Sacred peak in South Dakota renamed for Lakota holy man Black Elk

A view of Harney Peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Photo from BHrock

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names has renamed a sacred peak in South Dakota in honor of Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man.

Tribal members pushed for the change to Harney Peak. They said the name was inappropriate because General William S. Harney led a massacre at a Lakota encampment in 1855, during which at least 86 people were killed.

Following the massacre, Harney took 70 women and children in chains and held them hostage, Delphine Red Shirt wrote in a column for the Native Sun News last August. He then tried to force the Lakota people to attend a treaty council by using the captives as leverage, she said.

"This was Harney’s plan to impose change as more white settlers came into the area, to make it easier to find out who the 'head' chiefs were and to contain them," Red Shirt, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, wrote.

A man identified as Black Elk, his wife and their daughter around 1910. Image from Denver Public Library

Despite the negative history, Republican politicians opposed changing the name. Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) issued a statement on Thursday claiming that "very few people know the history of either Harney or Black Elk."

"This federal decision will cause unnecessary expense and confusion," Daugaard said in the statement. Sen. John Thune said the decision "defies logic" in a statement.

But Black Elk, who died in 1950, was well known far beyond his homeland. He was sought out for his views because he was present at the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. He told his life story in Black Elk Speaks, a highly-regarded book that was first published in 1932.

"There are two place names in the Black Hills that are offensive to the history of our Native tribes: Custer and Harney," columnist Charles Trimble, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, wrote back in September 2014 as the renaming campaign was underway. "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," Trimble wrote, using the Lakota name for the Black Hills.

A pilgrimage to the highest point in He Sapa (Black Hills) to welcome back the Wakinyan Oyate (Thunder Beings). Photo by Jeremy Vance / Native Sun News

Harney too is well known although probably more so among the Lakota people. He was referred to as Wica-yajipa, or hornet, and Pitin-ska, or white beard, and accounts of his actions -- the massacre, the hostage situation and the forced treaty council -- appear in the winter counts that recorded important and significant events in tribal history.

The Battiste Good Winter Count features an image that represents massacre and hostage events. The John No Ears' Winter Count, on the other hand, simply states: "Wicayajipa waskaija," or "Hornet killed a man and would not leave him."

The Thin Elk / Steamboat Winter Count is equally descriptive. It features an image of a bearded man and a person being held as captive.

Black Elk Peak is the highest point in Black Hills and South Dakota. It is known to some in Lakota as Hinhan Kaga or place where owls are made. Other Lakota names also have been used.

Tribal members make pilgrimages to the peak to welcome the Wakinyan Oyate, or Thunder Beings, every year during the spring equinox, the Native Sun News reported.

The "Harney Peak" name was originally approved in 1906, according to the Board on Geographic Names. The Geographic Names Information System already lists "Black Elk Peak" as the official name, approved in 2016.

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