If you ever thought the adage ‘history is written by the winners,’ made sense, Dr. Shelby Bilak, suggests rethinking things. Bilak teaches at Metropolitan State University of Denver and has spent her academic career debunking this pearl of wisdom saying, as often as not, history is regularly written by the losers.
By losers, she’s not simply referencing the vanquished who are glorified for bravery and valor, especially in the south where thousands of statues and plaques pay eternal homage to the memory of the Civil War. Bilak also includes scores of the dead and deified whose legends stop well short of deserving but continue to occupy public places in every state. In Colorado, it is people like Colonel John Chivington, George Pingree and, certainly, historical giants like Christopher Columbus, a man whose history goes well beyond problematic.
Chivington and Pingree are associated with the Sand Creek Massacre which, until recently, was referred to as a ‘battle.’ But a battle it was not, neither then nor now, at least not by any modern objective standard.
On November 29, 1864, there was tension between the Army, the Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes. The tribes had been granted land near what is today Las Animas in southern Colorado. The Army had standing orders to maintain relations. But early that morning and on his own, Chivington ordered his men to initiate the slaughter of as many as 500 men, women, and children. After the attack, he ordered his men to return and kill the wounded. Many of the soldiers also mutilated scores of natives.
For years, a plaque bearing Chivington’s name and affixed to a statue of a Union soldier stood at the state capitol commemorating the ‘battle.’ The plaque was later removed and replaced---its replacement bearing the more historically accurate description, ‘massacre.’ Pingree Park, named for another soldier who took part in the massacre, is now Colorado State University Mountain campus.
While renaming parks, campgrounds or removing statues commemorating problematic figures or events is nothing new, social unrest sweeping the nation in the wake of killings of black and Latino men by police and the entire Black Lives Matter movement has turned talk into action. Statues have been toppled and graffitied, including statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his commanding general, Robert E. Lee.
“The statues trigger traumatic and historical memories,” said Bilak. “They bring up intergenerational pain.” Well before Black Life Matters, indigenous people saw Columbus not so much as an explorer deserving of statuary immortality but someone who committed genocide against people of the new world.
Denver also struggled with Columbus. The annual Columbus Day Parade no longer exists, and Columbus Day is now Indigenous Peoples Day. But statues of the Italian explorer remain, two notable markers stand in Denver’s Civic Center Park, the other in Pueblo’s Mesa Junction. In 1909, it was Pueblo where the national movement for a Columbus Day commemoration actually began.
In Albuquerque, where a statue of Juan de Oñate, a notorious conquistador and killer has stood, conflict recently boiled over. A man was shot as demonstrators rallied for its removal. Vaunted historical figures are not exempt. In New Mexico, even saints are being reexamined.
Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson---both slave owners---are in the crosshairs of this historical tsunami. Statues of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, too. In Europe, Winston Churchill, the man who led England through WWII, is now being debated for his racist views on the indigenous Africans he encountered in his military days. In France, it’s 17th century statesman, Jean-Baptiste Colbert who drew up “Code Noir,” the document that defined conditions for slavery.
In the Capitol, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has wasted no time. She ordered the removal the portraits of four long ago Speakers who served in the Confederate army.
While Colorado has dealt with the issue of controversial figures and causes, it is not done. But it will not be nearly as loud, emotional or long running here as the current and future battles in the South where statues of Confederal officers and, Civil War battles abound, many put up decades after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Bilak said monuments to “The Lost Cause” ---the romanticized label woven into revisionist Civil War history---proliferated in the Jim Crow era. Southerners and particularly the Daughters of the Confederacy pushed the narrative that the war was just, overlooking details like treason and slavery, rationalizing the latter as humane and not human bondage. “They said that slaves were happy, well cared for and fed,” said Bilak.
Perhaps no symbol, then or now, has consistently stirred emotions like the Confederate flag. Many defend it and its history as ‘heritage.’ It’s an effort, said Bilak, to make the Civil War “all about honor and culture.” But generations of others see it as a sign of white supremacy and not so subtle defense of slavery.
The battle between America’s historical winners and losers is long from over. Statues, flags, even plaques, will continue to spark arguments and anger. History is complicated. But it is also simple. Slavery has been affixed to America’s story as a deep, painful, and bloody stain. So, too, is the treatment of natives. But the truly difficult challenge is simply coming to grips with what is truth.