• Tag Archives geography
  • HB 1153 Hamstrings Ballot Measures with 34-County Signature Requirement

    The Legislature waged half-war on the popular democracy yesterday, repealing Initiated Measure 22 but withdrawing a bill that would have put the process of amending the constitution out of reach of more grassroots citizens.

    Rep. Spencer Gosch (R-23/Glenham)
    Rep. Spencer Gosch (R-23/Glenham)

    But yesterday Representative Spencer Gosch and nineteen fellow Republicans opened a new front in the GOP war on voters by filing House Bill 1153, which would beat back initiatives and referenda.

    Under current law, if South Dakotans want to put a new proposal on the ballot (initiative) or suspend and put to a public vote a bad law by the Legislature (referendum), they must circulate petitions and gather signatures from 13,871 registered South Dakota voters, 5% of the electorate who turned out for the last gubernatorial election. You can get all of those signatures standing on Phillips Avenue in Sioux Falls. I could get all of those signatures going door-to-door in Aberdeen. Chuck Brennan could hire 400 people to go to 200 towns and get 100 signatures each in a week. It doesn’t matter which South Dakotans sign a petition or where you find them; meet the 13,871 threshold, and your issue is on the ballot.

    HB 1153 says that’s too easy. Representative Gosch and his Republican friends want petitioners to get 50% of their signatures from at least 33 different counties and the other 50% from at least one other county.

    No geographical requirement exists for bills proposed in the Legislature. Representative Gosch only rounded up sponsors from fourteen counties, far short of the 34-county threshold he expects of citizens exercising their legislative power. Shall we put HB 1153 on hold until Representative Gosch can find a few more sponsors (and not all from Minnehaha County)?

    The likely intent of such a geographical requirement and the obvious practical impact is to increase the cost of circulating petitions and thus reduce the number of measures that make the ballot. Republicans have said they don’t like the influence of big money in ballot measures, but making it harder to collect signatures means fewer regular folks will successfully petition for ballot measures, and the remaining measures will increasingly come from the big-money groups who can afford to pay for circulators to drive to Selby, Highmore, Gann Valley, and Burke.

    HB 1153 isn’t as punitive as it could be. The exact text reads as follows:

    Fifty percent of the signatures required under this section shall come from no fewer than thirty-three counties, with the remaining fifty percent to come from any or all remaining counties.

    If I want to collect 20,000 signatures (decent cushion over 13,871, for signer and circulator error), I need to get 10,000 from 33 different counties and another 10,000 from “any or all remaining counties.” In the fullest spirit of the law, I could get 304 signatures from each county. But by the letter of the law, I could get 32 signatures from small counties, 9,968 signatures from Pennington County, and 10,000 signatures from Minnehaha County.

    Under HB 1153, petitioners could still quite sensibly focus on the two biggest population centers in the state and then spend a week going on a drive to make sure they have a handful of signatures from different counties (I’ll take that roadtrip!) At that point, HB 1153 is more minor nuisance than major petition-killing hurdle or honest guarantee of geographic diversity.

    To add to the circulators’ paperwork, no single petition sheet may have signatures from different counties. In other words, if I’m collecting signatures at the state fair, every time someone from a different county comes up to sign, I have to whip out a separate sheet for that voter’s county. Beadle, Spink, Clark, Kingsbury, Miner, Sanborn… either I have to stand there juggling my clipboard, handouts, and a folder of 66 alphabetized sheets, or any time a person from a county different from the last signer walks up, I have to just whip out a clean petition sheet. Under the latter scenario, on a good day at the fair, I might get a hundred or more sheets with just one or two signatures each, just because Spencer Gosch wants to complicate the paperwork.

    Requiring separate sheets for each county’s voters could be a bigger hurdle to getting a measure on the ballot than the mostly evadable county requirement. The county requirement creates one more avenue for the Secretary of State to reject petitions that should not be rejected. The Secretary’s 5% random sample of signatures could easily miss the handful of signatures I get from a couple of small counties or oversample the signatures I get from Minnehaha and Pennington County. The Secretary could easily sample closely geographically balanced petition and come up with 49% of signatures from 33 small counties and 51% from two big counties. The Secretary could then reject my petition, and since her House Bill 1035 wants to take away petitioners’ right to challenge petitions in her office and I can’t afford to go to court, my initiative or referendum doesn’t make the ballot.

    At best, HB 1153 achieves no goal other than annoying petitioners and the Secretary of State with paperwork. At worst, it is another bill (the fourteenth this Session, by my count, and the second from Gosch, after his unworkable and unconstitutional campaign finance restriction) meant to deter voters from exercising their constitutional right to legislate by initiative and referendum. Either way, HB 1153 is not worth passing.



  • Black Elk Peak Resurveyed: 11 Feet Shorter Than Labeled!

