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A yearling mountain goat explores an abandoned building on Mount Evans. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The state’s Geographic Naming Advisory Board on Thursday voted unanimously to strip the name of disgraced territorial governor John Evans from a Clear Creek County fourteener and recommended Mount Blue Sky as the new name, honoring Cheyenne and Arapaho people whose ancestors were killed in the Sand Creek Massacre.

The unexpected vote by the board — which often takes months to evaluate proposals to change offensive or controversial names of geographic features and public places — came after Native American tribe members and dozens of other Coloradans participated in the online meeting and advocated for swiftly removing Evans’ name from the peak. 

“No name can undo the pain and suffering caused by the Sand Creek Massacre, but removing the name of the man most responsible for the massacre honors the very tribes that Evans sought to destroy. There is no place to honor perpetrators of atrocities on America’s public lands,” Paul Spitler, director of wilderness policy at The Wilderness Society, said in a petition filed supporting the Mount Blue Sky name change. The Wilderness Society and Cheyenne and Arapaho tribe members made the official nomination and presentation.

Evans was governor of Colorado territory from 1862 to 1865. He was forced to resign for his leadership role in the Nov. 29, 1864, Sand Creek Massacre, which resulted in the murders of more than 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, mostly women, children and older adults.

Six name change proposals were under consideration, far more than usual, an indication of Mount Evans’ controversial nature. Mount Soule, Mount Rosalie, Mount Cheyenne Arapaho, Mount Sisty and a request to keep the name the same also were on the table.

The proposal to maintain the Evans name would have redefined it to honor John Evans’ daughter, Anne Evans, who co-founded and supported some of Colorado’s largest cultural institutions, including the Denver Art Museum, the Central City Opera and the Denver Public Library.

The Colorado renaming board does not make final decisions on name changes. The panel oversees research, outreach to stakeholders, presentations from name change proponents and public comment before voting to make a name change. 

Now that the group has voted to rename Mount Evans, it will recommend the new Mount Blue Sky name change to Gov. Jared Polis. If Polis agrees with the new name, his recommendation will be sent to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which has the authority to permanently change the prominent landmark’s name. 

Renaming can take up to a year, board members have said. 

After board members unanimously voted, many Native American tribe members were seen smiling on their virtual screens. Mount Blue Sky was nominated because it honors the Arapaho people who were known as the Blue Sky People and the Cheyenne people who have an annual ceremony of renewal of life called Blue Sky.

“I appreciate those who have taken the time to educate us on all sides of the issue, and for the presenters, it’s not easy,” said Tim Mauck, deputy director of the state Department of Natural Resources and board chair of the renaming committee. 

“There is a bit of work, as you can see … that goes into submitting a proposal and having it deliberated,” he said. “I appreciate the public comment … on something that is of great interest to a lot of Coloradans. We have been able to maintain real civility in the exchange of our ideas.”

Almost 100 people witnessed the heated but civil debate that occurred during the online meeting, where proponents of the six name changes made arguments to support their version of the name change.

John Evans’ great-great-granddaughter Anne Hayden was among those speakers. She appears to be the first person from the Evans family to testify at a public geographic renaming board meeting.

“Although I do not speak for all of the Evans family, I am in favor of changing the name of the mountain,” she said.

Hayden said she has formed friendships with Cheyenne and Arapaho people in Wyoming, Montana and Oklahoma. She said she appreciated a suggestion by State Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a renaming committee board member, encouraging non-Native attendees to step back and allow Native American tribe members to lead the renaming process.

“Sometimes we as white people, non-Natives, have an urgency about something, to try to make it happen quickly. I feel like it’s such an important thing to honor these tribes and what they would all like to see happen and not to try to influence them,” Hayden said.

In this 2016 file photo, visitors pass the sign on the summit of Mount Evans. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

There’s widespread support for changing the Mount Evans name to Mount Blue Sky among Cheyenne and Arapaho tribe members, other Native American leaders, conservation organizations and local government officials, among others, according to the Wilderness Society.

Fred Mosqueda, an Arapaho speaker who serves as the language and culture program coordinator for the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in Oklahoma, was appointed to a committee to ensure input from tribal nations on the Mount Evans name change proposals. 

He said, once, a person asked him, “Why are you so mean to the name Evans?”

“I told them, give me one reason to be nice, or to say something good,” Mosqueda said at the meeting. “Show me one thing that Evans has done, that I, as an Arapaho can celebrate,” he said. “And they could not.”

