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Recognizing the stories of Indigenous people and Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Garland

Buffalo soldiers: reVision is an examination of the complicated legacy of the all-Black Army regiments established in 1866 following the Civil War. Known as Buffalo Soldiers, these regiments played an important role in American westward expansion and the displacement of Indigenous populations.
Courtesy of History Colorado
Buffalo soldiers: reVision is an examination of the complicated legacy of the all-Black Army regiments established in 1866 following the Civil War. Known as Buffalo Soldiers, these regiments played an important role in American westward expansion and the displacement of Indigenous populations.

Fort Garland in the San Luis Valley was built to protect and help early white settlers colonize the American West. Kit Carson was appointed the commander of the fort after he waged a violent campaign against the Navajo people.

Buffalo Soldiers: reVision, an exhibit by History Colorado, seeks to reframe the story of Fort Garland to also include the stories of Native people and the hundreds of formerly enslaved soldiers who lived and served there in the late 1800s.

To learn more, we talked to Eric Carpio, the director of History Colorado's Fort Garland exhibit.

Editor's note: This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Eric Carpio: In the mid-1860s, the United States embarked on this violent campaign against the Navajo, trying to flush out the Navajo from their homelands. Another space is created. Many today would describe it as almost a concentration camp located hundreds of miles from Navajo homelands. As part of this campaign, ultimately, the United States military drives over 10,000 Navajo hundreds of miles across the state of New Mexico.

If you talk to Navajo elders or historians, they would call this the darkest hour, the darkest times of their history. And so Carson was on the front lines of that on behalf of the United States military. It's after that campaign that he's transferred to Fort Garland, in essence, to deal with the Ute that are here in this area. Ultimately, after he arrives at Fort Garland, I think right after he leaves, a treaty is signed that effectively results in the removal of all Ute from the San Luis Valley and onto the Western Slope.

Over the course of the next 10 years or so, Ute lands would get smaller and smaller to where we are today, with three different Ute reservations: Two in Colorado and one in Utah. From 1950 until 2018, at the center of the story of Fort Garland was the story of Kit Carson. In the commandant's quarters, there was an exhibition devoted to Carson, arranged in that house-museum style, where you would see a full-size mannequin depicting Carson sitting at a desk in conversation with another full-size mannequin depicting Chief Ouray, and that scene was supposed to depict treaty negotiations.

Then you would go down the hallway and see a replica of maybe what living quarters would have looked like for a commander at the fort during that time period. So the original curators at the time felt that this would be the story that would draw the most attention from visitors and tourists, community members, and otherwise.

Alexis Kenyon: Do you know how members of the Ute felt about that exhibit?

Carpio: I've heard directly from members of the Native American community, from the Indigenous community who had visited Fort Garland, that that exhibition could be viewed, or probably was viewed as traumatic. Just the idea that a military fort in this part of the country that was established during that time period to be on the front lines of removal of Native people. In this case, Ute people from the area, that the space itself holds a lot of trauma and a lot of pain that hasn't necessarily been reconciled with, that hasn't been addressed fully by the museum, by the historic society.

In the last several years, we've done some work to try to broaden perspectives to bring in more voices, particularly Native. I've had people tell me that this is the first time that they felt welcome in the space because their stories had either been erased before or caricaturized. But there's been a lot of work that we've needed to do here at the museum that's still underway, quite frankly.

Kenyon: The exhibit focuses on Buffalo soldiers who were formerly enslaved Black soldiers who joined the military and then were shipped north. At Fort Garland, they were sent to push the Ute from their lands. Your exhibit highlights one of these Buffalo soldiers named John Taylor. Tell me about John Taylor and how you explore his life in the exhibit and his relationship with the Ute.

Carpio: John Taylor, after he earned his freedom, he fought on the Union side of the Army during the Civil War. After the Civil War and Emancipation, once the Buffalo Soldier units were established, John decided to enlist in one of the infantry units where he was sent out west. He ended up settling in the Durango area and marries Kitty Cloud, who's a Ute woman. In one of his oral histories, he claims to be the first white settler of the Pine River Valley, which is really interesting because you look at photos of John Taylor, he's obviously not a white man, but he's basically what he's saying is he's non-Native, that he's American, that he's free.

So John Taylor becomes a really interesting vehicle to explore these issues of relationships between African American soldiers and Native people in the West, especially when you examine his life and the lives of his children and descendants.

Kenyon: Let's talk about the exhibit. What can people expect to see? Can you give us some examples?

Carpio: The way that I usually describe the exhibit is that the exhibit exists at the intersection of history, art, and place. And place being important because Buffalo Soldiers were stationed at Fort Garland. The exhibit is in the West Officer's Quarters, which is a space where officers and their wives would have lived. The exhibit also exists in a space that Black soldiers wouldn't have occupied because African American soldiers weren't allowed to rise to the rank of officer. I think there's a power to putting this exhibit in that space.

So you walk into the exhibit, and you're greeted by an image of John Taylor side-by-side with Buckskin Charlie. Buckskin Charlie is one of John Taylor's closest friends. He's a Ute person. And it's just a really beautiful image that I think invites people in. But we've got several different paintings and collages that depict different elements of Buffalo Soldier history. We've got a few murals that utilize historic photographs and historic images from that time period of Buffalo Soldiers.

Two of the contributors are poets, and so we've got poetry and other written work in the show that allows an opportunity for visitors to reflect on different elements of this history through the lens of African American and Native American artists.

Kenyon: What do you think this story, and the retelling of the story, means for the American narrative or in the American identity?

Carpio: That's more complicated. You think about the history of the West in particular. Often, Native Americans and Mexicanos are caricaturized. African Americans often are completely erased from the history of the West. And with Buffalo Soldiers reVision, we take those folks and put them at the center of the story. I hope that (it) challenges the mythology that we have learned about our history and who we are and also embraces and brings in voices that should have been there from the very beginning.

This story was shared with KSUT via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico, including KSUT.

Copyright 2023 KGNU.

Alexis Kenyon
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