RISING WEST OF Denver, Colorado, like a giant wave is an iconic fourteen-thousand foot mountain that millions of people stare up to every day. (When they remember to look up, that is, and when clear skies allow it.)
This mountain is a reminder to everyone below that there is more to life than concrete, commerce, traffic and endless schedules. It is a reminder of another way of life and another kind of place that is slower, simpler and wilder – a place where human influence is limited and an escape, of sorts, can be found. It is a reminder of an older and arguably wiser world that was here before us and will probably be here long after we have gone (especially if we don’t quickly learn some humility).
The first people to know this mountain left little mark upon it. They lived beneath it and occasionally upon it, using the mountain to orient themselves when out in the plains. These people appear to have traveled upon ‘the land’ with a profoundly different attitude to the one we modern humans typically show, seeing it more as a home to tread and treat with respect than a resource for commercial and recreational exploitation. To some of these people the mountain was known as ‘Ceneeteese’ – the Arapaho word for ‘misty’ – or so I’m told. It’s not a bad name at all. It’s descriptive and reveals something of the mountain’s character. It’s a name of respect, not of ownership.
A different name was given to the mountain when a different breed of people arrived in the region. Operating on the deep-set belief that the landscape and its inhabitants were things they had a right to dominate and subdue, the new settlers began altering the land as it had never been altered before and renaming its features after themselves, arrogantly claiming ownership of something that they never could actually own. After all, just like us today, these settlers were only ‘passing through’, no matter how long they called the place home. The simple truth is we can never fully own the land. We can only live upon it and be temporary stewards of it. What kind of stewards, that’s the question.
In 1863, landscape artist Albert Bierstadt visited the mountain and named it after the woman soon to be his wife, Rosalie. According to many sources today, Bierstadt was the first person to climb the mountain – a questionable claim and another sign of the arrogance of those who seem to believe that nothing that happened in the thousands of years prior to ‘our’ arrival has any relevancy.
The name Rosalie Peak stuck until 1895, but then – shamefully – it was changed to Mount Evans, to honor Colorado’s second governor, John Evans. Evans was governor from 1862 to 1865, but he finished his governorship in disgrace after his culpability in the horrifying Sand Creek massacre, and his wanton persecution of native Americans, could no longer be tolerated. In 1864, Evans had issued a proclamation that authorized “all citizens of Colorado… to go in pursuit of all hostile Indians [and] kill and destroy all enemies of the country.” On November 29, 1864, a troop of some 700 cavalry descended on a peaceful encampment at Sand Creek while most of the men were away hunting, and indiscriminately slaughtered an estimated 160 people, the majority women and children. (Some reports put the death toll far higher.) For this brutal act of genocide – this barbaric crime against humanity – Governor Evans decorated the cavalry for their “valor in subduing the savages.” Three decades later, Evans himself was ‘decorated’ with a mountain’s name.
Fast-forward more than a century, and few of the present-day millions who lift their eyes to the mountain every day, and few of those who visit the peak, have any idea how inappropriate the name is, or how much of an open wound and an ongoing insult it reportedly (and understandably) remains to Cheyenne and Arapaho People. Until recently, I was one of them; I was totally oblivious to the crimes of the past. I used the names ‘Mount Evans’ and ‘Mount Evans Wilderness’ lightly and in complete ignorance… until stumbling upon the truth only three months ago.
I first saw the mountain in 2000 while thru-hiking across Colorado en-route to Canada, and first stepped onto it late in 2003 after moving to the state. Since then, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve visited. Through walking, scrambling, running, snowshoeing, skiing, camping, iglooing, sleeping beneath the stars, and – perhaps most importantly – through sitting quietly in observant stillness, I’ve come to know the mountain and its many moods fairly well, although I sense that there is so much more still to learn. From time spent in the secret corners where few people ever go, I’ve come to treasure the mountain’s special qualities, unique characteristics, and wild inhabitants. Over these past two decades the entire area has become a refuge that I care about with a passion. The connection and renewal I find on and around the mountain only grow stronger with each visit.
I am fairly certain that I am not alone in what I find up there. I see the same connection and renewal in many other visitors – even those who drive up the road to the summit, snap a quick selfie, then drive straight back down again. The majority of visitors, whether they know it or not, have their perspectives altered through entering an environment profoundly different from the one they usually inhabit. Experiences are cumulative, they often sink deep, even when not consciously acknowledged. Someone who has looked out across the plains from the mountain’s highest slopes will never again see them in the same light.
