Colorado Capitol Art: A Tale of Two Genocides

We continue with our art tour of other state capitols to see what lessons Minnesota might learn as we reassess our own controversial capitol art.

Today we visit Colorado. We will start by reviewing several memorials on the capitol grounds;  collectively, they show how difficult it is for Americans to talk honestly about the oppression and genocide of Native American peoples.

Let’s start with the Armenian Garden and Pine, which, according to the Colorado on-line guide, was “planted in memory of the between 1 and 1.5 million Armenian victims of the first genocide of the 20th century, which occurred in Turkey beginning on April 24, 1915, and continuing to 1923.” The Armenian genocide has an important place for Colorado residents because state citizens, “spoke out publicly against the genocide while it was taking place, and … the state welcomed and honored Armenian survivors afterward,” according to Colorado Public Radio. During this year’s remembrance of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, the state unveiled a replica of a medieval Armenian headstone in the memorial garden.

Also on the capitol grounds are plaques commemorating Gov. Ralph Carr and the Amache Internment Camp, where more than 7,000 Japanese, mostly American citizens, were forcibly imprisoned from 1942-45. The Governor and the Camp are paired because of Carr’s brave stance supporting Japanese Americans during World War II, a position that cost him politically. A plaque to Carr reads in part:

Ralph L. Carr
Two-Term Governor of Colorado 1939-1943

Outspoken advocate for the protection of Americans of Japanese ancestry facing forced relocation and Internment under Federal order during World War II. Carr, the sole voice of dissent among Western governors wrote:

‘When it is suggested that American citizens be thrown into concentration camps, where they lose all the privileges of citizenship under the Constitution, then the principles of that great document are violated and lost. …’

The plaque remembering the internment camp reads as follows:


A federal detention camp in Colorado’s Arkansas Valley during World War II in which U.S. citizens were interned without hearing or proof of misconduct or disloyalty. (August 1943 – October 1945)

Ten such camps established under Presidential Executive Order 9066 confined 120,000 persons of Japanese descent – 77,000 of whom were American citizens – removed from their Pacific Coast homes in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. From the ranks of the dispossessed, who endured great hardship and humiliation, more than 16,000 of their sons and daughters, along with over 15,000 other Americans of Japanese descent from the Territory of Hawaii, served with distinction in the U.S. Armed Forces on battlefields in Europe and Asia. Their valor reflected uncommon strength of character and great faith in this nation of immigrants. They and their families have enriched our country beyond measure.”

Now let’s look at how the capitol grounds tell the history of U.S.-Native American relations, internment and genocide. Start with the memorial to the Colorado soldiers who fought in the U.S. Civil War and other 19th century battles. Of particular interest is a plaque at the base of the statue which remembers soldiers who fought in particular battles, including “The Battle of Sand Creek.” Sand Creek was not a battle at all but a brutal attack on a peaceful Indian encampment. Colorado AIM worked for years to remove the plaque. The state decided to leave the old plaque in place and add a new plaque nearby. It reads:

The controversy surrounding this Civil War Monument has become a symbol of Coloradans’ struggle to understand and take responsibility for our past. On November 29, 1864. Colorado’s First and Third Calvary, commanded by Colonel John Chivington, attacked Chief Black Kettle’s peaceful camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians on the banks of Sand Creek, about 180 miles southeast of here. In the surprise attack, soldiers killed more than 150 of the villages 500 inhabitants. Most of the victims were elderly men, women and children.

Though some civilians and military personnel immediately denounced the attack as a massacre, others claimed the village was a legitimate target. This Civil War monument, paid for from funds by the Pioneers’ Association and State, was erected on July 24, 1909, to honor all Colorado Soldiers who had fought in battles in the Civil War and elsewhere. By Designating Sand Creek a battle, the monument’s designers mischaracterized the actual events. Protests led by some Sand Creek descendants and others throughout the twentieth century have led to the widespread recognition of the tragedy as the Sand Creek Massacre.

Give Colorado credit for acknowledging this history. However, unlike the Armenian memorial, there is no reference to the term “genocide,” or how Sand Creek was an act of genocide. Unlike the Amache memorial, there is no “remembrance” of the Native people who were forced off their lands and put on remote and desolate reservations. There is no remembrance of the many Native Americans who have served honorably in the military in spite of how their communities were mistreated. These observations are not meant to compare the suffering of one group to another, but to look at the juxtaposition of these memorials and ask whether we are able to look honestly and fully at this nation’s history with Native Americans.

Another major piece of capitol grounds art is a large sculpture of a Native man standing over a fallen buffalo; it is called The Closing Era. “The statue represents the end of the traditional lifestyle of Native Americans in Colorado,” the state’s website says. The statue was done for the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair, according to Wikipedia. A poem by John Whittier (a friend of the sculptor) is on the statue’s base:

The mountain eagle from his snow-locked peaks
For the wild hunter and the bison seeks,
In the chang’d world below; and find alone
Their graven semblance, in the eternal stone.

On one hand, the statue honors Native traditions. On the other hand, it begs the questions: Who did “the closing,” and what next for Native peoples?

A tip of the cap to Colorado for creating a fantastic “art and memorials” webpage, detailing the art in the capitol and on the grounds. Here are a few other pieces worth noting.

  • The History of Water Mural: There are eight paintings on the rotunda walls, a mural done in 1940 by Colorado artist Allen True. Each painting has an excerpt of a poem written by Thomas Hornsby Ferril (later named Colorado’s poet laureate). One painting features a Native man painting a shield. The poem at the bottom reads: “Men shall behold the Water in the Sky, and Count the Seasons by the Living Grasses.” (Other paintings feature gold mining, farming, an explorer in a canoe and other historical themes.)
  • The Ten Commandments Tablet: According to the state, “The origin, dedication, and permission for  placing this four-foot granite tablet inscribed with the Ten Commandments are somewhat unclear. Written records regarding the tablet seem to have been lost.”
  • Barney Ford Stained Glass Window: “Born a slave, Barney Ford fought for the granting of freedom to blacks.”
  • Heritage Windows: “Four windows on the north wall of the Old Supreme Court Chambers are designated as the “Heritage Windows.” They were given to the state as a gift from the committee that organized the centennial celebration for Colorado in 1976. The committee selected four ethnic minority groups — Hispanics, Native Americans, African Americans, and Chinese and Japanese — in Colorado to be honored with stained glass windows.”
  • Emily Griffith Stained Glass Window: Minnesota’s capitol art lacks representation of the state’s powerful and influential women. Here, Colorado honors the founder of “a school that offers free adult education. Established in 1916, the school continues to operate, helping thousands of Denver residents improve their skills and increase their education.”

The Colorado capitol also features Rotating Art Exhibits. “Exhibitions tie in with events happening throughout the arts community and showcase artists and cultural organizations from throughout the state.” Sounds like an interesting model for Minnesota to explore.

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