    Black Elk Peak isn’t as tall as we thought it was. Black Hills photographer Paul Horsted enlisted Nebraska surveyor Jerry Penry to remeasure the mountain and discovered that the bronze plaque at the top pegging the altitude at 7,242 feet is generous by eleven feet:

    Harney Peak Lookout plaque, with revised altitude
    Minor revision…

    In September, Penry and six team members spent two days of their own time and resources producing what might be the best-ever measurement of the elevation of Black Elk Peak.

    The team determined that the highest natural point on the peak — excluding the stone-built fire lookout tower that sits atop it — is 7,231 feet above sea level. That is lower than the 7,242 feet listed on the bronze plaque at the summit, but still high enough to be the tallest mountain in the state. The team also determined that the highest man-made point on the peak — the tip of the lookout tower’s lightning rod — is 7,262 feet [Seth Tupper, “How South Dakota’s High Point Ended up Shorter Than Thought,” Rapid City Journal, 2016.12.26].

    CAH, sketch of Black Elk (then Harney) Peak fire tower, made on site, 2001.08.10.
    CAH, sketch of Black Elk (then Harney) Peak fire tower, made on site, 2001.08.10.

    Penry provides a detailed explanation of his team’s survey, conducted September 15 and 16, 2016, complete with field notes and photos of the mountain, the team, and a mountain goat who supervised. Penry found that the 7,242-foot mark goes back to surveys from the late 1800s that were never rigorously updated, plus some variation introduced by the couple feet of rock blasted off the mountain in 1911 to provide a level surface for the first fire tower. That blasting removed the 1893 triangulation point that was the basis for pre-Jenry elevations.

    Penry also resolved dispute over whether “McGillycuddy Peak”, the unofficially named spire 300 feet south of Black Elk Peak, might actually be taller. Penry notes that Valentine Trant McGillycuddy, who was the first white man to document his ascent of Black Elk Peak, got the impression on his first 1875 ascent that that southern spire was taller than the spot the lookout tower and his ashes(!) now occupy. Penry says that McGillycuddy may have been right in 1875 and that erosion and climbers may have knocked some rock off that spire. But today, by Penry’s survey, McGillycuddy Peak is 1.91 feet lower than the highest natural rock on Black Elk Peak.

    Elevated Trivia:

    1. Penry’s downward revision does not change South Dakota’s rank among state’s for highest elevation. We’re still #15, behind Texas, whose Guadalupe Peak is 8,751 feet above the Gulf of Mexico, and ahead of North Carolina, whose Mount Mitchell is 6,684 feet above the Atlantic.
    2. We also remain 13th among states for average elevation, at 2,200 feet. Aside from high points in Hyde, Potter, and Walworth counties, everything 2,200 feet and up in South Dakota is in West River. But don’t back out of your East River land deal: if global warming melts all of the ice caps, the seas will only rise 216 feet.
    3. At the end of the Cretaceous Period 65 million years ago, Black Elk, McGillycuddy, and neighboring peaks may have been over 15,000 feet high. Assuming a steady rate of erosion, Mother Nature would have taken 89,000 years to knock eleven feet off Black Elk Peak.


  • Watertown Too Close to Minneapolis for Big Airfare Subsidy, Say Feds

    Keep your darned hands off my Essential Air Service!

    So may shout some over-entitled Republicans who’ve been celebrating the chance to force us taxpayers to foot most of the bill for their larkish flights from Watertown to Denver. Barely two weeks after Aerodynamics Inc. opened its Watertown–Pierre–Denver air route courtesy of a new $6.8-million/year Essential Air Service subsidy, the Department of Transportation has ruled that Watertown is too close to the Minneapolis air hub to qualify for more than $200 in government assistance per passenger. Given that the subsidy just to get a the plane from Watertown to Pierre is $253 per passenger, the Department of Transportation’s ruling means Aerodynamics Inc. will need to up ticket prices or end its Watertown service.

    Only towns farther than 210 miles from the nearest large or medium hub airport can qualify for more than $200 per passenger from EAS. USDOT says Watertown is 207 miles from MSP. Mayor Steve Thorson contends that, including Lake Kampeska, Watertown’s center is actually four miles further west, meaning the total trip is really 211 miles.

    Let’s take a look at city limits as drawn by Google on MapTechnica:

    Watertown city limits, screen cap from MapTechnica, 2016.09.04.
    Watertown city limits, screen cap from MapTechnica, 2016.09.04.

    Try to imagine the center of gravity of that grey shape, the point where you could balance that pancake-gone-awry on a pencil tip. With Lake Kampeska weighing us down in the west, I’d try maybe just south of the zoo, on Highway 20. I noodle around with Google Earth and find the centroid may be a little further west, between the fire department and the north-south runway at the airport.

    But let’s weigh population. Check out the official Watertown zoning map:

    Watertown zoning map, updated 2015.12.23.
    Watertown zoning map, updated 2015.12.23.

    The majority of land west of the river and Highway 20 is airport, agricultural, commercial, and industrial. The housing developments ringing Kampeska, southeast and southwest of the airport, and south of 212 appear to hold notably less population than the solid green and red residential zoning areas that dominate Watertown east of the tracks and north of 212. By population, the center of town might be closer to the courthouse.