Careful observation of visitors – of their behavior and body language, and above all of their expressions – can reveal that most are being touched by where they are and by what they are experiencing. Nourishment of ‘spirit’… a lightening of the load that our so-called ‘normal’ life places on our shoulders… and above all a sense of renewal, can clearly be seen. This is not a stretch. If you visit any mountain or wild place with others you can test this out for yourself. Look hard for what nature does to people and you’ll see a change in them and to them, even if they themselves are unaware that anything beneficial is taking place. Nature heals.
Despite my own first-hand knowledge of the mountain I only learned of the renaming in August. Somehow, I missed the earlier stages of the process – perhaps because my head was, quite literally, up in the clouds. But after attending a Colorado Geographical Renaming Advisory Board meeting in October, which outlined in great detail why the current name should not remain, I completely understood the reasons. And I also understood why the name ‘Mount Blue Sky’ had been proposed, and why it has become the frontrunner. (The Arapaho are also known as the Blue Sky People, and Cheyenne People have an annual life-renewal ceremony called Blue Sky.) Arapaho and Cheyenne people have been appallingly wronged over the centuries – and that would be an understatement. To have such a visible mountain renamed in honor of their culture and traditions makes a great deal of sense. It will never undo the gruesome atrocities of the past, but it would make a clear statement of respect moving forward.
Once I learnt all this, I could only imagine how welcome the name change must be to descendants of the Sand Creek massacre. I cannot imagine that anyone would argue against the renaming, once the reasons for it are learnt.
And yet, to me, something within the renaming process seemed to be missing. At first I couldn’t put my finger on what it might be, but it lingered in mind, nagging away. I tried to dismiss it and move on, tried to accept that Mount Blue Sky was a great new name, but ultimately couldn’t. And finally I saw it – that renaming the mountain to honor a people and their culture would still, when it came down to it, be renaming nature after human things. Yes, it would strike away a name that should never have been given. Yes, the atrocities committed deserved atonement. Yes, this new name would help with that and move ‘us’ all forward. But would it move us forward enough? Would the new name really be all that different at its most basic level from all the other names that are based on people, from Rosalie Peak, Pikes Peak, Longs Peak and hundreds – no, thousands – of others?
During the Renaming Advisory Board meeting I attended, and across the many news stories and websites that I’ve read, I’ve seen scant mention of the mountain itself. It’s as if nature doesn’t matter, an all-too-common theme in our modern world (and an explainer of many of the environmental and even moral challenges we face). To me, this lack of acknowledgement of the mountain itself is a glaring omission in the renaming process. Even if Mount Blue Sky is to become the final name, shouldn’t what the mountain actually is be a part of the discussion? To fail to consider the land’s unique qualities and characteristics, and to fail to even consider a name that isn’t based on human things, makes a very clear statement about how little we value the land and nature.
Admittedly, an argument could be made that ‘blue sky’ does make a statement about the mountain’s character. But I’d counter by saying: “barely”. Yes, Colorado is known for blue skies, but so is Florida and Texas and a great many other places. Blue sky is hardly unique to the mountain. And beyond that, the mountain is also frequently a place of clouds and storms, and of mist – ceneeteese. It is far wilder than ‘blue sky’ would suggest.
To test my own reaction to the name, I discussed it with other people I know who also know the mountain well. Even when the reasons behind ‘blue sky’ were explained, the majority seemed underwhelmed by the name, as though it was too bland and prosaic for such a special place.
But despite this reaction, and from what I can see, few others are speaking up to mention this. Perhaps it simply hasn’t occurred to other people? Perhaps the convention of naming mountains after human things is too deeply ingrained to be questioned? Perhaps it’s because the crimes of the past are so heinous that any approach other than making amends is deemed irrelevant? Or perhaps the reason is fear of causing offense; fear of coming across as unsympathetic to everything that Native American people have suffered and lost? To be honest, I feel this fear myself. I’m writing this entire piece with deep trepidation, concerned that my words will be mistaken as a lack of respect for the Arapaho and Cheyenne People, and as a lack of horror at the sickening atrocities that took place at Sand Creek and elsewhere. But the truth is, disrespect is not what I feel. It is not why I am writing. Although I can never know how descendants of the massacre must feel I do have immense empathy as a fellow human for what must surely be an ongoing torment.
Beyond the Blue Sky name, which at least makes a passing reference to nature, the other names being considered are all based on people. It’s as if we really can’t imagine any other way of coming up with a name! There is Mount Soule – in honor of Silas Soule, a cavalry caption who refused to take part in the massacre; a return to using Mount Rosalie – in honour of Bierstadt’s wife; Mount Sisty – to honor Wilson Sisty, founder of the Colorado Department of Wildlife and Fish; and Mount Evans again – but this time to honor John Evans’ daughter, Anne Evans, who co-founded and supported several of Colorado’s largest cultural institutions. (At one time, Mount Cheyenne-Arapaho was also in contention, until it was withdrawn by the tribal members who proposed it in favor of Mount Blue Sky.)
