Your donation will support the student journalists of the Evanstonian. We are planning a big trip to the Journalism Educators Association conference in Boston in November 2022, and any support will go towards making that trip a reality. Contributions will appear as a charge from SNOSite. Donations are NOT tax-deductible.
Two different reports about John Evans and Sand Creek, two different tones
Content warning: The following article includes quotes which contain profanity.
February 27, 2023
In May 2014, Northwestern University released the “Report of the John Evans Study Committee,” a comprehensive, 114 page document detailing John Evans’ involvement in the Sand Creek Massacre. The central question explored: was Evans’ financial support for Northwestern attributable to his practices towards Native Americans as territorial governor? The committee consisted of nine social science professors, four from Northwestern and four from outside the university. Nearly a decade after the report’s release, however, Northwestern is facing criticism for the ethical reasons behind the committee’s formation.
“Northwestern had absolutely no interest in this story until students forced them to [have it] essentially a decade ago. I still think there are lots of Northwestern supporters who dismiss [his culpability] as political b.s. [because] we’re judging 19th century people with 21st century standards, and so they reject this as a serious event,” says Frederick E. Hoxie, Swanlund Professor of American Indian Studies at UIUC and member of the John Evans Committee.
Like Hoxie mentions, the report was birthed from student activists denouncing Evans’ presence on campus. Most prominent in this push was the Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance (NAISA), an affinity-based student group working to increase visibility and awareness of Native American and Indigenous cultures at Northwestern and beyond.
“I think efforts to reconcile and create relationships with the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for NAISA,” says Isabella Twocrow, a co-chair for the organization. “If it weren’t for NAISA students, the John Evans report wouldn’t have been created.”
Broken into six chapters, the report examines Evans’ financial and political legacy as he attempted to gain social capital in Colorado. In a breakdown of each chapter’s contents, page 10 of the report reads, “[Chapter 1 is an] introduction. Chapter Two presents an overview of Evans’s life and his relationship with Northwestern University. Chapter Three describes the historical context of the massacre, including the settlement of Colorado, the history of U.S. land acquisition from Native Americans, the responses of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes to the arrival of American settlers and soldiers, and the effects of the Civil War on Colorado Territory. Chapter Four traces the course of events during Evans’s governorship that led to the Sand Creek Massacre. Chapter Five discusses the aftermath of the massacre, focusing on the public outcry, Evans’s defense of his actions, and his resignation. Chapter Six states the committee’s conclusions regarding John Evans and the Sand Creek Massacre.”
No known evidence indicates that John Evans helped plan the Sand Creek Massacre or had any knowledge of it in advance.
— Northwestern University's Report
One of the key conclusions established in the report is Evans’ direct involvement in the Sand Creek Massacre. While not completely absolving him of responsibility, the report ultimately found that Evans did not plan nor predict the massacre.
“No known evidence indicates that John Evans helped plan the Sand Creek Massacre or had any knowledge of it in advance. The extant evidence suggests that he did not consider the Indians at Sand Creek to be a threat and that he would have opposed the attack that took place,” the report reads.
The committee concluded that Evans had no intention of enacting violence despite testimony from the 1865 federal military hearing regarding the Sand Creek Massacre in which General James Connor shared that Evans had told him to “pursue[,] kill[,] and destroy” any Natives who posed a threat to western expansion.
“Evans never favored killing Indians for its own sake or regardless of age or gender. He was in fundamental disagreement with Chivington in this regard,” page 86 reads.
According to the committee on page 86, Evans’ threatening statement “should be read in the context of his statements about the larger purpose of waging war.” Meaning, Evans’ bold request was not a formal, immediate invitation for the Third Regiment to attack Sand Creek, but that violence would inevitably occur if Natives did not adhere to their reservations and allow white farmers to expand west.
“Evans was asking for a greater military presence in Colorado and promoting the punishment of unfriendly Indians, [but] he [also] took other, more peaceable steps as superintendent of Indian affairs that in his view would benefit Native people. He continued to prepare reservations for habitation and what he believed would be economic viability,” page 86 reads.