    That’s about where Google Maps starts plotting the trip from Watertown to the Minneapolis airport. Google Maps says the trip is 208 miles if you drive all the way on U.S. Highway 212. Keep due east out of Montevideo on Minnesota Highway 7, and the trip is only 203 miles. From the airport fire station, the drive is only 205 miles. Only some houses on the west side of Kampeska can claim a door-to-terminal distance of 211 miles. And USDOT, which apparently measures from “center of the EAS community” to the hub airport entrance, is not likely to accept a measurement from the farthest edge of town.

    Aerodynamics Inc. says that from August 15 through August 31, it boarded 455 passengers in Watertown and 778 in Pierre. Both numbers are ahead of the per-flight averages predicted in the USDOT order selecting Aerodynamics Inc. to serve this route. If demand continues to exceed expectations, maybe Aerodynamics can afford to keep flying from Watertown without as big a welfare check from Uncle Sam.



  • Feds Rename South Dakota’s Highest Mountain Black Elk Peak

    As of yesterday, Black Elk Peak, Black Hills, South Dakota.
    As of yesterday, Black Elk Peak, Black Hills, South Dakota.

    After spending the evening with a lot of angry white Aberdonians afraid that The Brown Man is coming to take their land (and listening to one Red Aberdonian remind them that all the rest of us are illegal immigrants), I came home to learn that the U.S. Board on Geographic Names voted 12–0 to change the name of Harney Peak to Black Elk Peak.

    Boy, Neal Tapio, now’s the time to bring Donald Trump to South Dakota to make the colonialists feel great again.

    South Dakota’s highest point shall now be known by the name of a Lakota holy man in whose spirituality that granite crest plays a central role. South Dakota’s Board on Geographic Names declined last year to strike from the tallest Black Hill the name of a massacring white general who probably never set foot on the mountain. But even the threat of replacing Harney (a name given in the 1850s but officially approved only 110 years ago) with Black Elk drove Watertown Rep. Lee Schoenbeck (again, Watertown!?) to kill our state geographic naming board. (The Legislature settled for hamstringing the board’s authority to act only when instructed by the Legislature.)

    South Dakota’s Republican leaders aren’t accepting the new name graciously. Governor Dennis Daugaard grouses:

    I am surprised by this decision, as I have heard very little support in South Dakota for renaming Harney Peak. This federal decision will cause unnecessary expense and confusion. I suspect very few people know the history of either Harney or Black Elk [Governor Dennis Daugaard, press release, 2016.08.11].

    Heard very little support? Um, Pennington County Democrats? South Dakota DemocratsJohn Tsitrian? Representative Shawn Bordeaux? A majority of Dakota Free Press readers?

    Expense? Come on, Dennis! Think economic development and entrepreneurial opportunity! Smart Black Hills vendors will mark up those Harney Peak t-shirts and tchotchkes 200% for the Trump/Nugent fans clearing out of the Rally this weekend. Then souvenir sellers will be able to tap a whole new market of people looking to update their gear with new Black Elk Peak logos! Plus, this decision puts the Black Hills and South Dakota in the national news! Don’t be a sourpuss—ride the wave! Celebrate the name change, and instead of poo-pooing the history, use your position to educate everyone and encourage everyone to come to South Dakota to learn this important history!

    Senator John Thune is mad:

    I’m surprised and upset by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names’ unilateral decision to rename Harney Peak, one of South Dakota’s most well-known landmarks…. The national board’s choice to reject the state’s recommendation to leave the name as-is defies logic, since it was state officials who so carefully solicited public feedback and ultimately came to their decision. I’m also disappointed the board grossly misled my office with respect to the timeline of its decision, which wasn’t expected until next year” [Senator John Thune, press release, 2016.08.11].

    A unilateral decision, made by a board authorized by federal law to make such decisions—sure, Senator, keep griping.

    Senator Thune went on KSOO yesterday to complain that there was “no transparency, and no input from us…. it’s our state… I know it’s federal land, but still…. there was no input or consultation from South Dakota.” Senator Thune ignores the fact that the “Black Elk” suggestion came from Basil Brave Heart, a Lakota elder born on Pine Ridge, which, like it or not, is part of South Dakota.

    USBGN passed on Thunder Peak, an alternative offered as a compromise to satisfy Harney opponents and avoid provoking non-Natives.

    The USGS Geographic Names Information System already lists “Black Elk Peak” as the official name of South Dakota’s highest point, as of yesterday;

    USGS GNIS Black Elk Peak entry, screen cap, 2016.08.12.
    USGS GNIS Black Elk Peak entry, screen cap, 2016.08.12.

    The mountain is still the mountain, beautiful, some would say sacred, and worth the hike and a long, contemplative pause at the top. Its new name is an invitation to meditate further during that hike and at the summit about that landmark, the land it surveys, and the history of the peoples who have looked up to that peak.



