SAN LUIS VALLEY — This is a story within a story. It involves two men, each bringing to light in their own distinct ways an event that has gone untold for too long.
One is a director of a museum with an intense passion for the “bigger picture” and the “broader” history of southern Colorado where he lives and works. The other is a photographer, public artist, activist, and physician who has been working between Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon on the Navajo Nation since 1987.
Together, they are telling a profound, and, yes, disturbing story of what was discovered in the San Luis Valley in 1865.
The result is the exhibit known as “Unsilenced: Indigenous Enslavement in Southern Colorado.” And, in many ways, it is still history in the making.
Breaking the silence with words
When first stepping into the building at the Fort Garland Museum that houses the exhibit known as “Unsilenced: Indigenous Enslavement in Southern Colorado”, there is an overwhelming presence of, ironically, silence. The building, divided into rooms, contains only a few pieces of furniture — a bench along the wall in one room, a table that holds paper where people can write their thoughts in another.
Eric Carpio, Director of Fort Garland Museum and Cultural Center and Chief Community Museum Officer for History Colorado, provides a prologue for the exhibit. Carpio is a tall and soft-spoken man, but when he speaks of “Unsilenced” and the story that accounts for its creation, his voice is a combination of somber respect for the topic and a historian’s appreciation at all that has been shared so far and all that is waiting to be learned.
“This is a history that’s so complicated and sensitive on many levels,” he says. “A lot has been written about the chattel slavery of the southeast. But the enslavement of indigenous people is a story that hasn’t been written about or even discussed very much. But it’s connected to this region, and the census documents we have in the exhibit are remarkable because they’re proof of the practice.”
Carpio explains that, unlike slavery in the south, indigenous enslavement was not legal. After hearing reports of indigenous people being sold and held captive in people’s homes, then Colorado Governor John Evans ordered a census be done to investigate the claims. The task fell to an Indian agent named Lafayette Head who went from house to house in what is now Costilla and Conejos counties.
“Three years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and a month after the last slaves were freed,” Carpio says, “Lafayette Head was creating black and white government documentation that the practice of enslavement was still happening in this region. That kind of documentation is very rare.”
Carpio says the 1865 census for both Conejos and Costilla counties list, combined, around 149 names of indigenous enslaved people.
“But Head only recorded the people who were single, writing that, if they were married, they were no longer enslaved.” After a moment, he adds, “I’m not sure what we should think about that.”
What Lafayette Head does not disclose is that, even as he was taking census of enslaved indigenous people, he was holding indigenous people as captives, himself, as were probably some of his business associates, as well.
Inspired by Dr. Andres Resendez, author of “The Other Slavery”, Carpio and his colleagues wanted to “learn what was not known and what was known but not shared or acknowledged.” They reached out to tribal partners impacted by enslavement as well as possible descendants of those who were held captive.
“We were working toward a ‘gathering’ with tribal partners, scholars, descendants and community members,” Carpio says, “but then COVID hit, and that put everything on hold.”
Undeterred, they then did a series of three “memory workshops”, via Zoom. “It was amazing,” Carpio says.
“People were very generous with their time, but many were reluctant to share their memories publicly because, as they put it, they really didn’t know that much about it. Just stories they had heard in their families.”
They also brought in other resource people, including a genealogist and people to help interpret stories.
Breaking the silence with images
Footsteps on the old wooden floor echo off the thick, white-washed adobe walls of the building constructed in 1858, and it is not lost on the visitor that the building once housed officers commanding soldiers stationed at the fort to address conflicts with indigenous people.
Despite the deep silence, the story is all around. And it is in the larger-than-life photographs displayed on those white-washed walls where the story of “Unsilenced” begins to be told, and it is done without the need for a single word.
A young, enslaved Navajo boy, who was given the name Gabriel Woodson, stands stiffly next to a wooden chair, one hand wrapped around its spindle, the other holding a hat at his side, his eyes gazing at something or someone just off camera.
In the room beyond, two identical images of Juan Carson, an enslaved Navajo young man who, from the time he was a small boy, lived with “Indian fighter” Kit Carson, are displayed side by side. Like Woodson, Juan Carson is also posed in a common but somewhat unnatural position with one hand placed against his chest.
However, unlike Woodson, Juan Carson comes close to staring straight into the camera, and his gaze, beneath hair cut short and slicked into place, is arresting in its intensity.
Both young Navajo men would ultimately die early in life.
The photo of Deluvina Maxwell, the name given to an enslaved, older Navajo woman, speaks the most clearly. According to Carpio, many of the enslaved indigenous women took care of the children in the families who held them captive.
Although it is not known for sure, such seems to be the case with Deluvina, for, despite her expression that is both dignified and haunting in its sorrowful, mute acceptance, two young children have been placed in her broad lap while a third slightly older boy stands behind and over her, his hand on his hip and his cap at a jaunty angle. All three children appear to be oblivious to the woman upon whom they sit or lean while the photographer captures their images.
Little is known about the individual lives of the indigenous people in the photos on the wall. Their true names before they became enslaved, the stories of their lives before being captured, the stories of those who gave them birth, the stories they were told as children by those in their tribes, even the language they first learned or the songs they first heard have all been lost in the overwhelming silence of captivity.
Within the exhibit are two rooms which tell their collective story — the story of enslavement — with undeniable clarity. Both rooms face south, looking out on the area surrounding the building yet visible from all rooms within.
Semi-transparent, stark white sheets of cotton silk voile are suspended from the ceiling, drifting with the breeze coming through the window as they bear the reproduced image of actual entries from the census conducted in Costilla and Conejos counties starting on July 10, 1865.
The columns on the census say it all. Name — the same last name as their captor. Age. Tribe. And then, the brutal inevitable. When, where and “of whom” they were “purchased.” In almost florid penmanship, the horror of enslavement is spelled out in black and white.
And behind the sheet is the photo of a young Navajo boy, his image drifting in and out of clarity as the sheet moves with the wind.
Carpio, watching, is silent for a moment.
“We don’t know anything about him. It’s hard to even talk about sometimes. The practice of enslavement has impacted the present-day identity of the descendants. It’s impacted the way people view themselves, their identity and their community. It’s a compelling untold story. Maybe…this…will change that.”
ABOUT THE ARTIST: Chip Thomas, also known as “jetsonorama,” coordinates the Painted Desert Project — a community building project which manifests as a constellation of murals across the Navajo Nation painted by artists from all over the reservation and the world. These murals aim to reflect love and appreciation of the rich history shared by the Navajo people back to Navajo people.
ABOUT THE SUPPORTERS:“Unsilenced” is supported in part by M12 Studio as part of its Landlines initiative.
“Thank you to Estevan Rael-Galvez and Ronald Rael who, two years ago, made the work of Andrés Reséndez’s The Other Slavery palpable for me,” said jetsonorama. “Thank you, Drew Ludwig, Esther Belin, Eric Carpio, Dawn DiPrince, the Fort Garland Museum staff, Richard Saxton, and the good people of M12 for helping to make this work possible. A special thank you goes to my indefatigable seamstress Delia Charley who completed this project flawlessly and in record time. It takes a village to prevent truth decay.”
The Fort Garland Museum and Cultural Center is in the town of Blanca in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. For more information about hours and events, go to their website at www.historycolorado.org/fort-garland-museum-cultural-center.