The library formerly known as the Byers Branch has officially been renamed the Thunderbird Man Branch in honor of John Emhoolah Jr., an Indigenous activist who spent 50 years advocating for Indigenous students.
What’s more, Emhoolah, a member of the Kiowa and Arapaho tribes, was a descendent of survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre, the same massacre the library’s old namesake, William Byers, belittled.
Emhoolah gave decades of his life to public service. After completing a bachelor’s degree in education at Colorado State University, he served in the Army during the Korean War. After the war he founded the University of Washington’s Native American Studies Program, before continuing his mission in Colorado lobbying for more tribal school funding. He was a leader in the Denver Indigenous community for decades before his death on April 21, 2021, at the age of 91.
The library was previously named after William Byers, an entrepreneur who founded the Rocky Mountain News in 1859. Through the paper, Byers defended the November 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in which roughly 200 people, mainly women, children and elders from the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, were killed by the military. The Army heralded the ambush of a peaceful encampment as a victory, and Byers published sympathetic articles while ignoring any testimony that questioned or criticized the violence.
The Denver Public Library began reviewing the names of its branches last year after the George Floyd protests brought new waves of social reckoning. The library previously released naming rules and guidelines so community members could weigh in on the decision.
The library is planning a celebration to commemorate the name change on Nov. 13 to coincide with Native American Heritage Month.