Affirmed by the committee, Evans’ desire to open up Colorado’s vast, untouched land was a source of tension between himself and the Cheyenne and Arapaho.
“Evans implicitly criticized the Treaty of Fort Laramie for allowing the Cheyennes and Arapahos to think they could wander as they wished. It struck him as ‘ridiculous’ to assume ‘that a country a thousand miles long and five hundred miles wide, one of the most fertile in the world, should belong to a few bands of roving Indians, nomadic tribes . . . as their own property.’ The progress of the nation demanded that the territory be put to more productive use,” the report says on page 87. This call for research into John Evans’ role in what happened at the Sand Creek Massacre has been long overdue. When we see this John Evans report, I think it’s lazy. It’s a way for Northwestern to say, ‘We got this report out, we did this work and we don’t have to do anything else.’ It’s a lazy piece of writing that ignores and tries to minimize the role that John Evans had in the Sand Creek Massacre. — Isabella Twocrow, co-chair of NAISA
This call for research into John Evans’ role in what happened at the Sand Creek Massacre has been long overdue. When we see this John Evans report, I think it’s lazy. It’s a way for Northwestern to say, ‘We got this report out, we did this work and we don’t have to do anything else.’ It’s a lazy piece of writing that ignores and tries to minimize the role that John Evans had in the Sand Creek Massacre.
— Isabella Twocrow, co-chair of NAISA
Peter Hayes, a Professor of History at Northwestern and member of the John Evans Committee, believes Evans’ sentiments about expansion were characteristic of the times. Evans was in office during the era of Manifest Destiny, an ideology that the Oxford Dictionary defines as “the 19th-century doctrine or belief that the expansion of the US throughout the American continents was both justified and inevitable.” Influenced by a national culture of exploration and conquering, Hayes believes Evans acted in accordance with most other white Americans.
“I wouldn’t say that he had contempt for Native Americans, but I would say that he felt something that was very characteristic of 19th century settlers, and that was that they felt that Natives were not making productive use of the land; therefore, he wasn’t going to condemn the massacre because that had been part of this process. He definitely felt [like] he was making a great improvement to the continent,” says Hayes.
When describing the political climate in Colorado, the report expresses sympathy towards Evans as he attempted to navigate a tumultuous, divided environment.
“Complicating everything was the context in which Evans had to operate. As noted, support from Washington [state] was unpredictable and inadequate. At home, he faced an anxious and fearful population that considered itself forgotten by the federal government, physically isolated, and constantly at mortal risk. Every raid or rumor of one conjured up what had happened in Minnesota in 1862. When they heard the Indian delegation was coming to Denver, citizens swung between calls to kill the Native leaders and hopes that something positive might come of a meeting. Above all, Evans faced the virtually impossible task of reconciling his competing obligations as governor and superintendent of Indian affairs,” the report describes on page 90.
Hoxie adds to this conversation, noting how Evans felt politically incentivized to act in the interests of white Coloradans to avoid criticism. By appeasing this audience, Evans felt that he would retain his leadership position and gain footing before running for a senator once Colorado had become a state.
“John Evans had absolutely no experience in dealing with Indigenous people or any particular interest. [He] saw his job as either a secure government job or as a stepping stone to higher office or as an opportunity for prestige,” he explains. “In a place like Colorado, which was experiencing a huge influx of population, largely young men, miners [and people] who were hoping to profit from settlement, there would be very little chance of maintaining or controlling that volatile community, and when people who are in charge of the community are appointed politically for their loyalty to someone back home, which was a long ways away, there was no incentive for leaders to be strong leaders, and there’s no incentive to go against the crowd.”
In the aftermath of Sand Creek, Evans’ apathy towards Native Americans persisted. When asked about his thoughts about the massacre while on trial in March 1865, he avoided the issue completely.