  • Kadoka More Central Location Than Rapid City for IHS Anti-Suicide Treatment Facility

    Indian Health Service is building a $1.8-million outpatient therapy center on the Sioux San Hospital campus in Rapid City to tackle high demand for behavioral health services among American Indians in West River. Specifically, the new facility responds to the epidemic of youth suicide on the reservations.

    Wait—Rapid City isn’t on a reservation….

    High rates of suicide and suicide attempts are not exclusive to Pine Ridge, which is home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Reservations across the state, including Rosebud and Cheyenne River, have grappled with mental-health crises over the years. Federal experts say that some reservation children experience a form of post-traumatic stress from exposure to family turmoil.

    The plans for the 7,900-square-foot modular building call for space to provide behavioral health services and a duplex with two, three-bedroom compartments to host overnight stays for families and transitional patients. The existing staff at the Sioux San Hospital will provide the aftercare to patients, and IHS officials assert it “is centrally located” among the three reservations [“Tribe Says Behavioral Health Unit Being Built Too Far from Reservation,” AP via Rapid City Journal, 2016.03.22].

    If I were centrally locating myself among the tribal headquarters of the Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Cheyenne River reservations, I wouldn’t put myself in Rapid City. I’d draw the triangle connecting Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Eagle Butte and look for someplace with water and a gas station inside that triangle…

    West River map
    Possible “centrally located” site for behavioral service center for American Indian patients from western South Dakota reservations. Map clipped from Google, annotated by CAH.

    …like Kadoka. Kadoka may not be the friendliest place for our Lakota sisters and brothers, but find me any off-reservation town in South Dakota where Indians don’t get looked at crosswise, and I’ll buy you a lottery ticket.

    The average distance to Kadoka from the three tribal headquarters listed is 94 miles. To Rapid City, the tri-HQ average is 157 miles. If tribal members from Lower Brule and Fort Thompson want to avail themselves of the new services, the trip to Kadoka would be 96 miles less, an hour and a half shorter, than the trip to Rapid.

    IHS says building a new facility outside of Rapid could increase costs by half a million, but Rosebud Sioux Tribe Health Board member O.J. Semans says IHS chose Rapid City for its own convenience, not that of the tribal members it serves. Even Senator John Thune apparently thinks better service closer to more tribal members is worth the extra cost:

    “There are already a litany of well-known problems facing the Great Plains Area IHS, which is why I don’t believe building a new counseling facility nearly 100 miles away from Pine Ridge will help fulfill our commitment to our tribal citizens in South Dakota or mitigate the damage that’s already been done,” Thune said in a statement Tuesday [AP, 2016.03.22].

    Naturally, the optimal solution would be a quality behavioral health facility fighting youth suicides on each reservation, as close to the tiospaye as possible. But if IHS can only afford one new facility (and tell us again why IHS is short on cash, Senator Thune?), then IHS should strongly consider placing it in a genuinely central location to the tribes.



  • HB 1060: Harney Debate Drives Schoenbeck to Kill Board on Geographic Names

    Lee Schoenbeck's dogs will hunt, but will HB 1060?
    Lee Schoenbeck’s dogs will hunt, but will HB 1060? (from Schoenbeck Twitter feed, 2014.11.14)

    Rep. Lee Schoenbeck (R-5/Watertown) leads a whole bunch of cranky conservatives into battle tomorrow with House Bill 1060, to repeal the South Dakota Board on Geographic Names.

    We last heard from the state Board on Geographic Names last spring and summer, when they considered South Dakota’s highest point, Harney Peak, to Hinhan Kaga. Harney Peak is named for General William Harney, who is known, among other things, for killing Native women and children at the Battle of the Blue Water in Nebraska. Hinhan Kaga is a traditional Lakota name that may or may not refer to the peak, meaning (roughly) “Place of Scary Sacred Owls.” The state BGN took extensive testimony before deciding they sided with colonialist sentiment (including that of two thick-tongued Daugaard Administration officials) to keep Harney’s name on the mountain.

    I smell threatened white privilege in House Bill 1060, and while Rep. Schoenbeck admits the Harney Peak debate motivated his bill, he tells us he’s just shutting down a government agency that has done its duty and succumbed to mission creep:

    Schoenbeck said the Harney Peak name-change process was beyond the intended scope of the state Board on Geographic Names. The board was created by 2009 legislation as part of an effort to help replace offensive place names, many of them containing the words “squaw” or “negro,” such as Squaw Creek and Negro Gulch.

    That process has been completed, Schoenbeck said, and consideration of a Harney Peak name change by the board members represented “a whole different mission.”

    “They got all the work done that the statutes directed them to do,” Schoenbeck said, “and it looked to me like this is a government agency that’s done its job and should end” [Seth Tupper, “Lawmaker Seeks Repeal of Board That Considered Harney Peak Name Change,” Rapid City Journal, 2016.01.21].

