US Board on Geographic Names Mulls “Black Elk” and “Thunder” for Harney Peak

It's still called Harney... but white colonialism doesn't make the mountain itself less impressive.
Harney Peak—name change still a ways away.

At its April meeting, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names put off making a decision on changing the name of Harney Peak. The main alternative name under consideration is Black Elk Peak; however, last August, a Rapid City resident submitted a formal request to change the name of South Dakota’s highest point to Thunder Peak.

At first glance, I thought “Thunder Peak” sounded like a cheap generic name intended to avoid any historical controversy or cultural specificity. But reviewing the minutes, I find the proponent (the April 14, 2016, minutes do not name her) can argue that “Thunder Peak” has as much cultural significance as the “Hinhan Kaga”/”Sacred Scary Owl” name considered at the state level last year:

A counter-proposal to change the name of Harney Peak to Thunder Peak was submitted to the BGN in August 2015 by a resident of Rapid City. She describes her co-proponent as “a full blood Oglala Lakota who is also known as a spiritual advisor.” The name Thunder Peak is derived from the annual spring equinox ceremony held by Lakota spiritual leaders at the summit; the ceremony is called the “Welcome Back the Wakiya Oyate (Thunders) Ceremony” or “Welcome Back the Thunder Beings.” According to the proponent, “A medicine man leads a procession of the people to the top…to welcome back the Thunder Beings…. ‘Harney Peak’ has had an ongoing, traditional use by the medicine people to welcome back the Thunder Beings for years.” According to online sources, the ceremony was revived about 30 years ago by several Lakota spiritual leaders. Many schoolchildren now attend the ceremony, which celebrates “the rejuvenation of Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth).” Prayers are made to the Wakinyan Oyate (Thunder Beings) as bringers of life for good rain and weather.

The proponent believes that the name Thunder Peak “could be a good choice to all who disagreed with previously suggested names. Many Lakota know what these ceremonies signify and the importance of them.” The proponent also believes “even non-Natives would not be averse to such a title as this because it is simple, yet appropriate.”

…The proponent for Thunder Peak added that in her opinion, “If the descendant of General Harney doesn’t want his grandfather’s name [sic] used anymore to designate a geographical feature, it shouldn’t matter what the Pennington County Commissioners or the SD BGN wishes – he has revoked his permission to use his family’s name. [Furthermore], a name is like a trademark.” With regard to Black Elk Peak, she notes, “There is already the ‘Black Elk Wilderness’ that has been named after Black Elk. Black Elk was a spiritual man. Truly spiritual Lakota do not seek to have their names label great creations of God, (or as the Lakota say, ‘Wakan Tanka’), because they know that they are only human, and are not above sacred beings such as the Thunder-Beings whose spirits who inhabit the present-day Harney Peak. If Black Elk were present today, it is our belief that he would not have wanted this” [U.S. Board on Geographic Names, docket, published in minutes of 781st meeting, 2016.04.14, pp. 26, 28].

According to USBGN Review List 422, published November 18, 2015, that co-proponent is Rick Good Voice Flute of Rapid City.

SDPB’s Victoria Wicks joined Lakota and allies in the most recent ceremony at Harney Peak to welcome back the Thunder Beings in March. Participants included Paul Stover Soderman, the professed descendant of General Harney who supports renaming the peak for Lakota holy man Black Elk. Soderman plans to visit with tribal elders to seek support for the Black Elk name and says Thunder Peak is not being seriously considered by the Board on Geographic Names.

The USBGN will take up the Harney/Black Elk/Thunder question again in August.

4 Responses to US Board on Geographic Names Mulls “Black Elk” and “Thunder” for Harney Peak

  1. This is a beautiful ceremony. Young and old of many places near and far. The beauty of elders climbing with young grandchildren. Schools with their students and staff singing wonderful native songs. The sick, the healthy. The ceremonies that take place in the Black Hills are celebrations of life and life’s journey. They honor the earth and all her powers. It was a beautiful sunny day this year. And I’ve been there when there was a snow storm . And it was beautiful then too.

