Thursday’s decision by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to rename Harney Peak to Black Elk Peak caught many South Dakotans by surprise and sparked a lot of questions.
The Journal first reported on the renaming proposal in September 2014 and has published roughly 20 stories on the topic since then based on historical research, oral testimony at public hearings, written comments submitted to the state and federal geographic names boards, and interviews with members of both of those boards and other experts.
Based on knowledge accumulated from those efforts, here are some Journal answers to questions many South Dakotans may be posing since learning the news about the renaming.
Q.What are the latest developments?
A. The federal board’s decision to change the name applies to all federal geographic products such as maps, other printed documents and signs. But the decision does not obligate the state to follow suit with its own maps, documents or signs, and a spokesman for Gov. Dennis Daugaard said Thursday after the federal board’s decision that the governor is evaluating the state’s options and is also interested in preventing similar future decisions by the federal board.
Staffers for U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., have told the Journal that he, too, is evaluating next steps and is potentially interested in warding off similar decisions in the future.
Friday, the Journal’s requests for interviews with Daugaard and Thune were both declined as staffers said the two were not yet ready to make additional public comments about the issue.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Black Hills National Forest, which is the federal agency that manages Black Elk Peak, said Friday that forest leaders were still gathering information about the decision and conferring with each other before determining how to proceed with the name change.
Q: How did this happen?
A: Basil Brave Heart, of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, proposed the name change in a September 2014 letter. The South Dakota Board on Geographic Names considered the proposal and ultimately recommended retaining the name Harney Peak, but the U.S. Board on Geographic Names decided Thursday to change the name to Black Elk Peak.
Q. What is the U.S. Board on Geographic Names?
A. The board was created in 1896 and re-created in its present form by federal legislation in 1947 to make geographic names uniform throughout the federal government.
The board consists of members and deputy members, currently numbering about 30 in all, appointed by the heads of various departments of the federal government including Defense, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce and the Government Publishing Office.
The board’s meetings are typically on the second Thursday of each month, usually with 10 to 15 members attending. The board uses written principles, policies and procedures to guide its consideration of name-change requests, and a majority vote is needed to approve requests. The board's vote to change Harney Peak to Black Elk Peak was 12-0 with one abstention.
Q. Was there any indication that the board would decide to change Harney Peak’s name?
A. There was at least one indication back in April, when members of the board moved and seconded the name change but postponed a vote until August.
After that April meeting, the Journal attempted to poll all of the U.S. board members to seek their opinions about changing the name of Harney Peak. Many of the board members did not respond to phone calls or emails, and several declined to be interviewed or deferred comment to the board’s non-voting executive secretary.
The only board member who agreed to speak with the Journal was Jon Campbell, a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey. He seemed to put the brakes on the notion that the board was on the cusp of changing Harney Peak’s name.
“Some people on the board are more eager for the change than others,” Campbell said at the time. “It only takes one person to make a motion.”
Other factors also seemed to indicate that a name change for Harney Peak was a long shot. The South Dakota Board on Geographic Names had recommended retaining the peak’s name, and a staffer for the U.S. board had said publicly and repeatedly that significant weight is typically granted to the recommendation of a state board. Additionally, the U.S. board’s written principles, policies and procedures discourage name duplication, such as the duplication that has arguably occurred now with the federally designated Black Elk Wilderness area that surrounds the newly named Black Elk Peak.
Q. Who won, and who lost?
A. While Native Americans were not universally supportive of the Black Elk Peak proposal, there was general support for the change. Some wished to rename the peak “Hinhan Kaga,” which is a Lakota phrase said to mean “Making of Owls” that is believed by some to be the traditional Lakota name for the peak.
Q. Why did the U.S. board ignore the recommendation of the state board?
A. While staffers for the U.S. board have said that the board typically grants significant weight to recommendations from state boards, the U.S. board is not required to follow a state board’s recommendation.
In this case, according to a statement issued by the U.S. board after its decision, board members determined that the name “Harney Peak” was subject to a policy that allows for name changes “when a name is shown to be highly offensive or derogatory to a particular racial or ethnic group, gender, or religious group.”
Harney Peak was named for an 1800s-era general, William S. Harney, who led troops that killed some Native American men, women and children.
“The current name is painful and distressing to the Tribal people,” one unidentified U.S. board member was quoted as saying in the board’s statement. “That’s a reasonable justification for the change.”
