There probably will be a new sculpture on the Colorado State Capitol grounds, and it will be quite different. But it’s necessary to think about this, because somewhere here is a reckoning.

As someone who has written about public art in Denver, usually there are several artist applicants, and then a panel of jurors would select one artist for the project.

But this time, the Capitol Building Advisory Committee voted 7-2 to accept a sculpture that represents a Native American woman mourning after losing her family members to the soldiers involved in the Sand Creek Massacre. It was the only work brought to the committee presented by an organization named One Earth Future; the descendants of the massacre chose the artist. 

During the 2020 summer of protests (which are still happening this winter), a statue of a Civil War soldier on the Capitol grounds was graffitied and knocked down. There’s a back story to this, because the U.S. soldiers who fought in the Civil War also participated in the massacre at Sand Creek. A new plaque a few years ago was created to focus on Sand Creek as a massacre, but the statue came down this past summer. The soldiers at Sand Creek murdered more than 200 Native Americans, mainly women, children, and elders. The statue of the Civil War soldier is now in the atrium of History Colorado.

The massacre took place in 1864, and the repercussions are still felt today. When History Colorado’s new building opened several years ago, an exhibition was titled “Collision: The Sand Creek Massacre, 1860s-Today.” The title was changed because the soldiers and the Natives didn’t collide, since the soldiers were murdering them. The tribes wanted to make changes, and between the tribal members and the museum could not reconcile to clear up some concerns.

The committee meeting last week shows that there are still painful discussions, from reports about the committee voting for the project at hand. 

This type of voting dealing with only one project is new to me, although at times there have been people who have wanted to donate a sculpture or painting – for whatever reason. One Earth Future is covering most of the expense of the project. On its website, it explains its mission: “One Earth Future incubates programs designed to foster sustainable peace, partnering with innovative world leaders, global development agencies and communities to see complex problems at the root of armed conflict in new ways and solve them together through orchestrated collaboration.”

The image above shows the maquette (or model) of the work, created by artist Harvey Pratt, Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. The maquette is modeled in clay.  I would assume that the artist gave the woman really large hands because the sculpture would be set up on a pedestal, hovering over the viewers. Those hands? They are the major elements of the maquette, if not finely modeled.

I am as fascinated by Pratt’s background as this proposed piece of art. The long-time police forensic artist for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI), Pratt still responds to agencies that request his assistance, according to his website. He knows faces, he knows bodies, he knows musculature, and he has been part of reconstructing remains that have been left behind by serial killers. 

There is a video showing a sculpture by Pratt that was installed on Veteran’s Day this year at the National Museum of the American Indian, which is under the wing of the Smithsonian Institution. The National Native American Veterans Memorial is made of stainless steel, and it is quite abstract and pure, so this new maquette is quite different. Jurors – Native and non-Native – unanimously selected the design concept of the sculpture at the museum in Washington, D.C. 

 A story by the Associated Press, picked up by The Denver Post, notes that Pratt dreamed about the sculpture for the Capitol grounds: 

“ ‘It’s really about the women. The women carry the men in the tribes on their backs. I wanted to depict a woman,’ he said. ‘She’s in mourning and she’s kneeling, just sitting down. She’s lost her baby and maybe her grandparents. She’s got cuts on her legs and she’s cut her finger off.

“The woman bears an empty cradleboard symbolizing the loss of her child, and she is reaching north with one arm, symbolizing the direction of the tribes’ retreat.

“ ‘She’s not asking to be spared,’ Pratt explained. ‘She’s saying ‘Remember us. Don’t forget us. I’ve lost my whole family.’ ”

Looking to the future, the project will move to the state legislature, with the Capitol Development Committee. It is still not known the size of the sculpture and its cost. 

In a story in Colorado Politics, the report noted that “two committee members voted against the motion, only one of them voiced opposition to the memorial’s prime location.”

“Board member and former State Historic Preservation Officer Georgianna Contiguglia said that it might not be appropriate to have such a horrific reminder front and center at one of the state’s most popular landmarks.

” ‘For people who are visiting Denver for the first time, I’m not sure that the message that Colorado wants to give is that our primary important event is a massacre,’ she said.”

Thinking about this, there is an interesting situation ahead. My sense is the sculpture needs some work, to be sure, but then: Can there be a reconciliation?

Many links below, from Colorado Public Radio, The Denver PostColorado PoliticsWestwordDenverite, YouTube (a video of Pratt talking about the sculpture at the National Museum of the American Indian), and more.

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