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“It is not politicized or politically correct”: Living history at Bent’s Old Fort phased out

LA JUNTA — A federal overhaul of the Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, a reconstructed 1833 fur trading outpost, has set off a storm as living history actors are pushed aside in favor of a more traditional museum approach.

“Now if you walk into the fort there’s a bunch of signs. How does that convey the idea of what life was like?” said John Carson, 67, a retired history teacher and great-grandson of frontiersman Kit Carson. “I don’t know if there’s a better way to explore how people 200 years ago behaved, what they felt, what they said. It’s the truth. It is not watered down. It is not politicized or politically correct.”

National Park Service officials began reining back “living history” last fall, shifting toward a museum-like presentation that relies more on interpretive signs. An NPS consultant’s report advised site managers to “regain control” over the mostly volunteer history actors and their elaborate programs.

The NPS wants to make sure all aspects of history at the fort are addressed completely —  including the treatment of enslaved people and laborers from Mexico and tribes, said Eric Leonard, the fort’s new superintendent. That hasn’t always happened. Back in the 1980s, concerns arose when an Anglo woman played the role of an enslaved African-American cook, Leonard said, and staff over the past decade struggled to recruit African-American, Mexican, and Indian actors in southeastern Colorado who most credibly could play first-person roles.

The shift away from first-person re-enactments will resolve this problem, Leonard said. “Our obligation is to tell a story that includes all Americans and reflects current scholarship.”

State historic preservation officer Dawn DiPrince, the director of History Colorado and a former student of Carson’s, said that living history can be an effective method for presenting the past.

But re-enactments have limitations, she said. “As your sole interpretive tool, it can prevent you from getting at the complicated nuances of a place, and it can become hard to do,” she said, warning they can lead to “historical caricatures of a place.”

The fort draws about 20,000 visitors a year — about the same as other rural historic sites but more than the nearby Sand Creek Massacre and the Amache national historic sites. The numbers, though, have decreased from 31,247 two decades ago and more than 100,000 in the 1980s, NPS data shows.

Living history re-enactments began when the fort’s adobe ruins were rebuilt for the U.S. 1976 Bicentennial and have drawn historically trained actors from around the country playing the roles of the traders, trappers, Indians, travelers, and U.S. soldiers who once converged at the fort.

“Coming to Bent’s Fort was a chance to get away from today, from the Xbox, the TV, and experience this area as our nation was being developed,” said Carson, who worked for the park service at the fort for three decades including playing historical actor roles.

A fort without living history “would be a travesty,” said Keith Dochterman, a relative of fort founder William Bent.

The park service isn’t eliminating living history entirely, Leonard said. But, he said, “we will absolutely change it so it is a little easier to manage and more effective for reaching the people who come here.” Currently, an NPS employee at the site wears the period clothing of a frontiersman but speaks as an interpreter rather than playing the role.

For decades, re-enactment presentations inside the fort expanded for history festivals over weekends featuring up to 50 actors who set up camps outside fort walls, sometimes using beavers and deer provided by state wildlife officials. They played the roles of mountain men, trappers, Indians, and U.S. soldiers sent to assert military control.

The re-enactments haven’t always been fully representational but cannot be matched for quality and engaging visitors, according to Martin Knife Chief, 68, a metro Denver resident of Lakota descent and longtime volunteer actor.

“I played a warrior who would come to the fort and trade. We would sit on buffalo robes and traders would spread their stuff out. We did it out of love for history. We wanted to do it in the correct way. Nobody went there to just play.”

Participating in fort re-enactments “was a way of connecting with your ancestors,” he said. “You could go back and be one of your ancestors.”

The overhaul gained momentum in November after a Texas-based NPS consultant recommended new strategies for broader engagement.

Weekend history festivals, conducted about six times a year, drew large crowds but accounted for about 5% of the total annual visitors at the site, the consultant report said, advising a focus on overall visitation numbers. Other recommendations included removing or reducing the horses, milk cows, chickens, and other animals housed at the fort. Last year, actors were prohibited from setting up their encampments outside the fort walls.

“Bad habits have developed” at the fort and a lack of “clearly written and communicated policies and procedures” at the fort “opens the NPS to unnecessary risk,” the report said, citing volunteers who lived in the fort. Leonard said controversies like one where women played roles at Civil War battle sites, led the National Park Service to set up nationwide policies two decades ago that favor interpretation over living history presentations.

For a month, Otero County commissioners have been demanding a halt to changes until a town hall meeting can be organized. In a letter to NPS officials and Colorado senators, Commission Chairman Rob Oquist and fellow commissioners Tim Knabenshue and Jim Baldwin support living history and the animals at the fort as essential for attracting tourists. State and local officials in southern Colorado have taken new interest in the trio of national history sites managed by the federal government in the Arkansas River Valley as the basis for an economic revitalization.

“We were not involved” in decision-making and the re-enactments help to convey a complicated history “so that it is accurate to carry on from generation to generation,” Knabenshue said, questioning whether NPS-paid interpreters in costume could perform as well as the history volunteers who are steeped the details from diaries and other records made at the fort.

Daughters of the American Revolution member Clara Lee Stafford, 75, whose family homesteaded in the area, said high plains communities “vehemently disagree” with the consultant’s recommendations. NPS managers seem to be implementing a “cookie cutter” model where historic sites become “a sterile box with no life,” Stafford said. “We’re losing a part of our history that we could experience in person. ….. It is important to know where we came from and what it took to build this country.”

The bulk of people who visit the fort do not see the multi-day history festivals and a handful of NPS interpretive staffers wearing period clothing is enough to give a sense of the time period, Leonard told the Denver Post. A few rented animals could replicate 19th-century conditions without requiring a full-time animal caretaker, he said.

Even before the overhaul, living history re-enactments were dwindling. Many of the historically trained volunteers who led re-enactments are older than the frontier trappers, hunters, and others they portray.  Some dropped out during the COVID-19 pandemic. Other volunteers are discouraged that their historically recreated encampments are prohibited.

Carson and Knife Chief acknowledged a challenge. But rather than abandon first-person re-enactments, they propose a robust commitment to continue living history with a focus on training a younger generation of actors. Native American children may be especially interested, Knife Chief said. If the NPS could provide funds, “village” encampments could be set up again outside the fort walls.

“People could move around. Each village — mountain men, Indians, trappers — could have a teaching aspect. We’d be trying to reach young people who don’t know their ancestry. Living history is the way to go,” he said.

“Through learning the old ways, young people can live in the new world and carry their ancestry forward. That’s what we were taught by our elders to do.”

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