As Mr. Kurtz noted last week, the South Dakota Board of Geographic Names has voted unanimously to recommend changing the name of Harney Peak to Hinhan Kaga. Actually, the board would include its accepted English translation in parentheses: “Hinhan Kaga (Making of Owls).”
The Board must have come up with those parentheses while dining at (kōl). Including parentheses in the name of South Dakota’s highest peak may not be hipster nonsense, but it will clutter the map with clinging colonialism. If we’re going to rename a mountain to erase General Harney’s ill deeds, can we not just give the mountain its old Lakota name and let the English-only crowd look the name up or ask an elder what it means?
Besides, “Making of Owls” may not be complete:
During the ceremony Basil Brave Heart spoke of a mountain peak in the Black Hills that the Lakota call Hinhan Kaga Paha. The meaning of these Lakota words is difficult to explain though the literal translation would be something like “the mountain of the sacred owl” or “the sacred scary owl of the mountain.” In many Native American traditions the owl is believed to be a messenger and often a messenger of death [M. Timothy Nolting, “Across the Fence: Hinhan Kaga Paha,” Gering Citizen, 2014.06.19].
Sacred Scary Owl, Messenger of Death—I think we could generate some marketing buzz with that. Mention Mars, and we’re golden! (“Hinhan Kaga—Not as Deadly as Valles Marineris!”) Google around, and you can also find the alternative translation “Ghost (Owl) Butte” (complete with parentheses!) recognizing the mountain as the place where the spirits of the dead start their journey to the Milky Way. Another translation is “you’re making something like an owl.”
I wondered if it would be proper to rename Harney Peak for Black Elk, the famous Lakota holy man. Basil Brave Heart recommended that change. Why not call the mountain Black Elk, or his Lakota name, Hehaka Sapa?
Several board members said they did not want to risk the possible later emergence of historical facts that might disqualify an individual as an appropriate namesake. They also recalled public testimony from Native Americans who said it is not historically customary for the Lakota people to name geographic features for individuals.
Additionally, board members noted that the federally designated wilderness area around Harney Peak is already named for Black Elk [Seth Tupper, “Board: Change Harney Peak to ‘Hinhan Kaga’,” Rapid City Journal, 2015.05.08].
I don’t think we’re going to find new dirt on Black Elk, at least not on the scale of General Harney’s colonialist crimes. But fair enough. If Hinhan Kaga is a legitimate prior Lakota name for the peak, who’s to complain?
Tupper says the Board of Geographic Names should publish its official notice of its recommendation tomorrow, opening a 30-day public comment period. Send your naming commissioners (how do i get that job?) your thoughts through June 15.
Related Reading: Among the voluminous public comments already on record, read the compelling and detailed May 1, 2015, letter from Rep. Shawn Bordeaux (D-26A/Mission), who recounts his own great×3 grandfather’s involvement in the Grattan Massacre, for which General Harney is widely reviled.
Among written comments submitted during the Board of Geographical Names’ public hearings, Carol Merwin of Rapid City says the name Hinhan Kaga suits the peak because the “rocks at dusk look like owls.” On the other side, Sally Nordstrom of Fairburn opposes gracing the peak with any “Sioux” name:
I know that Harney was not a nice man; however history tells us that the Sioux were not very nice either. Both parties committed horrible atrocities. All due respect to Mr. Brave Horse—there are problems on the Reservation that his energies could better be pointed at. Like Keeping their children safe & sober & educated & employable. Pride in oneself will not come with re-naming a peak [Sally Nordstrom, public comment, submitted to Board of Geographical Names, spring 2015].
Nordstrom helps me recognize the “Better Things to Do” Fallacy: at any given moment, most of us are doing things that are not the most important things in the world. But we still need to wash the dishes, buy groceries, file reports for the boss, and rectify historical injustices. The fact that some people lost their homes in Delmont this weekend does not mean you can’t paint your house in Rapid City this weekend. The greater importance of Problem X does not by itself create a moral imperative to drop our efforts to address Problems X, Y, and Z.