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Fort Garland museum brings to light dark history of Native enslavement in Southern Colorado

"Unsilenced: Indigenous Enslavement in Southern Colorado" now on display
Unsilenced: Indigenous Enslavement in Southern Colorado.jpeg
Posted at 9:42 PM, Jul 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-05 11:16:13-04

DENVER -- In southern Colorado, near the border with New Mexico, sit two counties: Costilla and Conejos, with a history rarely talked about but which was recently revealed through the discovery of census forms.

The forms are dated 1865, when Colorado was a U.S. territory, long before becoming a state in 1876. This was also after the Civil War and after the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery in the United States.

Eric Carpio, the Director of the Fort Garland Museum & Cultural Center, who also works with History Colorado, talked with Denver7 about those documents and what they revealed about Colorado's history.

“I think one of the most striking lines on the census is the very first line at the top of the document (which) reads, 'List of Indian captives purchased and now in the services of the citizen of Conejos or Costilla County.'”

Researchers found names listed, like Deluvina Maxwell, with the words “an enslaved Navajo person” next to her name, and Juan Carson labeled “an enslaved Navajo youth."

These were often people who were captured in a raid and then sold to families.

“In some cases, the individual that’s enslaved in the home is referenced as almost a part of the family, maybe a child assigned, maybe adopted, something like that. There were individuals on the list that are serving as maybe farmhands, household servants, maybe childcare providers.”

Unsilenced: Indigenous Enslavement in Southern Colorado.jpeg

These census forms are part of a new art installation designed by artist jetsonorama, who has spent 34 years looking into the history of Native enslavement. His images of the census forms are on display at the Fort Garland Museum and Cultural Center called "Unsilenced: Indigenous Enslavement in Southern Colorado."

Carpio says “the installation is part of a larger project that we are doing at History Colorado and at Fort Garland in particular, to really try to understand and deepen our knowledge around this history in particular."

That’s because very little is known. The exhibit also features five photographs of individuals who were known to be held captive, and part of the work of History Colorado has been to take those names and images and connect with descendants who can trace their family lineage.

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“This shared experience has been just a powerful experience and really, probably the most humbling part of this project, is you know, making those connections and hopefully for the sake of understanding, acknowledging and remembering… the individuals whose names exist within the exhibit”.

"Unsilenced: Indigenous Enslavement in Southern Colorado" just opened at the Fort Garland Museum which is about a 3- to 4-hour drive from Denver, and there is no scheduled end date because History Colorado is planning more activities tied to this little known history.

“Indigenous labor actually was not legal and so one of the reasons we don’t know a lot about this history, or we know less than, you know, the slavery that transpired in the southeast, is because we don’t have the same kind of records and documentation. That’s in a lot of ways what makes this sensitive census document really remarkable, it is one of the very few official government documents that we have that you know, acknowledges that this happened.”

For more information on the exhibit, click here. For more information on the artist, check out jetsonorama's website.