Also, it’s important to remember that the South Dakota Board on Geographic Names was at first in favor of changing Harney Peak’s name before ultimately recommending that the name be retained.
The state board conducted public meetings across South Dakota and received oral and written input from hundreds of people during the spring of 2015. In May 2015, the board unanimously adopted a preliminary recommendation to change the name of Harney Peak to “Hinhan Kaga,” which was proposed during public testimony and is believed by some to be the traditional Lakota name for the peak.
Another public comment period ensued, during which hundreds more opinions poured in to the board, many of them negative and some from high-ranking state officials. The five board members, all of whom are state employees, suddenly found themselves in awkward positions; one board member’s boss came out publicly against the proposal, while another board member who is part of the governor’s cabinet found himself clashing with the public opinions of two other cabinet members.
After the backlash, the state board backtracked in June 2015 and voted 4-1 to recommend retaining Harney Peak’s name. That recommendation was sent to the U.S Board on Geographic Names.
Q. Did the U.S. board mislead Sen. John Thune’s office about when the decision would be made, as Thune claimed in a statement last week?
A. Thune made that claim in a written statement he issued immediately after the U.S. board’s decision.
“I’m also disappointed the board grossly misled my office with respect to the timeline of its decision, which wasn’t expected until next year,” Thune’s statement said, in part.
The U.S. board’s executive secretary responded by saying he could not recall any correspondence between his office and Thune’s, let alone an advisement that a vote would not occur until next year.
Whatever Thune’s office was or wasn’t told, he and his staffers could have learned the truth by reading this newspaper, which reported in May that a motion to change the name of Harney Peak had been moved and seconded at a U.S. Board on Geographic Names meeting in April.
“The renaming proposal remains on the table of the national board,” the Journal reported at that time, “to be considered again in August.”
That's precisely what happened.
Q. Will the U.S. board now change geographic names inspired by other 1800s-era military leaders, such as Custer, Sheridan and Terry?
A. People may propose changes to any geographic place name, and the U.S. board may consider it; however, the board does not proactively search for names to change. It only reacts to suggestions, and considers each one on its own merits.
Q. Who was Harney?
A. He was a Tennessee-born soldier and general in the 1800s who had a long and at times distinguished career that took him across the nation, but he was also court-martialed four times and beat a female slave to death. Those dark marks on Harney’s legacy are detailed in his only modern biography, “General William S. Harney: Prince of Dragoons,” authored by George Rollie Adams and published in 2001 by the University of Nebraska Press.
Modern Native American resentment toward Harney centers on his role in the 1855 Battle of Ash Hollow in present-day Nebraska, where he led a force of 600 troops that killed 86 Sioux people, including some women and children. The attack was said to be intended as punitive retaliation for the Sioux killings of 30 soldiers and a civilian interpreter during the so-called Grattan Fight the previous year.
It may have been 1857 when Harney’s name first became associated with South Dakota’s tallest mountain. That was the year an Army topographical engineer, Gouverneur K. Warren, who had served under Harney, participated in an excursion into the Black Hills and eventually produced a map bearing the name “Harney’s Peak.”
The name appeared in alternate forms such as Harney’s Peak and Harneys Peak until 1906, when the U.S. Board on Geographic Names certified “Harney Peak” as the official name.
Q. Who was Black Elk?
Nicholas Black Elk was a Lakota holy man and South Dakotan who became globally known for relating stories of his life and Lakota spirituality and culture to writer and poet John Neihardt, who parlayed their talks into the book “Black Elk Speaks,” published in 1932.
One of the stories Black Elk told Neihardt was about a vision in which Black Elk was transported to the summit of Harney Peak. Later in life, Black Elk visited the peak’s 7,242-foot summit. The peak is in Black Elk Wilderness area.
Q. Do most people know anything about Harney or Black Elk?
Gov. Daugaard said in his Thursday statement about the name change, “I suspect very few people know the history of either Harney or Black Elk.”
While that seems to be true for Harney, who is known mostly to scholars and military history buffs, book-selling data indicates that Black Elk is more well known among the general public. According to the University of Nebraska Press, more than 900,000 copies of “Black Elk Speaks” have been sold since it was first published about 80 years ago.
Contact Seth Tupper at email@example.com