South Dakotans who opposed the renaming of Harney Peak to Black Elk Peak might be surprised to learn that they may have more in common with the peak’s new namesake, Nicholas Black Elk, than they do with the peak’s former namesake, William S. Harney.
Black Elk was a South Dakotan, unlike Harney, who was a Tennessean by birth and later resided in Missouri when he wasn’t deployed with the Army.
Black Elk was also a devout Catholic for much of his later life, unlike Harney, who was not known to be spiritual or religious.
And Black Elk made a documented trek to the top of the peak that now bears his name, unlike Harney, who apparently never did so.
Thus, any South Dakotan who adheres to a faith tradition and has hiked to the top of the state’s tallest mountain should be able to identify, at least in some small way, with the man for whom that mountain is now named.
And yet many South Dakotans — based on social media posts, article comments and letters to the editor — continue to support maintaining the Harney name.
For them, the connection with Harney runs deep, down to their roots. Harney, after all, was a white man who helped open the Great Plains to white settlement, and Black Elk was among the last generation of Native Americans to resist that advance.
During the past two years, in a flip of the historical script, Native Americans were the ones on the offensive against Harney. While advocating for the renaming of the peak, they described William S. Harney as a ruthless killer, primarily because of his leadership of an 1855 attack that resulted in the deaths of Sioux women and children.
Those and other details of Harney’s life, both positive and negative, emerged while his legacy underwent the equivalent of a public trial by state and national geographic naming boards. The verdict was delivered Aug. 11 by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which decided to approve the name change to Black Elk Peak.
As the case was made to remove Harney’s name from the mountain, comparatively little was said about Black Elk, or why his name should be the one to replace Harney’s. Many South Dakotans therefore know little, if anything, about the man whose name now graces their 7,242-foot summit.
One of Black Elk’s most thorough and scholarly biographers, Michael F. Steltenkamp, said South Dakotans would do well to get to know Black Elk's story.
“I can't help but think that once people learned about Black Elk's life, they'd take pride in having their fellow South Dakotan's name on the peak,” Steltenkamp wrote in email correspondence with the Journal.
Black Elk indeed led a remarkable life in which he experienced the transition from nomadic life on the Plains to confinement on a reservation. He witnessed the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre, and traveled abroad with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He came to be revered within his tribe and around the world as a unifying spiritual leader who melded Native American and Christian practices.
At Little Bighorn
According to Steltenkamp’s 2009 book, “Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic,” Black Elk (Hehaka Sapa in Lakota) was born in the 1860s in what would become Wyoming.
Black Elk entered a turbulent world stricken by the violence of Red Cloud’s War, which was named for the Oglala Lakota leader who defended a broad swath of the Northern Plains against the U.S. Army. The war ended with the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which promised a broad area of land to the Lakota, including the Black Hills.
In roughly 1874, when Black Elk was between 8 and 10 years old, he became gravely ill. He later described a long and richly detailed vision or dream that he experienced during his illness. In the vision, he was transported to the top of what whites were already calling Harney Peak in honor of Harney, a leading “Indian fighter” of the era. Black Elk reportedly emerged from the illness and vision a more mature, contemplative boy with a sharpened focus on his spiritual life.
The same year that Black Elk reported experiencing his vision, George Armstrong Custer led an Army expedition that found gold in the Black Hills. Conflict ensued as white prospectors clamored to stake claims and the Sioux tribes defended the area promised to them in the 1868 treaty.
In 1876, when Custer attacked a large Native American encampment along the Little Bighorn River in present-day Montana, a young Black Elk, perhaps 10 years old, was there.
Some of his memories of that day were grisly. After the fighting ended, Black Elk and other boys ran onto the battlefield, where he scalped and fatally shot a wounded soldier and took another scalp from a dead soldier.
Other memories reflected the sense of humor for which Black Elk would eventually become known. He recalled seeing pieces of paper blowing across the plains, only to realize much later that it was money.
“With self-deprecating humor,” Steltenkamp wrote in his 2009 book, “Black Elk later regretted not collecting the strange pieces of paper that seemed to float in every direction.”
One of the lead combatants in the battle was Black Elk’s second cousin, Crazy Horse. Later, Black Elk was camped with his family at Fort Robinson, Neb., when Crazy Horse was killed there in a tussle with a soldier and a Native American scout in 1877.
