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In a step toward healing, Mount Evans is now Mount Blue Sky

Jim Hill

One of Colorado’s 14ers has received a lot of attention in recent years, and now the verdict is in. After an overwhelmingly favorable vote from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names Friday, Mount Evans is now Mount Blue Sky.

Mount Evans was named for John Evans, the second territorial governor of Colorado from 1862 to 1865. He played a significant role in the infamous Sand Creek Massacre, where a regiment of the U.S. military, unprovoked, slaughtered and mutilated hundreds of people — many of them women and children begging for mercy — in a peaceful Arapaho and Cheyenne encampment.

Evans wasn’t there that day, but he was known for actively fostering a culture of hatred and fear, pursuing policies that undermined peace plans and encouraging violence against native groups. He was condemned by many contemporaries, and multiple investigations into the massacre implicated him for creating the conditions for the massacre to unfold. Ultimately, he had to resign in 1865 because of this.

The first proposal to change the name of Mount Evans arrived in June 2018, according to Jennifer Runyon, a researcher with the Board of Geographic Names. In total, the board received six proposals for possible new names.

Among the suggested name changes — and ultimately the winning choice — was Mount Blue Sky. The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes formally proposed the name to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in November 2020, within days of the 156th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre. It was also in the context of a national conversation around systemic racism and the white supremacy embedded in the country’s place names and memorials that was prompted by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.

Federal officials had planned a vote in March on the name change, but halted proceedings after objections from another tribe over "Mount Blue Sky."

Fred Mosqueda, Arapaho coordinator for the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, told KUNC at the time that the name “Blue Sky” was meaningful to both Arapaho and Cheyenne people.

“The Arapahos are known as Blue Sky people,” Mosqueda said. “The Cheyennes have a yearly ceremony they do – it’s like the renewal of life, and it’s done before their sun dance. And it’s called Blue Sky.”

Before the vote, Runyon pointed out the significance of the mountain for many area tribes.

“This feature is prominent, it dominates the Denver skyline in an area that was granted to the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in an 1851 treaty,” Runyon said in introducing the vote to change Mount Evans’ name. “With a subsequent treaty 10 years later, it excluded the summit (of Mount Evans) from the tribes’ lands. It is also on the ancestral lands of the Ute tribes.”

The ultimate vote to change the name to Mount Blue Sky on Friday found 15 in favor, one opposed and three who abstained from voting. Chris Hammond, a member of the Domestic Names Committee, said it was clear to all that this 14er was ready for a name change, even if not everyone agreed on the ultimate choice.

“I think there’s an overwhelming agreement that the name has to be changed,” Hammond said during the meeting. “As we come to today’s vote, it would have been preferable for us–for the parties to come to a consensus about the name, but that doesn’t always happen. So we’re faced with a decision to make today. But I want to celebrate the process, which involved a lot of careful listening.”

Andy Flora with the Department of Commerce chimed in during the discussion to raise a concern about the appropriateness of using a sacred tribal phrase.

“I did have some concerns about the use of a name representing a sacred ceremony as the mountain,” Flora said. “I don’t think that we could ever possibly reach a consensus that would satisfy all names. But I do hope that whatever name we pick does start the healing process.”

Nevertheless, the change from Mount Evans to Mount Blue Sky sends an important message in the eyes of Nicki Gonzales, a member of the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board and a former Colorado state historian.

“The significance really is to give a more accurate and more inclusive version of our history, which is written on the landscape in ways that we don't even think about,” Gonzales said. “The name ‘Evans’ (on Mount Evans), for generations, has really been a symbol of tragedy and pain for the Indigenous communities here in Colorado. And so, by renaming that, I want people to understand that we are getting to a more accurate version of who we are as a people, and that we're beginning to kind of face up to–or reckon with–our racial past here in Colorado in very significant and visible ways.”

Erin O'Toole contributed reporting to this story.

I’m the digital producer for KUNC. I spend my days helping create and distribute content on our website and social media platforms that is informative, accurate and relevant to the communities we serve.
I am the Rural and Small Communities Reporter at KUNC. That means my focus is building relationships and telling stories from under-covered pockets of Colorado.