The statues are falling. The old guard is rapidly fading. And the names, they are a-changin’.
As centuries of embedded discrimination erupt in sea-to-plain calls for change, an atlas of geographic locations has appeared in the crosshairs. In Colorado, a host of peaks, valleys, creeks and mesas are poised for renaming as Gov. Jared Polis revives an idled panel tasked with studying renaming requests.
And those pleas are increasingly urgent as BIPOC Americans — Black, Indigenous and people of color — find their voices finally resonating in a rapidly shifting culture.
Highest on the list — literally — is a call to change the name of Mount Evans, named for Colorado’s second territorial governor who resigned in the aftermath of a cavalry-led massacre of nearly 200 Arapaho and Cheyenne tribal members at Sand Creek in 1864.
Squaw Mountain and Squaw Pass, both in Clear Creek County, are high on the list, too, as are features in Delta County named by Mexican settlers who labeled a mesa and a creek with the Spanish word for the color black, or “negro.”
“There was no ill intent involved, but as time moves on and languages change and adapt, this is the world we live in and I don’t think anyone out here disagreed that it needed to change,” said Delta County Commissioner Don Suppes, whose board used a contest among local high schoolers to choose Clay Creek and Clay Mesa as the new names for the features labeled on U.S. Geological Survey maps.
The USGS’s Board of Geographic Names has about a dozen proposed name changes for Colorado on its most recent action list. The list includes changing Clear Creek County’s Mount Evans to Mount Cheyenne Arapaho and Squaw Mountain to Mount Mistanta, in tribute to the Southern Cheyenne translator also known as Owl Woman, who was a liaison between her tribe and the settlers around Bent’s Fort in La Junta, which was owned by her husband, William Bent.
The federally proposed name changes include changing Chinaman Gulch in Chaffee County to Trout Creek Gulch. In Jefferson County, Redskin Creek would become Ute Creek and Redskin Mountain would become Mount Jerome, after Irene Jerome Hood, an influential Victorian-era artist and photographer from nearby Buffalo Creek. Someone has nominated an unnamed peak in Jefferson County to be called “Cimarron Peak,” but a concerned citizen has pointed out in the federal documents that “cimarrón,” a Spanish word for untamed, was used as far back as the 1500s to describe fugitive slaves in Central America and the Caribbean.
Andrew Cowell, a professor in CU Boulder’s linguistic department, served more than a decade on the Colorado Board of Geographic Names before it dissolved several years ago.
The board weighed mostly new names for unnamed peaks, with an emphasis on public safety.
“If there was an unnamed peak and a lot of people were climbing it, we’d hear from police and rescue teams that it would be good if they could tell emergency crews that someone needed help on the north slope of this particular mountain versus the north slope of some hill,” Colwell said. “We were basically conservative in the sense that we didn’t want to start naming and renaming things until there was a pretty good reason.”
No one during his tenure ever approached the board to change a name that was offensive, he said. The board also followed federal guidelines that prevented new names in wilderness areas.
But offensive names were changed in other states. Utah and Arizona, for example, changed names of canyons and peaks. A lot of the requests that the Colorado board rejected, Cowell said, were “vanity projects.” As in landowners wanting to name geographic features after themselves or their family.
Lately he’s been watching the calls to rename Mount Evans and other locations.
“I feel very sure that if people had come to us with these kinds of questions about Evans or Squaw Mountain, we would have given them serious consideration,” he said, “but no one ever brought them up.”
In the past, residents could make suggestions for name changes to either the state board or the USGS’s Board on Geographic Names. The state board would then consult with locals and local leaders around the peak or valley and make formal recommendations to the federal board that would review the proposed name changes before making official changes to USGS maps.
Cowell suspects that if there are a number of locations in Colorado that are recommended for a name change, it would happen in batches, not piecemeal. And he hopes that the new board includes a linguist versed in Native American languages. (Polis’ executive order assigns 15 people to the naming advisory board, including two representatives “who have a background in race or ethnic studies” or are from cultural institutions that focus on underrepresented or displaced communities.)
“If you put a lot of Native American names on locations, and a lot of these locations had Native American names long before the names we know now, you need to make sure they are spelled correctly and translated correctly. It can be insulting when you garble it and mess it up,” said Cowell, who would like to see any renaming board follow established guidelines that clearly outline reasons for changing names. “If this becomes about everyone who did bad things in history, we could end up with no names anywhere.”
Ernest House, Jr., spent 11 years as the executive director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, working as a liaison between Colorado’s Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes — and 45 other historic plains and mountain tribes in Colorado — and state and federal agencies and lawmakers. A member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe who now serves as senior policy director for the Keystone Policy Center, he fought for a formal state apology for the Sand Creek Massacre and worked with more than 30 of the state’s public schools that use Native American imagery and mascots.
