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The MSU Denver Department of Art acknowledges that we are located on the unceded territories of Indigenous peoples, that our campus operates on the territories and homelands of the Hinono’ei (commonly known as the Arapaho) and Só’taeo’o and Tsistsistas (Cheyenne) Nations. This area is also the site of trade, travel, gathering, and healing for many other Native Nations including the Lakota, Núuchi-u (Ute), Ka’igwu (Kiowa), Nʉmʉnʉʉ (Comanche), Haisndayin (Jicarilla Apache), and Newe (Shoshone). The establishment of our campus also dismantled the culture, community, and tradition of this place through the displacement of the many Latino/x/a people who lived and worked in the Auraria neighborhood. We respect the many diverse Indigenous peoples connected to this land and value the sophisticated and intricate knowledge systems they have in relationship to this land. By knowing our history, we can better understand our place within it and seek to be in right relationship with the people who were here before us and are here now.
It is our privilege to identify Auraria campus and MSU Denver as a place of learning and inclusion. We collectively understand that offering a Land Acknowledgement neither absolves settler-colonial privilege nor diminishes colonial structures of violence, at either the individual or institutional level. Land Acknowledgements must be preceded and followed with ongoing and unwavering commitments to displaced Indigenous and immigrant communities. As an academic department housing the disciplines of Studio Art, Communication Design, Art Education, and Art History it is particularly important for us to acknowledge the role that institutions of both art and education have at times played in the creation and perpetuation of settler-colonial systems of power, oppression, and disenfranchisement. However, art has also been used as a powerful tool of resistance and resilience, a tradition we seek to uphold and perpetuate. The department actively promotes our own education in the spatial relationships of Indigenous communities to lands both locally and across the globe. We are committed to expanding the art, history, and design expressions of the department with diverse voices and perspectives, including Indigenous and Latino/x/a makers, thinkers, and writers. We recognize there are ways to support Indigenous people today, including through supporting the MSU Denver Indigenous and Native Peoples’ Grant and Displaced Aurarian Scholarship and through local organizations such as the Denver Indian Center and Denver Indian Family Resource Center.
“Acknowledgment is a simple, powerful way of showing respect and a step toward correcting the stories and practices that erase Indigenous people’s history and culture and toward inviting and honoring the truth.”
“Acknowledgment by itself is a small gesture. It becomes meaningful when coupled with authentic relationships and informed action. But this beginning can be an opening to greater public consciousness of Native sovereignty and cultural rights, a step toward equitable relationships and reconciliation.”
The MSU Denver Department of Art acknowledges that we are located on the unceded territories of Indigenous peoples, that our campus operates on the territories and homelands of the Hinono’ei (commonly known as the Arapaho) and Só’taeo’o and Tsétsȩhéstâhese (Cheyenne) Nations. This area is also the site of trade, travel, gathering, and healing for many other Native Nations including the Lakota, Núuchi-u (Ute), Ka’igwu (Kiowa), Nʉmʉnʉʉ (Comanche), Haisndayin (Jicarilla Apache), and Newe (Shoshone). We respect the many diverse Indigenous peoples connected to this land and value the sophisticated and intricate knowledge systems they have in relationship to this land, including their stories, ceremonies, and family relationships.
One of the ways we fight the erasure of Indigenous peoples is by recognizing the violent history that brought settlers to occupy this land and the continued theft of land, natural resources, and culture by colonizers. We acknowledge both the history of genocide and forced removal of the Indigenous peoples from their land, and also that racism against Native people not only exists in the past but also in the present. We have a responsibility to acknowledge the persistent and continual harm committed against those who have survived colonial genocide and the continued devastation of the land through environmental exploitation and gentrification. The Indigenous people connected to this land continued to be exiled and to suffer discrimination and destructions by colonizers and systemic white supremacy. Indigenous peoples suffer higher rates of unemployment, poverty, and health disparities. The crisis of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Relatives is a human rights crisis.
Even as Indigenous communities face ongoing colonization, their cultural strengths and resilience have enabled generations of resistance to oppression through centuries of near- constant crisis. The US should fully implement the actions outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), which was created in response to activists from the global Indigenous resistance. Native nations must be recognized as sovereign entities and be empowered to engage in nation rebuilding. Rights to land, water, and other resources must be restored and Indigenous communities must be empowered to determine their own futures.
