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A new film documents efforts by the city of Boulder to offer reparations to tribes for the Sand Creek Massacre

Alan O'Hashi

On November 29, 1864, Colorado’s third cavalry, led by Col. John Chivington, descended on a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho, mostly women, children and elders. The massacre that ensued is often considered one of the worst in U.S. history. 230 people were murdered and mutilated that day. Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper has apologized for the massacre, but the Northern Arapaho tribe is now negotiating with the City of Boulder for other reparations: some land where Chivington trained his troops.

Wyoming Public Radio’s Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of The Modern West podcast, which recently released an episode detailing the story of the Sand Creek Massacre in the new season, "Mending The Hoop". She spoke with Alan O’Hashi, a documentary filmmaker who has followed the negotiations and just released a film about them called "Beyond Sand Creek."

The following transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. 

Alan O'Hashi: The project first originated when I was given a call by a Boulder, Colorado-based nonprofit called Right Relationship Boulder. And they wanted me to document their Indigenous Peoples Day celebration that they were holding in 2018, I believe. I was happy to do that because I have this long-standing relationship with the Northern Arapaho tribe, having worked for the tribe for a number of years. And after [the meeting], I interviewed a number of tribal members who were in attendance from the Northern Arapaho at Wind River, and also the Southern Arapaho from Concho, Oklahoma. We all got to talking about this notion of land repatriation. The City of Boulder had passed this Indigenous Peoples Day resolution that talks about how the third volunteer cavalry in 1864 mustered at this fort called Fort Chambers, just outside of Boulder, and that those troops were trained and went to Sand Creek and participated in the massacre down there. So that's sort of how the story got started.

Melodie Edwards: Can you go into a little bit more about that history about Fort Chambers and its significance in this whole story?

AO: Well, Fort Chambers was originally established because some of the Indian fighters in Boulder were startling their citizens and neighbors about how tribal members are violent and posed a threat to the good people of Boulder. And so there was a guy by the name of David Nichols, who happened to be the sheriff in town at that time; he and a group of others headed up the effort to build Fort Chambers, just on the outskirts of town. And so that was how Fort Chambers came about. And over time, it became this part of this piece of property known as the Chambers place, the Poor Farm in East Boulder. And over the period of time it changed hands, and eventually ended up in the hands of the City of Boulder’s open space program.

ME: Can you tell me what has been proposed so far? And how far along things are with this proposal?

AO: Well, the project gets up to a certain level, and then it kind of slows down, largely because of institutional barriers. The city council has an election every two years, as does the tribal council. Arapaho tribal council has an election every two years. And so there's this sort of perpetual turnover of elected officials. For example with the project, since I've been involved with it, has gone through three mayors, and the tribal council also has gone through three tribal council leaders. And so it's always this problem of bringing everybody up to speed. But at least from the Boulder City Council standpoint, it just continues to be on the work plan. And to do something about this, Aaron Brockett, who happens to be the mayor of Boulder, and an across-the-street neighbor, he was over, speaking at a little dinner we had over here and said that it was in the work plan for 2023. And so, from that perspective, I think it's a positive sign. Plus, Teresa His Chase was the tribal liaison between the Arapaho Culture Commission and the City of Boulder. And she was just recently elected to the Arapaho Business Council. And so hopefully there'll be that sense of continuity. And so hopefully, something will happen.

ME: It sounds like having this piece of land would really help the two bands of the Arapaho be able to re-foster their relationships. Can you talk a little bit about how they would use this land?

AO: That's still open for negotiation, but one idea is to make the property available so that Arapaho’s from the south and Arapaho’s from the north will have a place to meet up midway between the two. Plus, it happens to be where their traditional homeland used to be, and still is, and that will give them an opportunity to tie their ceremonies and traditions and language back to the property.

ME: One of the ideas I remember from your film for this land was that maybe at the Four Chambers facility, they might build an educational facility. Would talk a little bit about what the vision is for that?

AO: Yeah, I think the big vision is to create some sort of Arapaho Culture Center that would be in Boulder. And the idea of that is, it could be something as small as a place where people could meet up, where there could be lessons and workshops that are held, there could be an area where camping could take place and sweat lodges constructed. And this is just a place where particularly young people can gather and you get a better feel for traditional tribal life. So it could be as simple as that, to an actual museum or a place where artifacts could be stored and exhibited. Because I know the Northern Arapaho, in particular, I'm aware that they work very closely trying to repatriate ceremonial and other tribal artifacts.

ME: At one point in your film, I know that the former Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Devin Oldman was talking about the possibility that there might be half measures on the table. He seemed somewhat concerned about that idea. Could you flesh out what some of those half measures might be?

AO: Well, as you know, as Devon says, you know, ‘if you're gonna give the land back, you give the land back.’ It could end up being this sort of incremental approach, where the land is leased, or they're given use permits to have access to the property during certain times of the year, similar to how the National Park Service deals with Devils Tower; there are certain times of the year where the park is closed, strictly set up or set aside for tribal use. So it could be anything from simply deeding the property over to some sort of monitored usage.

ME: I found it interesting that at the end of your film, you walk across and carry a sign with a quotation on it from Chief Niwot and covered up the Fort Chambers, the stone marker that's there with a quote from him. Could you talk about that quote, and why that seemed like the right place to wrap up your film?

AO: There have been lots of iterations to the ending of the story, because the hopeful ending was by the end of 2019, before COVID, the property would be deeded back to the Arapaho in some way, shape or form, and the punchline would be, “we have the land, and this is what we have going on.” And so it's kind of an indeterminate ending, because I think there's going to be a subsequent chapter that will have to be told. And I'm optimistic that it's going to be what everyone envisioned as the ending, that there'll be some tribal legacy tied back to that land.

If you read the inscription on the steel that was originally placed there about Fort Chambers it talks about the Indian Wars, and it was really kind of this view from the western perspective. And I think that in any event, the sign needs to be changed, maybe keep that but with sort of like those confederate homages as to, to Civil War confederate generals. You know, do we maintain that history? I think we maintain the history and the steel stays there. I think people should understand and remember about the past, but then really what we’re trying to do is envision a better future. And possibly, the tribes will come up with a different name for the property and with an inscription that is more indicative of what the history actually was.

ME: I should have written it down. I can't remember what the quotation is, do you happen to remember it off the top of your head?

AO: Yes, this is a quote from the Arapaho Chief Niwot: “People seeing the beauty of this valley will want to stay and they're staying will be the undoing of the beauty.”

ME: You know, you had a previous documentary about Heart Mountain. And it seems like that's something that it seems like you're really interested in doing is kind of tracing what they can do to move past difficult histories and to follow and kind of support efforts for reparations.

AO: My theme is always social change through cultural action. And so I like to provide a safe place for people to engage in difficult conversations and usually what I figured out is that arts and culture is really a safe place to have those talks.

To hear more about the Sand Creek Massacre and the tribal efforts to heal it, check out The Modern West podcast’s new season, "Mending The Hoop."

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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