On a recent Autumn Saturday in the Black Hills, a handful of men and women gathered at around 9 a.m. at the Sylvan Lake trailhead just below Black Elk Peak. By 10 a.m., they numbered close to 80.
“The focal point of our gathering was to have family members of General Harney have an opportunity to apologize to members of the Little Thunder family,” said Basil Brave Heart, Oglala Lakota, an organizer of the event. Brave Heart initiated and led the effort to change the name of this highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains from Harney Peak to Black Elk Peak.
Among those standing in a circle that morning was Paul Stover Soderman, a seventh-generation descendant of General William Harney, known as The Butcher of Ash Hollow, and to the Lakota as the architect of the same conflict, known to them as the Massacre at Blue Water Creek. Soderman had come to apologize to Sicangu descendants of Chief Little Thunder, the Brule leader of those murdered in that conflict, and to seek forgiveness and healing.
Also in the circle, Karen Little Thunder and her family, direct descendants of the chief, were there to publicly forgive and support the reconciliation that they believe the renaming represents. Soderman had reached out to Karen Little Thunder two years previously, at the beginning of the renaming efforts, and they became good friends.
In August, the U.S. Board of Geographical names voted unanimously to change the name. After brief bouts of public petulance, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, and the entire congressional delegation indicated they would not oppose the name change. From its beginning, the efforts of Brave Heart and those who joined him in the cause, was given little to no chance of success.
Brave Heart, a Lakota ceremonial leader, said the September 10 ceremony was to help bring healing and reconciliation. “Naming something that is a part of our sacred Black Hills after someone like Harney was such an act of disrespect – I don’t know if the people who did the naming knew this, I will give them the benefit of the doubt – so this coming together was a healing.”
Brave Heart said that after Soderman and his wife, Kathy, shook hands with the Little Thunder family, two pipes were lit, one owned and filled by the Little Thunders and one owned and filled by the Sodermans and then passed around to everybody. Everybody smoked. This Wopila concluded the ceremony.
Asked by ICTMN if a larger celebration is in the planning, Brave Heart said: “Yes. I spoke with our tribal president and he said, ‘You plan it.’ That’s a big request, and an honor too. But I can’t do it myself.” Brave Heart said preliminary plans call for members of the Black Elk family to be included in all of the planning. “We will call for the Oceti Sakowin, all of the seven tribes, and all of the treaty tribes and other tribes to come together to celebrate this.
“There’s been a cosmological shift. I believe this and what’s going on in Cannonball (The DAPL protest) is an awakening of our minds, and our hearts, and our spirits.”