The name of South Dakota’s tallest mountain should be changed from Harney Peak to “Hinhan Kaga,” the state Board of Geographic Names recommended by unanimous vote Thursday in Pierre.
The board believes the phrase is the Lakota name for the 7,242-foot peak; the phrase translates to “Making of Owls” in English, according to earlier public testimony.
The board’s motion for the recommended name included the English translation in parentheses, so the officially recommended name is “Hinhan Kaga (Making of Owls).”
“There will probably be some members of the public who won’t be happy with our decision today,” said June Hansen, chairwoman of the board. “But I hope the public will look at this as a positive opportunity to do something for the good of all.”
The recommendation is not final. The board will publish a public notice, tentatively on May 15, that will kick off a 30-day comment period.
During those 30 days, the board hopes to hear from Lakota language experts to definitively determine whether “Hinhan Kaga” is the historically accurate Lakota name for the mountain and whether “Making of Owls” is the correct English translation.
After the 30-day comment period, the board could take another vote at its June 29 meeting. The state board’s recommendation would then go to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names for a final decision.
The state board, which met in the Becker-Hansen Building Commission Room, needed only 30 minutes to make its recommendation. The relatively quick decision followed the receipt of hundreds of written comments in recent weeks and five public hearings across the state since April 28 at which dozens of people testified.
Harney Peak is in the Black Hills and is named for Gen. William S. Harney, who is reviled by some Native Americans for commanding troops who killed Sioux women and children at the 1855 Battle of Ash Hollow in present-day Nebraska. An Army topographical engineer under Harney’s command named the peak for the general in the 1850s.
The vote to recommend “Hinhan Kaga” as the new name was actually the last of three unanimous votes Thursday by the five-member board.
The first vote was to recommend a change to something other than Harney Peak. During discussion of that motion, board member Joe Nadenicek said much of the oral and written testimony received was anti-Harney.
“While there is support for the name remaining Harney Peak, the larger trend of public thought on this among Native Americans and non-Native Americans is that the name should be changed,” Nadenicek said.
Board member Steve Emery, who is a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said Harney’s name on the peak offends him as a Native American and a military veteran. He said naming a mountain for Harney is akin to naming a place for Lt. William Calley Jr., who was found guilty of killing 22 villagers at the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War.
The second vote was to remove the officially proposed name of “Black Elk Peak” from consideration. That was the name sought by Basil Brave Heart, the Oglala Lakota tribal member who triggered the renaming process with a letter in September.
Brave Heart did not attend Thursday’s meeting but spoke to the Journal afterward by phone. His main goal, he said, is to remove Harney's name from the peak.
"I’m very pleased, very happy," Brave Heart said. "It's going to be changed and be back to the name that was there before 'Harney Peak,' so that’s wonderful. I support it."
Brave Heart had sought to honor Nicholas Black Elk, who was an Oglala Lakota holy man who reported having a spiritual vision in which he was transported to the top of Harney Peak. An account of the vision is included in the book “Black Elk Speaks” by John Neihardt.
Several board members said they did not want to risk the possible later emergence of historical facts that might disqualify an individual as an appropriate namesake. They also recalled public testimony from Native Americans who said it is not historically customary for the Lakota people to name geographic features for individuals.
Additionally, board members noted that the federally designated wilderness area around Harney Peak is already named for Black Elk.
With those matters decided, the board quickly picked “Hinhan Kaga” as the new name. Though numerous other alternatives were suggested by the public, none of those was debated Thursday by the board.
Nadenicek noted that some public commenters said a name change would amount to rewriting history.
“I think by going back to the original name that Native people used for the place, doesn’t that neutralize that comment to some extent?” Nadenicek said. “We’re not rewriting history. We’re actually endorsing history with a name change of this tenor.”