DENVER — In a small, dimly lit room on the fourth floor of the History Colorado Center downtown, visitors can get a sense of what it’s like to stand at a spot on the high plains where a massacre helped spark the Indian Wars nearly 160 years ago. In the room, part of a new exhibit about the Sand Creek Massacre, a video panorama of the site in twilight is projected onto the walls and accompanied by the sound of birdsong. It is a peaceful, contemplative spot.
Yet it is also the same field where volunteer cavalrymen – emboldened by a proclamation from territorial Gov. John Evans authorizing citizens to kill “hostile Indians” – took eight hours to slaughter more than 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1864. Many of the victims were women, children or elderly, and all were gathered peacefully.
For Native Americans in Colorado, the massacre isn’t just a museum exhibit. An hour-and-a-half drive away from the museum – and roughly 9,000 feet above it – stands Mount Evans, a popular tourist destination and towering testament to a key figure behind the massacre.
“I feel that the Evans name needs to be out of our Denver metro language,” says MorningStar Jones, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation and an activist in a group pushing to rename the peak. “We can not erase the history here, but we can erase the name. It can be replaced with a name that brings healing.”
Now, yearslong efforts to rename Mount Evans are tantalizingly close to fruition. On Sept. 15, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names is expected to make a final decision about the peak’s new name, ending a chapter that has caused a reckoning with a violent past often whitewashed in history books.
“It’s exciting to see how far we’ve come,” says Rhyia JoyHeart, who is of Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho ancestry and who co-founded a group that uses dance and education to increase cultural awareness about Native Americans. “We don’t want to honor somebody who instigated what was a genocide of Indigenous people.”
Rhyia JoyHeart, co-founder of United Indigenous Dancers, poses for a portrait at her Lakewood, Colorado home. JoyHeart emphasizes that the ongoing conversation about changing the name of Mount Evans highlights the enduring influence of historical events on present-day Native communities. (Jimena Peck for USN&WR)
Sam Bock, the lead developer of the new Sand Creek Massacre exhibit that opened in the history center late last year, says the renaming discussion shows how past events continue to impact Native Americans in the present. “When talking about Sand Creek, this is not just an event in history for the descendants,” he says. “This is family history for them. This is lasting generational trauma.”
The fact that the history of the massacre isn’t widely taught in Colorado classrooms reinforces that trauma, says Bock, who since 2020 has been getting input from the tribes involved to better represent their viewpoints.
“I remember, while going to school, I was never taught about my historic ties to this area,” says Sarah Ortegon Highwalking, a local member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe with Northern Arapaho ancestry. “The history of the Sand Creek Massacre was glossed over and I wanted to shed light on the maltreatment our Indigenous people were subject to, within this very state.”
To do that, she painted a mural in Denver’s trendy River North Art District showing the mountain with “Evans” crossed out and replaced with the words “Blue Sky,” a reference to one of the names that will be voted on this week.
The push to rename Mount Evans draws roots from the Native self-determination movement that began in the 1960s, says Matthew Makley, history professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, but the effort has gained steam in recent years. In 2020, protestors toppled a statue outside the Capitol building in Denver that listed the Sand Creek Massacre as a “battle,” a word that has rankled tribes, much like the long-closed original massacre exhibit at the museum that explained white-native clashes as a “collision of cultures.”
In Clear Creek County, where Mount Evans is located, the Board of Commissioners last year voted to support changing the name to Mount Blue Sky, reflecting an Arapaho name for themselves – the Blue Sky People – and an annual Cheyenne ceremony. The county referred the recommendation to a state renaming board, and Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, endorsed that recommendation in a late February letter to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, the body housed in the U.S. Interior Department responsible for standardizing geographic names throughout the federal government.
But in March, the board deferred a vote on the name change after the Montana-based Northern Cheyenne tribe requested a consultation on the new name.
Northern Cheyenne tribal administrator William Walksalong says the tribe’s cultural commission doesn’t want the words “Blue Sky” depicted in such a public way because it would water down secret parts of a sacred ceremony. They would rather the name be changed to Mount Cheyenne-Arapaho.
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“It’s not me; it’s our ceremonial men,” Walksalong says. “I told those Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho that up here in the North they’re more strict on observing the cultural protocols.”
Meanwhile, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, a federally recognized tribe of Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho people based in Oklahoma, support the name of Mount Blue Sky, as have the Northern Arapaho, a separate federally recognized tribe based in Wyoming.
“Everybody had the opportunity to voice their opinion,” says Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes Gov. Reggie Wassana. “I don’t look at it as a dispute. I look at it as a process that’s continuing.”
The Mount Evans debate comes amid a broader national push to rename places that use titles offensive to Indigenous Americans. Last year, the Interior Department, led by Sec. Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, removed the word “squaw” from nearly 650 geographic features.
As such name changes become more common, it’s not unusual for disagreements to arise between tribes, of which the federal government recognizes 574 in the continental United States and Alaska, says Cris Stainbrook, president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, an organization focused on American Indian land recovery and management.
The debate between tribes over Mount Evans’ new name and the increased information about the nuances of native culture, including multiple tribes with common ancestry and history, mark a step forward in non-native understanding of Indigenous people and the nation’s treatment of them, he says.
“That is eye-opening to a lot of folks,” says Stainbrook, who is of Oglala Lakota ancestry, comparing the name changing effort with land acknowledgement statements now increasingly made before events. “It at least opens their eyes that this land was once occupied.”
That the push to rename Mount Evans has come so far is partly an indication that the general attitude toward Native Americans is changing, but it is also due to the persistence of native activism, says Jones, of the Northern Cheyenne Nation. “I have become more vocal and active in the community within the last five years,” she says. “We are finally being heard because this is not the first time we have spoken up.”
Ortegon Highwalking, the Eastern Shoshone muralist, says she hasn’t seen general attitudes toward American Indians change, but she has seen strides in the native self-determination movement.
“Now our people are focused on getting educated and working to get ourselves elected into these positions to change the outcome of some decisions,” she says. “We understand the governmental processes, the laws, and have basically saved ourselves as opposed to waiting for someone to make decisions for us.”