Changing name of Mount Evans to Mount Blue Sky is “sacrilegious,” Northern Cheyenne leader says

Native American leaders convened in Denver on Friday for a ceremony aimed at moving forward the renaming of Mount Evans, an effort that stalled after one tribe’s last-minute objection delayed a federal vote on the change to Mount Blue Sky.

Tribal leaders said they seek a respectful resolution of differences as many still support the switch — which will strip the 14,271-foot peak of a name tied to the Sand Creek Massacre — in spite of the objection by Montana-based leaders of the Northern Cheyenne.

But assigning the words “Blue Sky” to Mount Evans would be “sacrilegious,” Northern Cheyenne tribal administrator William Walksalong told The Denver Post. That’s because a Northern Cheyenne ceremony uses the “blue sky” words and concept, and transferring these to serve as the name of a mountain would betray secrets, he said.

“It would be an abuse of the ceremony,” Walksalong said. “We don’t want to send elements of our ceremony out to the public.”

Instead, Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho leaders advocate renaming the peak — visible throughout metro Denver — Mount Cheyenne-Arapaho.

After a two-year brainstorming run by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Mount Blue Sky emerged as the favored alternative to Mount Evans, which commemorates the state’s territorial Gov. John Evans.

The Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board in December unanimously recommended this switch. The other proposed new names board members considered were: Mount Soule, Mount Rosalie, Mount Cheyenne-Arapaho, Mount Evans (after Anne Evans, that governor’s daughter) and Mount Sisty.

Nobody’s disputing that the name should be changed as soon as possible, due to Gov. Evans’ role in genocidal killing at the Sand Creek Massacre on the plains of southeastern Colorado. The massacre in 1864, led by U.S. Army Cavalry Col. John Chivington, left 230 dead and decimated the Northern Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho, and Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes.

A large ribbon is hung on fencing near the Bluff Trail Interpretive Walk at Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site near Eads on Nov. 14, 2022. On the morning of Nov. 29, 1864, U.S. Volunteer Cavalry launched a surprise attack on a peaceful encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho along the banks of the Big Sandy Creek in an effort to remove the tribes from the area. The attack resulted the death of more than 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho, many of whom were horribly mutilated. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper both backed Mount Blue Sky.

On Feb. 28, Gov. Jared Polis sent a letter to the federal government’s U.S. Board on Geographic Names urging support for Mount Blue Sky, calling the massacre “the deadliest day in Colorado history” and saying that “without question” Gov. Evans “didn’t just engage in warfare against Native Americans but facilitated the senseless slaughter of non-combatants including large numbers of women, children and the elderly.”

Evans did this, Polis wrote, through proclamations aimed at eliminating Native Americans from eastern Colorado “and actions further empowering Colonel John Chivington.”

Polis in 2021 rescinded Evans’ proclamations. In his letter, he assured federal board members tasked with reviewing such name changes that Colorado’s renaming process included “a broad diversity of stakeholders, Tribal consultation, local government buy-in and leadership, and significant public input, including feedback from living descendants of then-Territorial Governor John Evans.”

Northern Cheyenne leaders intervened earlier in February, sending a letter to federal officials that conveyed their concerns. Walksalong subsequently requested an official government-to-government consultation — leading to the delay of a scheduled March 9 vote.

“The Board on Geographic Names has put the vote on hold to honor the Tribal Consultation process,” U.S. Geological Survey spokeswoman Rachel Pawlitz confirmed Friday morning.

The state Capitol in Denver can be seen in the foreground as Mount Evans, at 14,265 feet high, stands in the background on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

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In Denver at the History Colorado museum, tribal leaders gathered for a ceremony including prayers, in addition to a discussion of how to proceed with renaming Mount Evans. History Colorado recently featured an exhibit on the Sand Creek Massacre. Friday’s gathering coincided with a visit by 100 Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe elders to traditional homelands and the Denver March Powwow.

“All tribal nations have had over a year and a half to provide input, so this last-minute request is surprising,” Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes Gov. Reggie Wassana said in a statement ahead of the ceremony, supporting the Mount Blue Sky proposal.

Donald Yellow Eagle, center, joins others in praying for Mount Blue Sky during a ceremony held at History Colorado Center in Denver on Friday, March 17, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

“All parties have agreed upon the vision unilaterally, and now we await approval from the Board of Geographic Names…,” Wassana said. “We hope the name change happens soon for our Cheyenne and Arapaho people to heal, regardless of who received credit for changing the name.”

Participants at the ceremony included members of the Northern Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho and Ute Mountain Ute tribes.

Colorado officials said they are waiting for federal officials to make a final decision.

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