Benavidez said she was personally divided between renaming the landmark Mount Blue Sky and Mount Cheyenne Arapaho. 

Northern Arapaho tribe members advocated for Mount Blue Sky and Northern Cheyenne tribe members supported Mount Cheyenne Arapaho, she said. She asked the proponents of the name Mount Blue Sky if they had plans to convene with Native American proponents of the name Mount Cheyenne Arapaho to agree on one name change.

“If we have two names, both with support from different Indian nations, is there any room for the two groups to discuss this further or do you want us to decide?” Benavidez asked. 

Mosqueda and others on the coalition that sought input from Native American tribe members on the renaming proposals tried many times to contact the Northern Cheyennes to bring them to the discussion table but they did not respond, Mosqueda said.

Otto Braided Hair, a Northern Cheyenne man, and one of the proponents of changing the mountain’s name to Mount Cheyenne Arapaho did not show up for his presentation at the meeting. 

Katie Sauter, who proposed rededicating the mountain’s name to John Evans’ youngest daughter Anne Evans, said it would remember a woman who has “done a lot of good for the state.”

Anne Evans was a founding member of the Denver Art Museum. She donated her extensive Native American art collection to the local museum, making it the first U.S. museum to collect Native American art, Sauter said.

“Although she was the daughter of John Evans, her actions and writings indicate that she had a very different opinion of Native Americans, than that of her father.”

A Native American woman named Nellie M., who spoke during public comment, said keeping any name references to Evans is offensive. “It wouldn’t be healing if you even considered the name of Evans after what he has done to the Cheyenne-Arapaho people,” she said.

Karen Naiman, a former press secretary and journalist, said she supported the Mount Soule name change (pronounced “soul”), to honor Captain Silas Soule, who refused an order to participate in the Sand Creek Massacre.

Soule wrote about the horrors of the massacre and testified against Col. John Chivington, who commanded troops at Sand Creek, in a military investigation in Denver, according to a meeting summary packet.

Naiman claimed she had spoken to several Native American tribe members who agreed with a Mount Soule name change. She said there had already been other landmarks in Colorado named after the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes and claimed she and other Native Americans agreed that “it would be better to not reuse a name.”

A meeting attendee named “Kellie” responded using the virtual chat feature to Naiman’s presentation and said: “Respectfully, Soule sounds like a good person, but we are discussing renaming as a form of reparation to the Indigenous people that Gov. Evans harmed. Naming the mountain after yet another white man doesn’t seem appropriate.”

Paul Fiorino, a proponent of changing the mountain’s name to Mount Sisty, to commemorate Wilson Edward Sisty, who founded the Colorado Department of Wildlife and Fish, and served as State Fish Commissioner for three governors. He was also a road superintendent and the first marshall for the city of Denver’s police department. He also started hotels in Brookvale and Idaho Springs, Fiorino added.

“It’s an opportunity to further the rightful place for Colorado’s official pioneer,” Fiorino said. “Sisty is a story of food, fish, early excursions and official business of early organizations that brought Denver and the state of Colorado to the prominence that we enjoy today.”

Wildfire smoke take over Mount Evans Wilderness on Aug. 18, 2020, near Idaho Springs. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Renee Millard-Chacon, co-founder and executive director for Womxn from the Mountain, an Indigenous-women-led nonprofit in Commerce City that fights for cultural education, equity and addressing environmental racism, said it’s disrespectful to propose renaming the mountain after another colonizer. 

“It is honestly disrespectful to propose another name of colonizers in this space,” she said. “We don’t always get full consensus. But understanding the communities that show up and do this work, including and especially, (those working toward) community healing is incredibly key.”

Mount Evans was formerly named Mount Rosalie, after Rosalie Bierstadt, the wife of Albert Bierstadt, a German painter, whose expansive landscapes captured many Colorado mountains. Mount Rosalie was again under consideration as a new name for Mount Evans. But the proponent of restoring the name did not show up to the meeting.

Since it was established by Polis in summer of 2020, the committee has considered 56 naming or renaming proposals and has so far made recommendations on 26, said Tim Mauck, deputy director for the Department of Natural Resources. The work has mostly focused on replacing slurs used to identify public places or geographic features.

MORE: Find the list of the other names of other geographic features the board is considering changing on the Colorado Department of Natural Resources website, which will soon include the agenda for the next meeting. For more information, email dnr_cgnab@state.co.us.

Tatiana Flowers

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment beat reporter for the Colorado Sun. She has covered crime and courts plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel...