Colorado Gov. Polis repeals state’s 1864 anti-Native American proclamations

Dozens of Native American and Indigenous people from Colorado and Oklahoma gathered Tuesday to celebrate the repeal of two 157-year-old proclamations by former Territorial Governor John Evans that harmed their ancestors before the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864.

Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order outside of the Capitol to mark the occasion, rescinding Evans’ decrees issued June 27, 1864, and Aug. 11, 1864. The first required “friendly Indians” to go to certain camps while Indigenous families who fought “the whites” had to be kept away “until they are all effectually subdued.” The second called on Coloradans to pursue “hostile Indians” with weapons; they would get paid for doing it and could keep all stolen property for themselves.

Evans ultimately was forced to resign because of the Sand Creek Massacre where U.S. soldiers attacked and killed Native people, including Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, in southeastern Colorado territory. The soldiers spent seven hours killing and mutilating hundreds of people, even after a peace agreement that was broken.

Tribal leaders who gathered Tuesday with Polis, Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera and other state leaders said the move was a step toward healing generational trauma and an acknowledgement of their history. They shared their experiences, sang traditional songs and prayed together.

“To me, hundreds of years later, the fact that we’re finally taking away those hateful words and we’re also making a place where we’re all safe is a big step,” Northern Arapaho Tribal Chairman Jordan Dresser said. “We have a long ways to go in terms of race relations and us as Native people and people of color to feel safe at all places at all times. But these are the right steps that are going to ensure that those things continue in a good faith.”

Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Treasurer Alston Turtle said Native people have been resilient throughout history and this is a time to make things right. He encouraged people in other states to advocate for similar reforms, and said the next step should be renaming Mount Evans.

Last year, Polis created a state geographic naming board to consider changing the names of mountains and bodies of water with racist ties, including Mount Evans.

Ruth Gardipe of the Southern and Northern Cheyenne tribes said her parents came to Colorado through the relocation program in the 1950s, and she and her sister were born in Denver. Gardipe said they used to hear stories from her mother about her mother’s great-grandmother, a survivor of the Sand Creek Massacre.

“I feel very blessed,” Gardipe said of being part of Tuesday’s event, years after her parents were active in their Native communities. “I feel very honored.”

Tribal elder Richard Williams, who has Lakota and Cheyenne heritage, started looking into the history of Indigenous people in Colorado two years ago and found Evans’ proclamations. He reached out to Democratic state Rep. Adrienne Benavidez of Commerce City for help and then formed a group to advocate for the repeal of the proclamations.

They kept at it until they finally got the attention of the governor, he said.

“It had to be done because it was putting people’s lives in jeopardy, whether they think it or not,” Williams said. “Our Indian people were psychologically impacted by this. So, this isn’t the end. This is the beginning.”

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