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Gov. Jared Polis signs two executive orders rescinding proclamations, issued in 1864 by Territorial Governor John Evans, that led to the Sand Creek Massacre. Also pictured, from left to right: Jameson Blackbear, Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe; Jeanvieve Jerome of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe and Lakota; Speaker of the House Alec Garnett, D-Denver; Reggie Wassana, Governor of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe; and Jordan Dresser, chairman of the Northern Arapaho Tribe. (Thy Vo, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday rescinded two proclamations that led to the mutilation and mass murder of more than 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people on the Eastern Plains, including women, children and the elderly, by military troops in 1864. 

At a ceremony Tuesday, Polis signed executive orders reversing two proclamations by Territorial Gov. John Evans that led to the Sand Creek Massacre on Nov. 29, 1864.

“When then-Gov. Evans made that proclamation, he said, ‘you can hunt Native people,’ just as if you hunted buffalo and antelope and elk and deer — it was open season,” said Reggie Wassana, governor of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes based in Wyoming. The tribes’ ancestral home includes Colorado. “We would like to see all those wrongs that were done all those years ago come back to right.”

Wassana and a number of representatives and leaders from the Northern Arapaho, Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, Lakota, Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes attended the ceremony outside the Colorado State Capitol in Denver. 

“This is an ongoing process to make amends with the sins of the past,” Polis said. “But even though those proclamations were never legal, they have never, until this day, been officially rescinded.” 

As white colonists moved West in the mid-1800s, the U.S. government through the Treaty at Fort Laramie promised Native Americans territory in the Great Plains in exchange for safe passage for settlers. But the government also continued to push policies to benefit settlers and take lands promised to the tribes by the treaty, according to the Sand Creek Massacre Foundation. The foundation is a nonprofit partner to the National Park Service and Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site near Eads. 

SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE: The Horrific Sand Creek Massacre Will Be Forgotten No More

Amid violent conflicts between white colonists and Native Americans, Evans on June 27, 1864, issued a proclamation calling on “friendly Indians” to report to U.S. Army forts and other locations for safe haven, warning that his army would continue to pursue “hostile Indians.” “The object of this is to prevent friendly Indians from being killed through mistake,” Evans wrote in the proclamation. 

Less than two months later, on Aug. 11, just as many Native Americans were receiving word of his first proclamation, Evans issued another that authorized settlers of the territory “to kill and destroy, as enemies of the country … all hostile Indians,” arguing that peaceful Native Americans had adequate time to find safe refuge. 

More than 750 Cheyenne and Arapaho people camped along the banks of Big Sandy Creek in southeastern Colorado, believing they were following Evans’ proclamation and thus under the protection of the U.S. Army.

On Nov. 29, 1864, Colonel John M. Chivington led 675 U.S. soldiers on an unprovoked attack of the village, killing and mutilating about 230 people, mostly women, children and the elderly, according to the foundation. 

“It was Native American people protecting our homelands, only to be criticized as negative and hostile,” Melvin Baker, chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, said Tuesday.

Evans and Chivington resigned as a result of the massacre, although neither ever faced criminal charges. 

The governor’s actions Tuesday follow a formal apology to the Cheyenne and Arapaho people in 2014 by then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, and are part of a series of actions by the federal and state government to properly acknowledge the atrocities.

A replica of the proposed Sand Creek massacre memorial is positioned at one potential site on the Capitol grounds. The tribes who directed its creation would prefer that it be placed on the west side of the Capitol, the commemorate the dead whose bodies were paraded by soldiers through Denver to the building’s west steps. (Thy Vo, The Colorado Sun)

Last year, a state Capitol committee voted to recommend placing a sculpture outside the Capitol to memorialize the massacre, replacing a statue of a Civil War soldier that was taken down by protesters and which originally listed the Sand Creek Massacre as a “battle.”

Native leaders present Tuesday thanked the state for recent legislation funding broadband infrastructure improvements, providing in-state tuition eligibility to members of American Indian tribes and forcing schools to eliminate most American Indian mascots

Alston Turtle, treasurer for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, also reminded the governor of another change Native people and other activists have been pushing for: the renaming of Mount Evans in Clear Creek County. 

Thy Vo is a freelance journalist and former Colorado Sun staff member. Twitter: @thyanhvo