Former Colorado state historian David Fridtjof Halaas, a passionate spokesman for Native Americans, particularly Cheyenne and Arapaho people, died on Aug. 14 after a long battle with multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells. He was 78.
Known among his friends and colleagues as “Prof” for his extensive knowledge of history and his numerous academic achievements, he loved to regale listeners with vivid tales of the Old West during beer-drinking outings.
In 1993, he began a decades-long search for facts about the Sand Creek Massacre in southeastern Colorado. Early in the morning on November 29, 1864, Col. John Chivington and his Colorado volunteer cavalry descended in a surprise attack on a peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho village and killed as many as 270, mostly women, children and old men. First described as “a battle,” many atrocities committed by the troops were revealed later in a series of government hearings.
Halaas’ investigation began with finding the actual site, which had been lost through the years. After much lobbying by Halaas and others, including appearances before congressional committees, the location was declared the Sand Creek National Historic Site under the National Park Service in 2017. He accompanied descendants of the victims to a White House signing by President Bill Clinton.
At Halaas’ urging, Gov. John Hickenlooper appeared at ceremonies marking the 150th anniversary of the massacre in 2014, spoke to a crowd gathered at the west steps of the state Capitol and issued an extraordinary apology: “This has been a day too long coming. We will not run from our history. I will make sure this history continues to be told. On behalf of the state of Colorado, I want to apologize.”
In addition to his many scholastic honors, including a PhD, Halaas was most proud of being welcomed into the Crazy Dogs, one of six Northern Cheyenne military societies. In the process he worked with and became close friends and tribal consultant with Otto Braided Hair, Northern Cheyenne leader of the organization of Sand Creek victims’ descendants.
“He was much more than a good friend. His passion, commitment and dedication to the Cheyenne and Sand Creek is out of the roof,” said Braided Hair. “There’s no way to explain his passion and dedication. We don’t see that even among our own Cheyenne people. I can’t quite explain it.”
Halaas was author of four books on Western history, including “Boom Town Newspapers,” “Fairmount & Historic Colorado,” “Halfbreed: The Remarkable True Story of George Bent,” and “Cheyenne Dog Soldiers” and of a New York Times bestselling biography, “Dan Rooney: My 75 Years With the Pittsburgh Steelers.” In addition, he penned dozens of articles for history publications.
Andy Masich, president and chief executive offer of the John Heinz Center in Pittsburgh, who worked with Halaas at the center and at History Colorado and coauthored three books with him, recalled, “I think of him as an athlete and author as well as a mentor and friend. He was all of those things.”
A Denver native born July 31, 1941, An extraordinary athlete, he was the number-one ranked high school tennis player in Colorado in 1959 and was given a full-ride scholarship to Oklahoma State University. Two years later, he transferred to the University of Colorado in Boulder where he was chosen to be mentored by famed Western historian Robert Athearn. He worked as a historian/curator at the Library of Congress, taught at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, served as state historian from 1990 to 2000 and retired as director of library and archives at the Smithsonian affiliate Heinz History Center.
His gentle and nurturing philosophy in his private life carried over to his professional life, too. He often referred to fellow historians, even those with whom he disagreed, as “a gentleman and a scholar.” Masich pointed out, “He was a gentleman and a scholar. He cared about people.”
Halaas is survived by Kat, his wife of 25 years, and his ex-wife Carol Ann Armagost, two daughters, a stepson and five grandchildren. Burial will be on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Lame Deer, Montana, followed by a memorial service later.