This presentation is part of the online document Acknowledging Landscapes: Presentations from the National Register Landscape Initiative.

Alexa Roberts: I’m not going to talk so much about at all about the National Register related aspect of Sand Creek so much as just the contemporary meaning of the landscape itself.

Sand Creek, you’ll see down in the southeast corner of what’s today Colorado. It’s along the Big Sandy Creek which is a tributary of the Arkansas River, very close to what is today the Kansas border.  Of course, these borders weren’t there at the time of the massacre.

I’ll just tell you a little bit about what the Sand Creek Massacre was and is.  Sand Creek was an attack on a non-combatant encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho people on November 29th of 1864. This year, we have just observed the 150th commemoration of the Sand Creek Massacre which was a really huge event. The United States Army launched a surprise attacked against the non-combatant encampment between 600 to 700 Cheyenne and Arapaho people who believed that they were camping within the boundaries of a reservation that had been established for them under the protection of the United States at Fort Lyon which is about 40 miles to the south of Sand Creek.

Rather than being under the protection of the United States Army as they believed, a surprised attacked was launched on the morning of November 29th and about 200 people were killed. Two thirds of who were women and children. Shortly afterwards, although this took place during the Civil War, the United States, based on testimonies, letters that were brought forth from some of the participants, the military participants who were appalled by what had taken place there, had written letters to Washington and a series of federal investigations were launched and the attacked was correctly identified as a massacre and condemned by the United States.

Locally, in Colorado, at the time, Colonel John M. Chivington who was commander at that time, and many of his troops under him, after the massacre had mutilated the bodies of the dead and brought human trophies back to Denver to a great applause and response locally. At the time, there was an attempt to be establishing statehood for Colorado and this was seen as a great victory in clearing the plains of “an Indian menace” and making Colorado safe for new settlers, following the gold rush in Colorado. It’s a fairly complicated history that we have just done a film on the role of the Sand Creek Massacre in the Civil War that explains the chronology of events leading to the massacres.

In any case, it was condemned in 1865 and the United States accepted responsibility for what occurred there. Then the title to the Indian lands that had been established was extinguished and after 12 years of subsequent Indian wars all across the plains, Indian lands were extinguished and the land eventually became both railroad lands and private lands. This spot where this happened eventually became divided up and went into private ownership. The tribes never obviously, descendants, never forgot about Sand Creek. They never forgot where it was and they never forgot about what happened and in fact, it’s become a painful, searing element of tribal identity today.

Basically, people forgot where Sand Creek was and sort of tried to forget the whole incident because it was extremely shameful. In any case, although tribal members came back to the spot over the years, it was not recognized or marked, or anything until 1950.

A little marker was put up on a hill overlooking Sand Creek. That was put up a local civic organization along with members of what was then the Colorado Historical Society. That little marker was the only thing denoting Sand Creek, until in the early 1990s when metal detector hobbyists made an attempt to locate the site using metal detectors and were not successful in finding much evidence at the spot where they always thought that it should be.

Long story short, in 1998, Congress directed the National Park Service to work with Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal members, and the state of Colorado, Colorado Historical Society to more conclusively locate the site. That launched a very large study that included archaeology and geomorphology, and historical documentation research, and aerial photography analysis, and very importantly tribal oral histories. Those tribal oral histories revealed, among others things … and that the oral histories were intended to be collected to try and identify geographic information about where specifically was the site located.  Were they any geographic elements of stories remaining that would help identify the location of the site?  What those oral history interviews really revealed was not so much about geographic details as much as the fact that the Sand Creek Massacre never disappeared from who the Cheyenne and Arapaho people are today. That this was not an event that happened in history and was over with, this is something that has lived on through five or six generations of people. It’s still very much a part of who people are and who they have become today, and has never been forgotten, has never been considered a part of the past. It’s considered very much a part of the present.

