A small group of students and faculty gathered on the lower level of Harris Hall on Friday evening to attend the first meeting of the Northwestern University Memory Project and discuss the question, “Who was John Evans and what now?”
The Northwestern University Memory Project is a new initiative of the NU Native American and Indigenous Student Association that, according to its website, “is dedicated to raising awareness about Evans’ role in the Sand Creek Massacre, and ensuring that these events are not written out of history.”
Weinberg junior Adam Mendel, the NU-NAISA member who proposed the NU Memory Project, set the tone of the meeting with his introduction.
“It’s come to my attention that John Evans, who was the founder of this school, was not really a great guy at all,” Mendel said. He then introduced Evans by reading a biography provided by the Northwestern Alumni Association.
Mendel noted that the biography praised Evans for numerous accomplishments, including “starting the first hospital in Chicago,” while leaving off any mention of Evan’s involvement in the Sand Creek Massacre.
After reading a graphic account of the Massacre, in which 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, including “old men, women, and children” were killed by the Colorado Territory militia, Mendel explained that “[Evans’s] policies directly influenced and lead” to the event at Sand Creek.
Although it is debated exactly what role Evans played in the Massacre (see sidebar), Gary Alan Fine, the John Evans professor of sociology and author of the book Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of the Evil, Inept, and Controversial strongly agreed with Mendel.
Evans was “morally and politically responsible for the single worst act of genocide in American history,” said Fine.
Fine compared the situation the discovery of the Brown family’s involvement in the slave trade at Brown University. Unlike Brown University, however, NU has done nothing address Evan’s acts, he said.
“We have a University that refused to disavow his actions though they were known,” said Fine.
Fine acknowledged that part of the problem was a lack of awareness of Sand Creek on campus. He recounted not knowing about Evans when he was appointed to his namesake professorship.
“I asked myself, who is he?” said Fine, “No one seemed to know.”
Weinberg junior Paul Jackson, who has been involved in many of the diversity discussions during the past week, agreed that getting the word out about Evan’s history was essential.
“If you don’t know John Evans,” said Jackson, “then you don’t know what’s wrong with what John Evans did.”
To address the lack of awareness on campus, Mendel lead the group in brainstorming possible ways to publicize the Memory Project, including renaming the John Evans Alumni Center and filling Deering Meadow with crosses to represent the victims of the Massacre. Mendel plans to further develop the ideas at future Memory Project meetings.
“We need to make sure Sand Creek is not written out of history,” said Mendel, “You can’t move forward unless you accept your past and grow from it.”