I’ve thought about the renaming long and hard, debating my own motives, questioning the purpose of a name, wondering whether or not I should simply stay quiet and defer to those who have already proposed names; wondering if I should defer to the Arapaho and Cheyenne People who have suffered in ways I’ll never know, who have lived here generations longer than I have, and who might, perhaps, have spent longer exploring the mountain than I have and might very well know it far better.
Plus, being realistic, it’s unlikely that what I have to say will make any difference. The renaming process is far advanced, and once minds are set few are typically open to change.
And it is just a name after all! The mountain will remain indifferent to it. My own experiences when visiting won’t change no matter what name is picked.
And yet… it’s hard to step away. A name can have such power. It can make a profoundly meaningful statement. The right name can spark a conversation; reframe how people look at the thing named; lead to real and much-needed change in attitudes, in approach, in how a place is treated.
And yet… despite this, still I held back, wavering, hesitating, out of respect for the Arapaho and Cheyenne People, respect for the reasons behind ‘Mount Blue Sky’, and out of fear that I may simply be wrong, that at this point in history ‘Blue Sky’ IS the right name.
But ultimately, I can’t hold back any longer. The omission of ‘nature’ from the renaming discussion is simply too much of a ‘nature-is-irrelevant’ statement for me to ignore.
So, respectfully to everyone involved, I would like to propose an additional approach: that nature is brought into the discussion.
The renaming of such a prominent and iconic peak, a mountain seen daily by millions, presents a rare opportunity to make a different and broader kind of statement to the one that ‘Blue Sky’ makes – a statement to remind all people of nature and its life-sustaining importance.
Some might ask: why bother? I’d reply: because, in today’s world, such a reminder is clearly necessary… and critically important.
Nature IS the foundation that supports us. Some may scoff at that, but that doesn’t change the reality. The sooner we realize it the better off we will all be. Wouldn’t it be something to bring this reality to the forefront and make it central in the renaming process? Wouldn’t it be something to consider naming a mountain for what it inherently is? Wouldn’t it be something to create a name with humility, to remove ‘us’ and ‘our works’ from the equation – or to, at the very least, consider a name that hints at how nature supports, sustains and renews us?
Perhaps… hopefully… members of the Colorado Geographical Renaming Advisory Board will give this some serious thought.
In my opinion, if nature is included in the discussion, the final name chosen should be in Arapaho or Cheyenne. I believe it remains critically important to honor the People and remind everyone of all that has passed. As I see it, ‘blue sky’ runs a risk of failing in this. It seems possible – if not probable – that the meaning behind the name might fade in time, or might even never be known to some visitors. But the continuous use of a non-English name, along with an accompanying English translation, might potentially keep to the forefront the necessary and important discussion on history and nature.
If I spoke Arapaho or Cheyenne I’d make my own suggestions. Perhaps there’s a word for the ‘sacredness of nature’ that could serve, or a phrase for ‘The Sacred Place’, or a word that describes the foundational importance of nature?
Maybe there’s a word for a special place where one can go to find renewal, perspective, harmony, balance, sustenance? ‘The Place of Renewal’, perhaps? (Again, look closely at visitors to the mountain and you’ll see that this is exactly what most people find, no matter if they hike, run, bike, climb or drive.)
Or perhaps there’s a word simply to denote what the mountain is as a place apart from the human world: ‘The Land Above’, or ‘The Land That Touches the Sky’, or an aspirational version: ‘The Land of Many Gifts that Reaches the Sky’?
If a Native American name turns out to be harder to say than the simple and easy ‘Blue Sky’ then so much the better. Should we shy away from challenging people? Mountains can be challenging, and that’s not a bad thing. Challenge brings growth. It almost always makes us more.
I’m not conceited enough to presume that any of my suggested names are the right ones. (As I’ve clearly demonstrated: coming up with names isn’t easy!) I’ve simply made my suggestions and written all of this because of the importance of bringing to everyone’s attention an omission in the renaming process: to ultimately say that there’s so much more to nature than just ‘us’.
Let’s find a name that shows that we, here in the twenty-first century, have evolved beyond only seeing the world in human terms and can now see a bigger picture.
Renaming this mountain is rare opportunity. Let’s take our time and make a forward-thinking choice. A choice that can add to what has already been proposed. A choice that can make amends for the past, honor it, and also honor nature. A ‘bigger picture’ choice.
To put it more simply: should we consider nature, or only us?