Updating and Expanding the Historic Understanding of Buffalo Soldiers
Upcoming exhibition in Fort Garland, CO, will explore the complex history of all Black military regiments in the West
DENVER — March 23, 2023 — History Colorado’s Fort Garland Museum & Cultural Center is diligently working in partnership with eight independent artists to create a new exhibition which disrupts the common narratives of manifest destiny and settlement of the American West. Titled buffalo soldiers: reVision this exhibition opens on June 24, exactly 165 years after Fort Garland was commissioned by the United States, and presents a more visual interpretation of the history and impact of the all Black Army regiments that were established in 1866 following the Civil War.
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Known as Buffalo Soldiers, these regiments – including the 9th Cavalry who were stationed at Fort Garland from 1875 to 1879 – played a role in American westward expansion and the displacement of Indigenous populations.
Many of those who served as Buffalo Soldiers were formerly enslaved African Americans and military service offered them the opportunity to make a living and provide for themselves and their families.
The 9th Cavalry, as well as the other Buffalo Soldiers regiments, served valiantly and honorably despite facing discrimination and segregation. Their legacy, however, is a complicated one for they often stood on the front lines of conflict with Native Americans.
buffalo soldiers: reVision will also explore the prejudice and systemic racism faced by Buffalo Soldiers following emancipation, as well as the lasting impacts of this history in Southern Colorado.
“This exhibition allows us to explore the complexity of this history in order to understand, acknowledge, and reconcile some of the most difficult aspects of our collective history while updating and expanding our understanding of the Buffalo Soldiers,” said Eric Carpio, History Colorado’s chief community museum officer and director of Fort Garland Museum & Cultural Center. “It’s also a chance to look forward to the future of historical interpretation of the American West with renewed perspective and wisdom so we can tell a more inclusive and representational history.”
buffalo soldiers: reVision will feature the works of a team of artists who have been partnering with Carpio to collectively understand this multifaceted history with the help of Buffalo Soldier scholars, descendants, community members, and tribal partners. This exhibition is made possible through sponsorships from Arts in Society and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The creations from this team of artists will take multiple forms ranging from prints, which layer historical photos and documents with contemporary drawings, to poetry which evokes the emotional toil of this part of our shared history.
Included amongst the artists working on the project are: lead artist, Chip Thomas, aka jetsonorama, who created the Unsilenced: Indigenous Enslavement in Southern Colorado installation currently on display at Fort Garland; and Esther Belin (Diné), award winning poet and author of From the Belly of My Beauty.
Thomas was intrigued to pursue this project because it allowed him to explore a number of questions of interest to him over the 35 years he has spent working on the Navajo Nation including: “how did formerly enslaved peoples rationalize the subjugation of another race,” and “in what ways did Buffalo Soldiers connect with the lands they were helping to take away from Indigenous peoples?”
“It seems the land provided solace and space for contemplation, maturation and dreaming of new possibilities in a way the Black soldiers couldn't consider in the Reconstruction South when enslavement was replaced by Black Codes,” Thomas said. “For the Buffalo Soldiers the expansive horizons of the west are a metaphor for unlimited possibilities to discover oneself as they continue to do to this day.”
Belin expressed that this project has been a challenging one as it required her to grapple with the difficult history of how Indigenous people were captured, slaughtered, and decimated by the United States government, including the very Buffalo Soldiers whose histories reVision will be telling. The process to create art in response to this complicated history entailed empathetic journeys into the choices of the Buffalo Soldiers.
“I wondered if those men ached at witnessing Indian people die and be slaughtered to protect their land,” Belin said. “I wondered at the idea of property and how the soldiers queried that concept, possibly overhearing conversations that Indians did not feel they owned the land but rather the land was for them to use and be stewards of.”
Thomas’ contribution to reVision highlights Native and Black interactions by emphasizing established friendships and alliances in the two communities that challenge the stereotypical narratives. Belin will write historical narratives in poetic form, unpacking themes of race, land, and the harm unleashed by westward expansion while providing an emotional testament to the difficult choices Buffalo Soldiers faced.
Another crucial part of this exhibition is the building in which it will be displayed. At the base of the traditional eastern boundary mountain for the Diné nation, Mount Blanca, the location of Fort Garland represents unsettled history. This revisioning initiative offers a pledge to present the complex history of the region.
“The West Officers Quarters is one the of the five remaining buildings that was constructed in 1858 when the former US Army fort was established,” Carpio said. “The whitewashed adobe walls and wooden vigas that have been here since the 9th Cavalry was stationed here in the late 1870s, add a powerful element of 'place' to the exhibition.”
buffalo soldiers: reVision is part of a larger project to reimagine the Fort Garland History Museum & Cultural Center so that it better represents the diversity of the San Luis Valley. This reimagining is funded through a grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities which gives History Colorado the opportunity to explore the complex and difficult histories of westward expansion and colonization.
This work is necessary as the older exhibitions at the museum largely erased or misrepresented the experiences of marginalized communities, including Indigenous people, Chicanos/Hispanos, and women and children who lived with or visited soldiers stationed at the Fort.
In the build up to the opening of buffalo soldiers: reVision, Fort Garland Museum & Cultural Center will be hosting events exploring the history of Buffalo Soldiers and the impact of westward expansion. The first of these events is a zoom presentation by Louis Gregory McAllister, professor of Ethnic Studies at Northern Arizona University, on John Taylor & Black Identity in the Ute Borderlands on April 5, from 6-7 p.m. This event is free, and open to the public, but registration is required.
About the Fort Garland Museum & Cultural Center
Fort Garland was built in 1858, ten years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, during American expansion into the west. Today, visitors can explore life in a nineteenth century military fort by walking the parade grounds and touring five of the original adobe buildings. The Fort Garland Museum & Cultural Center is a museum of History Colorado.
The Fort Garland Museum & Cultural Center is located at 29477 Hwy. 159, Fort Garland, Colorado, and is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit www.FortGarlandMuseum.org or call 719-379-3512 for more information.
About History Colorado
History Colorado is a division of the Colorado Department of Higher Education and a 501(c)3 non-profit that has served more than 75,000 students and 500,000 people in Colorado each year. It is a 143-year-old institution that operates eleven museums and historic sites, a free public research center, the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation which provides technical assistance, educational opportunities, and other access to archaeology and historic preservation, and the History Colorado State Historical Fund (SHF), which is one of the nation’s largest state funded preservation programs of its kind. More than 70% of SHF grants are allocated in rural areas of the state. Additionally, the offices of the State Archaeologist and the State Historic Preservation Officer are part of History Colorado.
History Colorado’s mission is to create a better future for Colorado by inspiring wonder in our past. We serve as the state’s memory, preserving and sharing the places, stories, and material culture of Colorado through educational programs, historic preservation grants, collecting, outreach to Colorado communities, the History Colorado Center and Stephen H. Hart Research Center in Denver, and 10 other museums and historic attractions statewide. History Colorado is one of only six Smithsonian Affiliates in Colorado. Visit HistoryColorado.org, or call 303-HISTORY, for more information.