Sand Creek, Amache descendants find common cause to pass history to younger generations

An Outdoor Equity Grant will launch a Youth Ambassador program at both National Historic Sites, building on conversations at last spring’s Amache pilgrimage.


Glenn Minoru Tagawa, an Amache descendant, hands a flower to Dale Hamilton, an Arapahoe and Cheyenne descendant of the Sand Creek massacre, to place on the memorial monument at the Amache cemetery during the annual pilgrimage at the Amache National Historic Site in Granada, Saturday, May 20, 2023. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Though separated by 46 miles of southeastern Colorado prairie and more than a century, the massacre at Sand Creek and the incarceration of Japanese Americans at the Amache camp have long been connected by shards of shared history and the common thread of government-sanctioned cruelty. Memories of both tragedies converged last spring, when descendants of those 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people murdered in 1864 by U.S. troops, mostly Colorado volunteers, attended the annual pilgrimage to the World War II-era incarceration camp. In turn, many of the Amache descendants trekked to the site of the massacre to learn and pay respects. It was a groundbreaking convergence, sparking dialogue that gave birth to a long-percolating idea: create a youth-centered initiative to ensure that the history and remembrance extends to future generations. With the help of a $50,000 Outdoor Equity Grant from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, that concept will be realized later this spring.

As many as 12 young people ages 14 to 25 will participate in the new Youth Ambassador Program, an experience that includes two four-day visits to the National Historic Sites encompassing May’s Amache pilgrimage and the Sand Creek Spiritual Healing Run in the fall. Members of both descendant communities will participate along with selected high school students from Eads, near the Sand Creek site, and Granada, which sits in proximity to Amache. “There’s a desire from within the descendant communities to increase youth participation in events that are already happening,” says Annie Danis, a California-based researcher who has done archeological work at the Amache site for nearly 10 years and helped secure the grant. “We’re just trying to bring resources to people who haven’t always been included. And that’s mostly a younger generation of descendants.”

The program will culminate in January with a virtual youth summit, where students will meet to discuss how experiences at both sites have impacted them. And since the grant focuses on youth perspectives on site interpretation, those voices can be incorporated into future interpretive programming. The grant covers all travel expenses plus a $100 per day stipend for each participant because, Danis says, “what they are going to do by participating in community events at the sites is work.” Building off the discussions at last spring’s pilgrimage, Danis — in collaboration with the Amache AllianceSand Creek Massacre Foundation and the National Parks Conservation Association — applied for and received the two-year outdoor equity grant through CPW that will fund the inaugural program. The broad collaboration that also includes Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes will lead the effort to deepen young people’s connections to both sites — as well as each other.

“I’ve always been one to advocate for the youth learning their history,” says Greg Lamebull, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma who serves on the Sand Creek is being lost. Lamebull learned the history of the Sand Creek Massacre largely from family members in his home. He went on to teach Indigenous Studies at the Sovereign Community School in Oklahoma City, a charter school where most of the students were Native American.   “As harsh as the history is, in our home our grandparents made it a point to teach us (the history) at a young age,” he says. “Growing up, I’ve seen the tears of my grandparents when they told the stories to us as children at the dinner table or around the campfire. Those images were seared into my memory, how important it was for them to teach us.”

Jan Yamaguchi, left, an Amache descendant, and Bobbie Hamilton, right, a Sand Creek descendant, share stories during a potluck inside the Granada School as part of the Amache pilgrimage event, Saturday, May 20, 2023 in Granada. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun

Educators from both descendant communities will lead the youth ambassadors in learning about the sites and have begun formulating how they’ll identify and select potential participants for the program. Given the short timeline before this year’s Amache pilgrimage, set for mid-May, the initial effort will probably involve a relatively small group of young people.  Where the program leads remains an open-ended proposition, with the youth summit providing participants the opportunity to determine what comes next.

In a sense, the connection between Amache and the Sand Creek Massacre began with the opening of the incarceration camp in 1942. Originally known as the Granada Relocation Center, where more than 10,000 Japanese Americans, most of them American citizens, were held, the name was soon changed to avoid postal confusion with the town of Granada.

