A new exhibit in the Dittmar Gallery portrays scenes from a massacre marring Northwestern’s history.
The exhibit, which opened at Dittmar on Sept. 17 and runs through Oct. 25, features more than 30 works of three American-Indian artists. Their artwork depicts scenes from Nov. 29, 1864, when a U.S. soldiers slaughtered more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, most of whom were women and children, in Sand Creek, Colorado. John Evans, a co-founder of the University, was the governor of the Colorado Territory at the time.
George Curtis Levi, a Cheyenne and Arapaho artist, used ledger art, narrative drawings or paintings done on paper or cloth, to capture events leading up to the massacre. Levi said he was inspired to start organizing the exhibit last February, as 2014 marked the 150th anniversary of the massacre, and said he wanted to personally honor his ancestors.
“The history has always been told about Sand Creek from somebody else’s standpoint, from an outsider standpoint,” Levi said. “As a Cheyenne, hearing stories growing up, stories about Sand Creek … about what our people endured, that’s why I wanted to do this. Give these people a voice that they haven’t had for 150 years.”
For Levi, art is not only a way to pay his respects to his elders and preserve his culture’s history, but it is an important part of Cheyenne life in general.
“The Cheyenne didn’t have a written language,” Levi said. “It was all primarily oral history … painting things on buffalo hides. That’s how they kept their stories alive.”
Brent Learned, another Cheyenne Arapaho artist whose acrylic paintings are also displayed at Dittmar, said he hopes people will leave the exhibit and learn about a tragedy not many people know enough about, especially Evans’ role in the tragedy.
Although some of the paintings are graphic, such as one depicting a cavalryman’s attack on a Cheyenne woman, Learned said he hopes the startling images will help the NU community realize the extent of the massacre’s brutality.
“John Evans, any time his name is brought up, he’s the founder of Northwestern, the founder of the University of Denver, he was the governor of Colorado,” Learned said. “But do you ever really hear about him mentioned with the Sand Creek Massacre? Very rarely.”
NU has taken recent efforts to address Evans’ role in the massacre and strengthen the University’s relationship with American-Indian communities, such as the formation of the Native American Outreach and Inclusion Task Force last year and the group’s subsequent report recommending specific actions to improve these relationships.
Following suggestions from the report, NU’s One Book One Northwestern selection is an account of American-Indian and white relations throughout history, and there are numerous programs — such as the exhibit — scheduled this year to support the theme of the book.
Darien Wendell, a Dittmar student curator, said she believes this exhibit will help increase awareness about American-Indian issues at NU.
“We don’t have a lot of indigenous students, American-Indian students, on campus,” the Communication senior said. “It’s less than 1 percent. And this is something that people on our campus have been organizing to have better representation.”
Levi and Learned said there are even more ways NU can improve its relationship with American-Indian communities in the future, such as creating a scholarship for people of Cheyenne or Arapaho descent and establishing mandatory classes on American-Indian issues.
Levi said there are tentative plans to show the exhibit at other locations to keep raising awareness about the struggles of his ancestors and other American-Indian groups and to further promote his people’s endurance and rich culture.
“(Cheyennes), whatever happened to us 150 years ago, we’re still here,” Levi said. “We’re using the Sand Creek Massacre as fuel to better ourselves, make ourselves stronger, because if we can endure that, we can endure anything.”
Email: [email protected]