The Oklahoma-based Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, along with conservation nonprofit The Wilderness Society, have asked that Mount Evans be renamed Mount Blue Sky.
The tribes filed the official petition with the U.S. Board of Geographic Names on Nov. 30, the day after the 156th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre.
Colorado's then-territorial Governor John Evans is believed to have authorized the U.S. Army's attack on the Cheyenne and Arapaho people. The exact number of fatalities is unknown with some estimates as high as 500.
Fred Mosqueda, Arapaho coordinator of the Culture Program of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, said Mount Evans' name automatically reminds his community of the massacre and the hurt it has caused even generations later.
Meanwhile, the proposed name is significant to both tribes as the Arapaho were known as the Blue Sky People among other tribes, and the Cheyenne have an annual renewal of life ceremony called Blue Sky, Mosqueda described.
Paul Spitler, The Wilderness Society's director of public policy, emphasized that this is the only petition submitted by the tribes and he felt it was important to give it deference because of Evans' role in the Sand Creek Massacre.
“The name Mount Blue Sky is much more fitting for such a landmark,” Spitler continued. “It recognizes the very people that Governor Evans sought to destroy.”
Clear Creek Commissioner Randy Wheelock said the county is able to register support or non-support for any petition to rename Mount Evans, and he wanted to ensure local stakeholders are able to submit their input.
Wheelock said the Clear Creek Board of County Commissioners is scheduled to have a work session to discuss the issue either Dec. 15 or Dec. 22.
Mosqueda said his community started working on this process about a year ago, as Americans became more willing to remove insensitive names and symbols so as to promote equality.
The tribes first submitted a resolution to Congress as they weren't sure how the process worked, and later connected with Spitler, who provided guidance on filing an official petition.
While it's been filed at the federal level, Spitler said this petition and any others to rename Colorado features will be referred to the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board.
The state advisory board, which was disbanded in 2016 and reformed earlier this year, makes a recommendation and the final decision rests with the U.S. Board of Geographic Names.
Spitler believed the state advisory board would start evaluating all the pending petitions in the first half of 2021, and hoped that would allow the federal board to decide on the Mount Blue Sky petition before 2022.
In addition to the tribes' suggested replacement name, there are at least three others for Mount Evans, Wheelock said.
Mount Rosalie was the name landscape painter and first-known summiter Albert Bierstadt gave the peak in honor of his future wife, and was the mountain's unofficial name until 1895.
Mount Soule would be in honor of U.S. Army Captain Silas Soule, who refused to participate in the Sand Creek Massacre.
Mount Cheyenne-Arapaho would be in honor of the tribes who were devastated by the massacre and who once called Colorado home.
The local level
When the Clear Creek County Tourism Bureau shared news of the Mount Blue Sky petition on its Facebook page last week, the comments demonstrated Coloradans' mixed feelings about renaming the mountain.
Many felt changing the name was a drastic measure and said the name should be left alone, commenting that it would always be Mount Evans to them.
Some, however, were in favor, saying it was reasonable given Evans' involvement in the Sand Creek Massacre. A few commented the name was appropriate given how prominently blue the sky can be at the summit, while others wondered whether it could be restored to whatever name the local tribes first called it, such as Alaska's Denali that was previously named Mount McKinley.
Wheelock said he knew residents on both sides of the issue, but wasn't sure whether Clear Creek was more for or against renaming Mount Evans.
If any of the petitions are approved, signage, maps and emergency services equipment will have to be updated. While the U.S. Forest Service would see greater expenses, Wheelock said the county has estimated it'd cost about $1,000 to replace signage and update maps if both Mount Evans and Squaw Pass and its related items are renamed.
Of the four petitions he's aware of, he said Mount Blue Sky is his personal favorite, and based on what he knows now, he would vote to support the Mount Blue Sky petition. However, he wants to discuss the matter with his fellow commissioners and the public first, and hear whether the Ute Tribes — who once lived in Clear Creek — had a preference.
“For 125 years, we've memorialized the name of the man that authorized (the Sand Creek Massacre),” he said. “… When I'm on that mountain, that name means little to me. … But, that name means more to the people who still carry that pain in their hearts.”
Mosqueda added that, in petitioning to change the name, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes are not looking to change history, but rather ensure that it's told truthfully.
“I think everybody would be better off looking at a mountain that doesn't have shame or hurt to it,” he said, “because it's such a beautiful place.”