“John Evans never criticized Chivington and the soldiers who carried out the massacre nor condemned the atrocities they committed . . . He stated that he did not ‘propose to discuss the merits or demerits of the Sand creek battle [a term that implied that the event was not a massacre], but simply to meet the attempt, on the part of the committee, to connect my name with it, and to throw discredit on my testimony.’ Evans concluded by charging that the committee’s reasons for condemning him were false and entirely political,” the report reads on page 90.
“I think in one word, [the report is] bullshit. [It’s] bullshit—not just linguistically. It is bullshit. The purpose of the Northwestern John Evans report, to me, is to negate a lot of the work that Native students and Native community members have done.
— NAISA member Kadin Mills
On the financial aspect of the report’s investigation, Evans was found completely innocent. In the years following Sand Creek, Evans’ political reputation severely waned. Known for his participation in the atrocity, Evans lost his territorial governor position and chance at Colorado statehood—his primary sources of income.
“Whether or not his policies as governor were responsible for the Sand Creek Massacre, he did not profit from it. It cost him his highly advantageous position as territorial governor, and it contributed to his failure to win admission to the Union for Colorado and a seat in the U.S. Senate for himself. Had the massacre never happened, he probably would have become senator and been positioned to make even more money than he did in the years ahead,” (92).
Evans still remained an active donor of Northwestern University, however. In fact, he was the university’s most generous benefactor when it initially opened. He gave Northwestern professional endowments worth $100,000, at least three million in today’s money. Evans was by no means poor after Sand Creek—he still thrived while Cheyenne and Arapaho grappled.
While the report touches briefly on Evans’ disregard of Native peoples’ lifeways as he advocated for the construction of industrial infrastructure in designated Cheyenne and Arapaho territory, it lacks accountability. By broadening the scope and comparing Northwestern to “many other institutions,” the report expresses a sense of denial and understates Evans’ significant role in colonization. Kadin Mills, a member of NAISA and direct descendent of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, shares his thoughts about the reports downplay of Evans’ actions.
“I think in one word, [the report is] bullshit. I mean, in a very technical use of the term, [it’s] bullshit—not just linguistically. It is bullshit. The purpose of the Northwestern John Evans report, to me, is to negate a lot of the work that Native students and Native community members have done. I think it’s very intentional, and that’s why I call it bullshit, because it’s very intentional in its negation of indigeneity.”
Twocrow agrees, ultimately finding that the report is performative.
“This call for research into John Evans’ role in what happened at the Sand Creek Massacre has been long overdue. When we see this John Evans report, I think it’s lazy. It’s a way for Northwestern to say, ‘We got this report out, we did this work and we don’t have to do anything else.’ It’s a lazy piece of writing that ignores and tries to minimize the role that John Evans had in the Sand Creek Massacre and the harm to Cheyenne and Arapaho people, so that Northwestern wouldn’t have to do any more work beyond that, and it’s frustrating,” says Twocrow.
Representationally, the report also falls short. Of the nine contributors of the report, zero had a relationship to the Indigenous community at Northwestern. As a result, the coverage of Evans’ moral and ethical wrongdoings can appear minimized and impersonal. Mills speaks to the importance of having Native historians on the NU report in order to report authentically about the impact of Sand Creek.
“I’m looking at a list of the names and the committee, and nobody on this list is a part of the Indigenous community at Northwestern. I don’t know what their involvement is, because there are people on this committee who are at the University of Oklahoma, Yale, Arkansas, mostly Northwestern professors and scholars, but none of them have any ties to the Native community at Northwestern,” Mills explains. “That’s a very, very serious problem because it tries to take away the stake that Indigenous peoples have in [this] research, considering Native peoples are very directly affected by everything that happened. To say that Native people don’t have a stake in [this] and producing research on that is active and ongoing erasure of Indigenous peoples.”
The University of Denver Report
Less than a year after Northwestern University released a report concerning the role of John Evans in the Sand Creek Massacre, the University of Denver released one of its own.
