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Lakota Country Times: Oglala veteran pushed for Black Elk Peak

Storm clouds over the newly-renamed Black Elk Peak. Photo by Kevin Hurley

South Dakota Leaders Object To Harney Peak Name Change
By Jim Kent
Lakota Country Times Correspondent

Pierre, S.D. – The “powers that be” in South Dakota aren’t happy and they’re letting people know about it.

No sooner had the U.S. Board on Geographic Names announced its unanimous decision to change the designation of “Harney Peak” to “Black Elk Peak” than the state’s governor and senior U.S. senator voiced their objections to the board’s determination.

Governor Dennis Daugaard released a statement noting that he was surprised by the U.S. Board’s decision. He noted that renaming the peak will cause the state unnecessary expense and confusion. Daugaard added, “I suspect very few people know the history of either Harney or Black Elk.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Senator John Thune’s statement noted that the U.S. Board’s decision ignored the recommendations of the South Dakota Department of Tourism, the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks and the State Board on Geographic Names that the name not be changed.

“I’m surprised and upset by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names’ unilateral decision to rename Harney Peak, one of South Dakota’s most well-known landmarks,” said Thune. “The national board’s choice to reject the state’s recommendation to leave the name as-is defies logic, since it was state officials who so carefully solicited public feedback and ultimately came to their 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.”  

Within 24-hours local media was reporting that South Dakota might not honor the U.S. Board’s decision as a result of comments by Daugaard’s chief of staff, Tony Venhuizen - who’s quoted as observing "The map on our wall says 'Harney Peak.'

But Lakota elder Basil Brave Heart remains positive and pragmatic about the situation.

Basil Brave Heart, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, helped lead the Black Elk Peak name change. Photo courtesy Eric Rodriguez

“According to Article 6, paragraph 2 of the U.S. Constitution,” observed Brave Heart, “federal law trumps state law.”

The Korean War veteran added that he’s already heard from supporters in 15 states who’ve noted that South Dakota’s failure to change its maps to reflect the peak’s new name isn’t an issue with them since they use the Global Positioning System – or GPS – to travel.

Since the former “Harney Peak” is located on federal land, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names’ new designation of the site as “Black Elk Peak” will be reflected on GPS systems.

It was Brave Heart who first requested that the peak, a sacred site within the already sacred Black Hills, be changed from honoring the memory of a U.S. Army leader who massacred Native Americans to acknowledging a Lakota spiritual leader long associated with the mountain: Black Elk.

Brave Heart hopes that Gov. Daugaard will honor the Black Hills site’s new name by changing signage and state maps to reflect the U.S. Board’s re-designation of the area.

Noting the governor’s participation and support in bringing representatives of South Korea to South Dakota in January of 2016 in order to present Korean War veterans within the state that government’s “Ambassador for Peace” medal, Brave Heart recalled the ceremony involved.

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“Minister Sung Choon Park told the recipients of this medal it is hoped that we will develop peace within ourselves, each other and also to embrace each other for peace,” Brave Heart explained.

Governor Daugaard, who never served in the military, was also given a medal in recognition of his assistance in facilitating the South Korean delegation’s journey to South Dakota

“I applauded Governor Daugaard’s receiving this medal even though he isn’t a Korean War veteran,” Brave Heart commented. “I appreciate his shock at the unexpected naming of Black Elk Peak…and his frustration. But since he received this medal I know that he will carry out the message that this Minster gave to all of us and I know that in the end he will embrace the name change of Harney Peak to Black Elk Peak.”

Brave Heart added that it’s time for Governor Daugaard to realize the significance of the medal he was presented and to walk with that award in the spirit that it was given.

The Korean War veteran remarked that he would like to thank Governor Daugaard in advance for his participation in what Brave Heart considers a movement towards peace and reconciliation.

(Jim Kent is a freelance writer and radio producer who lives in Hot Springs. He is a contributing columnist to the Lakota Country Times and former editor of The New Lakota Times. He can be heard on South Dakota Public Radio, National Public Radio and National Native News Radio. Jim can be reached at kentvfte@gwtc.net)

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