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

Jim Kent: A tale of two warriors comes alive in sacred Black Hills

A Tale Of Two Warriors
By Jim Kent
Lakota Country Times Columnist

Once upon a time there was a U.S. Army warrior. He wore a blue uniform and rode a horse.

He fought alongside Andrew Jackson. He fought in the war with Mexico. He fought in “The Indian Wars." He fought in the Civil War. He retired after 45 years recognized for his “long and distinguished career."

So respected for his service was he that people began naming geographic sites in his honor: a county in Oregon, a lake in Florida, a mountain in South Dakota. Eight locations in all. Truly an accomplishment for a man of humble beginnings.

But there was another side to his story. It is the dark chapters in William S. Harney’s life that most people don’t know.

The charges of whipping a female slave to death because she’d lost a set of keys. At a time when white men weren’t penalized for crimes against blacks “The Major” walked free.

There’s the war he began with Britain over where the U.S./Canadian border was located – triggered by the shooting of a pig. Harney was recalled to Washington in disgrace…and not for the first time.

There’s the fact that “The Civil War General” spent most of his time at a desk performing administrative duties, was ineptly captured by the Confederates - only released for his Southern ties (he was born in Tennessee) and had his loyalty to the Union questioned.

But most significant are the monikers “Butcher” and “Woman Killer” – given by the Lakota after the 1855 Massacre at Blue Water Creek when troops under Harney’s command killed women and children during an attack on the Little Thunder camp. A New York Times correspondent referred to the incident as: “The lamentable butcheries of Indians…simply a massacre.”

And it’s for this last chapter in Harney’s questionably “stellar” career that another warrior – a Lakota – demanded his name be removed from the geographic site in South Dakota. A place considered sacred by the Lakota in the already revered mountains called the Black Hills – “He Sapa." That point called “Harney Peak."

It was in the early morning hours as summer drew to a close that Basil Brave Heart, a Korean War veteran, rose and began reading. “The Lakotas and the Black Hills” by Jeffrey Ostler.

When Brave Heart turned to the section on the Blue Water Creek Massacre he was transported back in time – 75 years – to his childhood and the day his grandparents told him that same story.

Time and life’s events had pushed the memory deep in his subconscious. Seeing some of the words first spoken to him as a boy Brave Heart put the book down and walked from the room. He found a quiet place and sat there. Then he cried.

In his sorrow something came to him. A spirit. Which? He doesn’t know. But it offered a message. It told Brave Heart he must change the name. He must return the sacred spirit of that place named for “The Butcher." He must begin the journey toward renewal.

Basil Brave Heart – the warrior who had never killed a slave, the warrior who had never massacred women and children, the warrior who had never started a war – did accept this new mission to take on the federal government.

And despite the naysayers, even among his own people, he moved forward…one small step at a time: never accepting “no” as an answer; never faltering on his road to success; never failing to spread the word or accept the support of those who offered.

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So it was that on a cool September morning at a place once called Harney Peak a Lakota warrior led a prayer to the Creator - offering thanks for one small adjustment in a history of unparalleled carnage.

Sharing the moment – and the victory – with the many who had helped he prayed this change for the Lakota would also be a new beginning. That the positive energy first brought to him by that unnamed spirit would spread across his nation to the other council fires and beyond. That the gift of renewal of spirit and of mountain would lay the groundwork for a return to the traditions of his people.

And that the divine intervention that had caused this seemingly impossible achievement would mark an awakening of the spirit in the hearts of all.

He hoped all this would be remembered each time people heard the name “Black Elk Peak."

(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

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