Full Letter

Decolonize DU: “pioneering” Land Acknowledgements

March 20, 2020

Mary Reed Building

2199 S. University Blvd.

Denver, CO 80208

To those who hold power at the University of Denver,

We are students of the University of Denver who are in pursuit to use our voices to define a new future. We are here to invite those in power to work toward decolonizing this campus and to create change and equity for all people. We are here to shape our futures.

The University of Denver is an institution that prides itself on diversity and inclusive excellence. This is a motif that serves to bring people together, however, it is concerning that there is a lack of culturally diverse curriculum, staff and student body on this campus. Marginalized students are experiencing both internal and external hardships attending this institution, impacting their academic success and health.The root of this issue derives from colonial and settler practices that stem from the construction of the nation when pioneers colonized the land.

The University of Denver identifies with the mascot “pioneers” and forcefully labels the student body with the same identity. The history behind the “pioneers” is associated with land theft, erasure of cultures, murder, rape, toxic masculinity, heteropatriarchy, binaries, assimilation, discrimination, oppression and racism. The University of Denver continues the process of colonialism by identifying as “pioneers”, and, in doing so, disrespects not only the student body as a whole, but the Native American community that attends this institution. We, the students, the people, do not wish to be labeled “pioneers” nor do we choose to identify with the word.

 The continuation of colonialism through the glorification of the word “pioneers” hinders the institution’s ability to grow towards being genuinely culturally diverse and inclusive. The University of Denver will never achieve “inclusive excellence” or “diversity” without removing this name from our collective campus identity. Furthermore, the University of Denver must take this step to address the history of this institution in regards to the intentional erasure of our Native student’s histories. 

We hope to restore a narrative in which Native people are restored a right to exist on this land in order to shape the future for the new students that set foot on this campus. We cannot move forward as a community without the University of Denver addressing the true foundations upon which this institution was built on.

The Word

Define the word “pioneer”. What does it mean to you? What does the image of a “pioneer” look like? For some, it might capture a lone settler looking upon the prairie, taming the land for his settlement. This immediately brings us to the understanding that the word “pioneer” is masculine, gendered word. It does not include a female entity; rather, you picture a prospector or a rancher. This gendered word does not reflect the broader community of the University of Denver. On this campus, you can see a community intersected by culture, language and traditions, each intersection unique beyond the bounds of the word “pioneer”. These are the same languages and cultures that “pioneers” tried to destroy or assimilate. To put it bluntly, a “pioneer” is not an explorer or a trailblazer, but rather a force of destruction and erasure. 

A “pioneer” is an expression of unabashed imperialism, supporting manifest destiny sought to exploit and commit geoncide against Native People. The image of the “pioneer” is the image of the U.S cavalry charging onto peaceful camps along the Sand Creek. It is the governor declaring “at the points indicated; also, to kill and destroy, as enemies of the country, wherever they may be found, all such hostile Indians,” (Evans 1864). 

This legacy of the University of Denver is interconnected with geoncide and, consequently, this history is carried on in the glorification of the “pioneers.” Our perception is ignored, our history is overlooked, and our experiences are rejected. As long as the word “pioneer” is connected to the University of Denver, there cannot be reconciliation. 

Your land acknowledgments are not sincere and your efforts to help the community are not credible if the history of John Evans is not acknowledged. It is disheartening to know that the founder of the University of Denver saw Native people as non-humans with no souls, who was “culpable” for the Sand Creek massacre. And still, the 150 men, women, and children who were massacred near the Sand Creek will never be honored if the”pioneer” lives on. By glorifying the “pioneer”, you desecrate the land on which these human lives were taken, and hold white supremists, rapists, and murderers in high esteem. This is more than mere complacency, this is a shameful celebration of a genocidal legacy. Doesn’t DU deserve better?

Land Acknowledgement “DU know why you are here?”

“Acknowledgment by itself is a small gesture. It becomes meaningful when coupled with authentic relationships and informed action. But this beginning can be an opening to greater public consciousness of Native sovereignty and cultural rights, a step toward equitable relationship and reconciliation.” (USDAC 2017, 3)

In settler-colonial countries, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and in Tribal Nations in the U.S., land acknowledgements have been increasingly common (USDAC 2017, 2). The University of Denver is one of many United States institutions attempting to honor the “sacrifice” (Morgridge College 2018) of Indigenous people through the use of Land Acknowledgements. This can be a “simple, powerful way of showing respect and a step toward correcting the stories and practices that erase Indigenous people’s history and culture and toward inviting and honoring the truth.” (USDAC 2017, 2). While created with innocuous intentions, land acknowledgements must be paired with action to be more than just lip service. Furthermore, using the term “sacrifice” is problematic as the University of Denver does not occupy the lands which it does as a result of a sacrifice on the part of Indigenous peoples; but rather human rights violations against Indigenous peoples and the taking of their land.