The name Amache referred to Amache Prowers, the daughter of a Cheyenne chief who married cattle rancher John W. Prowers. Her father was one of the tribal members murdered at Sand Creek. More recently, the connection between the sites was noted in a 2006 speech by Derek Okubo, whose father was incarcerated at Amache, at the ceremony marking it as a National Historic Landmark. He would go on to serve on the advisory board of the Sand Creek Massacre Foundation as well as the board of the Amache Alliance.  “At the time I didn’t see it growing into something like this,” Okubo says of the developing bonds between the two descendant groups. “But I found it interesting that two significant historic occurrences were within 45 minutes of each other. By doing this with the youth, it’s a very intentional and deliberate effort to make sure history is remembered and shared, and that we work together to strengthen our country and make sure that we learn from our past mistakes.”

Alexa Roberts, a current board member of the Sand Creek Massacre Foundation who at that time worked for the National Park Service as the first superintendent at the Sand Creek site, felt the spark of an idea when she heard another speaker at that same 2006 event.  Amache Preservation Society founder John Hopper, a local teacher and school administrator, explained how student involvement at the site — his organization has performed all manner of service from site maintenance to interpretive presentations — had helped shift public perception and foster greater understanding of the Japanese American experience in the camp. Roberts imagined a similar youth-centered movement around Sand Creek that might create “new levels of understanding.” “People tend to think an event like Sand Creek, from almost 160 years ago, was just a historical event,” Roberts says. “But if people can understand something that’s more within the realm of their own experience, or a period of time that they’re more familiar with, then it’s an opportunity to actually think that Sand Creek isn’t just an event from our historical past. Maybe Sand Creek is still a reminder of our present.”

A group of descendants and supporters from the Amache pilgrimage, which took place one day earlier, stop to read the informational display at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site on Sunday, May 21, 2023 (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)

At last year’s Amache pilgrimage, when Native guests joined in discussions, the long-anticipated idea of involving youth from both communities again surfaced. With everyone on board with the concept, Danis took on the nuts-and-bolts tasks of applying for the Colorado Outdoor Equity Grant that provided the means to realize it. “I think about my position as a researcher as like a fixer,” Danis says, “where I have the time and resources for doing things like applying for grants even when they’re not exclusively for research in my discipline.”

Danis grew familiar with the historic sites of southeastern Colorado even as she was studying as a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley, with a focus on research with Native American communities. She connected with University of Denver anthropology professor Bonnie Clark and the DU Amache Research Project, where her archeological interests intersected the story of the Japanese-American incarceration camps.

She tracked moments when the two narratives converged — most obviously with the discovery of Native artifacts on the camp’s grounds, but also through connections found in the camp archives, such as the mascot for the camp’s high school being the Indians. On days off, Danis and Clark would also take students working at Amache to the Sand Creek Massacre site.  “So I knew only a little bit about that history, but I knew it was out there in the same landscape,” Danis says. In fact, some of the World War II-era incarceration sites were built on reservations or other Native land. One incarceration center, she adds, was built on land that already had a history of dispossessing Native people — a government boarding school.

The National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting and preserving the nation’s iconic landscapes, aided the grant process and development of the program as part of its ongoing work supporting the new National Historic Site at Amache and furthering partnerships with Indigenous communities, says Tracy Coppola, the group’s Colorado senior program manager. “We owe everything to the elders, within both the Amache and Sand Creek Massacre sites, who advocated to protect these stories that would have otherwise been neglected or deliberately forgotten,” she says.

Roberts notes that interest in the program has spread beyond the descendant communities to the two small towns — Eads and Granada — closest to the historic sites. Educators in Kiowa County are recruiting students familiar with their geographical connection to Sand Creek. And she imagines the same will hold for Granada, where students already have been stewards of the Amache site for decades.

Elleni Sclavenitis, executive director of the Sand Creek Massacre Foundation who has produced a documentary on the atrocity as well as a short film that’s part of the History Colorado exhibit on the massacre, figures that this sort of opportunity promises to be far more engaging than what students can experience in a classroom. “It’s a way of understanding history through personal life experiences and personal family histories, too,” she says. “So I imagine that might create more interest than amongst your average high school student for an average history lesson.”

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Article written by Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun

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