A Native American man says the name of South Dakota’s tallest mountain is offensive and should be changed.
Basil Brave Heart, who is from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and describes himself as an Oglala Lakota elder, wants the name Harney Peak changed to Black Elk Peak.
An Army lieutenant, Gouverneur K. Warren, named the peak for Gen. William S. Harney while Warren was on a surveying expedition in 1857. At 7,242 feet, the peak is the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States and is a popular hiking destination in the Black Hills.
Brave Heart’s motivation is Harney’s role in the 1855 Battle of Ash Hollow, also known as the Battle of Blue Water Creek, which occurred in present-day Nebraska during a period called the First Sioux War. A force of 600 soldiers under Harney’s command attacked 250 Sioux and killed 86 of them, including some women and children.
The same Lt. Warren who later named South Dakota’s highest point for Gen. Harney wrote about the battle in a journal.
“The sight on the top of the hill was heart rending — wounded women and children crying and moaning, horribly mangled by the bullets,” Warren wrote, in part.
Brave Heart said it’s an insult to the descendants of those slain Native Americans to have Harney’s name on the highest point in the Black Hills. The U.S. government took the Black Hills from the Lakota after reserving it for them in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.
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“Wars carry a shadow,” Brave Heart said, “and the U.S. is carrying a shadow for all the atrocities it committed.”
The proposed name, Black Elk Peak, would honor the late Lakota spiritual leader Black Elk, who reported having a vision on the peak in the 1870s. The peak is within a federally designated wilderness area — the Black Elk Wilderness — that is named for Black Elk.
Brave Heart also wants the Battle Mountain historical marker in Hot Springs taken down or accompanied by another marker. He says the marker bears inaccurate information about the history of the area’s springs and about a conflict fought over the springs by Native American tribes.
Brave Heart, along with his wife, Charlotte, and friend Scott Highland, of Rapid City, gave the Rapid City Journal a copy of a letter outlining Brave Heart’s wishes. They said the letter was sent to U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and will be sent to the other two members of the state’s congressional delegation, the governor and the state’s secretary of tribal relations.
The trio has not contacted the state’s Board on Geographic Names, which in recent years has acted on a number of requests to change geographic names containing words such as “squaw” and “negro.”
Jay Vogt, a member of the board and the director of the South Dakota State Historical Society, said any interested party could formally apply to change the name of Harney Peak. The board would hear testimony on the issue, make a recommendation and forward it to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names for a final determination.
Historical marker text, meanwhile, is reviewed by the State Historic Preservation Office.