Not everyone agrees that “Hinhan Kaga” — so far the front-runner to be the new name for Harney Peak — was the traditional Lakota Sioux name for the mountaintop.
Determining the actual Lakota name for South Dakota’s tallest mountain, or deciding whether to change the name at all, is one of the tasks facing the state Board on Geographic Names as it prepares to meet Monday in Pierre.
The state naming board’s preliminary recommendation for a new name for Harney Peak, adopted May 7, is “Hinhan Kaga (Making of Owls),” with the parenthetical part included in the board's motion. The board believed, based on public testimony, that “Hinhan Kaga” is the traditional Lakota name for the peak and “Making of Owls” is the English translation. “Hinhan” means “owl” and “kaga” means “to make.”
But Aaron Desersa, of Manderson on the Pine Ridge Reservation, told the Journal in a recent interview that "Hinhan Kaga" is the Lakota name for the Needles formations and Cathedral Spires and their owl-shaped formations in the Black Hills, not Harney Peak.
Desersa said he is a keeper of an oral tradition that includes a different name for Harney Peak. Judging by his pronunciation and a Lakota-English dictionary, that name would apparently be written as "He Winchinchala Sakowin Hocokata," which would translate to something like "Center of the Seven Sister Mountains" in English.
Board members said they hoped to hear from Lakota language experts who could testify to the authenticity of “Hinhan Kaga” as a traditional name for the peak.
In addition to both supporting as well as vehemently opposing the name change, some of the hundreds of pages of written public comments submitted to the board by 937 people or organizations include conflicting opinions on that topic.
While many sources say “Hinhan Kaga” is the correct Lakota name for the peak, others say it’s only partly correct. They add the word “paha,” meaning a mound or hill, before or after “Hinhan Kaga.”
The Rosebud Sioux Tribe, for example, adopted a resolution in April advocating the name “Hinhan Kaga Paha.” Edward C. Valandra, of the Community for the Advancement of Native Studies, also wrote the state board in support of “Hinhan Kaga Paha.”
Charmaine White Face, a local Native American activist, wrote a letter to the state board proposing “Paha Hinhan Kaga.”
Others have asserted different Native American words as names for the peak.
An organization known as Friends of the Norbeck wrote that the peak is known to many Native Americans as “Opahata’I,” or “the center of all that is.” Sherrie Whitehead, of the Cape Fear Community College Department of Humanities and Fine Arts in North Carolina, wrote in support of “Black Elk Peak” but said Nicholas Black Elk described the peak as “Okawita Paha.”
Meanwhile, looking up the phrase “hinhan kaga” in a 1983 edition of the Lakota-English Dictionary published by the Red Cloud Indian School produces this definition: “1) n. An owl. 2) v. To hoot or shout as an owl, as young men do after dark; to act like an owl.”
Many commenters have said “Hinhan Kaga” is confusing and difficult to pronounce, and that removing Harney’s name from the peak would amount to revisionist history. Others have said that removing Harney’s name would constitute an important step in reconciliation efforts between Native Americans and whites.
The commenters have mostly been members of the public, but some comments have come from federal and state officials.
Craig Bobzien, supervisor of the Black Hills National Forest, of which Harney Peak is a part, submitted a letter saying “in general, I support changing the name of Harney Peak to a Native American name.” But he added that there are multiple tribes with names for the peak, and therefore he prefers to remain neutral on specific name proposals.
Kelly Hepler, secretary of the state Game, Fish & Parks Department; Jim Hagen, state secretary of tourism; and state Rep. Jeff Partridge, R-Rapid City, all filed comments opposing the name change, while state Rep. Shawn Bordeaux, D-Mission, filed comments supporting the name change.
Bordeaux’s letter said his “children’s great, great, great, great grandma was shot and left for dead at the Battle of the Blue Water,” which William Harney, the peak's current namesake, commanded on the U.S. Army side.
In that incident, which is also known as the Battle of Ash Hollow, Harney led troops in 1855 who killed some Native American women and children in present-day Nebraska. Harney also played a lead role in subsequent efforts to force Native Americans onto reservations.
Desersa said the most important thing is to take Harney's name off the peak. He views the placement of Harney's name atop South Dakota's tallest mountain as a symbol of white America's historical efforts to subjugate Native Americans.
"That name is degrading to all the Indian tribes," Desersa said.