The building of European colonial empires necessitated a redefining of land into a commodity that could be owned and transferred through capitalist systems. Competing political interests between the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth century resulted in a series of papal bulls that defined how European empires could be built through colonial expansion. Known as the “Doctrine of Discovery,” these statements were interpreted by European rulers as granting exclusive rights to the lands, resources, trade, and conquest of non-Christians upon “discovery.” This doctrine was detrimental to Indigenous peoples, whose connection to their land was severed. Lorraine Le Camp (Cree) describes the conceptual erasure of Indigenous people as “terranullism” as the supposedly vacant lands were described in the bulls as terra nullis (uninhabited land). Native peoples were not viewed as sovereign states, nor as having legal standing after the theft of their land.
The Auraria campus land was claimed by the kingdom of Spain and integrated into their empire as part of the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México. France laid claim to the territory after the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, and the land was sold to the United States government as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. As Anglo-settlers seized Indigenous lands and expanded their political, economic, and cultural domination, the Doctrine of Discovery was integrated into the US legal systems. The constant advancement of settlers from the Eastern seaboard and the systemic genocide, property theft, and subjugation, pushed Native communities westward. At the same time, the ideology of “Manifest Destiny” erased Indigenous people from the imagined frontier and constructed a national identity out of colonization via annexation for military occupation, territorial status, and eventual statehood. Genocide and forced removal were part of this process as the recognition of statehood was predicated on Euro-American settlers outnumbering the Indigenous population.
During these years, the Auraria campus land was part of the hunting and trading lands of the Núuchi-u (Ute) peoples. The Haisndayin (Jicarilla Apache) migrated through the mountains and plains of what is today known as Colorado. They were followed by the seasonally migratory Ka’igwu (Kiowa) and Nʉmʉnʉʉ (Camanche) Nations. However, the westward expansion of Euro-American and non-Native settlers pushed the Só’taeo’o and Tsétsȩhéstâhese (Cheyenne) peoples from the Great Lakes region into what is today North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska. The Só’taeo’o and Tsétsȩhéstâhese (Cheyenne) introduced horse culture to the Lakota and allied themselves with the Hinono’ei (Arapaho) and Sioux. The triple alliance created a powerful military force that was also successful at hunting and active in trade. They then extended their territory to the south, with the Ka’igwu (Kiowa) and Nʉmʉnʉʉ (Camanche) moving to the southern plains in response.
Colonial occupiers continued their westward expansions. The Auraria campus land was promised to the Só’taeo’o and Tsétsȩhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and Hinono’ei (Arapaho) Nations in the Laramie Treaty of 1851, which recognized Só’taeo’o and Tsétsȩhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and Hinono’ei (Arapaho) sovereignty, disallowing those travelling the Oregon Trail to settle or engage in mining within Indigenous land. However, settler occupation continued to occur, with prospectors and homesteaders squatting on Indigenous lands. The Só’taeo’o and Tsétsȩhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and Hinono’ei (Arapaho) defended their land, even as the US Army engaged in total war against Indigenous peoples, including a punitive expedition against the Só’taeo’o and Tsétsȩhéstâhese (Cheyenne) in 1857. Tensions escalated during the Colorado gold rushes of 1858 and 1859, when more than 100,000 non-Indigenous people flooded onto the land. Illegal settlements, including Auraria (named after aurum, the Latin word for gold) and Denver, devastated the land and further interrupted Indigenous ways of living. The US Government then insisted that the agreement with the Só’taeo’o and Tsétsȩhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and Hinono’ei (Arapaho) people be renegotiated; Tsétsȩhéstâhese Chief Moketaveto (Black Kettle) protested that all of the communities’ leaders must be present in accordance with the Só’taeo’o and Tsétsȩhéstâhese (Cheyenne) decision making process. Despite these objections, the commissioner of Indian Affairs pushed for an agreement that nullified Indigenous sovereignty and included a 90% reduction in Indigenous lands. The chiefs present were pressured to sign the 1861 Treaty of Fort Wise, even though they did not agree to the terms and did not intend to cede control of their lands. Several Indigenous leaders, including Moketaveto and Hinono’ei (Arapaho) chiefs Niwot (Left-Handed) and Hosa (Little Raven), continued to advocate for peace; others such as Só’taeo’o chief Hotóa’ôxháa’êstaestse (Tall Bull) and the Hotamétaneo’o (Dog Soldiers), one of the six Só’taeo’o and Tsétsȩhéstâhese (Cheyenne) warrior societies, believed that the US could not be trusted and must be forcefully resisted. Escalating violence led some, including Moketaveto, to attempt to negotiate for peace, however the US Army refused.
Just a few months later, on November 17, 1864, over 230 Indigenous persons—mostly women, children, and Elders—were slaughtered at a peaceable encampment along Sand Creek by the Colorado Volunteer Cavalry. The wounded survivors fled to the camp of the Hotamétaneo’o (Dog Soldiers), more than 100 miles away. The Hotamétaneo’o (Dog Soldiers) and their families continued to resist settler-colonial expansion. For five years they fought alongside allied Hinono’ei (Arapaho) and Lakota warriors against ongoing military assault and an onslaught of settlers onto their lands.
