Environment | National

Lakota Country Times: Thank you ceremony honors Black Elk Peak

Lakota elder Basil Brave Heart led a “wopila” or thank you ceremony at the base of Black Elk Peak to acknowledge the renaming of the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains. Photo by Jim Kent

Black Elk Peak Name Change Ceremony
By Jim Kent
Lakota Country Times Correspondent

BLACK ELK - As the late-morning sun slowly starts to warm the chilled mountain air some 80 Natives and non-Natives form a circle at the base of Black Elk Peak.

“My reason for being here today is I’m a seventh generation descendant of William Selby Harney,” advises Paul Stover Soderman, “who this mountain used to be named after…but is no longer.

The circle erupts into cheers, whoops, applause and traditional lilis as the crowd acknowledges the historic change that’s taken place at this location - considered among the most sacred in the sacred Black Hills.

“We’re here to say a thank you prayer,” Soderman continues.

Paul Stover Soderman is a descendant of William S. Harney – the U.S. Army General who once had the highest mountain east of the Rockies named in his honor.

But through the efforts of Lakota elder Basil Brave Heart that mountain was re-designated Black Elk Peak by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in August.

Standing near Black Elk Peak Brave Heart shares his thoughts.

“I feel the presence of a sacred vibration,” Brave Heart explains. “I think that this may be a…an awakening. I think it’s the cosmological paradigm shift. And to me it’s a divine intervention of our Creator.”

Karen Little Thunder – whose ancestors were killed by troops commanded by General William S. Harney – hugs Paul Stover Soderman – 7th generation descendant of the U.S. Army officer. Photo by Jim Kent

One of the primary reasons Brave Heart and his supporters requested the mountain be renamed was the massacre of Lakota people in 1855 at Nebraska’s Blue Water Creek by U.S. troops under Harney’s command.

Paul Stover Soderman is pleased he was able to support Basil Brave Heart’s 2-year effort to remove his ancestor’s name from the mountain.

“My heart feels good about this, you know,” Soderman comments. “Mainly because … for the youth. There’s gonna’ be some young Lakota children who never knew that this mountain was named after a general who massacred Lakota people in 1855.”

The renaming was also able to bring together Soderman and descendants of the Little Thunder family…whose ancestors were killed by Harney at Blue Water Creek.

“When I met Karen Little Thunder she didn’t want to talk to me,” Soderman recalls. “Someone showed me a video of her. She had met an actor who portrayed General Harney at a pageant in Nebraska. And when she went to shake his hand she said she wanted to hurt him.”

Soderman notes that he was frightened after seeing this. But he prayed for strength and reached out to Karen Little Thunder via the internet.

“And she reached back,” notes Soderman. “And she said ‘We need to talk.’ And we’ve been talking since. And today we come here to celebrate this friendship and this love between the families.”

A Lakota honoring song is offered by a man standing high above the crowd on a distant mountain ledge. His powerful voice echoes against the granite walls that encompass the area.

A prayer is offered by Basil Brave Heart and he recalls the reactions he received as he began this quest to change the name of Harney Peak.

Wi Wambli Win and her furry friend Cante Wolakota Win observe the ceremony at Black Elk Peak. Paul Stover Soderman hopes one day Lakota children won’t know the history of the mountain’s previous name. Photo by Jim Kent

“People came up to me and said ‘Don’t even try it,” Brave Heart comments. “They said ‘It’s not gonna’ happen.’ But we smoked the pipe. We smoked one of Nicholas Black Elk’s pipes.”

And Soderman began a series of prayer walks.

The first was in 2015 from Black Elk Peak.

“We walked to the top of the peak and back down to the bottom,” Soderman recalls. “And we just kept on walking.”

All the way to Ft. Laramie, Wyoming - where the federal government signed the 1851 and 1868 Treaties with the Lakota and other Native nations.

Then a second prayer walk was made from Fort Laramie to the site of the Blue Water Creek Massacre in Nebraska.

“We thought by the time we walked 4 years maybe the name would be changed,” explains Soderman referring to Black Elk Peak.

But when news came of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names’ decision to take Harney’s name off the mountain – two years earlier than anticipated - Soderman and the Little Thunder family decided to continue the 4-year Prayer walk as planned.

Soderman, the Little Thunder family and their supporters will walk from Blue Water Creek to Wounded Knee next – thereby connecting the first massacre of Lakota people by the U.S. Cavalry with the last.

The final walk is planned from Wounded Knee to Fort Laramie. The goal is to make the federal government live up to its treaty obligations.

Brave Heart’s prayer completed, the Little Thunder family is called to the center of the circle and offered handshakes and hugs by everyone present. Two sacred pipes are lit. Then Soderman and a member of the Little Thunder family bring them around the circle so everyone present can smoke and share in the “wopila” – giving thanks – ceremony…to show gratitude for the name change.

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While the crowd begins to disperse Jared Brave Heart – a former U.S. Marine dressed in his camouflage uniform and holding an eagle staff – carries prayer ties up the trail toward Black Elk Peak. He’s accompanied by a few young Lakota helpers. The ties are placed on a cottonwood tree and a prayer is said offering thanks to the Creator.

“As a descendant of someone who committed war crimes out here I’m driven to make that somewhat right in my lifetime,” explains Paul Stover Soderman.

Advocating for Basil Brave Heart’s push to rename Harney Peak and moving forward with the Lakota elder and the Little Thunder family to correct other cultural iniquities is the least Soderman feels he can do - considering his ancestor’s history among the Lakota.

Karen Little Thunder strongly agrees with him – as evidenced by the hug they share.

(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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