After those studies were completed, it was determined that the massacre site itself took up about five miles in length and about two miles in width. The massacre occurred over this very large area. Because it was a running, as it was described, a running engagement, people were fleeing obviously from mounted troops. About five miles long and two miles wide and subsequent research is indicated that it’s actually considerably larger than that, the entire landscape of the massacre. It was a very large area and so based on the results of the study, Congress passed a second law in 2000 that authorize the establishment of the site provided that a sufficient amount of the core part of the site could be acquired in order to adequately protect, interpret, and memorialize the massacre.

The legislation that authorized the establishment of sites specifically mentioned the landscape. It said that the Secretary shall manage the site to protect and preserve it, including the topographic features that the Secretary determines are important to the site. Artifacts and other physical remains of the Sand Creek Massacre and the cultural landscape of the site in a manner that preserves as closely as practicable the cultural landscape of the site as it appeared at the time of Sand Creek Massacre. We shall manage the site for those purposes in order to interpret the natural and cultural resource values associated with the site provide for public understanding and appreciation of and preserve for future generations those values.  Memorialize, commemorate and provide information to visitors to the site to enhance cultural understanding about the site and assist in minimizing the chances of similar incidence in the future.

Well, that’s a huge mandate from preserving that landscape for the purposes of enhancing cultural understanding and assisting, and minimizing the chances of some more incidence in the future. A great deal is invested in preserving that landscape as it is and as it was in 1864. As you can see kind of from the slide, it’s a very, very undisturbed landscape from miles around. You can see this little high point right here is the main visitor overlook of the creek bed.  You can see on a clear day probably about 30 miles out to the east and there’s hardly anything within that landscape that disturbs that fairly pristine kind of view. It’s pretty remarkable for something of this size, a national historic site within a larger landscape of this magnitude to be so free of modern day intrusion. This is a very rural area of southeastern Colorado that is agricultural but there’s very little disturbance of that landscape. That’s pretty much how the site looks today.

The intention in our management for the visitor experience, from a visitor standpoint, the site evoked contemplation, reflection and as our legislation says seeking to understand both cultural understanding and historical understanding, and an understanding of impact on Cheyenne and Arapaho people today.

From the tribal standpoint, from a descendant standpoint, the site evokes history. It’s an essence of their identity as Cheyenne and Arapaho people what their history is.

But not just history but also the Cheyenne and Arapaho people today as a living people that have evolved from that history, and who feel very strongly the continuing impact of Sand Creek. There is what they call the multi-generational trauma from this event that has never gone away. It’s evident today in the social and economic impacts to them as tribal people. This photo was just taken about a week ago, two weeks ago during the 150th anniversary events. There’re generally no structures of any kind in that little marker on the site but these were just put up and look remarkably like that historical photo of the lodges that reflect Cheyenne and Arapaho history. That’s what the site does today. It continues to connect contemporary people with their own history.

So at Sand Creek, the natural landscape is the cultural landscape. Those two things are not separable from one another. The site derives its meaning from the story that’s embedded in that land. The descendants will say that ground saturated with the blood of their ancestors. The natural landscape is a cultural landscape, it all has one meaning. You can kind of look at the whole site as being a sacred place and then individual elements within it that also have special meaning but they’re not separable from the larger landscapes.

Trees for example, although they were not trees at the time of the massacre, in the oral history there are stories of people being able to save their lives or the lives of their children by hiding in hollowed out logs of trees that most likely have been driftwood. Then trees grew up over the decade since that time. We had a dendrochronology study done and found that some trees, there are some group of trees that may have been saplings at the time of massacre which we referred as period trees, and not exactly witness trees. Nonetheless, all those trees have taken on a very significant cultural meaning today. But they’re not more important than any other element of the landscape. They’re just identified as having a very strong cultural significance, same with the creek bed that the massacre took place along the creek. In our brand new general management plan for the future which in fact has not even come out yet but it’s just about to, the whole creek bed is not open to the public or to tribal members for that matter.

