Campus & Community

Native artists respond to tragedy of the Sand Creek Massacre in DU exhibit

Work by Brent Learned is part of the "One November Morning" exhibit at the Museum of Anthropology.

Work by Brent Learned is part of the “One November Morning” exhibit at the Museum of Anthropology.


An expansion of a pop-up exhibit that was on display at the Denver Art Museum in November and December, “One November Morning,” running Jan. 5–March 6 at the University of Denver Museum of Anthropology, is a collection of works by five Cheyenne-Arapaho artists who are descendants of victims of the Sand Creek Massacre. The exhibit is their collective response to the massacre, which happened 150 years ago when University of Denver founder John Evans was governor of the Colorado Territory.

Brent Learned, one of the artists featured in “One November Morning,” spoke with us about the show.


Q: What is the “One November Morning” exhibit all about?

A: The show will depict the descendants’ version of that event and that we’re still here, and we’re still strong, and we still remember something people should remember, especially in the Colorado and Denver area. It’s a ripple effect that still carries to this day. It’s all Cheyenne-Arapaho artists — their interpretation of what happened that day and how it’s affecting the tribe to this day, how they’re still healing from that.


Q: What is the significance of the title?

A: The reason why we chose that title is because on that day, those people woke up figuring, “Hey, it’s just going to be a typical November day,” and it ended up being not so typical. Generations were lost that day. Families were torn apart. We’re still talking about it to this day and how it has affected the tribe(s). And not only that, but how it affected the Denver area, because the founder of DU had a hand in that. So in a way it’s kind of coming back around. Things go full circle, and here it is 150 years later, and descendants from that massacre are now exhibiting at the University, telling their story of how those events have affected them. It’s a healing process.


Q: What is your contribution to the show?

A: I’m going to have 12 pieces — they will depict a timeline from that morning through the day and until the end of the night, when Black Kettle, [a leader of the southern Cheyenne], came back to pick up his wife, who was shot nine times in the back. There is a painting of the soldiers parading body parts around downtown Denver.


Q: Was the massacre discussed a lot in your family or tribe as you were growing up?

A: My mother was first chairperson of the tribe, equivalent to the president in our nation. Growing up, she would tell us about the massacres and not to forget those — to appreciate your ancestors and the heritage and culture you have. It had a great impact on my life and appreciating where I came from, knowing that my people had the struggles that they did of another country committing genocide against them, and yet I’m still here, telling those stories because my ancestors didn’t have that voice at that time. Times have changed, so I can speak for them, and I’m telling their stories through my work, depicting what happened to them that day.


Q: Was that an emotional process, revisiting the massacre as you created your pieces for the exhibit?

A: For me it was emotional. I don’t typically paint that type of imagery. I’m known for my bright, bold colors depicting everyday life among the Plains Indians: portraits, landscapes, them hunting buffalo, them trading — just typical, genuine, everyday themes. But to depict scenes of violence, of my people being tortured and brutally dismembered, it kind of took a toll on me there for a while. The approach I took was, “How can I tell this story to where it is genuine and historically correct?” I did research, and to know what some of these soldiers did, you had to tell it. There’s no way to sugarcoat something that was so violent or to censor myself on my work. I had to let go and just paint images that it’s typically not in my realm to do.


Q: What do you want people to take away from the show?

A: It’s something that everyone should come to and experience. People should know that this experience really did happen to a people, and when they leave the show one thing they should take away from it is the appreciation for what they have now. One of the things that I grew up with, that my mother and father always instilled in me, was “You’ve got to know where you came from in life to know where you’re going.” And if you don’t appreciate where you came from, and the troubles and tribulations that your ancestors came through to have you, then you’ll be lost as an individual. Everyone goes through life trying to search out who they really are and what they want out of life. And my purpose in this life is to be a voice for my ancestors, through my art. It gives me satisfaction that when I leave this world that I did the best I could to show people how much I appreciate being Native American and Cheyenne-Arapaho. These pieces will live on.

“One November Morning,” featuring work by Brent Learned, Nathan Hart, George Curtis Levi, Merlin Little Thunder and BJ Stepp, runs from Jan. 5–March 6 at the University of Denver Museum of Anthropology in the lower level of Sturm Hall. An opening reception is scheduled for 5–7 p.m. Jan. 15. The museum is open from 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Monday through Friday; visit the museum’s website for more information.




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