A commission to study new names for Colorado’s geologic features “is a step in the right direction” of a path he has followed all his life, House said. He would encourage Polis’ Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board to expand its Indigenous representation beyond just one member from the Colorado Commission for Indian Affairs.
“I appreciate this momentum. This includes an opportunity to consult with tribes and have a longer conversation about what the education behind names changes might look like. If Evans is going to be changed, why do we need that change and what role did he play in Sand Creek?” House said. “It’s so good to see these conversations are going on and there will be a format and process to not only continue this, but also continue the education about why these names need to be changed and what harmful impacts these names can have.”
Still, Indigenous residents of Colorado say the list of bad actors honored with their names on maps is long. Few white explorers in the 1800s treated Native Americans well.
In 2011, the Crestone community lobbied the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to rename Kit Carson Peak in the Sangre de Cristo range as Mount Crestone. The 10-member board unanimously declined, “citing a reluctance to change a name in longstanding published use, and a concern that by changing the name and adding an additional Crestone name to the area would lead to further confusion.”
A similar community-led effort to rename the Gore Range fell short a few years ago.
Lord St. George Gore, an Irish aristocrat, visited northwestern Colorado for less than two years in 1855 and 1856 as part of one of the most elaborate hunting campaigns ever orchestrated.
With dozens of wagons heavy with men, dogs and supplies, Gore estimated he and his team killed more than 4,000 bison, 1,500 elk, 2,000 deer, 1,500 antelope, 500 bear and hundreds of smaller game animals and birds on his unprecedented sweep through Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. He was nicknamed “Bloody Gore” for the trail of destruction he left in his wake. He also left his name on Gore Pass near Kremmling, the 60-mile Gore Range stretching across Summit, Eagle, Grand and Routt counties, and Gore Creek, which winds through the Town of Vail.
“He killed everything in sight. He was just a butcher. The guy did absolutely nothing for Colorado. I’ve never understood why we have such a beautiful mountain range named after him,” said Leon Littlebird, a Summit County musician of Navajo descent who three years ago campaigned in support of stripping Gore’s name from central Colorado’s ragged range. “Nothing ever came of that, though.”
There’s an oral history passed down among the Utes that the Gore Range was called the “Shining Mountains,” Littlebird said.
“That would be a great name for them. In the spring, when the sun is shining on the snow, those peaks do look silver,” he said. “I would love to see the state go to the Ute elders and have them put names on these mountains. What we have now is recent history. The ancient history reflects the people who lived here successfully and prolifically for thousands of years.”
The Gore Range is in the middle of Eagles Nest Wilderness and changing the names of peaks in federal wilderness requires an act of Congress. That is rare, but it has happened before. It took more than a decade for a group of Telluride mountaineers to gather support for renaming two 13er peaks in the San Juan Range after San Miguel County climbers Charlie Fowler and Christine Boskoff, who died in an avalanche in the Himalayas in 2006. Fowler and Boskoff peaks were named in 2019 as part of a bill attached to sweeping conservation legislation called the Dingle Act.
Perhaps the most enduring and controversial naming dispute involved the highest mountain in North America. Alaska asked the federal government to change the name of Mount McKinley to Denali in 1975. The prominent peak — visible from all corners of the state’s largest city of Anchorage — was officially named in 1917 when McKinley National Park was formed and named to memorialize President William McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901.
Alaskans and climbers referred to the mountain as Denali, as it had been called for centuries by Indigenous Alaskans. The state spent more than 40 years fighting to change the name of the peak, continuing the push even after the park was renamed Denali National Park in 1980. The peak was officially renamed Denali in 2015, stirring outrage among McKinley-celebrating politicos in Ohio, McKinley’s home state. (Presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2015 said he would return the name to McKinley if elected, calling the renaming “a great insult to Ohio.”)
The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, which works to protect the state’s 14ers with sustainable trail building, has not taken a position on the renaming of peaks. Its board studied the effort to rename Mount Evans last November and decided an opinion on the renaming “was really outside of what we do,” the initiative’s executive director Lloyd Athearn said.
“But I imagine in light of all the issues coming up this year we will be revisiting things,” Athearn said.
Athearn said that while many peaks and geographic areas across North America were named after white explorers who first visited the areas or climbed the peaks, reports from those explorers often included details of ceremonial structures built atop peaks by Indigenous people.
“So clearly, if person X was the first person to record climbing it, there was acknowledgment that other people had climbed that mountain and recognized it by another name,” said Athearn, speaking not for the initiative but as a climber working more than 25 years in conservation. “I think we are seeing a crosscurrent that what it was once named might be more appropriate. In the grand history, these mountains predate any level of human activity. They may have been called many things over many eons. What we name it today might not last into the future.”