It’s identified as a sensitive resource area and it’s simply protected for its extreme cultural sensitivity and springs. Same thing with, there’s one spring remaining in the area. There may have been more in 1864 but springs have a sacred significance independently but also as a part of this landscape. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that although the whole site is sacred, there are certain things within it that have sacred value independently but they’re all part of a whole here.

The same thing applies to everything, the grasses, the plants, the animals, land forms, creek, the spring. They all have special significance but taken as a whole, the entire site is seen as a sacred site. The significance emanates from the land, from the stories that are embedded in the land.

Today, tribal members and visitors visit the site to pray, to connect with their history, and to heal. That’s become an extremely important component of this site. There’s been since the tribal involvement has begun during the site location effort in 1999, a strong emphasis on the healing process and on prayer. Primarily, to put the spirits of the ancestors, the stories are there to put them to rest but also to start healing the cultural trauma that people still feel or have experience for all of these generations by never having any acknowledgement or opportunity to put anything to rest at Sand Creek. Today, the connection with history and the healing effort is shared both by tribal descendants and other tribal members and by the public as well.

Since 1998, this is the sixteenth year that the tribes have participated in what they call the spiritual healing run. The run is 180-mile journey that goes from the massacre site following the trail of the remains of their ancestors that were carried to Denver, following the massacre. The run goes all the way to Denver and it’s a run of prayer that has happened every year for sixteen years. It’s an order to connect youth primarily but all tribal members with the extreme significance of what happened at Sand Creek with their contemporary identities.

During this 150th event that we just had and both had public speeches at the site, and at the state capital where the run ends, were many references to the fact that being able to be there, being able to be on the site. Being able to pray there, being able to speak with the spirits of their ancestors has begun this healing process both for the spirits of the ancestors that were never at rest, and for the land itself, and for the descendants of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people today.

The site also evokes artistic expression. It’s mentioned a number of times. It’s an element of how the descendants remember and honor their ancestors at how they understand themselves today. This is one painting. There have been quite a number of artistic expressions of Sand Creek as particularly recently. This one was done by a northern Arapaho artist and descendant. It hangs there at the massacre site.  I think it’s just a really evocative painting of what Sand Creek must have looked like and felt like on that cold November morning, on the day that it happened.  So Sand Creek, I guess, the takeaway is that although it is a historic site, it’s a living site as well and that’s how descendants are now really seeing it and coming back there and connecting with it as a living place. I think that wraps it up.

I mean to mention that. Congress authorized 12,500 acres for inclusion in the National Historic site. Right now, we’ve got about 2400 of the 12,500. The portion of the massacre site is on a National Register. It was based on the archaeology that was done in 1999 and 2000. That’s kind of a diagonal portion that follows the creek. It’s a National Register boundary within the authorized boundary and then our actual legislative boundary right now that we’ve administer is a smaller boundary within that. There’s a bunch of nested boundaries but the whole site probably took up historically when it happened, probably encompassed maybe 40 square miles.

It’s primarily pasture, but today there’s both winter wheat and corn, and milo are grown in the area. It’s not irrigated. It’s all dry land.

Nancy Brown: I find this site and the way you speak about it particularly compelling. I’m wondering if you have anything on your website, anything taped or videotaped that you’ve done that we could send people to. I think it would be really helpful for some folks to hear this discussion or a part of this discussion to help them understand TCPs (Traditional Cultural Properties) and cultural landscapes.

Alexa: Well, on the Sand Creek website, there’s a link to the original site location study and that contained … It’s called “Volume One, Site Location Study” and it actually has the tribal oral histories that were recorded in 1999 and 2000. We also have a little video (17 minute) on there when the site was dedicated when it was officially established in 2007. Then we’ve just completed a film on the role of the Sand Creek Massacre in the Civil War. That will be available probably by the end of the month. We’ll put information about that on the website. Then there’s a film that Rocky Mountain PBS just made on Sand Creek. It was shown on November 27th of this year and that one also, it’s probably on a Rocky Mountain PBS website. That has primarily tribal descendants speaking about it.  Not so much about this meaning of the landscape so much as just the massacre itself and with historical background. But we haven’t written up anything specifically about the strengths of the meaning of the landscape today.  That’s really good idea.

