The John Evans Study Committee held an open forum Wednesday evening in University Library to update the community on its academic investigation of Northwestern founder John Evans and to receive feedback from the community.
Provost Dan Linzer assembled the committee in February in response to a petition from the Native American and Indigenous Students Association that demanded an investigation of Evans and action to make the University more welcoming to Native Americans. The Study Committee will release a public report in June. Then, Linzer will form another committee to submit recommendations for University action based on the Study Committee’s report.
The Study Committee has been tasked to “to review the history of John Evans with respect to the Sand Creek Massacre … to tell the history of John Evans with respect to Northwestern University and the role of John Evans at the university at the time of and after the Sand Creek Massacre,” Linzer said. A similar investigation is underway at the University of Denver, which Evans helped found.
Evans, one of the nine founding members of Northwestern, served as the first president of the Board of Trustees until 1897. Evans donated multiple parcels of land in Chicago and Evanston to the University throughout his life. The alumni center, a number of endowed University chairs and the city of Evanston are all named after Evans.
Following the Sand Creek Massacre, Evans was asked by President Andrew Johnson to resign from his position as territorial governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs of Colorado. After serving as governor, Evans profited off of Colorado’s railroad boom, a windfall that came at the expense of displaced Native Americans.
The committee, chaired by English and American Studies professor Carl Smith, has examined minutes from Board of Trustees’ meetings, Evans’ personal letters and documents from University and Colorado Archives as well as secondary sources about Evans’ time in Colorado. Smith is joined on the committee by Northwestern professors Peter Hayes, Laurie Zoloth and Andrew Koppelman. They are joined by Yale University professor Ned Blackhawk, University of Oklahoma emerita professor Loretta Fowler, University of Illinois professor Frederick Hoxie and University of Arkansas professor Elliott West.
“We see our work as part of a larger trend in our times nationally and internationally,” Smith said. “A common name for it is truth and reconciliation. Our focus is on the former. This committee will try to find out as best as we can the truth of what happened.”
For over an hour, students, faculty and community members asked Linzer and the committee about their progress so far. Questions ranged from the inclusion of Native American standpoints and scholarship in the investigation to how the process of investigating Northwestern’s relationship with Evans compares to Brown University’s investigation into its involvement in the Atlantic slave trade.
Committee members stressed that their role is not to examine the entire history of the United States’ relationship toward Native Americans or the University’s diversity and inclusiveness efforts, but a limited historical investigation of Evans.
One of history professor’s Peter Hayes’ areas of expertise is examining how German companies profited during the Nazi regime. He has applied that research background in order to investigate Evans’ contributions to Northwestern.
“Everything John Evans gave to Northwestern between the time that it was founded and when he died in 1897, every single donation came in the form of land he purchased in the City of Chicago, all of which he owned before he left for Colorado,” Hayes said in response to a question about examining Evans’ financial ties to the University and economic expansion in Colorado.
During the question-and-answer session, committee members emphasized the complexity of the historical evidence over questions like his involvement in the massacre.
“We don’t know that John Evans was involved in the Sand Creek Massacre,” Hayes said. “That’s why this process is hard. We know he was held politically responsible in 1865 for an event that occurred during his watch, and that’s why he was told to resign. No one that was involved in the Sand Creek Massacre ever testified that John Evans was informed in advance."
Sociology professor Gary Fine then produced a letter from Evans that commanded troops to pursue and kill Indians. Committee members argued that the letter in question was unclear in its references. Between 1863 and 1865, federal forces were involved in a series of conflicts with Native American tribes in Colorado.
When asked about how Northwestern plans to become more inclusive to Native Americans, Linzer said he has worked with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions to make Northwestern more welcoming to Native American applicants.
After the forum, Weinberg junior and NAISA co-president Heather Menefee said the open forum was productive for the community and the committee.
“I think it’s important for the committee to see how many voices feel very strongly that they ought to be included in the committee,” Menefee said. “That will hopefully guide how the second committee is set up so that these voices don’t have to be marginalized.”
Linzer said he was “thrilled” with the community turnout and engagement. There are currently no plans for another forum in advance of the committee’s anticipated report on June 1.
President Morty Schapiro was in attendance at the forum. He tasked Linzer with forming the committee but otherwise has no involvement in the process.