The drumbeat to rename Mount Evans is hardly new. It has been echoing across the land for decades.
Native Americans and scholars of 19th-century American history have called for a proper accounting of John Evans’ role in the Sand Creek Massacre and the wars against the Plains Indians. They have questioned the sentiments and the motives behind the naming of such a prominent peak for a disgraced territorial governor.
It’s surely an outcome of the whitewashed history in which we all have been indoctrinated that it has taken 127 years to get white people to finally pay attention to this travesty.
More than 20 years ago when protests against Denver’s Columbus Day parade were roiling and tempers flared across the city, I dug into Native American history in Colorado for a column.
It’s not hard. The Denver Public Library’s Western History Collection contains an extraordinary trove documenting the horrors of that era, including the transcripts from the official military and congressional hearings into the Sand Creek Massacre. I still have a fat file of my shaky handwritten notes from the hours I spent reading the testimony.
The attack on the camp was a brutal eight-hour slaughter that left 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people — mostly women, children and elderly members of the tribes — dead. When the attack was over, the soldiers further mutilated the bodies, taking scalps and other body parts with them as grotesque trophies.
Evans, who was both territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs for the region, never condemned the atrocities.
When I advocated renaming Mount Evans in my resulting column, the backlash was immediate and intense. You would have thought I had suggested removing George Washington’s head from Mount Rushmore.
My proposal went nowhere.
But then, 14 years later, something remarkable happened.
A trustee or a faculty member — I can’t remember which — from Northwestern University called me. He said he wanted to thank me for my column from 2000. He said it really made a difference.
After that column appeared, the university formed the John Evans Study Committee to investigate the full record of the man who was a founder of the university and for whom several campus edifices as well as the city of Evanston are named.
The report of the committee, published after more than a year of research and analysis, is thorough and unflinching.
While it was impossible two centuries later to prove that Evans was involved in the planning and execution of the massacre, he was far from blameless in the whole sorry spectacle.
“Evans’ conduct after the Sand Creek Massacre reveals a deep moral failure that warrants condemnation,” the committee report states. “While he denied any role in the massacre, he refused to acknowledge, let alone criticize, what had happened, even going so far as to defend and rationalize it.
“Regardless of Evans’ degree of culpability in failing to make every possible effort to protect the Cheyennes and Arapahos when they were most vulnerable, his response to the Sand Creek Massacre was reprehensibly obtuse and self-interested. His recollections of the event displayed complete indifference to the suffering inflicted on Cheyennes and Arapahos.”
The committee called for a more accurate portrayal of Evans in the school’s recognition of him, one that acknowledges his “significant moral failures before and after Sand Creek.”
It’s time for Colorado to do the same thing.
In fact, it’s long past time.
The proposal to rename the peak Mount Blue Sky, approved by the state’s Geographic Naming Advisory Board earlier this month, is on Gov. Jared Polis’ desk and should be approved with dispatch.
“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,” said Paul Spitler, director of wilderness policy at The Wilderness Society, in a petition filed supporting the Mount Blue Sky name change. “There is no place to honor perpetrators of atrocities on America’s public lands.”
Next on the renaming agenda: Byers Peak.
William Byers, the first owner and editor of the Rocky Mountain News, is the namesake for the lovely peak outside of Winter Park. Like Evans, his contributions to Colorado are mixed.
Ever the booster of the region’s economic development, he also was responsible for creating the Fox News of its day, complete with outrageous exaggerations, blatant lies and virulent anti-Indian racism.
In an editorial two months before the massacre, the News called for “a few months of active extermination against the red devils.” Then, after the soldiers returned from Sand Creek, the newspaper celebrated them as heroes as they rode their horses through Denver displaying bloody scalps for all to see.
Long after investigations revealed the inaccuracies of the News’ reporting on the massacre, Byers refused to admit the errors and continued to lionize the soldiers responsible for one of the most egregious attacks on an Indian settlement in our history.
A new name for the peak, one that celebrates the beauty and the proud moments of our shared experience in the West, is most definitely in order.
May the drumbeat begin.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
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