Charles Trimble. Photo by Native Sun News
My old friend and Holy Rosary schoolmate Basil Brave Heart is proposing to have Harney Peak, the highest point east of the Rockies, renamed after Oglala holy man Black Elk, an idea I think is so very appropriate. I was contacted by Myron Pourier, great great grandson of the elder Black Elk, to ask if I might help in this effort, and I am honored to do so. The summit that is known as Harney Peak was central to the great dream Black Elk experienced when he was a child, as he lay in a coma near death. In the book Black Elk Speaks, which he told to the author and poet John Neihardt, the holy man related: “I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.” As with other landmarks like Bear Butte and Peh sla, that peak held great significance to the spirit of several Native cultures. In the Lakota legend of the great deluge, it was where the people went to survive when the water monster Unktehi and her children swelled themselves to flood the great Missouri and its tributaries. The people called upon Wakinyan Tanka, the great Thunder being who lives in the sacred Black Hills, and with his Wakangli lightning he killed Unktehi and saved them.
A view of Harney Peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Photo from BHrock / Wikipedia
There are two place names in the Black Hills that are offensive to the history of our Native tribes: Custer and Harney. The name Custer is offensive for obvious reasons, but if the citizens of that town want to live with the name of a historic loser, perhaps we can leave them be. But the name of Harney should not be given to a sacred pinnacle in a most sacred area, He Sapa. It was, after all, General William S. Harney who led the punitive campaign of 1855 against the Sioux, which was in retribution for the Sioux annihilation of the brash young Lt. John Grattan and his troops in their unprovoked attack on the Lakota over the so-called Mormon cow incident. Harney’s most famous “battle” in his punitive campaign was at Blue Water Creek which actually was a massacre that rivals Wounded Knee in its senseless brutality. One historical account tells of treachery added to the brutality: “Harney concluded the more than 250 Brules and Oglalas camped on Blue Creek were the guilty parties. He divided his force and led his infantry towards the village. While Harney engaged in a delaying parley with Chief Little Thunder, the mounted troops had circled undetected to the north. “The infantry opened fire with its new, long-range rifles and forced the Indians to flee toward the mounted soldiers, who inflicted terrible casualties. Eighty-six Indians were killed, seventy women and children were captured, and their tipis were looted and burned.” Naming the peak that Oglala holy man Black Elk referred to as the “center of the world” after such a man as Harney adds insult to the presumption of conquest of the Sioux people, and the stealing of their sacred He Sapa. In their quest, Basil Brave Heart and Myron Pourier will be faced with the attitude, “now those damned Indians want to change the names of our great mountains, like they want to change the names of our favorite sports teams. Aren’t they ever satisfied?” Disposing of the name Harney and replacing it with Black Elk is not too much to ask of the state of South Dakota or the federal government, whichever has the jurisdiction in the matter. Injustice should have no bounds, no statute of limitations, until the offense is corrected. This effort, under the auspices of the Black Elk Development nonprofit organization, is paid for out of their own pockets. They are asking for your help, and if you are so inclined, check them out at www.blackelkdevelopment.com to make your donation. Charles "Chuck" Trimble is a member of the Oglala Lakota Oyate, born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-1978. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or charlestrimble.com
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