In an unexpected twist on March 9, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names deferred a vote that would have changed the name of Mount Evans.
Many had expected the federal board to approve a new name, Mount Blue Sky, proposed by many Native American tribal leaders and representatives, Gov. Jared Polis, a Colorado renaming board and other community members.
But March 9 before the federal board’s meeting, Jennifer Runyon, executive acting secretary for the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, said the federal board had “received a request from a tribal government for government-to-government consultation,” and that a decision had been made to defer a final vote. The U.S. board did not initially say which tribe asked for the request.
At the start of the meeting Thursday, the federal board notified attendees that no decision would be made and there would not be any discussion about the pending proposals for Mount Evans.
If the federal geographic renaming board had voted, the organization’s decision would have marked the end of a lengthy process to give the prominent 14er, visible from Denver, a much less controversial label.
“As you know, the proposals that have been submitted to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to change the name of Mount Evans have been added to the docket for a vote at today’s meeting. However, the BGN (Board on Geographic Names) and the Department of Interior have received a request from a tribal government for federal government-to-government consultation and in accordance with the Department of Interior department manual 512 DM 5.5.A.6, titled ‘Intergovernmental Relations: Procedures for Consultation with Indian Tribes,’ the decision is made to defer today’s vote on the Mount Evans name change,” said Susan Lyon, vice chair of the board.
“The manual states, ‘A tribe may request that the department initiate consultation when the tribe believes that a bureau or office is considering a departmental action with tribal implications,” Lyon said. “So, no decision will be made on Mount Evans today and we won’t be discussing any of the pending proposals.”
Clear Creek County officials and Native American tribe representatives said Thursday that they wanted to wait to comment until they had more information about the request to defer a vote.
However, during the Colorado board’s meetings last fall to hear proposals on renaming Mount Evans, Northern Arapaho tribe members had advocated for Mount Blue Sky and Northern Cheyenne tribe members supported the name Mount Cheyenne Arapaho. Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board members had asked proponents of the name Mount Blue Sky if they had plans to meet with those who advocated for Mount Cheyenne Arapaho to negotiate an agreeable name.
“If we have two names, both with support from different Indian nations, is there any room for the two groups to discuss this further or do you want us to decide?” state Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a renaming committee board member, asked during that November meeting.
A member of a coalition that gathered input from tribal representatives said the group tried many times to engage members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe in discussion, but were unsuccessful.
“I think the time is long past due for the acknowledgement that that is not an appropriate name,” Clear Creek County Commission Chairman Randy Wheelock said. He co-led, from November 2020 to March 2022, educational, public comment and deliberation meetings before Clear Creek County officials recommended the new Mount Blue Sky name to the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory board. He said he had no comment about the deferral, until he and other local officials had more information.
“Generally speaking, my attitude was — and the board’s attitude was — that we were giving the biggest credence to the two indigenous proposals, and when they didn’t combine (and agree) on one proposal, we looked at the level of support that each of them had and there was much, much greater support that we saw from both the Indigenous community and the non-Indigenous community for Mount Blue Sky, and so that was the reason we went ahead and made that choice,” Wheelock said before the vote was deferred.
For some Native American Coloradans, renaming the peak has been a decadeslong process. And for state officials and other community members, who engaged in research to support four other name change proposals for the Clear Creek County landmark, the process has taken more than a year to complete.
The renaming process, so far, has aimed to strip former Gov. John Evans’ name from the 14,265-foot landmark. Evans, who served as territorial governor from 1862 to 1865, was forced to resign for his role in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, a deadly attack on Native Americans that led to the deaths of more than 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, mostly women, children and older adults.
The Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board in November voted unanimously to change the name to Mount Blue Sky, a move supported by Clear Creek County officials, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, and many Native American tribe leaders and members who contributed to the renaming process.
Anne Hayden, John Evans’ great-great-granddaughter, noting that she did not represent all members of her family, testified at a public meeting about renaming the peak and said she favored changing its name.
Gov. Polis earlier this month wrote in a letter to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names that each of the 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado deserves “a name befitting their majesty.”
While many Coloradans have grown up knowing the name Mount Evans, Polis wrote, it’s clear that people want a new name that unites the community and does not divide it. In the letter, Polis cited research by scholars at the University of Denver and Northwestern University, both of which Evans helped found, saying their work showed “Evans’ culpability for the Sand Creek Massacre, without question.”
During the formal process to consider renaming the peak, Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board members received more than 200 written and verbal statements from Native American tribe leaders, local government officials, community members and loved ones of those who perished in or survived the Sand Creek Massacre, Chris Arend, a spokesman for the state naming board wrote in an email to The Colorado Sun on Wednesday.
“Considering there were six proposals and hours of public testimony, it was clear that there was a strong shared desire to rename Mount Evans,” he wrote in the email. “Ultimately, Mount Blue Sky struck the appropriate cord to garner support of Clear Creek County, the (Colorado Renaming Advisory Board) and Governor Polis.”
This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com. The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.