    Let’s check Rep. Schoenbeck’s assertion of agency obsolescence against statutory history:

    • 2001: House Bill 1280, requested by Governor Bill Janklow, found that “certain geographic place names are offensive and insulting to all South Dakota’s people, history, and heritage.” It identified 38 places with “harmful and offensive” names, all of them including either “Squaw” or “Negro”, proposed new names for some, and gave interested parties 90 days to suggest new names for the rest. The bill then gave the Board of Water and Natural Resources, the Board of Minerals and Environment, and the Transportation Commission sixty days to jointly approve new names.
    • 2009: Senate Bill 155 created the South Dakota Board on Geographic Names and mandated it to “meet at least once each year to consider issues related to geographical place names and to make recommendations to the appropriate local, state, and federal agencies.” This bill dispatched the new board to recommend names for some remaining places from the 2001 list that had not yet been changed by the United States Board on Geographic Names by January 1, 2010, but it also authorized the state board to “make any subsequent recommendations in a timely manner.” The legislative intent, approved by every member of the legislature but Reps. Brock Greenfield and Brian Dreyer, clearly envisioned that the state Board on Geographic Names would continue to function after 2009 with no clear end date.
    • 2014: SB 119 revised 2001’s legislative finding statute (SDCL 1-19C-1) to a specific ban on use of “squaw” in place names. It noted that the US BGN had acted on all the previously cited names but laid out further criteria for the continued operation of the state board: “The board shall investigate any proposed names, solicit public input, and make a recommendation to the United States Board on Geographic Names as to whether the board supports a new or replacement name. The board may establish procedures and standards to recommend, evaluate, and select geographic place names by rules promulgated pursuant to chapter 1-26. The rules shall be compatible with the standards of the United States Board on Geographic Names as contained in its manual, Principles, Policies and Procedures: Domestic Names, Reston, Virginia, 1997. (http://geonames.usgs.gov/docs/pro_pol_pro.pdf). Giving the state board more rule-making authority suggests legislative intent that the board continue to operate. As in 2009, the 2014 legislation gave no sunset date for the board’s operation.

    Rep. Schoenbeck’s claim that the state Board on Geographic Names has “got all the work done that the statutes directed them to do” rests on an implication we may derive from the 2001 and 2009 offensive place name lists: “Squaw” and “Negro” are the only harmful and offensive terms that offend all South Dakotans, the board was created solely to deal with those offensive names, and we have eradicated all instances of those terms from South Dakota maps.

    However, that implication ignores the plain language that the 2009 and 2014 legislation put into the board’s authorizing statute, which empowers the board to “consider issues related to geographical place names.” That statement encompasses not just offensive place names but any issue with place names, such as the naming of previously unnamed creeks in Campbell County and Minnehaha County, which the board considered in 2014. To say the board has done its statutory job, Rep. Schoenbeck will have to argue that every place in South Dakota worth naming has been named, and that everything else is just a puddle or a pile of rocks… which is too bad, because there are a couple spots on Nick Nemec’s ranch that we might want to name Schoenbeck’s Ridge and Woster Slough.

    Rep. Schoenbeck brings House Bill 1060 to House State Affairs Friday morning (that’s tomorrow as I write this, quite possibly today as you read this!) at 8:30 a.m. CST in Room 414 at the Capitol. Tune in on South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s livestream for what promises to turn into a fun little culture war debate, and place your bets on which committee member (Rep. Jim Bolin? Rep. Don Haggar? Rep. Mike Verchio?) is the first to say, “political correctness.”



  • Big Counties Grow GDP More Than Small Counties

    New analysis from the National Association of Counties finds that more counties regained relatively healthy pre-recession levels of unemployment, economic output, and housing prices in 2015 than in 2014. However, 36% of counties saw GDP declines in 2015. NACo says most of those declines took place in small counties; 10% of the declines came from counties that produce lots of oil and gas.

    GDP appeared to drop in more small South Dakota counties than in the North Dakota oil fields:

    GDP Change by county, 2014–2015, National Association of Counties, January 2016. (Click for NACo's interactive map!)
    GDP Change by county, 2014–2015, National Association of Counties, January 2016. (Click for NACo’s interactive map!)

    29 South Dakota counties saw GDP shrink in 2015; ten more grew less than 1.0%. Clay County, the 15th largest county by population, is the largest county that saw a GDP decline and the only county out of 18 with populations greater than 10,000 that saw such a decline. 14 of the 20 smallest counties saw GDP declines.

    Even with crop prices down, South Dakota’s 14 largest counties, including 70% of the state’s population, were able to sustain economic growth. We all need to eat, but diversifying the economy beyond agriculture has helped those big counties ride out the rough ag market.



