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Increase in historic site tourism shows there's interest in lessons from the past

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Posted at 12:03 PM, Dec 15, 2022

EADS, Colo. — In 1864, more than 230 peaceful members of the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes were brutally killed by Union soldiers. The location of the massacre is now a national historic site in Colorado.

"When the attack came, you were attacking a village of elderly and women and children, and those are the people who were killed," said Rick Wallner, a retired National Park Service ranger who was stationed at the site of the Sand Creek Massacre.

He now is the head of Canyons and Plains Regional Heritage Task Force in southeastern Colorado, which is home to several historical sites that highlight painful truths of America’s past— including a Japanese internment camp and a militia-led killing of labor strikers. Wallner helps preserve their history.

"There's reckoning that, that our country's having with its past and its present," said Wallner.

He's been noticing an uptick in interest and visitors to the historical sites in recent years. Many of them are located hours away from urban centers.

"We've certainly seen an increase in interest in the area and what things happen down here," he said.

It’s a trend that travel experts say has been mimicked nationwide.

Consultancy Longwoods International, which specializes in long-term travel trends, says travel to historic sites has been on the rise, even before the pandemic.

CEO Amir Eylon said in a statement that the recent questioning of the country’s evolution, after the murder of George Floyd, has created a growing interest in those sites and storytelling.

He adds that more people are traveling for the purpose to draw their own conclusion on American history.

"It's a hard thing to say, 'I'm gonna go and listen to hard stuff on us on my Saturday or my Sunday,' but people are hungry for the knowledge. They're here," said Shannon Voirol, the director of exhibition at the History Colorado museum.

Last month, the museum opened a new exhibition on the history of the Sand Creek Massacre and its lasting effect on the impacted tribes. Voirol said she's been seeing people, in general, more interested in American history.

"The reckonings and the questions that people are asking has put a new spotlight on history. We have been working harder, faster, and more outwardly to share the dynamism and the relevancy that people are finding in history now," she said.

Voirol says they worked with representatives from the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes every step of the way.

"Have some empathy for those kids, those victims, and the folks after the fact and what they needed to do to survive and how they are still surviving," Voirol said.

"You have to stop and think, what would be the mindset that would allow humans to do that to other humans?" Wallner reflected at the massacre site.

Historians hope interest continues, especially as many of the answers to modern difficulties lie in the past lessons and tragedies of ancestors.

"The life lesson for us is to remember that we're all human and we share this planet together, and when you start looking at someone as less human, it can lead to terrible things," Wallner said.

Editor's note: This report has been amended from a previous version to correct name of an indigenous tribe.