RAPID CITY, S.D. – The South Dakota Board of Geographic Names has recommended that the name of Harney Peak, the highest geographical point in South Dakota, remain unchanged.
Discussion about changing Harney Peak’s name began in September 2014, when Basil Brave Heart, a Lakota elder from Pine Ridge Reservation, petitioned the board. In his letter, he detailed the Blue Water Creek Massacre, an 1855 assault on Indians by U.S. forces under the command of General William Harney, for whom the peak is named.
“We come to you in good faith with our request and beseech you to help heal this one very deep and profound wound among Oglala and Brule Lakota Americans,” he wrote. “We feel that this small action … will help bring about a profound sense of healing and of justice to the peoples of the Black Hills and those who respectfully uphold the sacredness therein.”
Although Brave Heart recommended renaming the mountain “Black Elk Peak,” the Board later opened proposed names up for discussion.
In May, they unanimously decided that Harney Peak should be renamed Hinhan Kaga, translated as “Making of Owls,” which was believed to be the original Lakota name for the mountain.
The Board reversed its decision on June 29, citing public outcry that followed the initial recommendation.
Minutes from the June 29 meeting included comments from a veteran who defended General Harney’s actions as “only following orders.”
Vice Chair Member Jay Vogt acknowledged Harney’s role in the Blue Water Creek Massacre, but also commented that he “had an extensive military career beyond this engagement” and was a “complex individual.”
The Board held three meetings for public comment, and received enough written comments to fill three binders, all of which are available to the public on the Board’s website.
Board member Joe Nadenicek, representing the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said the reversal was a response to overwhelming public opposition to the Board’s earlier decision.
“We heard a lot of heartfelt, sincere testimony from both Natives and non-Natives, that this feature bearing General Harney’s name is at least disturbing, and to Native people, offensive,” Nadenicek said. “Nevertheless, as a public servant and member of this board who has to represent the entire body of South Dakota, the appropriate decision based on the record before us is that this name not be changed.”
Representatives from the Crow and Arapaho tribes also submitted comments, citing the Black Hills as their ancestral home and objecting to giving the peak a Lakota name, Vogt said.
Steve Emery, a Lakota Indian and Secretary of the Department of Tribal Relations, was the only board member to vote against the reversal. “Because it honors the slaughter of my people, and possibly relatives of mine, I have to vote to change it,” he said.
Board Chairwoman June Hansen admitted that her opinion on the matter had “wavered” as she read through hundreds of written comments. “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. It is better to leave the name as-is than to recommend a name that is not overwhelmingly endorsed by the public,” she said.
Hansen finished, “This has not been an easy decision for me, or for any of you. I have lost sleep over it.”
The Board emphasized that it was only making a recommendation, and that the United States Board of Geographical Names would be the “final arbiter” over the matter.
Harney Peak is located in the Black Hills National Forest in Pennington County. Although the mountain is not on reservation land, the Black Hills have been sacred to Native American tribes from the United States and Canada for thousands of years, and ownership of the land is still in dispute, according to the National Archives.
The controversy surrounding Harney Peak is the most recent entry in an ongoing movement to change names perceived to be derogatory to Native Americans, which include sports teams such as The Redskins and the Fighting Sioux.
Basil Brave Heart could not be reached for comment.
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