The 97-page document, published in November of 2014, discusses John Evans, his history in relation to the Sand Creek Massacre and the founding of the University of Denver. The goal of the report was to appropriately understand John Evans’ connection to the death of over 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people in 1864 and to evaluate his place in the history of the university. Especially considering that the 150th anniversary of both the University of Denver and the Sand Creek Massacre itself were coming up, it was important that the committee prepared for the coming commemorations.
The DU John Evans Study Committee, which was formed about two years prior to the report’s publication, consists of six main authors ranging from members of the university’s own staff to state historians. It also utilized the input of several other consultants including Native students at the University of Denver and members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes.
“[The committee] was supported in its endeavors by the [university],” DU professor and committee member Richard Clemmer-Smith says, commenting on the formation of the committee, “but the report is an independent investigation with a focus by scholars who came to it from different angles.”
The committee was split into three distinct subcommittees all with the purpose of understanding different challenges related to Evans, the massacre and the university’s founding. The subcommittees are as follows: “one to conduct research and report on Evans’s role in the massacre; another to organize events and exhibits related to our institutional history, in preparation for the commemorations; and a third to review how other universities have engaged in similar efforts and consider how to productively address troubling historical events as part of an educational process within our community.”
“We spent two years meeting on a regular basis,” explains Tink Tinker, a member of the Denver report committee. “Taking little bits of evidence here and there, working through it and trying to sort it out.”
The result of their two-year-long history delve is an 18-chapter summary of Evans and Sand Creek with the first subcommittee’s findings—which looked into Evans’ role in the massacre—taking up the main body of the report and a conclusion that Evans’ “pattern of neglect of his treaty-negotiating duties, his leadership failures and his reckless decision making in 1864 combine to clearly demonstrate a significant level of culpability for the Sand Creek Massacre.”
“One challenge was Evans himself,” says Clemmer-Smith about conducting the research on Evans. “He’s an enigma. Here he was—this staunch abolitionist, and why was he so obtuse, or even anti-Native American, while at the same time promoting the rights [of] slaves?”
These are just the sort of questions Clemmer-Smith and the rest of the committee set out to answer in 2014.
Evans’ time spent as territorial governor of Colorado was crucial to the lead-up to the massacre, and according to the committee, what he did during that time was enough to give him significant culpability for the massacre at Sand Creek in 1864.
“Evans used his position of territorial leadership to accelerate war, rather than to apply every effort to promote peace,” concludes the report on page 90. “His June 27 Proclamation ends with a threat of war, and his August 11 Proclamation not only announces war but endorses a vigilante campaign of aggression against all Native people in the territory not designated (by some mysterious, unnamed criteria) as ‘friendly,’” (90-91).
“He basically gave carte blanche to vigilantes to go after Indians,” says Clemmer-Smith in simpler terms.
Beyond his two violence-inciting proclamations, the committee also concluded in the report that Evans’ other actions as governor were “central to creating the conditions in which the massacre was possible and even likely.”
With these conclusions in mind, another section of the committee delved deeper into the report from the John Evans Study Committee at Northwestern University and discussed their findings comparatively. The Denver committee had a few disagreements—starting with the fact that the Northwestern University report did not place any blame on Evans for the Sand Creek Massacre at all.
“We were coming at it from very different angles,” says Clemmer-Smith. “Yet we all agreed that [Northwestern’s] interpretation of the situation needed a bit of correction.”
They discuss these corrections in the concluding pages of the report—the chapter titled “Reassessing Culpability: Departures from the Northwestern Report”—in which they cite multiple quotations from the Northwestern report that they believe needed amending. For instance, on page 92 of the Denver report they state that “we strongly disagree with this conclusion from the Northwestern report: ‘The extant evidence suggests that he did not consider the Indians at Sand Creek to be a threat and that he would have opposed the attack that took place.’”
We were coming at it from very different angles. Yet we all agreed that [Northwestern’s] interpretation of the situation needed a bit of correction.
— Denver University Committee Member Richard Clemmer-Smith
In the eyes of Northwestern professor and Northwestern committee member Peter Hayes though, “The Denver report left many of [the Northwestern committee] feeling pretty annoyed because the conclusions of the two reports [in terms of] evidence about the factual record are almost identical,” he explains.