Deanna Beacham: This is Deanna Beacham, probably the only American Indian on the call as far as I know. Anyway, I would have to tell you that Sand Creek resonates beyond the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. Of course, it is part of their history but for most of us, it was a part of our histories or the histories of our brothers and sisters. I live in Virginia where the colonial people began in 1610 the massacres that they perfected at Sand Creek. We all know that. We all know those places although some of them aren’t protected. This is a really inspiring story of what the National Park Services has been able to do. It’ll be much harder to do things like that in the east but we certainly intend to try.

Alexa: Thank you so much for pointing that out. You’re right. During these spiritual healing runs that take place, there are and also just regular visitor to the site, members of many tribes that come because it is just so important and overall American history and then tribal history, and such an example. Yes, thank you for pointing that out.

Deanna: Yes, it’s also an example of a change in the Park Service to memorialize the kind of places where shameful events happened. It’s been a hard story for people to tell. It is inspirational to all of us because of that so thank you.

Astrid Liverman: This is Astrid. I just wanted to say too regarding the general management plan that Alexa alluded to. The tribal representatives really took the primary role in identifying what needed to happen with the landscape and what was significant and why, and that was a really powerful process.

Alexa: Yes, thank you for pointing that out Astrid. That’s true. That process actually has taken about seven years now. It’s true the preferred alternative that will shortly be present in the general management plan that goes forward to the public includes the preferred alternative that they identified which was to have that creek bed preserved, set aside as not for access by anyone. That the story of the massacre, there’s a trail that follows a ridge line along the creek and it gives them kind of an elevated view and that the whole story can be told by walking in this ridge line that looks out over that creek bed and the whole landscape. That’s the alternative that will be presented.

Linda McClelland: Two things struck me. One is how can you … I’m glad to hear it’s more than 12,000 acres that have authorized. I mean that was the questions that kept coming into my mind when I looked at the pictures. How much of this do you need to protect to continue to evoke those important associations, to continue to have the place? It can heal. It can inform. I’m really happy that that kind of … I guess my question to you is how was the support for that size of acreage brought about?

Alexa: That was brought about because the county commissioners worked very closely with legislators and tribal representatives in crafting that legislation, the authorizing legislation and because there was no possibility for imminent domain, all future land acquisition is by willing seller only. I think that really just people’s mind to rest that this wasn’t going to be a federal intrusion on private property. That it was a willing seller basis. In fact, we’re just on the verge of acquiring one additional section of state owned land that’s within that boundary. That will put us up at just over 3000 acres that we actually managed today.

Congress felt that based on the findings from the site location study that core area there, when they finally agreed to establish the site in 2000 that in the interim, in the seven or so years between the authorization and the establishment that having the 2400 acres and soon to be 3000, that we are able to set aside was adequate to preserve interpret and memorialize as the legislation directed us to do. The tribal members are very comfortable with that today but of course, if we’re able to acquire by willing seller, more of what’s in that authorized boundary that would just be even that much better.

There is the threat of oil and gas development. I mean we’ve been very fortunate because there’s not a lot of agricultural activity primarily plowing up of that prairie land. There’s not been any building development but there is always the possibility of oil and gas development in that area. Of course, we are very interested in, if there are willing sellers and extending, including those much of that 12,500 acres is possible. If it’s not, working with county officials and private land owners, and oil and gas companies to try and minimize impacts of oil and gas development.

