Monday marked the 162nd anniversary of the university’s founding charter. Students, alumni and faculty commemorated what is being called “Northwestern’s Birthday” with numerous university-sponsored events. Amid this festive atmosphere, the university confronts the tangled history of John Evans, co-founder of the university and Evanston’s namesake.
Celebrations took place across campus. There was free cake in Norris. Those who frequented the dining halls for lunch were served a recreation of a Founder’s Day banquet, with purple desserts. The kosher station in Allison Hall served a turkey sub with non-dairy soy cheese that was labeled a “John Evans Sub Sandwich.”
In Northwestern’s online retelling of its history, John Evans is lauded as one of three key founders. He made one of the first financial contributions to the university, and lobbied state and local politicians to secure land north of Chicago. In addition to his role as Northwestern co-founder, Evans was a physician, abolitionist and Chicago alderman. But as Colorado territorial governor during the Civil War, he may have committed and profited from what some students and faculty members call an act of genocide.
In January, the Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance petitioned the university to investigate Evans’ involvement in the Sand Creek Massacre, the killing and subsequent mutilation of 100 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, the majority of whom women and children, in 1864. The petition emerged as a result of the Northwestern University Memory Project, which NAISA co-president and Weinberg senior Adam Mendel started last year.
“We need a precise historical accounting of John Evans and his involvement with the university,” said Gary Alan Fine, John Evans professor of sociology and co-author of a NAISA-written editorial.
In its petition, NAISA demanded university recognition of the Massacre, the establishment of a Native American Studies Program, a scholarship fund for Arapaho and Cheyenne students and the formation of a committee to conduct a historical investigation how Northwestern might have benefited from the pacification of Native Americans in the Colorado Territory. The petition has collected over 200 signatures.
The Sand Creek Massacre prompted a congressional investigation in 1865. Evans was removed from his federally-appointed post as territorial governor, but continued to finance Colorado’s railroad industry until his death, according to the State of Colorado website. NAISA seeks to examine the relationships between Native American pacification in Colorado, Evans’ accrual of wealth from Colorado’s railroads and his financial contributions to the university.
Heather Menefee, NAISA co-president and Weinberg sophomore, said that NAISA spoke with Patricia Telles-Irvin, vice president for student affairs, on Wednesday, Jan. 23.
“[Telles-Irvin] said she was committed to working with us to investigate John Evans and his relationship with Sand Creek,” Mendel said.
In an email Telles-Irvin confirmed that she had spoken with NAISA. “We had a very good discussion and I shared my conversation with other administrators, including the president,” the email read.
Fine and NAISA members received an email Monday from Telles-Irvin. The email said that an announcement of a university committee to look into the matter is forthcoming.
Telles-Irvin confirmed through email that a committee will be formed. “The president has asked the provost to assemble a group of scholars to look into the matter,” she wrote in an email. The university has yet to issue an official announcement.
Menefee said that NAISA is “looking for more than a committee of scholars.” The petition demands that students, alumni, trustees, faculty and indigenous people make up the committee.
“We’re hoping the announcement will come from the president,” Fine said. “It would’ve been ideal had it been on Founder’s Day.”
In 2003 Brown University appointed a commission to investigate its historical relationship to the transatlantic slave trade. As a result, Brown launched a Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and commissioned a memorial, expected to be installed in a prominent campus location by 2014. The commission was cited by Fine and NAISA as a model for Northwestern to follow.
In May 2012, NAISA hosted a discussion about Evans’ involvement with the Sand Creek Massacre. The group introduced the petition to Burgwell Howard, assistant vice president for student engagement on Nov. 29, the anniversary of Sand Creek.
According to Cubbage the celebration of Northwestern’s founding charter on Jan. 28 is a relatively new event. The Alumni Office and Northwestern Class Alliance started the tradition two years ago, to commemorate the university’s 160th anniversary. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, alumni gathered together and lit candles in honor of the university. However, this celebration occurred on May 31, the day the university was established in 1850. Now alumni, students and faculty can light a virtual candle on the Northwestern website.