In the aftermath of the Sand Creek Massacre, the Little Arkansas Treaty was signed in 1865 by some of the Só’taeo’o and Tsétsȩhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and Hinono’ei (Arapaho) chiefs, though the Hotamétaneo’o (Dog Soldiers) never agreed to the treaty. This treaty established a small reservation for the Tsétsȩhéstâhese (Southern Cheyenne) and Hinono’ei (Arapaho) nations in what is now Oklahoma and agreed that the US Government designate monetary and land-grant reparations for the atrocities of the Sand Creek Massacre. The treaty was amended to include a contingent of the Haisndayin (Jicarilla Apache) peoples and a second treaty was signed with the Nʉmʉnʉʉ (Comanche) and Ka’igwu (Kiowa) Nations. The reparations articulated in the Little Arkansas Treaty never materialized. The US Government further seized Indigenous lands in the so-called Medicine Lodge Treaties, a set of three documents concerning the Ka’igwu (Kiowa), Nʉmʉnʉʉ (Comanche), Nde (Apache), and Tsétsȩhéstâhese (Southern Cheyenne) and Hinono’ei (Arapaho) peoples. The Indigenous peoples never ratified the agreements; the US military presence within Indigenous lands and the intentional slaughter of buffalo herds on which the Indigenous communities depended enabled the forcible removal of Indigenous peoples from the land. Many more died during the march from exposure, starvation, and disease. Similarly, the Treaty of 1868 between the US Government and the Só’taeo’o (Northern Cheyenne) and Hinono’ei (Arapaho) Nations left Indigenous communities without a landbase. The Nank’haanseine’nan (Northern Arapaho) were forcibly removed to a reservation in what is now Wyoming, shared with the Newe (Shoshone) Nation. After over 900 Só’taeo’o (Northern Cheyenne) were forcibly relocated to the Tsétsȩhéstâhese (Southern Cheyenne) reservation, chiefs Ó’kôhómôxháahketa (Little Coyote) and Vóóhéve (Morning Star, also known by the Lakota name Tȟamílapȟéšni, or Dull Knife) led their people northward. The group was chased, attacked, forced to divide, and many were killed, however Ó’kôhómôxháahketa and Vóóhéve were able to successfully lead their people back to their lands. The Só’taeo’o (Northern Cheyenne) were settled on a reservation in what is now Montana. Even after the establishment of Tribal reservations, the US government continued seizing Indigenous land through legislation, including the Daws Act (1887) and the Curtis Act (1898).
The descendants of the Sand Creek Massacre victims have actively sought to reclaim the promised reparations and in 2013 Homer Flute, Robert Simpson, Jr., and Dorothy Wood filed a lawsuit against the federal government over the inaction (the case was dismissed by the US Supreme Court). Since 2007, the Sand Creek has been recognized as a National Historic Site. In 2022, Deb Haaland (Kawaik and the US Interior Secretary) announced that 3.478 acres would be added to site in order to preserve this land, which is considered sacred. The annual Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run/Walk Event, first organized by Lee Lone Bear (Só’taeo’o) in 1999, is a joint endeavor between the Só’taeo’o (Northern Cheyenne) of Montana, the Nank’haanseine’nan (Northern Arapaho) of Wyoming, and the Tsétsȩhéstâhese (Southern Cheyenee) and Bo’ooceinenno (Southern Arapaho) of Oklahoma, to honor the fallen ancestors and seeks to facilitate healing.
The Medicine Lodge Treaties also mandated that Indigenous children be forced to attend residential boarding schools. These institutions, backed by the US government and operated by religious organizations, enacted cultural genocide through the banning of Indigenous names, language, cultural and religious practices, and the severing of familial relationships. Education was weaponized in order to facilitate assimilation into the Euro-American colonizer culture. All Indigenous children forced into residential boarding schools were subject to corporal punishment; they were also subject to abuse and many died in residence. Native communities resisted the schools by refusing to enroll their children, banding together to withdraw their children, or teaching their children Traditional Knowledge and practices during school holidays. Indigenous activists lobbied for the Indian Child Welfare Act (1978), which empowered Indigenous families to keep their children and provided Tribal governments with jurisdiction over their children.
