UPDATED at 4:19: To clarify comments by Lou Yost.
When news broke here in the He Sapa that its highest peak would be renamed from Harney Peak to Black Elk Peak, it struck like a thunderbolt. Though the AP story appeared in the local Rapid City Journal in the late afternoon, within 45 minutes more than 50 comments had been posted.
All of them passionate, most against the decision
The name Harney Peak has long been a source of anger and resentment for the Oceti Sakowin and the various treaty tribes. At the so-called Battle of Blue Water Creek near present day Winnebago, Nebraska, Army Gen. William S. Harney’s men massacred Lakota women and children in September 1855. On that same expedition, a surveyor with Harney’s party named this highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains after the general, though he never came within five miles of the peak.
Reached at his home near Calico on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Basil Brave Heart, who initiated the movement for the name change, was ecstatic. “This is huge – people are calling from all over… We are just so happy!” For Brave Heart and many others, the news capped several years of struggle.
The decision by the U.S Board of Geographic Names was 12 for, with one abstaining. Brave Heart said the ruling was unexpected, particularly after repeated attempts to get South Dakota’s naming board to approve the name change met with failure. “It was faith; I really believe it. We provided the effort, but it was really up to God,” Brave Heart said.
AP’s James Nord reports South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard, in a prepared statement, expressed disappointment and said the decision would lead to “unnecessary expense and confusion. I suspect very few people know the history of either Harney or Black Elk.” The Governor added that he had heard little support for renaming the peak.
Informed of the Governor’s reaction, Brave Heart replied: “When I talk to him, I will say I know you’re frustrated, but I wish you would join us in our celebration. I would appreciate it if you would embrace and celebrate with us on this great victory.”
Daugaard, long an opponent of the name change, led an effort in last year’s state legislative session to limit the autonomy of South Dakota’s State Board of Geographic Names in a clear effort to block the name change. U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) issued a statement declaring that the “unilateral” decision is upsetting and “defies logic,” since it goes against state officials’ recommendations.” Told of this, Brave Heart, a Lakota ceremonial leader said: “We’ll just keep a positive view and ask him to join us.”
“The federal board determined from the input received that Harney Peak was concerning to Native Americans in the area,” Lou Yost, the board’s executive secretary for domestic names said via AP. According to the AP, the decision vindicate[s] activists who unsuccessfully argued to state officials last year that the peak shouldn’t bear the name of a man whose soldiers killed Native Americans. In this case, the board felt that the name was derogatory or offensive, being that it was on a holy site of the Native Americans.
Yost added that the change applies to federal usage on new maps or other products.
Reached at his home north of Manderson, Alex White Plume expressed satisfaction that it was no longer named after the Army General. “We Oglalas in our origin stories called it Imitates the Owl. And we had a ceremony some time back in the He Sapa to cry the thunders back. Hinhan Kaga, we called it, and that’s its true name. But Black Elk is way better than Harney.”
“I don’t want to see a peak that’s named after someone that violated women and children,” Brave Heart said in 2015. “Our people had to live under that icon, that man who did that to our people.”