In an unexpected twist Thursday morning, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names deferred a vote that would have changed the name of Mount Evans.
Many had expected the federal board to approve a new name, Mount Blue Sky, proposed by many Native American tribal leaders and representatives, Gov. Jared Polis, a Colorado renaming board and other community members.
But Thursday morning before the federal board’s meeting, Jennifer Runyon, executive acting secretary for the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, said the federal board had “received a request from a tribal government for government-to-government consultation,” and that a decision had been made to defer a final vote. The U.S. board did not say which tribe asked for the request.
Citing Department of the Interior guidelines for consulting that allow tribal governments to request consultation when a decision with tribal implications is considered, board vice chair Susan Lyon said at the start of the meeting Thursday that “no decision will be made on Mount Evans today and we won’t be discussing any of the pending proposals.”
Clear Creek County officials and Native American tribal representatives said Thursday they wanted to wait to comment until they had more information about the request to defer a vote.
However, during the Colorado board’s meetings last fall to hear proposals for renaming Mount Evans, Northern Arapaho tribe members advocated for Mount Blue Sky and Northern Cheyenne tribe members supported the name Mount Cheyenne Arapaho. Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board members asked proponents of the name Mount Blue Sky if they had plans to meet with those who advocated for Mount Cheyenne Arapaho to negotiate an agreeable name.
“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?” state Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a renaming committee board member, asked during that November meeting.
A member of a coalition that gathered input from tribal representatives said the group tried many times to engage members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe in discussion, but were unsuccessful.
Name change is “long past due”
Had the federal board voted, its decision would have marked the end of a lengthy process to give the prominent 14er, visible from Denver, a much less controversial label.
“I think the time is long past due for the acknowledgment that that is not an appropriate name,” Clear Creek County Commissioner Chairman Randy Wheelock said Wednesday night. From November 2020 to March 2022, he co-led educational meetings and gatherings where a potential name change was deliberated before Clear Creek County officials recommended the name Mount Blue Sky to the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board.
“Generally speaking, my attitude was — and the board’s attitude was — that we were giving the biggest credence to the two Indigenous proposals, and when they didn’t combine (and agree) on one proposal, we looked at the level of support that each of them had and there was much, much greater support that we saw from both the Indigenous community and the non-Indigenous community for Mount Blue Sky, and so that was the reason we went ahead and made that choice,” Wheelock said Wednesday night.
On Thursday morning, he said he had no comment about the deferral.
For some Native American Coloradans, renaming the peak has been a decadeslong process. And for state officials and other community members, who engaged in research to support four other name change proposals for the Clear Creek County landmark, the process has taken more than a year to complete.
The renaming process aimed to strip former Gov. John Evans’ name from the 14,265-foot peak. Evans, who served as territorial governor from 1862 to 1865, was forced to resign for his role in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, a deadly attack on Native Americans that led to the deaths of more than 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, mostly women, children and older adults.
The Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board in November voted unanimously to change the name to Mount Blue Sky, a move supported by Clear Creek County officials, Gov. Polis, and many Native American tribe leaders and members who participated in the renaming process.
Anne Hayden, John Evans’ great-great-granddaughter, noting that she did not represent all members of her family, testified at a public meeting and said she favored changing the peak’s name.
Polis earlier this month wrote in a letter to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names that each of the 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado deserves “a name befitting their majesty.”
While many Coloradans have grown up knowing the name Mount Evans, Polis wrote, it’s clear that people want a new name that unites the community and does not divide it. In the letter, Polis cited research by scholars at the University of Denver and Northwestern University, both of which Evans helped found, saying their work showed “Evans’ culpability for the Sand Creek Massacre, without question.”
During the formal process to consider renaming the peak, the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board received more than 200 written and verbal statements from Native American tribe leaders, local government officials, community members and loved ones of those who perished in or survived the Sand Creek Massacre, Chris Arend, a spokesman for the state naming board, wrote in an email Wednesday.
“Considering there were six proposals and hours of public testimony, it was clear that there was a strong shared desire to rename Mount Evans,” he wrote. “Ultimately, Mount Blue Sky struck the appropriate chord to garner support of Clear Creek County, the (Colorado Renaming Advisory Board) and Governor Polis.”