Indigenous adults were also forced to assimilate. The US government-imposed citizenship on all Indigenous people in 1924. Ten years later, the Indian Reorganization Act established a policy to terminate reservations and tribal governments. The Bureau of Indian Affairs advocated for the decrease of services and support to Native peoples, followed by the 1956 Indian Relocation Act and the Urban Relocation Program. This system relocated Native people into nine designated cities, including Denver, where they were scattered among other working-class minority communities. Indigenous people responded by creating an intertribal movement that promoted political, social, and spiritual activism, supported through the establishment of Urban American Indian Centers. The Denver Indian Center was established in 1970 to provide essential services as well as cultural support to the urban Indian population of Denver. The connection between the urban Indian population and other minority groups, as well as the founding of the National Congress of American Indians in 1944, empowered the American Indian Movement, a grassroots activist movement first organized in 1968. Education was an important component of this activism, including higher education. Indigenous communities worked to establish Tribal Colleges and Universities which provided restorative education. The Tsétsȩhéstâhese (Southern Cheyenne) and Bo’ooceinenno (Southern Arapaho) Nations have participated in this movement, establishing the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal College in 2006 and joining the United Keetoowayh Band, the Osage Nation, and the Otoe-Missouria Tribe in chartering Bacone College in 2019.
Indigenous peoples’ relationship to the land includes the natural resources provided by the landscape to create objects for daily life, culturally significant items, and ceremonial objects. These beautiful works, many of which are now considered art, articulated relationships with creative and spiritual forces, community values, and cultural knowledge.
Art was also weaponized as a tool for colonization. As part of the Spanish Empire, European art and aesthetics were used to displace knowledge and systems of belief in Colorado through evangelization. During the westward expansion of the United States, landscape painters constructed images of an unpopulated wilderness that supported the ideology of Manifest Destiny. At the same time, the colonization process included the developed dependence of Indigenous societies on Euro-American goods through trade and government rations, including weaponry, cookware, tools, and textiles. These goods replaced traditional Native crafts. Cultural annihilation also included the destruction of Indigenous artworks and artistic practices. The US government outlawed Native ceremonies and rituals. Cultural objects were seized. Many examples of Indigenous art were either destroyed or “collected,” placed in museums and other cultural institutions without consent.
The dispossession of objects and forced assimilation furthered the attempted dismantling of Indigenous culture but did not lead to its disappearance. Defenders of Native culture maintained Indigenous language, ceremonies, and artistic practices. The Sótaeo’o and Tsétsȩhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and Hinono’ei (Arapaho) Nations still celebrate their culture and identity. The Cheyenne and Arapaho Culture Program teaches the Indigenous languages, artistic practices, ceremonies, and customs. In 1986, several Sotaeo’o (Northern Cheyenne) Elders, including a descendent of Hotóa’ôxháa’êstaestse, William Tallbull, argued for the return of a ceremonial pipe in the Smithsonian collection. Upon learning that the museum not only held many Indigenous cultural objects but also the remains of thousands of Indigenous ancestors, Tallbull assisted in writing the Museum of the American Indian Act (1989) and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990). These federal laws acknowledges that human remains, funerary objects, ceremonial objects, and objects of cultural patrimony belong to the Indigenous descendants. The laws also provide mechanisms for repatriation. In order to safeguard Indigenous artistic practices within Indigenous communities, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (1935, amended in 1990 and 2000) limits the marketing of Native artworks to Native artists. However the law and the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which is empowered to enforce the act, is unable to keep up with the rampant cultural appropriation. Many contemporary Native artists also use their practice to center their communities through stories of oppression and resilience, amplifying Indigenous voices within the global art discourse.
Academia has participated in perpetuating colonialist structures through both the creation of knowledge and the process of education. What questions scholars ask and the information they consult is complicit in the centering of Euro-American cultural domination even as the dissemination of knowledge safeguards systemic oppression. Although MSU Denver is not a land grant institution, the Morrill Act signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 established and endowed funds for higher education, mostly through violence-backed land seizures from Indigenous peoples. The land grant program directly entwined United States higher education with governmentally coordinated genocide of Indigenous peoples. This history shapes the way institutions of higher education are situated within systems of colonialism and how we view our purpose for the social good. In the twentieth century, these ideas were extended to urban institutions who were tasked with addressing the legacy of systemic racism and poverty within inner cities in the name of ‘urban renewal,’ at the expense of communities of color. The creation of Auraria Campus was a direct response to this national history.
After the merger of Auraria and Denver City in 1860, the land west of Cherry Creek became a mixture of residences and commercial enterprises, including breweries and warehouses. The people who lived and worked on this land were predominantly immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe. In the early twentieth century, the demographic shifted as Hispanic communities from southern Colorado and northern New Mexico were joined by Mexican immigrants. The construction of St. Cajetan’s Catholic Church in 1926 provided a cultural and communal center for the tightknit community.