  • Bill Dithmer: Adventure and Vision on Eagles Nest Butte

    My post of Indian voting rights in Jackson County last Wednesday leads to a discussion of taxation, county consolidation, UFOs (really!), economic development, and, ultimately, Bill Dithmer’s response to Spike with this soulful story of Eagles Nest Butte. I yield the floor, with minor editing, to Mr. Dithmer, because, like much of what Bill Dithmer says, it’s a heck of a story:

    I don’t know if this will help anbody or not, but for me it has to be said. From the time I was very small I looked at the lands that we lived on or near in a different way from most of the people around me. It was never fueled by what could be done with those lands but the health of the land itself and how it was being treated by the people that walked on it. From the beginning it was about a feeling that I would get when I came to one of these places, and then as I got older it was a realization that it was a sense of inner peace. There are many places like that on the Pine Ridge. I’m going to tell you about just one, Eagles Nest Butte.

    Here's the place Dithmer is talking about, south of Wanblee (satellite image from Google Maps)
    Here’s the place Dithmer is talking about, south of Wanblee (satellite image from Google Maps)

    The first time I climed the butte under my own power was when I was six years old. Our little one-room school at Plainview, a mile east of our house, always took a field trip in the late spring to Eagles Nest. Until about fifteen years ago I averaged one climb a year, sometimes more then one. It was always a surprise to me that while everyone enjoyed where they were, nobody seemed to understand that what they were standing on was a part of both physical and natural history. It was just an outing to them. At the time I didn’t understand that I was seeking answers to questions that I still didn’t know how to ask.Before you can begin to get a grasp of my inner workings, it might help to have a physical description of the Nest.

    It isn’t big, roughly three hundred feet high and mayby a mile from one end at the bottom to the other. But other than its sister to the south Buzzard Butte, it is the tallest piece of ground around for miles.

    When you drive around the base, you begin to see things that look out of place. First, while the south side is mostly dirt, the north face has that same dirt but also shows the very edge of the badlands and something unique, pumice. That’s right, there are big old pumice boulders all over the north side.

    It is the top that grabs most people’s attention. There was a fire lookout up there that stayed pretty much in one piece. You would see twenty kids going both directions on those steep steps.

    That tower was at the pinnacle and to the north was the biggest stretch of open ground. If you walk to the east you will find a vision pit, to the west you will find trees with, now, thousands of ribbons and little bags of tobacco tied to their branches. I could lie here and say that I felt the spirit of those that came before me, but that wasn’t the case at all. It was something completely different from that.

    The butte holds many memories for me. One of those involves a friend and his Cub. I got a call one morning when I was in my early twenties by a man who will remain nameless. He wanted me to fly with him for a couple of hours before the air started heating up in the summer heat.

    He put it down in front of the house and we first headed south along Pass Creek to the high hills that are north east Bennett County. Then he turned to the west and headed towards Buzzard. We never flew very high and by the time we went around the west corner of Buzzard Butte we were less the 500 feet off the ground. When we approached the Nest, he got below the rim and we made a slow circle around it. We had just gone by the tower when he tapped me on the shoulder and yelled, “Do you think there is room to land this thing up there?”

    I have landed with him in some pretty short spaces but not that short. We made our approach from the northeast, by the rag on the tower it was just right to head into. There was good uphill run to land and not a lot of space. We hit a little hard but not bad and he was grabbing as much dirt as his brakes could hold and finally we stopped.

    It wasn’t until we got out that I realized we had run out of room at the same time, working the oversized tires just barely between two rocks. We picked the tail up and pulled it back turned it around, and I held on while he got back in, started the motor and held the brakes. It was then that I started to understand the predicament we were in, a real short runway.

    There is nothing more exciting than the feeling of a plane that just doesn’t have enough speed to lift off in the space it has. We dropped off the north side about sixty feet before we hit the bottom of the air pocket and started back up. It was a year before I could make myself get back in a little plane.

    In all I’ve spent four nights on the top of the butte. Two of those times were timed with a full moon, one was a foggy but warm night, and then there was this one.

    There were four of us. We had spent the afternoon fishing at the dam north of the house and had planned to camp there. We had just stopped fishing to eat when the conversation started on the Nest some fifteen miles away. All of us had been there before but for some reason none of us could could stop talking about it. It was then that someone had the idea that we should repack the ATVs and camp on Eagles Nest Butte, and so it began.

    We put all the camping suplies in the back of my six wheeler and headed west. It was late spring and there was an energy in the renewal that happens every year at that time. It took us a while to get there and we were climbing the old rutted-out jeep trail as the sun was going over the west rim.

    First we got camp set up and cooked some burgers on the Coleman and started looking around. The vision pit had seen recent use and there was a new tarp covering it, but nothing else had changed. The tower was no longer climb safe but it was sure handy to hang things on. It wasn’t until it started getting dark that we realized there was just a sliver of a moon already going down. That is when the magic that is Eagles Nest started.

    When you are on the top, you can see town lights all over. Kadoka to the north, Martin to the south, Wanblee just to the north a few miles and Belvidere east of Kadoka. There were dozens of farm lights in every direction and you could see cars on 44, 73, the Norris–Long Valley road, and part of the Corn Creek road going north. We talked about what it would have looked like a thousand years before.

    When complete darkness came we were already “in the mood,” so when the Milky Way started to show it was special. It hung down and reminded us how it got its name.

