It may have taken over 150 years, but Colorado has finally voided one of the most racist and damning laws in the state’s books: an 1864 order telling residents of the state to kill any Native Americans they encountered.
Patty Nieberg of the Associated Press reported that “Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday, Aug. 17, rescinded a 19th-century proclamation that called for citizens to kill Native Americans and take their property, in what he hopes can begin to make amends for ‘sins of the past.’”
According to Nieberg, “the 1864 order by Colorado’s second territorial governor, John Evans, would eventually lead to the Sand Creek Massacre, one of Colorado’s darkest and most fraught moments in history. The brutal assault left more than 200 Arapaho and Cheyenne people — mostly women, children and elderly — dead.”
Speaking ahead of the ceremony to rescind the centuries-old law, Polis said Evans’ proclamation was never lawful because it contradicted then-current treaties and federal law involving the nation’s Indigenous population.
“It also directly contradicted the Colorado Constitution, the United States Constitution and Colorado criminal codes at the time,” he said to a crowd of cheering onlookers attending the event to celebrate the law’s demise, including citizens of the Southern Ute, Ute Mountain, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, many dressed in traditional regalia.
According to Nieberg, “some held signs reading ‘Recognize Indigenous knowledge, people, land’ and ‘Decolonize to survive.’”
In an interview with the AP, Ernest House Jr., former executive director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs and part of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, said that even though the law was a historic footnote in the state’s history books, officially eliminating it from Colorado law was not just an important step in the reconciliation process, but also crucial for ongoing relations between Indigenous tribes and the state.
“Oftentimes, the general community thinks of American Indians as the vanishing race, the vanishing people,” he said. “I think it starts with [recognition] like this. It gives us a [sense] that we were important and that our lives were important.”
Eliminating offensive Native American bias and stereotypes, whether in language or film or even sports mascots, is a movement that continues to gain steam, fueled by the ongoing urgency of social justice and reform ushered in by the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020.
“That movement coupled with renewed attention to Evans’ history also prompted Polis to create an advisory board to recommend name changes for the highest peak in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, known as ‘Mount Evans,’” Nieberg reported. “Discussions are taking place within the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs to choose ‘more culturally sensitive names.’”
Rarely discussed in history classes today, John Evans was Governor of Colorado between 1862 to 1865, immediately following the Civil War. Following Evans’ order, Col. John Chivington led a brutal slaughter of Native Americans on Nov. 29, 1864 — an event now known as the Sand Creek Massacre.
“Rick Williams, a Lakota and Cheyenne descendant who studies Native American history, found the original Evans’ order while researching the aftermath of the Fort Wise Treaty of 1861, in which U.S. government representatives met with Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders to establish a reservation along the Arkansas River in eastern Colorado,” Nieberg said.
Although only 10 people signed the agreement, Williams said that over the following two years, “it was hell for Indians because they didn’t sign the treaty, and they tried to kill as many of them as they could. And when that didn’t work, [Evans] issued an order to declare war.”
“One of Evans’ orders deemed Native Americans ‘enemies of the state,’ and the second called for Colorado citizens to kill and steal from them,” Williams added.