History and Hope

by deana harragarra waters, Friends School Librarian and K-5 Technology Teacher

Over the course of our country’s history, we navigated changing ideas about the original inhabitants of this land called America. What has not changed is the fact that we, Indian people, Native Americans or Indigenous people, whichever term you use, remain here and yet most Americans do not know our history.  

In April, I assisted the Denver Art Museum in the installation of their Western American art galleries. I read and edited the gallery wall texts and artwork labels. One labeled “Indigenous Diplomacy” reminds us that in 1725, a delegation of my Otoe people traveled from America to France, appearing before French King Louis XV to make their own requests relating to problems with European presence in the Mississippi Valley. Nearby is the Charles Bird King oil painting of Hayne Hudjihini, Eagle of Delight, an Otoe woman who in 1822, traveled to Washington, DC to advocate for the rights of her people. One hundred sixty years later, I would also travel to Washington, DC to advocate for all Indian people as Miss Indian America and return again in 1990 appearing before a Senate committee to lobby for the establishment of the National Museum of the American Indian.

In June, I was present as Governor Polis signed into law three bills at the Denver Indian Center. My husband, Rick Waters, is the DIC director and he worked along with others to get these bills passed into law. One provides funds to assist the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribal nations to build out broadband infrastructure. The second bill acknowledges that American Indian tribes were forced out of Colorado and requires higher education institutions to give in-state tuition rates to students who are members of the 48 known Indigenous tribes that were in Colorado. The third bill ends the use of discriminatory mascots in public schools. The bill prohibits K-12 schools in Colorado from using an American Indian mascot or nickname after June 1, 2022. Failure to comply would result in a $25,000 monthly fine. With us in attendance was our two year old granddaughter dressed in her Kiowa red shell dress. It was reminiscent of the time my mother, as an Oklahoma State Librarian, dressed me and my brother in my Kiowa buckskin clothes to attend the signing of the Oklahoma Multi-County Library Act providing for book mobiles. I sat with Oklahoma Governor Raymond Gary as he signed the bill and my brother handed the Governor the keys to the book mobile.

In August, on the Colorado State Capitol grounds I was there to witness the culmination of a dear friend’s diligent effort to end the “war on Indians.” Two years ago Rick Williams told me about Governor Evan’s proclamation authorizing citizens to kill and take the property of Native Americans who were deemed “hostile.” This proclamation directly led to the Sand Creek Massacre in Kiowa County, Colorado, when white soldiers murdered 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, mostly women and children on November 29, 1864. Words are inadequate for me to describe watching Governor Polis sign an executive order rescinding Territorial Governor John Evans’ proclamation to kill people like me.

Colorado Speaker of the House Alec Garnett, Governor Jared Polis, rescinding Gov. Evans proclamation, August 17, 2021

In November, I sat in the audience at a Denver library renaming where my 92 year old mother spoke in her Kiowa language addressing the crowd about the significance of another historic day in Colorado history, November 13, 2021. On this day a Denver Public Library was renamed the John “Thunderbird Man” Emhoolah Jr. Library. My Mother is related to John Emhoolah Jr. and it was he who introduced my husband’s parents to each other. This library was one of the original Andrew Carnegie libraries named in 1918 for William N. Byers. History tells us Byers contributed to and supported the Sand Creek Massacre. Years later Byers continued doing so with his remarks about Sand Creek having “saved Colorado and taught the Indians the most salutary lesson they ever learned.” 

I’ve often returned, this year 2021, to this passage from Seamus Heaney’s The Cure of Troy.

History says
Don’t hope on this side of the grave
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

Hope is present when we learn that John Emhoolah Jr. is a descendant of Sand Creek survivors. Hope is present when change and reconciliation begins. 

John “Thunderbird Man” Emhoolah Jr. Library, November 13, 2021

Challenging minds. Nurturing spirits. Honoring individuality.