The University of Denver must acknowledge and engage with the processes which have brought DU to having the moral responsibility to account for crimes against Indigenous people. Yet, the university has exercised its privilege to atone only as far as is comfortable. Why is DU here? How does “settling” land where people have lived for eons affect us all today? The story of our campus, and our nation begin with legal and moral justifications for genocide. Officially endorsed massacres of innocent women and children such as is detailed in the John Evans report were not rare, nor has the state’s culpability to continued murder and violence become a thing of the past. The maintenance of legal impunity for American settlers who continue to murder and rape Indigenous women and girls is clear evidence that the “pioneer spirit” is alive and well in the United States (Deer 2015). 

Acknowledging Genocide

“What kind of conqueror takes such care to keep up the appearance that no conquest is taking place?” (Branner 2005, 2)

Consistently, great efforts are taken by governments, institutions, and individuals to ignore, minimize or cover up genocides which they find themselves associated with. Shame, guilt, and inevitable association between privilege and crime make it painful or unpleasant for the perpetrators to accept. While western philosophers such as John Locke, the Moral and Legal Justifications for Dispossessing the Indians, and the Puritans’ Justification for Taking the Land” (Banner 2007, 10), attempted to establish moral imperatives for settling; the settlers themselves engaged in sanctioned systematic killings through direct massacres, poisoning, and intentional introduction of European diseases. Anthropologist, by the name of Henry Dobyns utilized a ‘depopulation ratio’ closely informed by the impact of epidemics upon populations with no immunity to assert that simply from disease 95% or more Native Americans were killed (Lewis 1997). Many well-documented massacres, including the “slaughter of between 100 and 200 Cheyennes at Sand Creek (Colorado Territory) in 1864,” of which our founder was culpable, and on the same year as DU’s founding, (Clemmer-Smith et al. 2014), “have often been treated as instances of genocide,” (Ostler 2019, 356). 

However, this genocide is not in the past. “Within their daily lives, Native Americans experience the effects of broken treaties, loss of land and cultural rights, and breaches of fiduciary duty.” (Moreton-Robinson 2015, 55). Native peoples continue to be affected on the micro and macro level, living in a system that was created to work against them, on their own land. Through recognition and acknowledgement, we take small steps toward reconciliation, but this is not enough. As a “student-centered” institution of higher education which strives to “empower students who want to make a difference,” we can and must DU better* (University of Denver 2020; wecanDUbetter 2020).

Continuing to refuse to acknowledge this genocide is unacceptable. Continuing to refuse to acknowledge this genocide while living in and continuing the legacy of a man culpable of an act of genocide is abhorrent. It is time to to acknowledge genocide.

A Brief History

The Legal Myth of the Settler State

“Settler-colonial invasion is a structure not an event: a set of ongoing techniques (including inter alia, geographical removal, sequestration, allotment in severalty, assimilation, and tribal termination) whereby settler authorities continue to seek the elimination of Native societies once the dust has settled on the initial violence of the frontier,” (Wolf 2012, 4)

In order to cover the narrative of violent deterritorialization, a sort of legal and moral justification was established side-by-side with the centuries of well documented atrocities. At the present, the University of Denver owns this land, but this time is only a fraction of the time that this land has been the territory of the Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples, among other Native tribes. If we examine why any of this land is “legally” owned by descendants of settlers, it is because of an 18th century agreement between European states.

The Doctrine of Discovery

“to see was to conquer,” (Wolf 2012, 11)

            The Royal Proclamation of 1763 formally established the British land claims and ‘Indian Country’. The claim stipulated that while Indigenous Peoples held the right of occupancy, the Crown held the ultimate title of the land. This proclamation served to ward off other European claims on Indigenous land while permitting the British empire the opportunity to absorb their newly acquired Crown lands at their leisure. The King’s right to make such a claim was not based on diplomacy with First Nations, but rather Diplomacy with European nations who had long struggled with how best to prevent violent land grabs from leading to conflict with their neighbors in Europe (Wolf 2012, 9). 

