I love Harney Peak. I’ve been to South Dakota’s highest point maybe a dozen times. Every time at the the top, with friends, with my eager and sturdy six-year-old, or by myself, is a thrill. Particularly thrilling was a hike when I climbed through evening clouds, looked down from the top deck of the fire tower, and could see nothing but the red sun burning on a deck of clouds rushing into the mountain below me… which created the terrifying impression that the mountain was flying through a sea of Apocalypse.
Given how rarely I get to enjoy the mountain, Harney Peak figures with remarkable prominence in my sense of the Black Hills and South Dakota. The idea of changing the mountain’s name thus throws me for a momentary loop. But as Bob Mercer reports, the South Dakota Board of Geographical Names is considering replacing “Harney” to erase the name of one more white conqueror from the occupied Hills and more appropriately recognize the culture and history of the Lakota people who hold those Hills sacred.
General William Harney waged war on the Plains Indians, earning the name “Woman Killer” in the punitive Battle of Ash Hollow. As a replacement, the board is considering Black Elk, the Lakota holy man made famous by John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks.
But if we are to do any small justice in this simple renaming, should we not use Hehaka Sapa, the name Black Elk’s people called him, rather than our English term?
And if we change Harney Peak, must we also change Terry Peak, and Custer Peak, and the whole town of Custer itself? Should we revert Mount Rushmore, larkishly named for a visiting New York lawyer and tin-mine specualtor, to its Lakota name of Six Grandfathers?
A good friend who climbed Harney Peak with me under full pack named his dog Harney. Whatever happens, he doesn’t plan to rename his pooch. Perhaps our Lakota neighbors would take some heart knowing that the biggest thing bearing that one white colonizer’s name in South Dakota is my friend’s dog.