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.