A student group at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, is petitioning school officials to start a Native American Studies program and recognize the violent history of John Evans, one of the university’s founders.
The Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance (NAISA) is claiming Evans was responsible for “the worst act of genocide in American history” and demanding that university officials recognize that Northwestern was built on “blood money.”
“It’s built on the genocide of Native Americans,” said Heather Menefee, a 19-year-old sophomore and co-founder of NAISA.
Although she is not Native, Menefee said she was outraged by the “lack of ethics” university officials exhibited when they were made aware of Evans’ role in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado.
Evans, governor of the Colorado Territory, set up the conditions for the massacre, where 133 Cheyenne and Arapaho people were killed, mostly women and children.
“This massacre was on a totally different level,” said Gary Alan Fine, the John Evans professor of sociology at Northwestern. “Evans was responsible for massacring people who were camped under a peace flag. Children were killed in front of their mothers. Mothers had their breasts cut off. There is a lot to be answered for.”
Evans issued a proclamation forcing all peaceful Indians in the region to report to the Sand Creek reservation or risk being attacked. A second proclamation invited white settlers to indiscriminately “kill and destroy all ... hostile Indians.”
More than 80 students and faculty members are affiliated with NAISA, which was started last year, but is not yet recognized by the university.
In its petition, addressed to Northwestern University, the group demands four things: formal recognition of Evans’ responsibility for the Sand Creek Massacre, establishment of a Native American Studies program, construction of a memorial for those killed at Sand Creek, and creation of scholarship fund that would actively recruit Cheyenne and Arapaho students and admit two students from those tribes on full scholarships every year.
The group also wants to form a commission to investigate Evans’ and the university’s roles both in the massacre and in whitewashing history.
“This all started when we realized we had an obligation to tell the truth,” Menefee said. “We want the university to rethink its lack of ethics.”
Menefee and the group’s other co-founder, Adam Mendel, plan to shift their leadership roles to Native students once the university recognizes the alliance – hopefully this spring.
Forrest Bruce, a 19-year-old freshman and member of the Fond du Lac band of Ojibwe, will take over as one of the organizers. Bruce, who is studying psychology and human development, said he didn’t know about Evans’ role in the Sand Creek Massacre until after he enrolled at the university.
“I was pretty disappointed,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting to hear that kind of story. I’m glad to be part of something that is seeking to acknowledge that, to reconcile that.”
Although Bruce has no personal ties to the tribes affected in the massacre, he believes the steps listed in the petition – like the scholarship program for Cheyenne and Arapaho students – will help make restitution.
“We are asking for things that can help,” Bruce said. “We want a Native American Studies program. We want Northwestern University to formally acknowledge the past and issue some form of an official apology. I also think if we started a Native American Studies program, that would attract a lot more Native students.”
Only 1 percent of Northwestern University’s 19,000 students is Native. There are no full-time Native professors, said Doug Medin, a psychology professor and faculty advisor to NAISA.
“With more than 40,000 Native people in the Chicago area, and with quite a few tribes in Michigan and Wisconsin that we could be drawing from, it looks like a lack of effort on the school’s part,” he said.
University officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The school celebrates Founder’s Day, which according to Fine has included activities to honor Evans in the past, on January 28. Fine expects the university to respond to the student petition and at least acknowledge the man Evans was on that day.
“Everyone has a rosy view of history,” he said. “Northwestern has a difficult past that it needs to remember and commemorate in specific ways.”