CUSTER, S.D. (CN) — The highest point in South Dakota, Harney Peak, has been renamed Black Elk Peak, a federal board’s response to criticism that the former name was insensitive to the state’s Native Americans.
Discussion began in September 2014, when Lakota elder Basil Brave Heart petitioned the South Dakota Board of Geographic Names to change the name out of respect to the state’s native population.
The peak was named for Gen. William Harney, who led an 1855 attack on a Lakota village, killing 86 Sioux, capturing 70 women and children and looting and burning the village’s tipis, according to the Nebraska State Historical Society.
South Dakota’s board voted to recommend changing the name in May of 2015, then reversed its decision a month later, citing public opposition from South Dakota residents.
“I feel that without a clear mandate from the public to change the name, the board should not support a name change at this time,” Chairwoman June Hansen said at the board’s June 2015 meeting. “It is better to leave the name as-is than to recommend a name that is not overwhelmingly endorsed by the public.”
But the South Dakota board’s decision was only a recommendation to the U.S. Board, which has final say.
The U.S. Board exercised its authority Thursday, announcing that the peak will henceforth be known as Black Elk Peak — as recommended by Brave Heart in his original petition.
“The Board’s understanding was that the name Harney Peak for a traditional sacred site was distressing to tribal people,” board member Lou Yost said in a statement. “For that reason, there was a unanimous decision to change the name of the peak to Black Elk Peak.”
The board said it usually refrains from changing names of geographical features for which the local name has been commonly used and longstanding, except “when a name is shown to be highly offensive or derogatory to a particular racial or ethnic group, gender, or religious group.”
The 2,993-foot-high peak is in the Black Elk Wilderness Area, in the Black Hills National Forest, on federal land.
The board received letters supporting the name change from members of Sioux and Arapaho tribes, and from American Indian schoolchildren, Yost said. It also reviewed letters from descendants of Black Elk and descendants of Gen. Harney, all of whom favored the change.
But South Dakota politicians were perturbed.
“I am surprised by this decision, as I have heard very little support in South Dakota for renaming Harney Peak,” Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, said in a statement. “This federal decision will cause unnecessary expense and confusion. I suspect very few people know the history of either Harney or Black Elk.”
Senator John Thune, Republican, also decried the decision.
“I’m surprised and upset by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names’ unilateral decision to rename Harney Peak, one of South Dakota’s most well-known landmarks,” Thune said in a statement. “The national board’s choice to reject the state’s recommendation to leave the name as is defies logic, since it was state officials who so carefully solicited public feedback and ultimately came to their decision.”
Thune also complained about being “misled” by the U.S. Board on its timeline, saying the decision was not expected until next year.
One Native American resident expressed surprise at the state’s resistance.
“To me, it’s weird to hear of people who are against it,” Heath Kastein, of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, said in an interview. “I mean, you do know that Harney was a killer of Sioux, right? He was not a good guy.”
Although the name change will be reflected on all federally issued maps, brochures and other publications, the U.S. Board has no legal authority to force the state to change the name on its own publications, board member Jon Campbell told the Rapid City Journal on Friday.
Daugaard’s chief of staff, Tony Venhuizan, told the Journal that the governor’s office is still evaluating whether the state will use the new name.
Black Elk (1863-1950) was a Sioux medicine man and warrior who was active in the Sioux resistance to white settlement on native lands in the late 1800s, when the discovery of gold in the Black Hills led to massive invasion of Native American land. Black Elk fought under Chief Crazy Horse in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876. A year later, Crazy Horse surrendered after dwindling buffalo numbers threatened his troops with starvation.
“Black Elk says that when he was nine years old, he was sick for twelve days, during which time he had a great vision,” the U.S. Board’s memo on the name change says. “Part of this vision included traveling to the top of this summit, which he described as the center of the world and about which he said: ‘Round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw.’ Later in life, he hiked to the top of the mountain with [his biographer, John] Neihardt.”
Black Elk’s life is detailed in Neihardt’s book, “Black Elk Speaks.”
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