Communities in Colorado grapple with town names that hold troubling history

While some fight tirelessly for renaming, others say it's unnecessary.

September 1, 2020, 9:22 PM

In the shadow of Denver’s old airport tower, the neighborhood known as Stapleton is a place with big parks and modern homes. But residents recently decided the neighborhood had an outdated name.

“Stapleton was named after the airport but the airport was named after Benjamin Stapleton, who was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan,” Kimberly Brewer, an activist with the group Rename Stapleton For All, told ABC News.

Brewer helped lead the long fight to rename Stapleton. For decades, that rebranding was rejected by voters. But in June, Brewer says something finally changed.

“I think we as a nation are beginning to grapple with the reality of our history, and what is in a name,” she said.

Along with nationwide protests against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, there’s also been a new reckoning for names and symbols that conjure racism in America’s past. In Colorado, a state with great natural beauty, the state map is still dotted with what some say are ugly slurs -- places like Negro Mesa, Redskin Mountain and Squaw Mountain.

Near the town of Buena Vista, about two hours southeast of Denver, there lies a popular off-roading area called Chinaman Gulch. Local historian Suzy Kelly told ABC News that in the 1800s, a Chinese man lived in the area, where he worked cutting wooden ties for the expanding railroad lines.

“They named it Chinaman Gulch because he lived there,” Kelly explained. “It wasn't an insult. It wasn't done maliciously.”

She says most locals just don’t see the need to change a name that’s been around for 130 years.

“I think they're making a big thing out of nothing, to tell you the truth,” said Kelly.

But today, Chinaman Gulch is on a list of controversial names being reviewed by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Colorado Governor Jared Polis also just created his own renaming commission.

“The people in power are the ones who give the names to different places and that reflects the values of these mythical ideas of American individualism, this rugged sort of approach to the west, this dominance superiority,” Nicki Gonzales, a history professor at Regis University in Denver who also serves on the state’s renaming commission, told ABC News.

“The commission is tasked with examining some of the place names in Colorado that have been highly problematic,” Gonzales said. “For once, we'll have these conversations at the highest level of government in Colorado.”

Sky Roosevelt-Morris and Tink Tinker are with the activist group American Indian Movement. They, too, are challenging white America to rethink the stories about people who have long been celebrated as pioneers and explorers -- people like Kit Carson.

“We like to call them invaders -- colonizers -- because that's exactly what their mission here was: to colonize and commit genocide against indigenous peoples,” Roosevelt-Morris said.

In June, the city of Denver removed a statue of Kit Carson located downtown before protestors could tear it down themselves.

“Carson was a premiere Indian killer. [He] accounted for a number of massacres between Colorado and California,” Tinker said.

Carson’s name is on streets and schools. The Fort Carson Army base in Colorado Springs is named after him. And it’s the name of a small town on Colorado’s eastern plains. Some Kit Carson residents say removing his name from the town would be a step too far.

“History is history. It’s not there for us to like. It’s not there for us to love. It’s for us to learn from,” said resident Kimberly Brown. “And i feel erasing history, good or bad, is not OK.”

Not far down the road is the town of Chivington, another place with a troubled namesake.

In 1864, U.S. Army Colonel John Chivington led soldiers in a massacre at nearby Sand Creek, slaughtering more than two hundred Native Americans, most of them women and children.

It is a wound that Native Americans say hasn’t healed, which is why they say a high school mascot in Lamar -- just 40 miles to the south -- is a painful insult. In Lamar, the local high school team is known as the “Savages.”

“We're not anybody's mascot, we are our own sovereign nations. Our own peoples,” said Tinker.

PHOTO: Students workout during track practice at Savage Stadium in Lamar, March 31, 2015.
Students workout during track practice at Savage Stadium in Lamar, Colo., March 31, 2015.
Rj Sangosti/Denver Post via Getty Images

Locals say that what they call “Savage Nation” comes from a long history in the community, and that it’s meant to unite, not divide.

“In our school, everybody knows if we get called a savage, it’s not offensive in any way. It’s prideful,” said one Lamar High School student.

Acacia Truitt graduated from Lamar High School. She started a petition to keep the “Savage” name.

“We're not using it as a derogative term,” Truitt said. “I think that people, when they look from the outside … they don't see that it's something that we take a lot of pride in.”

But not everyone agrees. Nereida Aguirre graduated from Lamar High School in 2012. She says she had no problem with the Savage mascot until she moved away to college.

“I mentioned the name of my mascot, and a bunch of the kids kind of looked at me and they're like, ‘Are you serious? You're not joking?’ I'm like, ‘I'm serious, that's it,’ and they're like, ‘that's actually really offensive,’” Aguirre said.

She’s now back in Lamar and has joined a group organized by alumni called Lamar Proud, which is working to bury the Savage name.

“I feel that we're in a moment in history and time where the choices we make are kind of influenced by the way we're seen later on, by future generations,” Aguirre said. “There's other good things about that school. So focus on those things, take pride in those. We'll change the mascot.”

Even if that change happens, some activists like Roosevelt-Morris say the real issue goes far deeper.

PHOTO: Alina Balasoiu, a junior  at Lamar High School, walks back to school after play in a soccer game in the fields behind the school, March 31, 2015.
Alina Balasoiu, a junior at Lamar High School, walks back to school after play in a soccer game in the fields behind the school, March 31, 2015.
Rj Sangosti/Denver Post via Getty Images

“Maybe if we are willing to address racist mascots and racist holidays and racist streets and racist statues, then maybe we can start to get to the heart of the issue, which is that this land is stolen. That this country is built on the genocide of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of black relatives,” Roosevelt-Morris said.

Back in Stapleton, they’re now covering up the old signs and making way for a new name: Central Park.

“These names have the potential to evoke a very painful past and exclusive past, and that affects the self-esteem of young people. I think there’s room enough for everybody’s history,” said Gonzales. “I really do think something has shifted. And with the spark of George Floyd’s murder, maybe it’s a point of no return.”