    There was zero humidity, and the night air had a chill, but the stars were putting on a show. For about six hours we set and talked. It wasn’t our normal conversation but talk about where we were and the people that came before us. At one point someone said they could look down and see stars. I know it was only an optional illusion but it seemed real.

    It was that night that I finally found what had been so elusive in my head. It was that night that I realized that I had the same feeling when I was on Pass Creek, down in one of the badland basins, setting on one of the other buttes, or fishing on the Big and Little White rivers. It wasn’t spiritual, but it was a peace of mind. It’s as if the conflicts of the day would disappear while I was at any of those places. It was tranquility.

    If you have a good imagination, you can feel the peoples that were here a thousand years before us. You know they used the Nest for the safety of the people, and for the same use as the tower was for.

    Spike, “Only A Few Can Hear The Drums” [a song Dithmer wrote] is about those places and feelings. You can take a hundred people to the same place, but very few will feel the connection to the past.

    While I understand the dire need for commercialization on the Pine Ridge, I find my heart and my mind at odds with one another. My mind says there must be tourism to start the process of rebuilding the tribe. But my heart refuses to accept the encroachment of more civilization on the places I love. I’m sure there are many elders that feel the same way.

    There doesn’t seem to be a way to build the future without killing a little of the past along the way. It will take a clear mind for the ones that will be making those decisions. Right now there should be a sign on every road onto the Pine Ridge. It should read the same on both sides. “FAILURE TO ADMINISTRATE.” There has been a bunch of that going on for far too long on both sides of the line.

    Maybe some of these places should be left as they were meant to be, without the problems of those that would come there. It will be a fine line that must be walked to protect some of these natural monuments, but doing nothing isn’t even an option.

    For most people these places are just a name on a map. For a few like me they are much more than that. The argument between my heart and my mind continues.

    The Blindman [Bill Dithmer, comment, Dakota Free Press, 2015.12.29]

    Read about the Lakota origin of the butte’s name, Wanbli Hohpi, here.



  • Aberdeen City Council Expresses Support for Independent Redistricting Commission

    Elisa Sand tweets that the Aberdeen City Council voted last night to express its opposition to the gerrymandering practiced by the South Dakota Legislature and its support for an independent, nonpartisan redistricting commission. The text from last night’s agenda packet is below:

    Resolution 15-09-07R, approved by Aberdeen City Council, 2015.09.14.
    Resolution 15-09-07R, approved by Aberdeen City Council, 2015.09.14.

    There just happens to be a ballot measure circulating to end gerrymandering by creating and independent redistricting commission. Mark Remily, the city councilor who brought the resolution to the floor, just happens to be the campaign coordinator for that ballot measure. The resolution is not a direct endorsement of the ballot measure itself, so technically the resolution does not violate SDCL 12-27-20, which says we can’t spend public funds “for the petitioning of a ballot question on the ballot or the adoption or defeat of any ballot question.”

    Aberdeen is one of only three cities in South Dakota exceeds the legally prescribed population of a legislative district. Under Article 3 Section 5 of the state constitution, the Legislature must draw our Legislative districts to have practically equal populations. South Dakota’s official 2010 population of 814,180 divided by 35 districts gives us 23,262 people per district. Aberdeen’s official population was 26,091. The Legislature thus had to shave not quite 3,000 people out of Aberdeen and place them in a different district with surrounding rural areas. In 2011, the Legislature met that requirement with this gerrymander:

    Aberdeen, as gerrymandered between District 2 and District 3, 2011.
    Aberdeen, as gerrymandered between District 2 and District 3, 2011.

    Look at the southwest corner of Aberdeen. Instead of drawing a straight line down 5th Street, the Legislature stretched District 2 east toward Main Street north of 12th Avenue, then stretched District 3 west to 9th Street right below that. They stretched northeast to ensure that the houses around the Moccasin Creek Country Club make it into District 3. And instead of trying to keep more of the Aberdeen city limits within the same district, the Legislature included 42 rural sections to the east of town—Bath Township plus six bonus sections—necessarily increasing the number of voters in Aberdeen proper who had to be split off into District 2, which looks like a stealth bomber stretching south and east below Watertown:

    District 2, as gerrymandered by the South Dakota Legislature, 2011
    District 2, as gerrymandered by the South Dakota Legislature, 2011

    Given current population figures, Aberdeen can’t maintain its territorial integrity within a single legislative district. But the above maps indicate that the Legislature unnecessarily fiddled with the map to target certain neighborhoods for certain districts and to increase the number of Aberdeen voters who would be thrown into far-flung District 2. The Legislature drew a map that gives more Aberdeen voters less opportunity to be represented by their neighbors.

    Any city has a natural interest in ensuring that its residents can win fair representation in the Legislature. Whatever map lines would optimize our representation, the city has taken the position that an independent, nonpartisan commission would draw those lines more fairly than our current self-interested legislators.