Tied directly to the doctrine of discovery, was the right of preemption. This established the “exclusive right to purchase the Natives’ right of occupancy should they choose to sell it” (Wolf 2012, 11-12). Our current claim of authority is built upon this assumption of power which the European monarchies held hundreds of years ago. Our country’s legitimacy and geographic authority are grounded in having “inherited” a claim of authority by a king that we argued had no authority in the colonies. Settler colonialism that followed was built upon an assumption that the US essentially already owned all of the lands, and this arrogance would be reflected in the western expansion and current era as a settler state.

Settler Colonialism and the Pioneer

“For more than five hundred years, Native communities across the Americas have demonstrated resilience and resistance in the face of violent efforts to separate them from their land, culture, and each other.” (USDAC 2017, 2)

The Image of the pioneer in the United States is intimately tied to the period of westward expansion and romanticized stories of fur trappers, miners, and settlers. Denver has an iconic relationship with all three as one of the most storied “boom towns” of the West. The boom of pioneers chasing the promise of “vacant land”, un-staked gold, coal, and silver, as well as vast grasslands for cattle, or forests and riparian ecosystems teeming with highly profitable game led to close contact with Indigenous Peoples. Due to the desire for territory and settler anxieties stemming from “hostile Indian” propaganda, this was also a time of the citizen militias and both official and unofficial campaigns of extermination. Bounties were set and paid for ears and scalps of Cheyenne and Arapahoe neighbors, while personal trophies consisting of other body parts were collected and displayed. Women and children who were not killed outright were trafficked as slaves. 

As the John Evan’s Report highlights, during this era of Denver history, even peaceful Native groups which had negotiated formal peace treaties with the United States were not immune from pioneer violence. The pattern typified by John Evans’ role in the massacre at Sand Creek is one that forms the most basic strategy of settler colonialism.   

Settler colonialism is not a discrete nor historic occurrence. There was not some moment when settlement happened and Indigenous people vanished; settlers are still settling, and Indigenous people are still living on and off of reservations. According to US Census numbers from 2010, 46,395 out of 56,010 of Native Americans live in urban areas such as the Denver Metro area. While this strongly shows the survivance of Indigenous peoples – in the face of historical and ongoing violence, forced assimilation, and removal – the process of settler colonialism is still occurring. The pioneer figure exemplifies and validates this violent process, especially at such an institution as DU.


“Seeing the word ‘pioneer’ as indigenous students, it’s very degrading because in our experience, ‘pioneer’ is associated with westward expansion, genocide, oppression, assimilation of Native American students,” (Woody quoted by McFadden 2017)

It is hypocritical to remove the controversial “Boone” the pioneer while continuing to employ the use of the “pioneer” nickname, one that continues to validate the violence inflicted on Native Americans. The University has begun quietly removing the “pioneer” nickname from awards and ID cards, yet the majority of the student body remains uninformed about these changes.

Land Acknowledgement and Recognizing Settler Colonialism

“Acknowledgment should be approached not as a set of obligatory words to rush through. These words should be offered with respect, grounded in authentic reflection, presence, and awareness. ” (USDAC 2017, 8) 

“Acknowledgment is but a first step. It does not stand in for relationship and action, but can begin to point toward deeper possibilities for decolonizing relationships with people and place.” (USDAC 2017, 4) 

We collectively insist that the University of Denver critically engage with settler colonialism, genocide, and the institution’s own history in moving forward. We expect DU to include these perspectives in our land acknowledgements going forward. 


We are asking the University of Denver and all its community to face hard truths about our history and our present in order to create a better future. We do this so, collectively, we can craft a community that feels welcomed and heard not excluded and silenced. As students, we strive to create, in the name of education, with the hope of positively impacting the world. The University of Denver asks us to produce work under the banner of a mascot that represents ongoing historical oppression. How can students, staff, and the wider community trust DU as an institution of change when they cannot even change themselves? 

The mascot and land acknowledgments are not the only aspects that need to be critically evaluated – to take part in decolonization, the whole system must be inspected. This structural change can start with changing the mascot, but it must not end there. In addition, we are calling on the university to engage more deeply with the surrounding tribal communities, on the reservation and in the city, in an attempt to start fostering a healthy relationship that positively impacts both communities. Continued engagement with the University of Denver’s history is an important action to remind us of the violent past associated with westward expansion and provide a historical perspective. The John Evans report can provide some of this context, but, even more critically, we must engage with indigenous studies. Most research in academia “assumes that Western ideas about the most fundamental things are the only ideas possible to hold…and the only ideas which can make sense of the world” (Smith 1999, 56). DU needs to work both externally and internally to challenge the assumption of Western knowledge as primacy. Accepting and critically engaging Native Studies and indigenous ways of knowing help students expand their world view and challenge their assumptions. What we are asking of the University of Denver is not easy nor quick, it is a complex process that needs to start now and continue indefinitely. Like colonization, decolonization is a process that only provides results if work and care go into policies of change. It is time to build something new together. 

