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Looking to the sky: Potential renaming of Mt. Evans sparks conversation about Colorado's past, present, future

Mount Evans_Summit Lake_SButzer
Posted at 9:45 PM, Nov 16, 2022

Editor's Note: On Thursday at approximately 8:30 p.m. the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board voted unanimously to recommend the renaming of Mount Evans to Mount Blue Sky. This story has been updated to include additional context on the Sand Creek Massacre.

DENVER — Mount Evans rises 9,000 feet above Denver. While some note its beauty when looking to the west, others can't see past the peak's name.

In early October, the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board began a process that could result in Mount Evans being renamed. Those spearheading the efforts explained the process could last several months, up to a year.

The mountain, which is south of Georgetown and west of Evergreen, was named in 1895 after John Evans, the first territorial governor of Colorado.

The six proposals to rename the prominent mountain to the west of Denver include: Mt. Blue Sky, Mount Cheyenne- Arapaho, Mount Evans (redefined for John Evans' daughter, Anne Evans), Mount Rosalie, Mount Sisty and Mount Soule.

According to History Colorado, Anne Evans was instrumental in co-founding and supporting some of Denver and the state's largest cultural institutions, such as the Denver Art Museum and the Denver Public Library.

The process of renaming a mountain

The scale of Mount Evans is seemingly matched with the steps required to rename it.

"This is a very prominent feature in the state of Colorado, and we suspect that there will be significant interest," said Tim Mauck, deputy director of Colorado's Department of Natural Resources.

Mauck also chairs the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board, which is tasked with overseeing the processes to rename geographic features or certain public places.

The renaming process is convoluted, but in simple terms, the mountain's name will now be evaluated by the board for the foreseeable future before Gov. Jared Polis and the federal government are involved.

The board's first meeting on Oct. 11 included a debriefing of the proposed names up for consideration and tribal input. This Thursday, the board will have reached step two of what Mauck explained as a "three-step process."

The upcoming meeting on Thursday at 6 p.m. will allow proponents of each name to give a presentation to the board. You can join the meeting through this Zoom link.

"Following that, we anticipate moving to a third meeting, which will include public comment — strictly public comment — and then perhaps the board deliberation at the conclusion of that third meeting," Mauck said of the final step in the process.

Upon the board's deliberation, a final recommendation will be sent to Polis. If he accepts the recommendation, he'll send it off to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names for final consideration.

Back in December, the federal board approved the renaming of a Colorado peak to Mestaa’ėhehe Mountain.

Mauck said overall, he's not encountered strong vocal opposition to any of the names proposed; however, he noted some have questioned the renaming process.

"There are some that generally have come in questioning this entire process and the need to rename our geographic features," Mauck said. "You know, my reply is that the U.S. Board on Geographic Names was formed in the 1800s. We have been renaming and naming geographic features ever since then. So this isn't the first time that a feature will be renamed or considered to be renamed, and certainly won't be the last."

Back in March, Clear Creek County commissioners voted to support the recommendation of renaming Mount Evans to Mount Blue Sky.

Members of Colorado's Indigenous community advocate for change

For Morning Star Jones, a member of Colorado's Northern Cheyenne Tribe, the name Mount Evans has always been a dark memory in comparison to others in her Indigenous upbringing.

"Here we are, just happy to be together," she said, flipping through photos of her and loved ones during a visit to a reservation in Montana.

Reservation visits, powwows, and special ceremonies honoring her Cheyenne ancestors are regular occurrences for Jones and her children. Visits to Mount Evans, though, are not.

"We are direct descendants of Sand Creek Massacre survivors, and growing up here in Denver, we know the truth. Growing up, my family knew the truth," Jones said. "The atrocities that were inflicted upon my relatives are still with us today, and it's called generational trauma."

Jason Hanson, chief creative officer of History Colorado, shared the historical record keeping that points to John Evans as the driving force behind the Sand Creek Massacre.

In 1862, Evans was appointed to become the territorial governor of Colorado by President Abraham Lincoln.

"He came to Colorado and saw opportunity for development, specifically with the railroads," Hanson said. "And in his mind, one of the prerequisites for that was securing the land for American settlement. In order to do that, he felt like he needed to push the tribal communities off of their Indigenous homeland."

Hanson said Evans wrote to officials in D.C. asking for permission to create a military unit. Once that was complete, Hanson said an attack on the tribal community was set into motion.

"Once Evans had that authority, he put Colonel John Chivington in charge and he [Chivington] marched them out to southeastern Colorado, where he attacked a peaceful camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho on Nov. 29, 1864. He attacked at sunrise and killed at least 230 of the about 700 people in that camp," Hanson said.

Evans later denied culpability because he wasn't present at the massacre and never gave a direct order to initiate the massacre, Hanson explained.

Some soldiers refused to participate in the attack at Sand Creek, prompting Congress to investigate what had occurred, according to Hanson.

"They pretty quickly both came to the conclusion that Sand Creek Massacre had been — in the words of the congressional report — a dastardly massacre," Hanson said. "Evans was forced to resign from the governorship."

READ MORE: New Denver mural supports effort to rename Mt. Evans

Jones has hoped the truth of the historical event would become more widespread.

"I've never been to Mount Evans, specifically because of the name ... it's just a daily reminder of genocide," she said. "I want this mountain renamed so that I may teach my children, my grandchildren, and to raise them with my Indigenous love, instead of our colonial pain."

Over the past year, she and other Indigenous people have advocated for the mountain to be renamed Mount Blue Sky. The Cheyenne Tribe has an annual ceremony for the renewal of life called "Blue Sky," and members of the Arapaho Tribe are known as the Blue Sky People, according to the Mestaa'ėhehe Coalition.

The coalition was established in 2020 and is "a collaborative effort among Tribal Representatives from the Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and Hinono'eiteen (Arapaho) tribes, Indigenous leaders, nonprofits and allies who support renaming and educational efforts."

Over the past year, Jones and other tribal members have held prayer walks and public events to advocate for the mountain peak's renaming, though many know not everyone agrees.

"I think it's important to remember in the first place that all these places had Indigenous names originally, and I think there's been a very concerted effort of cancellation of our cultures and our names for places ... I think that there needs to be a little bit of balance in those conversations," said Conor Ryan, a professional skier and member the Lakota Tribe.

Cultural shift

"I think we are witnessing, at times, you know, healthy dialogue, a reflection on our past, a critical reflection on our past that brings up often painful and traumatic memories, as the case with Sand Creek related to Mount Evans," said Matt Makley, chair of MSU Denver's history department.

Makely said the renaming of geographic places across the country represents a cultural shift happening across the country.

"Fifty years ago to 100 years ago, there weren't vigorous conversations about places and names that were harmful to groups of people, because you had one group essentially in power, you know, wealthy white men," Makley said. "So if they wanted a place named the way they wanted it, there were not very many people to contest that."

Click here for a proposed list of all Colorado locations that the U.S. Geological Survey is considering for renaming.

Editor's Note: Denver7 360 | In-Depth explores multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 In-Depth stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com or use this form. See more 360 | In-Depth stories here.