    Update 08:28 CDT: A source who attended the meeting says the two councilors who voted against the resolution were Dave Bunsness and Alan Johnson. Both men represent the southwest district of the city, which is the district divided by the 2011 gerrymander:

    Aberdeen, southwest city council district in green, precincts 8, 9, and 10.
    Aberdeen, southwest city council district in green, precincts 8, 9, and 10.

    It appears that the gerrymander lines up with the boundaries of Precinct 8. Councilors Bunsness and Johnson both appear to live in Precinct 9.



  • Rapid City Activists Urge Feds to Replace Harney with Black Elk on SD’s Highest Peak

    I’m not convinced the federal recognition of Denali as the proper name of Alaska’s (and North America’s!) highest peak signals that the Obama Administration is ready to overrule South Dakota’s Board on Geographic Names and rename Harney Peak. But some of our Rapid City friends are taking their best shot at convincing the feds to act.

    John Tsitrian, a blogger somewhat more conservative than I, joins Katrina Wilke, an activist possibly a touch more liberal than I, want to convince the federal Board on Geographic Names that Harney’s name is sufficiently offensive to justify changing the mountain’s name to Black Elk Peak. Tsitrian is open to other names, but he says Harney deserves no such honor:

    Harney’s actions against an Indian encampment at Blue Water Creek in Nebraska in 1855 were murderous and treacherous.   There is no good reason to honor Harney by naming the highest point of land between the Rockies and the Pyrenees after him [John Tsitrian, “You Can Help Support The Name Change Of Harney Peak To ‘Black Elk Peak’,” The Constant Commoner, 2015.09.09].

    Tsitrian shares this sample letter shared by Wilke, which they are urging everyone to send to the federal Board on Geographic Names (BGNEXEC@usgs.gov) by September 30, the end of the public comment period on the name change:

    Dear USBGN:

    Please accept this as my strong support for Harney Peak, South Dakota’s name change, to BLACK ELK PEAK.

    Harney is highly offensive to me/us and/or all our Indian brothers and sisters who are forced to pray in the Black Hills. This is in the shadow of the highly derogatory meaning of the name Harney and the atrocious military acts that are associated with his name on that sacred, but desecrated peak.

    Thank you for doing what is right in the spirit of reconciliation for all Americans, by removing his name for a more appropriate name [sample letter, forwarded by Katrina Wilke on Facebook; cited in Tsitrian, 2015.09.09].

    I think Black Elk Peak would be a cool name, although I am open to the argument from folks more Native than I that Black Elk himself would not have wanted his name on a mountain.

    However, the guidebook on domestic names for the federal Board on Geographic Names lays out five key principles, one of which bears notably on the Harney/Black Elk conversation:

    Principle II: Names in Local Usage—The underlying principle of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names for establishing official geographic names and their applications is recognition of present- day local usage or preferences. Exceptions occur when local spoken or written usage is in conflict with specific Board policy. In cases where local usage is conflicting or weak, well- established documented names and names with historical significance are given strong consideration (see Domestic Names Decisions) [Donald J. Orth and Roger L. Payne, “Principles, Policies, and Procedures: Domestic Geographic Names,” United States Board on Geographic Names, 1997].

    The Board does make exceptions to the local-usage principle to change derogatory names under Policy V. But they make that exception sparingly:

    The Board, however, is conservative in this matter and prefers to interfere as little as possible within the use of names in everyday language because attitudes and perceptions of words considered to be pejorative vary between individuals and can change connotation from one generation to another. Geographic names are part of the historical record of the United States, and that record may be either distorted or disrupted by the elimination of names associated with particular groups of Americans. Such unwarranted action by the Board could, in time, be a disservice to the people the process is meant to protect [Orth and Payne/USBGN, 1997].

    Policy X encourages the official use of geographic names derived from Native American languages (USBGN might prefer Hehaka Sapa, Black Elk’s Lakota name.) But Section 3 of this policy says the Board treads carefully when asked to change a long-standing European name to a Native name:

    Proposals to change widely known, long-published geographic names derived from non-Native American languages for major (primary) features within, or partly within, areas of Native American tribal jurisdiction rarely will be considered by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names unless such changes have extensive public support and are approved by appropriate State and tribal authorities [Orth and Payne/USBGN, 1997].

    That section specifies that even on land controlled by tribes, the Board needs to see “extensive public support” plus backing from state and tribal authorities. Harney Peak and the Black Hills aren’t under official tribal jurisdiction, so this policy implies that the Board will be even more hesitant to change a long-standing European name with backing from many members of the public and the state’s geographical naming authority.

    The federal Board on Geographic Names seems unlikely to change the name of South Dakota’s peak until we build more awareness consensus on the need for change. But Wilke and Tsitrian’s effort to involve more South Dakotans in the public comment period is part of building that awareness and consensus. Keep it up, John and Katrina!

    Related Reading: Neihardt.com offers a photo essay about Black Elk, including a photo of the Lakota holy man on the peak in question itself in 1931.