Denver leaders had just established Metropolitan State College (which would later become Metropolitan State University of Denver) when a large flood in 1965 provided the opportunity to examine the Auraria neighborhood as a possible location for the college campus. Money for the creation of Auraria campus was raised through federal Housing and Urban Development funding as well as a proposed bond election. The residents of the neighborhood actively resisted, working alongside St. Cajetan’s priests to form the Auraria Residents’ Organization. The bond was promoted by the Denver archdiocese and ultimately passed by a majority of Denver voters. Over 300 families were forcibly relocated between 1968 and 1972. This displaced a vibrant multicultural, working-class neighborhood and their small businesses, industry, and cultural institutions, including St. Cajetan’s Catholic Church. By dislocating so many people and destroying or appropriating structures, the establishment of this campus further dismantled the culture, community, and tradition of this land. However, in the face of this displacement and disruption, marginalized communities have continued to resist through protest, civic activism, and artistic intervention.
By knowing this history, we can better understand our place within it and seek to be in right relationship with the people connected to this land, both past and present. We are fortunate to call Auraria campus and MSU Denver a place of learning and inclusion, but we also recognize that this opportunity is predicated on the loss of so many different people and cultures. We hope that both art and the academy will collaborate in breaking down systems of oppression and changing the future.
We collectively understand that offering a Land Acknowledgement neither absolves settler- colonial privilege nor diminishes colonial structures of violence, at either the individual or institutional level. Land Acknowledgements must be preceded and followed with ongoing and unwavering commitments to displaced Indigenous and immigrant communities. As the most recent stewards of this land, we must recognize the people who are also connected to this land and actively strive to break down colonial mindsets and their effects. The Art Department at MSU Denver believes in the power of art and visual culture to not only celebrate diverse identities and perspectives, but to also advocate for the disruption of systemic inequities. We are committed to integrating anti-racist practices into our curriculum and pedagogy; courses such as Socially Engaged Art, Community-Based Design, and Native American Art center this discourse. The department also voted unanimously in Fall 2020 to sign the Safer Spaces Resolution for Black, Brown, and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) Impacted by State and Police Violence. We recognize that hiring People of Color for full-time, benefits-eligible staff and tenure-track faculty positions is essential, and the Department of Art is working to incorporate additional measures to mitigate bias into our department hiring practices. We endorse University initiatives to support historically marginalized students and staff.
There are many ways you can directly support Indigenous peoples today, including Cheyenne and Hinono’ei (Arapaho) peoples. Organizations such as the Denver Indian Center and the Denver Indian Family Resource Center support Indigenous communities locally. National organizations include the Association on American Indian Affairs and The American Indian College Fund. Consistent with the University’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, MSU Denver works towards building relationships with Indigenous communities through academic pursuits, community partnerships, and support of our Indigenous students. In Fall 2022, MSU Denver initiated the Indigenous and Native Peoples’ Grant, a program that will supplement any gap between federal or state grants received and the tuition and fees for Native students pursuing their first bachelor’s degree. Since 1988, the Displaced Aurarian Scholarship has provided funds for the individuals displaced in the establishment of our University, their children, and their grandchildren. In 2021, this scholarship was extended to the direct descendants of displaced Aurarians in perpetuity. As a Hispanic-Serving Institution, MSU Denver serves more Latino/x/a students than any other higher education institution in Colorado. In addition to campus services designed to address the challenges faced by this population, the CESA Gift Fund and DREAMer Emergency Fund provide direct financial support to undocumented students. You can contribute to these and other funds to support Indigenous, Latino/x/a, and students from other underrepresented minorities through the Office of University Advancement.
This statement and its history is indebted to the many generations of Indigenous scholars who have safeguarded their history and gifted it to the wider world. Native peoples advocate for the integration of Native perspectives into colonizer history, but with this knowledge comes the responsibility to redress history through actions that support Indigenous people and communities through education, understanding, and healing.
Many thanks to those who offered insight, resources, and feedback on the development of this statement:
Dr. Michael Benitez, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion; Dr. Chalane Lechuga, Associate Professor of Chicana/o Studies and Diversity Faculty Fellow; Dr. Adriana Nieto, Chair and Associate Professor of Chicana/o Studies; Dr. David Weiden, Associate Professor of Political Science and Native American Studies; Jeremy VanHooser, Office of Diversity and Inclusion; Monique Left Hand Bull, Department of Human Services; Dr. Elizabeth Kleinfeld, Writing Center Director, Professor of English; Department of Art faculty and staff; and, past and current Department of Art Land Acknowledgement working group members.