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The ensuing years saw the Sioux being pushed onto smaller reservations, and Black Elk fled with his family to Canada but eventually returned to Montana and then to Dakota Territory, where he settled on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
It was during that period when Black Elk became a medicine man adept in the use of rituals and plants to heal and comfort the sick.
The Wild West Show
In 1886, Black Elk, then about 20 years old, signed up to work for “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West Show.
Black Elk traveled by train to New York, seeing cities and sights that must have been unimaginable to a young man born into a nomadic Plains Indian culture. With more than 100 other Native Americans, he crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a steamship bound for England.
Black Elk performed with the show there but apparently got lost and subsequently joined a smaller but similar traveling show, which took him through a number of European countries.
He returned to Pine Ridge in 1889, where he participated in the ghost dance movement that swept up many of his Oglala Lakota brethren. Some practitioners believed the dance would bring a savior to the Native American people, and some believed their ghost dance shirts would protect them from harm.
Instead, what soon happened was the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. The federal government had banned ghost dancing, and troops rounded up a renegade band of ghost dancers who left their reservation. Under circumstances that are still debated, shooting broke out at the band's encampment near Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation, resulting in the deaths of 25 soldiers and more than 150 Lakota men, women and children.
Black Elk came to the bloody scene after the fighting and gave aid to the survivors. He participated in subsequent skirmishes with soldiers and reported receiving a bullet wound.
After Wounded Knee, Black Elk settled into life on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He married in 1892 and started a family, but by 1901 he had suffered the death of a child and his wife.
Black Elk sought refuge among Catholic missionary priests, and his acceptance of a formal role in the church would change the course of his life.
Black Elk took the name Nicholas William Black Elk when he was baptized into the Catholic faith in 1904. He thereafter began work as a catechist, instructing other Native Americans in the Catholic faith, helping care for a chapel and assisting with church services. He also remarried during that period.
During the ensuing decades, Black Elk reportedly inspired 400 people to be baptized as Catholics. He melded his new Christian beliefs and practices with his traditional spiritual practices, and although his role in the Catholic church has been a controversial topic of debate for some who view Black Elk in more traditional terms, some scholars and members of Black Elk’s family say he was serious in his devotion to the church.
“A fervent catechist until the end, Black Elk harbored no misgivings about his religious universe being fully Catholic and fully Lakota,” Steltenkamp wrote in “Nicholas Black Elk.”
As he aged, Black Elk became increasingly known as a source of spiritual wisdom. He had assumed the role of a revered grandfather by the time the white author and poet John Neihardt, of Nebraska, came to speak with Black Elk in 1931.
Neihardt was curious about traditional Native American spirituality, and he engaged in long conversations with Black Elk. The Lakota holy man spoke in his native tongue, and his son Ben translated for Neihardt and for Neihardt’s daughter, Enid, who took notes. At the end of their visits, the group took Black Elk to the top of Harney Peak.
Neihardt parlayed the conversations into a book, “Black Elk Speaks,” with the story of Black Elk’s boyhood vision as its centerpiece. The book published in 1932 and was reprinted in 1961, when it found an eager audience amid the counter-cultural spiritual seekers of the 1960s and '70s. More than 900,000 copies of the book have now been sold, according to the University of Nebraska Press.
In Black Elk’s final years, he became known to many tourists and Rapid City residents through his participation in the Duhamel family’s Sioux Indian Pageant at Sitting Bull Crystal Caverns. He died in 1950.
Today, the stories Black Elk told about the many historical events he witnessed and about his knowledge of traditional Native American ways are the basis of numerous scholarly articles and books.
One of Black Elk’s descendants, his great-great grandson Myron Pourier, assisted Lakota elder Basil Brave Heart in the formal request to change the name of Harney Peak to Black Elk Peak. Pourier said in a recent Journal interview that he hopes state and local officials will install signage along the trails leading to Black Elk Peak that relate some details of the late holy man’s life.
And Pourier also hopes the people who have spoken out against the peak’s name change will come to equate the new name with the unity that Black Elk espoused in his later years.
“When you read the book ‘Black Elk Speaks,’ it talks about the hoop of many hoops,” Pourier said. “Each of those hoops are representing our walks of life and who we are as a society, to bring us together as one nation and one big hoop regardless of the color of your skin, your background, your ethnicity, male, female, whatever you believe in, to come together through cultural diversity and understanding for all walks of life.”