A More Nuanced Approach to Painful Parts of Colorado History
Nancy Wadsworth is an associate professor in the department of political science. She has taught at the University of Denver since 2004. Wadsworth's primary areas of research focus on race, religion, political thought, American political culture and reconciliation politics. She is the author of Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing. She served as Chair of the John Evans Study Committee, which in November 2014, released its report on the role of John Evans in the Sand Creek Massacre.
Billy J. Stratton is an associate professor at the University of Denver in the Department of English. In 2016 he was named special advisor on Native American Community Partnerships and Programs by DU Chancellor Rebecca Chopp. Stratton is one of the first 30 people in the world to be awarded a PhD in American Indian Studies. He has taught courses that span Native American/contemporary American literature, Native and Indigenous studies, apocalypse, Southern gothic and new west literature, postmodernism, creative writing and film studies.
Recent removals of Confederate monuments in Virginia and Louisiana highlight tensions associated with a traumatic American past. Colorado, too, has its share of controversial figures who have been memorialized in monuments and through place naming.
John Evans, Colorado’s second territorial governor and a founder of Northwestern University and the University of Denver, is one such figure. Mount Evans peak, along with numerous streets, buildings, and towns in Colorado and Illinois, bear his name.
A recent Denver Post column advocated renaming sites named after Evans and others, referring to a 2014 report by Northwestern University faculty.
As scholars who led the University of Denver’s efforts to examine Evans’ role in the Sand Creek Massacre, we understand the difficulties entailed by such initiatives. We have grappled with Evans’ legacy at DU since 2013, when, in anticipation of the sesquicentennial of the massacre and our institution’s founding in 1864, we began examining Evans’ role in the event. The need to incorporate a fuller history of this event into our institutional memory quickly became clear.
Our report of October 2014 concluded (more forcefully than Northwestern’s did) that Evans bore significant responsibility for the massacre. We determined that Evans’ pattern of behavior as territorial governor and superintendent of Indian Affairs resulted in moral culpability, albeit “different in character but comparable in degree to that of Colonel John Chivington,” the officer who directed the massacre. On Dec. 3, 2014, Gov. John Hickenlooper, with the support of every living former Colorado governor, endorsed this determination by the issuance of an unprecedented official apology to Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples for the state’s role in the massacre, citing our report in his public comments.
Subsequently, we have initiated significant changes related to the conception of our collective institutional history, the inclusion of curriculum that reflects Native experiences and knowledge, and new collaborations with Native communities, especially the Arapaho and Cheyenne nations. We are also working to ensure that incoming students are introduced to the role of the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado and DU history. This is being done through a rethinking of the wall hangings in a room named for Evans in our admissions office, where prospective students begin campus tours, and all-campus “discoveries lectures” for first-year students whereby Evans’ legacy is honestly, but fairly, addressed. It is in such contexts that knowledge and truth can have a perceptible impact on society, and help build a more accurate and inclusive sense of our shared history.
In terms of historical memory, there are issues all Coloradans can strive to consider more thoughtfully. Historical amnesia about violent events is a problem, but we must also consider the very meaning of remembrance. While calls to rename sites like Mount Evans may seem an appropriate solution, doing so without a commitment to more nuanced historical education can have detrimental effects, especially to Native peoples. The perspectives of those most affected by the Sand Creek Massacre, the Arapaho and Cheyenne peoples, must be centered in such efforts. At DU, we considered such views critical to our work and invited their input and participation throughout our process.
These collaborations reveal a different understanding of history and the deep complexity of naming practices, which are always entangled with questions of power and ownership. That the Arapaho and Cheyenne were driven from Colorado in the aftermath of Sand Creek reminds us of the associated effects of dispossession and exile. For the removal of these communities resulted in the disruption and erasure of their sacred knowledge, including the names for places throughout Colorado that they became separated from.
In short, the views of the original occupants, the Arapaho and Cheyenne, as well as Ute peoples, on matters like local place names can be much more complex than expected. Without careful reflection and community input, both place naming and the erasure of names can further marginalize the perspectives and experiences of Native peoples.