Linda: The only thing in the east, I would think of is the Harriet Tubman National Historic site, which did manage to, it is a park unit and we did evaluate it under National Register criteria but it’s a difficult thing to try to piece together a cohesive landscape. So much of it does rely upon the evocative characteristics that are inherent in the topography, are inherent in climate, vegetation, the kinds of things that have mentioned here today.

Deanna: It’s particularly interesting you would mention Harriet Tubman because it also contains a huge area of indigenous landscape of the Nanticoke people.

Linda: Right, yeah. Of course, how far our research has gone and because of the thematic focus there, that hasn’t been done but the fact that it is within the system now and recognized, I mean those other things can be looked at as well.

Deanna: Well, we have done a study of a Nanticoke watershed but the difference between something like this and Sand Creek is that are [inaudible] communities of the Nanticoke but a couple of them … None of them are state or federally recognized. The one that’s still in the area doesn’t really have genealogical verification. We do have a couple of others that now live in Delaware that are Nanticoke derivative but it’s really hard when absent [inaudible] communities,  absent oral histories that you know can be accurate back to well, 400 years ago, is impossible. The language has changed and no one speaks the original language anymore.  I mean all these kinds of things are going on so that really hampers oral history that usually only goes back about three generations. That’s going to be very, very different from what happen at the time of contact. The land still has a feel and this has been helpful to me in understanding ways that you could perhaps talk about that. We can’t necessarily have integrity on the basis of natural resources because nothing looks exactly like it did 400 years ago in that kind of an area but all you have to do is walk on Blackwater or Harriet Tubman’s [inaudible]. Everybody feels it.

Linda: Yeah, there’s a power of these places and we need listen to that. We need to understand it. I think that we have to make sure we bring in the perspective that can help to appreciate, help everyone else to appreciate and understand the people to whom this place is sacred or has special meaning in the lives of the people, how it manifested in the lives for many generations.

Molly Cannon: Linda McClelland, Alexa, this is Molly Cannon and I was wondering if you could just speak briefly about the importance of participatory work with these evocative landscapes. I know you’ve had enormous success there at Sand Creek.

Alexa: You mean in terms of the tribal involvement?

Molly: Yeah and other land owners and just other stakeholders who are involved too.

Alexa: Well, yes. We try to make that a guiding principle since the very beginning. Particularly, the tribal representatives, we’re very fortunate since the relationship with the tribal representatives and other stakeholders, state of Colorado in particular who is mentioned specifically in our legislation and the representatives from each of the tribes of course. They’re also mentioned specifically in our legislation. We’ve been very fortunate because we did have this seven or eight year developmental process together before the park was ever officially established as a national historic site.

We had a long time for the relationships to develop and I guess our guiding principle is that the tribes and the state are partners in pretty much everything that we do in terms of management decision-making and interpretive and educational programming. Though as Astrid (Liverman) mentioned, the development of our general management plan has been a completely collaborative process both with the state of Colorado and with the tribal representatives. Our interpreted materials, although we don’t have very many yet, we’ve got some minimal, well, I guess moderate ways signage on the site that’s all developed in the consultation with the tribes.

For everybody else on the phone, Molly and Ken both participated with us in some of the archaeological work there, and also establishing a foundation for there’s a repatriation site where repatriated human remains that have come from the site that have ended up either in museums or private collections, or maybe found on the site in the future are interred. The decisions about anything of that kind of sensitivity pretty much comes from working hand-in-hand with the tribes. Same thing with the land owners and the county commission, it’s a sensitive part of Colorado where private property rights are extremely prevalent and sensitive.

The county, when the site was very first being established was very concerned about the identity of their community being associated with this horrible episode in Colorado’s history, and not wanting the public to see the entire community as being represented by this one tragedy. We’ve been very careful to work as collaboratively with neighbors and our local officials and the state and the tribe as possible. So far to date, it’s been very respectful all the way around.

Linda: And we do plan to amend the National Register documentation to reflect the additional acreage of the State Land Board parcel when that all comes its path.

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