Thursday, September 28, 2023
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Bad-Names Board Under Attack in South Dakota

PIERRE, S.D. (CN) - The state board tasked with renaming offensively named geographic features has served its purpose and should either be scrapped or reined in by the state Legislature, a South Dakota lawmaker says.

The 2009 law that created the Board on Geographic Names caused a ruckus when it considered a request from Basil Brave Heart, a Lakota Sioux, who wanted the state's highest point, Harney Peak, renamed.

Because it is named for an Army general who slaughtered hundreds of Native Americans, the board recommended returning its Lakota name, Hinhan Kaga, roughly translated as "Making of Owls."

The board reversed its decision after public outcry, but the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, which has not acted yet, will make the final decision.

The board did most of its work without fanfare, recommending new names for places such as Squaw Humper Creek, Squaw Creek, and Little Squaw Humper Table in Oglala Lakota County, which were renamed Dear Hunting Ground Creek, Isanti Creek, and Arrow Wound Table.

The board also decided, after much deliberation, not to rename land features containing the word Negro, such as Negro Gulch in Lawrence County, deeming Negro to be less offensive than Squaw.

State Rep. Lee Schoenbeck, R-Codington County, reintroduced the 2009 bill establishing the board with all of its text struck through.

"They got all the work done that the statutes directed them to do," Schoenbeck told the Rapid City Journal on Thursday. "It looked to me like this is a government agency that's done its job and should end."

The board was set up to "recommend replacements for offensive names for geographic features and to process requests from the public regarding names for geographic features," according to its website. It includes representatives from the departments of Tribal Relations, Tourism, and Transportation, Environment and Natural Resources.

Schoenbeck, who opposed the name change of Harney Peak, told the Rapid City Journal that the board overstepped its bounds in that debate.

"We are at a point that the peak has a name," he wrote in a South Dakota political blog. "It's just Harney, not General Harney, not whoever Harney; it's the name of the peak I've hauled every one of my kids up on my back (when they were younger). No reason to change."

But when Schoenbeck presented his bill to the Legislature on Friday, he stressed limiting the board's power rather than abolishing it completely. "Before 2014, they [the board] are only reacting to what the Legislature has determined-that's all they're supposed to be doing," he said in his opening arguments.

Later, he claimed the board sat "as a 'super board' in place of the legislation that decides which names are offensive and warrant attention."

He added that, "The policy decisions about what is or isn't offensive should be made here [in the Legislature], and not by some five-person board."

Representative Kevin Killer, a Democrat from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, disagreed with Schoenbeck. "The commission plays a vital role in helping to educate and eradicate symbols of racism in our state," he Killer said. "South Dakota should continue to rid itself of geographic names that stand for racism, inequality, disrespect, inhumanity and the cultural genocide of the Lakota/Dakota people and African-Americans."

He equated limiting the board's power to "silencing" citizens, which he warned would "only stroke the embers of ignorance."

Basil Brave Heart is one of Killer's constituents.

David Reiss, director of intergovernmental programs with the South Dakota Department of Tribal Relations, told Courthouse News the department takes no stance on the bill.

The amendment was passed for house consideration by an 11-2 vote.

The board has not met since June 2015, when it rescinded its recommendation to rename the 2,993-foot-tall Harney Peak.

Schoenbeck did not respond to email and voicemail requests for comment on Thursday.

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