Our Expectations for the University of Denver:

  • The erasure of the mascot and the word “pioneer” moving forward. 
  • The history of John Evans is consistently and publicly acknowledged. 
  • The history of genocide and our realistic impact on the Native peoples of our area is sought out and publicaly acknowleged.
  • Critical engagment with settler colonialism, genocide, and the institution’s own history moving forward in classrooms, organizations, and decision making bodies.
  • Inclusion of these perspectives in our land acknowledgements.
  • Structural change to engage and welcome Native peoples to our university, including but not limited to: Native professors, access to Native studies and literature, and Native specific resources.
  • Continued contact with the university’s Native communities to hear and meet their concerns.
  • Decolonize DU

With hopes for a better DU,

The Voices of Decolonize DU



An Acknowledgement to the White People Reading, Specifically White Men:

I have spent the last ten weeks being the only white man in this class. I have learned stories of devastation and disparity, as well as desire and hope — all of which have little or no impact on myself. Many of us, myself included, often live in a bubble of privilege. Many of us reject the word “feminism,” and when we do not, our feminisms go nothing beyond white feminism. This is a call for us to do better. Indigenous people exist in our community and we must respect them, support them, and acknowledge their success on this campus. We can no longer turn a blind eye because we feel unaffected. Their needs are outlined in this letter, but this demand does not come from their community alone. This demand comes from white men like me. In a system that repeatedly gives our voices more weight and acknowledgement, it’s time to show up for others. Until this system is dismantled, we must acknowledge our positionality and use it to bring others up with us.

Noah Mills

Participant of Decolonize DU

University of Denver Undergraduate Student


*The students behind this letter chose to bring in the We Can DU Better movement to stand in solidarity with as well as form alliances with a cause that stands up for the survivors of gender based violence on DU’s campus. We believe their cause is deeply rooted in heteropatriarchy and settler colonialism, as well. Gender-based violence disproportionately affects Indigenous women, girls, and femmes across the globe. We stand with them.


Arvin, Maile. Tuck, Eve. Morrill, Angie. (2013) “Decolonizing Feminism: Challenging Connections between Settler Colonialism and Heteropatriarchy” Feminist Formations, Volume 25, (1): 8-34

Banner, Stuart. 2005. How the Indians Lost Their Land Law and Power on the Frontier. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Clemmer-Smith, et al. 2014. “Report of the John Evans Study Committee: University of Denver.” https://portfolio.du.edu/evcomm

Deer, Sarah. 2015. The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America. University of Minnesota Press.

Evans, John. 1864. “Proclamation [August 11, 1864].” Quoted in “Report of the John Evans Study Committee: University of Denver,” written by Clemmer-Smith et al. https://portfolio.du.edu/evcomm

Lord, Lewis. 1997. “How Many People Were Here before Columbus?” U.S. News & World Report 123 (7): 68–70.

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. 2015. White Possessive : Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. University of Minnesota Press. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/du/detail.action?docID=2051599

Morgridge College (2018) Land Acknowledgement, University of Denver. http://morgridge.du.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Land-Acknowledgement.pdf

Ostler, Jeffrey. 2019. Surviving Genocide : Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas. Yale University Press. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/du/detail.action?docID=5761218

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies : Research and Indigenous Peoples. London ; New York: Zed Books.

U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC). 2017. “Honor Native Land: A Guide and Call to Acknowledgement.” https://usdac.us/nativeland

University of Denver. 2020. “Build an education that builds the world.” Homepage – https://www.du.edu/. Accessed March 18, 2020.

wecanDUbetter. 2020. “stop gender violence @ DU.” Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/wecandubetter/?hl=en

Wolfe, Patrick. 2012. “Against the Intentional Fallacy: Legocentrism and Continuity in the Rhetoric of Indian Dispossession.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 36 (1): 1–46.

Woody, Raelene. 2017. Quoted in “DU Native Student Alliance launches #NoMorePios campaign,” written by Monica McFadden. https://duclarion.com/2017/10/du-native-student-alliance-launches-nomorepios-campaign/. Accessed March 19, 2020.