Clemmer-Smith agrees with Hayes in saying that, “I don’t think [the two reports’] findings were all that different.” But he also stresses that, “when it really came down to it, [Northwestern’s committee] was reluctant to pin any culpability on Evans, and that was not exactly accurate.”
After the report’s publication, the University of Denver Committee issued a list of recommendations following the report’s findings. The committee worked alongside DU student representatives and Sand Creek Massacre descendant representatives to create a list of recommended actions for the university that range from establishing a Native American Center on campus to updating official DU histories to include the findings of the report.
“We worked closely with a committee from the Cheyenne and Arapaho,” says Clemmer-Smith. “Their successors have continued to pursue the question of John Evans’ place in Colorado history.”
Much like the main body of the report, the recommendations document adapts a tone of healing and remembrance.
“This is truly a new horizon,” the committee states in the recommendations document. “DU should be a change leader illuminating a new path forward: a path of unity, collaboration and healing for all communities,” (2).
So far, the University of Denver has adapted to make many of these recommendations, including establishing lasting connections with the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes.
“[The university is] open to being responsive to Cheyenne and Arapaho concerns,” says Clemmer-Smith. “There is this ongoing relationship between the Cheyenne Arapaho and the University of Denver.”
In the spirit of healing, the next focus is renaming titles attributed to John Evans. The University of Denver began this process with the renaming of the Evans Professorship and is continuing to make changes today.
I think [change] is gradual. Things have not been rushed into; there’s still the question of renaming mountains or [other places]. To what extent do you do that and erase history?
— Richard Clemmer-Smith
Not only did the report result in significant changes for the University of Denver, but it also inspired the state of Colorado to take action against the memorialization of Evans. In July of 2021, the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board voted unanimously to recommend renaming Mount Evans and replacing it with a name of Native designation. The process is ongoing but it is likely that Mount Evans will have its new name before the end of 2023. Located in Clear Creek County, Colo., Mount Evans is home to North America’s highest paved road and a name change would be seen as a huge step in the right direction.
“I think it’s gradual,” says Clemmer-Smith on the changes happening at the university. “Things have not been rushed into; there’s still the question of renaming mountains or [other places]. To what extent do you do that and erase history? Those questions are ongoing, but I’m gratified to see some of these outcomes.”
While the changes may be slow-moving, they continue to move in the right direction; the Denver report serves as a reminder that though people in the present day can’t change history, they can always reflect upon it and take action toward connection and healing.
“It takes courage to face both the illuminated and the more shadowed aspects of history,” states the committee on page 2, “but here we are invited to walk toward a fuller understanding, with humility. This report is an invitation to consider how Sand Creek and other tragedies impact not only the tribes and tribal descendants affected by acts of genocide but all of us in the here and now. It is time for us to begin to mend the broken relationships we have with ourselves, each other, and the land.”
Comparing Both Reports
When one engages with the Northwestern and Denver reports, one thing stands out: tone. From word choice to syntax, the reports’ connotations about John Evans’ involvement in the Sand Creek Massacre read differently. These tonal differences not only impact the reader’s interpretation of the text but also express the divergent values that each committee brought to their reports.
“The only thing [that was different about the Denver report] is the tone [because] it was written by a committee that composed itself. It was basically a group of people who were already agitated about John Evans before they put the committee together. [As a result,] they adopted a very judgmental tone,” says Peter Hayes.
Like Hayes mentions, the Northwestern committee was formed through an appointment process, while the Denver report was written by a group of volunteer historians. As a result, the research and writing procedure for Northwestern was objectively less biased.
“None of [the Northwestern Committee] had preconceived notions about John Evans. All of us came to the subject with very different backgrounds and levels of knowledge about what had happened at Sand Creek. We came at it much more coolly. And our report is more coolly phrased than the Denver report. But that’s a result of the composition of the committee [even though] the substantial findings of the two reports are very, very close,” Hayes concludes.
