Content warning: This article contains descriptions of the atrocities of the Sand Creek Massacre.
Students, faculty, alumni and others walking through South Campus this weekend may have noticed it. It was hard to miss. Painted in bright yellow letters on the Rock were the words “Fuck John Evans,” “Y’all are racist” and “Don’t come here.” On the bench in front: “Eat the rich” and “This land is colonized.”
Many passersby stopped to take a second look. Some remarked that they didn’t know who Evans is. So—who is John Evans?
One of the founders of Northwestern University and the namesake of Evanston, John Evans was an American politician in the mid- to late-19th century. On March 31, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Evans governor of the Territory of Colorado.
As territorial governor, Evans issued a series of proclamations that paved the way for what would come to be known as the Sand Creek Massacre. On the morning of Nov. 29, 1864, Colonel John Chivington led a band of 675 Colorado volunteer soldiers into a peaceful camp of around 750 Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho people with the intent to kill. Cheyenne chief Black Kettle and many in the village raised white flags to demonstrate peace. Nonetheless, the Colorado soldiers opened fire, slaughtering over 150 people, most of whom were women and children. Soldiers then burned down the village and mutilated the bodies of the dead, taking body parts as trophies.
In congressional hearings following the massacre, Evans refused to accept responsibility for the massacre while also refusing to acknowledge the atrocities committed by the soldiers. The investigative body, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War (JCCW), advised that he be removed from office, leading to his resignation the following year.
In January 2013, the Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance (NAISA) released a petition with a number of demands, including that the University formally acknowledge Evans’ role in the massacre, establish a Native American studies program, build a memorial to honor those killed at Sand Creek and create a scholarship fund for Cheyenne and Arapaho students.
As a direct result of this student activism, Northwestern commissioned the John Evans Study Committee, consisting of seven historians and academics from Northwestern and four other U.S. universities. In the spring of 2014, the committee released its 113-page report, which cleared Evans of culpability for the massacre, but found that “for a long stretch the University participated in and perpetuated a collective amnesia that not just disconnected John Evans from the massacre but erased it entirely.” Still, the report states, “John Evans deserves institutional recognition for his central and indispensable contributions to the establishment of Northwestern and its development through its early decades.”
An independent inquiry conducted by 11 University of Denver faculty members came to starkly different conclusions—a report released in November 2014 found that “John Evans’s 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.”
In the years following the report, Northwestern took a number of steps to repair relations with Native communities, creating the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research, officially recognizing that the University sits on the traditional homelands of the Potawatomi, Odawa and Ojibwe people and holding a commemoration for the massacre.
In November 2015 NAISA launched a petition demanding that John Evans’ name be removed from all campus buildings, notably the John Evans Alumni Center and the Evans Room in Norris. Nearly four years later, the names still stand.
Patty Loew (Bad River Ojibwe), the Director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research at Northwestern, was walking her dog Saturday while testing out a GPS version of the Indigenous Tour of Northwestern. At the Rock, a site where the tour talks about the Sand Creek Massacre, Loew was surprised to see the statements, but disappointed that they included profanity.
“I really appreciate the sentiment, it’s good that people care enough to make a statement,” Loew said. “But dang, I wish it wasn’t quite as vociferous as it was in that obscene form, because there were kids and it was Homecoming Weekend.”
Weinberg senior Lois Biggs (White Earth Ojibwe/Oklahoma Cherokee), the student leader of NAISA, says the University has been working with the group to create an exhibition inside the Evans Center to acknowledge the Sand Creek Massacre, and that the name changes are a complicated topic.
“The University is not willing to change those names, this has been a topic of conversation we’ve had before [with them],” Biggs said. “It’s also complicated, because students set forth this petition to change the name, but then one of the descendants [of Sand Creek] that we’ve talked to in the past seemed to not be interested in the idea of changing the name and seemed to want the name to stay so that it could create dialogue.”
Biggs said that these two ideas don’t have to work in opposition; student demands and the wishes of Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal members and representatives can be taken into consideration together.
“I think the thing I really want to emphasize ... is our commitment to developing relationships with Cheyenne and Arapaho communities and tribal representatives, and really seeing what it is that they would like to see, really meeting with them and making sure that their demands and wishes are heard,” Biggs said.
Some of these representatives will visit campus on Nov. 16 for the Sand Creek Commemoration, an annual event held to bring descendants of the massacre to campus and have them speak firsthand about its history and effects.
In the meantime, the Rock sits covered in blank purple paint. A University spokesperson told NBN in an email, “Northwestern is committed to the principles of free inquiry and free expression, which are central to the mission of the University. However, painting obscenities on University property does not conform with University values. Northwestern has a longstanding practice of removing such language.”
Nonetheless, many on campus see the message as a chance to engage in a dialogue about Northwestern’s history.
“Moving forward, I think this is a really good opportunity to have broader conversations about John Evans,” Biggs said. “Something that we’ve pushed for in the past and that we’d like to push for in the future is programming related to John Evans during Wildcat Welcome, so that there isn’t this, ‘Who is this?’”
Editor's note: NBN has removed a quote by Professor Loew that had appeared at the end of the article previously. This was done to clarify that while she sees the Rock situation as a learning opportunity, she did not mean to trivialize the history of the Sand Creek Massacre.