Pain behind the name: renaming Mount Evans

Why the name Mount Evans is hurtful to generations of Native Americans

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When members of the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes look west from Denver to the distant peak of Mount Evans, they see a horrific reminder of the past.

“Anytime you have to hear of or speak of an individual who wanted to decimate your family or your tribe, it's really hard,” said Gov. Reggie Wassana of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. 

Since 1895, the mountain has been named for Colorado territorial Gov. John Evans. Settlers lobbied the legislature to honor his legacy, which it did through a measure that dubbed the more than 14,000-foot-high peak Mount Evans.

But American Indian groups say Evans’ legacy is forever disgraced by his role in enabling the Sand Creek Massacre. They are among the strongest advocates in a process that could change the mountain’s name to Mount Blue Sky.

On a cold November morning in 1864, U.S. Army Col. John Chivington and elements of the Colorado Infantry Regiment of Volunteers and Regiment of Colorado Cavalry Volunteers launched an attack on Arapaho and Cheyenne civilians where they camped about 180 miles southeast of Denver. Over the course of eight hours, the troops slaughtered some 230 people, many of them women, children and elderly. The following day, many soldiers wandered the area, committing atrocities on the dead, according to the National Park Service, which maintains a national historic site in the area where the events occurred.

“It’s hard and it’s tragic because those generations would have lived and would have grown,” Wassana said.

The first meeting of the body considering the name change, the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board, took place on Oct. 11. More than 100 people attended, including Wassana and other native representatives. 

“Mount Blue Sky” is a name the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes like. 

“It was something that fit both tribes perfectly,” Wassana said “It fit the mountain as well.”

Others have suggested a name in the language of the Cheyennes or Arapahos, but Wassana said those advocates could disrupt the unity the tribes are working to advance. 

“Since we’re Cheyenne and Arapaho, we have two languages,” he said. “We wanted everyone to agree.”

Since 2020, the tribes have formally petitioned for Mount Blue Sky, an effort joined by The Wilderness Society, a nonprofit conservation group. 

There are others who have lobbied to keep the name Mount Evans, but with a twist, naming it for descendants of Evans’ family. Others have suggested Mount Rosalie, an unofficial name of the mountain before it bore Evans’ name.

Both names are steeped in settler culture.

Tink Tinker, a professor emeritus at Denver’s Iliff School of Theology, is a member of the Osage tribe. He has dedicated much of his career to teaching the cultures, history and religious traditions of American Indians.

Settlers, Tinker said, were colonizers in American Indian homelands. When they came, they renamed everything.

“It’s not unusual for the colonizer to name things after themselves,” he said. “The impetus was to name things so they belonged to the colonizer.” 

The Arapaho, Cheyenne and Wilderness Society petition to change the name includes a statement signed by Evans in 1864: “I, John Evans, governor of Colorado Territory, do issue this my proclamation, authorizing all citizens of Colorado, either individually or in such parties as they may organize, to go in pursuit of all hostile Indians on the plains… to kill and destroy, as enemies of the country, wherever they may be found, all such hostile Indians.” 

Historians say that statement helped set the tone for the events that eventually led up to the massacre.

Andrew Masich is the president and CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center, a Smithsonian Institute affiliate in Pennsylvania. He said the massacre began when many men from the tribe were out hunting. This left the most vulnerable at risk of being attacked by Chivington’s troops near a bend in Big Sandy Creek on Colorado’s plains.

“The women and children began to run up the dry creek bed,” Masich said. 

Many tried to dig themselves holes into the sand to escape the violence. 

“It was a slaughter, probably one of the most horrific massacres in the history of the United States,” Masich said. 

Afterward, Congress' Joint Committee on the Conduct of War wrote this of Chivington’s conduct toward the peaceful tribes: “Having full knowledge of their friendly character, having himself been instrumental to some extent in placing them in their position of fancied security, he took advantage of their inapprehension and defenseless condition to gratify the worst passions that ever cursed the heart of man.”

The committee in Washington also rebuked Evans for his “prevarication and shuffling” in his testimony of Sand Creek events and his failure to acknowledge that what transpired was a massacre. Secretary of State William Seward subsequently forced Evans to resign as governor.

But when Evans returned to Colorado, residents cheered his arrival, according to History Colorado.

“Throughout the rest of his life,” the organization writes, Evans “never chastised Chivington or the soldiers involved in the massacre, and he continued to maintain that it had been necessary for the development of Colorado and the west.”

The organization quotes Evans’ words in an interview that came 20 years after the massacre.

“The benefit to Colorado of that massacre, as they call it, was very great for it ridded the plains of the Indians,” Evans said.

The naming board next meets on Nov. 17 over Zoom and the conversation about the name change will continue. The link to the meeting can be found on the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board’s website.

Mount Evans, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Native Americans

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