While maintaining credibility was important for both reports, it was especially crucial for the University of Denver to center the humanity of Indigenous people both representationally and contextually. Of the 22 experts that worked on the DU report, six are members of the Cheyenne or Arapaho tribes.
“We worked closely with a committee from Cheyenne and Arapaho,” says Richard Clemmer-Smith. “Their successors have continued to pursue the question of John Evans’ statue in Colorado history.”
Contrary to the Denver Committee’s choice to incorporate Indigenous voices in their research and conversations, the Northwestern Committee felt that the inclusion of Cheyenne and Arapaho people would bias the report.
“Peter Hayes and [the Northwestern] committee refused to include a Cheyenne Arapaho historian, of which there are many, because in the provost words, ‘they would not be able to be objective; they would bias the committee,’” says Heather Menefee, a PhD candidate in Native American and U.S. history at Northwestern. “And a year after they released their report, Peter Hayes and Andrew Koppelman, the lawyer from the committee, came to a class that I was taking and explained to [our] class that being descended from massacre victims makes people angry, and [as a result], they lose their ability to understand the truth.”
Moments like this highlight the harm of telling narratives with Indigenous absence. Without Native voices, stories cannot accurately articulate the harm and multigenerational impact of atrocities.
“[The report] has just done a lot of harm to the Cheyenne and Arapaho because of how inflammatory and violent the language is. [For example] they say things like ‘savages’ without quotation marks—they use full on, violent language. They [also] take the perspective of people who committed a massacre and try to contextualize it. They put Native people entirely in the past, instead of in the present,” Menefee states.
Northwestern’s language choice is a key criticism for the reasons Menefee outlines. The connotations behind words carry meaning and weight, and in the case of the Northwestern report, many agree that the university failed to use critical language when describing Evans’ culpability in the massacre.
“Northwestern University completely failed to hold its founder accountable. They found excuses to relieve him of responsibility, and [they] blamed Chivington entirely. But Chivington is not entirely to blame. I mean, he is to blame, but not alone, because people like John Evans set the table for him politically; [they] willingly and knowingly created the context,” says Tink Tinker, a member of the Denver report.
I think that the university has made some really genuine efforts. But… if we’ve reached the glass ceiling, that’s a problem. If we’ve built phase one, and we’re moving to phase two, that’s super exciting.
— Megan Bang, Director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research
In the aftermath of the report, Northwestern established several programs to strengthen their relationship with Native Americans through recruitment efforts, culturally-affirming curriculum, and campus support initiatives. One of these programs is the Native American Outreach and Inclusion Task Force (NAOTIF), an intergenerational group working to increase Native visibility on campus. Outlined in a document published in November 2014, NAOTIF provides a list of actions steps for Northwestern to commit to, including “Erect historical markers and revise existing ones to educate the campus community of the Indigenous, and hold a commemorative event this year that highlights the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre.”
As Northwestern integrates these recommendations, their administration is still navigating how to implement progress towards justice. Like any robust change, anti-racist work needs continual innovation and commitment.
“I think that the university has made some really genuine efforts; I do. But here’s the thing, they’ve made genuine efforts within what they thought then about what it meant to do this work. If we’ve reached the glass ceiling, that’s a problem. If we’ve built phase one, and we’re moving to phase two, that’s super exciting,” says Megan Bang, Professor of the Learning Sciences and Director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research.
For Bang, Northwestern has undergone important structural changes to better support its Indigenous community, but it has a long way to go.
“Do I think Northwestern really needs to take a hard look about what their expectations are, and what it really means to have a robust, Native presence in intellectual work [and in] our representation? Yes. Are Native people included in every course at Northwestern? Are Native people even included in courses that take up issues of inequality at Northwestern? Probably not. I’m sure that across the university, most people are still teaching from Indigenous absence. A good university would have fluency amongst everyone that was committed to Indigenous people’s presence in our software. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I also think Northwestern is not an outlier in that. We’re coming along and doing alright, [but we still] have a long way to go.”