the Capitol grounds,” Lontine said.
The Capital Development Committee, which is in charge of reviewing funding requests for projects, will deliberate the new statue and make a decision over the next few weeks.
Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.