    Harney murdered women and children at Bluewater creek in Nebraska to attempt to intimidate the lakota from protecting their hunting grounds.
    It’s time to move on from Harney and his murderous legacy. It really is.

  2. from a white’s perspective this issue has everything.

    1. taking of land. the sup. ct. said in 1980 it was a taking, an eminent domain for the good of the greater public, requiring just compensation. just like the pipeline. In reality after Custer rode to his death, Indians were hunted down, starved and imprisoned. Their land, gold, timber and all other resources were stolen. Harney peak is in the center of “all there is”.

    2. religion. Lakota and others use stars and land forms which are sacred places, as markers symbolic of all in heaven as on earth.

    3. the economy. In recession, the nation needed resources, and one gold discovery after another occurred in Indian territory later known as California, Oregon, Montana and the Black Hills, ect.

    4. Extinction. Timber, fur, buffalo and predators were eliminated and railroads, beaver hats, buffalo tongue and hide proliferated or were harvested to extinction.

    5. War. Like slavery in the east, a second pillar underpinning our nation was elimination of the Indian. Harney was the expert. Recruited from military retirement in Paris, he came west, surrounded, and then destroyed Little Thunder’s Lakota village on Blue Water Creek above the North Platte, September 1855.

    He and his surveyor Warren carted off wagon loads of pristine Indian belongings, some of which wound up at the Smithsonian after his death, 35 years later.

    Warren named the peak for his General.

    6. Racism. Many times over the decades, just like the Lakota effort for return of “their beloved Paha Sapa”, Indians attempted to rename Harney Peak as a desecration, to something they held holy.

    Local chambers of commerce and newspapers today trumpet “We love OUR Black Hills” to the exclusion of the Indian people.

    Most recently, in accordance with law, an individual Lakota holy man, an elder, an educated administrator, an expert in substance abuse recovery, applied to the state to change the name to Black Elk Peak which seemed more appropriate. The state board agreed, but decided Hin Han Kaga was even better.

    Then the ugliness of SD racists became very evident, for the history books, in the written record the board was keeping. The governor’s staff and local governments felt the “Indians had not learned their lesson of 1855”, the board changed its ruling, and then the legislature changed the law so the Indians couldn’t try again.

    7. disrespect. while children die of suicide on SD reservations, Lakota self esteem is further attacked by white ranchers write that the Indian name sounds like “owls screwing”. Other ranchers spill beer on Lakota children at a public hockey event in the largest civic center in the state, but are barely prosecuted. Indian pow wows and rodeos are used as hostages to white urban economies.

    8. political correctness. Obama was instrumental in a name change for Mt. Mckinley to the Indian name “Denali” while the Black Elk Peak name was being considered. SD racists claim changing the name of Harney Peak “changes history”. the nation is severely divided in its support or relentless castigation of the first black president. PC-ism is a hot topic in the national presidential race.

    9. poverty. the Lakota counties are the poorest in the nation, Indian education administered by the state has questionable oversight subject to fraud and cronyism. Whites are often bitter over benefits or casino economies Indians utilize, failing to acknowledge their own.

    10. Health care. Indian health care is failing in a number of areas while the republican governor refuses to consider Medicaid expansion for 55,000 residents until tribes agree to modify the health system they use under treaty.

    11. Jobs. There are essentially no jobs on the reservations.

    12. The Indian Vote. The state and counties and school districts fight providing adequate polling places, high school graduation honoring ceremonies and obstruct Indian management of Pe’ Sla.

    13. Bernie said in RC…” we own a debt to the Native Americans that can never be repaid”. Changing Harney to Black Elk Peak is but a token gesture that has immense value. Every one of you white South Dakotan’s opposing this and influencing the Governor’s resistance is a fool in my eyes.

    more to follow….

  3. Good Sense


    Fix your own problems before coming after anyone else.

  4. aahhhhhhhhhhh