Press "Enter" to skip to content

Sacred Scary Owls: Board Recommends Hinhan Kaga as New Name for Harney Peak

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.


  1. Paul Seamans 2015-05-14

    I totally agree with the Hinhan Kaga name (without the parenthesis). I have never liked naming major geographical features after some politician that has never even been in the area. No need for an English translation of the Lakota term either, we whites eventually learned what Paha Sapa referred to.

  2. Troy 2015-05-14

    The name they picked is odd unless maybe owls are prevalent on the peak not otherwise common in other places of the Hill. Even then, I think Black Elk was perfect and appropriate.

    1) He is unifying as he was respected by both Indians and non-Indians. He lived a life that could be emulated and respected by Indians and non-Indians.

    2) I have a faint memory of my Grandfather referring to Casey Tibbs and Black Elk with the same tone of respect. This is significant because I don’t recall him speaking of any person he didn’t know intimately in such a way.

    3) Rightly or wrongly, many places are named for people of fame. While I’m sure I don’t know all the most famous or significant South Dakota Sioux leaders, the one’s I do know (which at least to some degree demonstrates fame at least in the non-Indian community) are Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Lame Deer, and Black Elk. People such as this are part of all South Dakotan’s heritage, no less than our famous Governors like Norbeck, Foss, or Janklow or Senators like Mundt or McGovern and certainly more than people who were railroad supervisors for which so many of our towns and counties are named.

    4) Finally, unlike Buffalo Bill’s Shows which played to stereotypes of Indians, the frontier, etc., Black Elk focused on presenting the culture of the Lakota in both an entertaining and informative way. I sometimes wonder if Black Elk’s show had continued/been picked up by another how some things might be different.

  3. Rorschach 2015-05-14

    I have better things to do than to read this blog. Still I read it.

    I think Hinhan Kaga is perfectly appropriate. Troy can call it Black Elk mountain if he wants, but the point here is that Native Americans don’t want people like Troy forcing their anglo naming conventions on sacred sites. I’m sure a lot of people will still call it Harney Peak, and Troy can do that if he wants too.

  4. larry kurtz 2015-05-14

    Black Elk’s conversion to catholicism makes him ineligible to represent the people he abandoned.

  5. larry kurtz 2015-05-14

    We need to erase Custer’s name from every feature to which his name is attached and Montana needs to get on board, too.

  6. Craig 2015-05-14

    As a general rule, if you have to help even the locals pronounce a name, and if it risks being misspelled more times than not… it probably isn’t a great choice.

    I too would much rather see it named Black Elk Peak, but if the Lakota people are against that idea or feel it wouldn’t be appropriate then it is off the table. Although one could argue that Black Elk has multiple meanings, and tourists would likely just assume it is in relation to an animal.

  7. Bill Fleming 2015-05-14

    I don’t think “Hinhan Kaga” is any more difficult to spell and/or pronounce for non-locals than “Pierre” or “Belle Fourche” are. Definitely not in “Louisville” (KY) or “Dorchester” (Mass) territory. ;-)

  8. Nick Nemec 2015-05-14

    Don’t forget Cairo, Illinois.

  9. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-05-14

    I agree, Bill: pronunciation is a matter of familiarity. You should hear the things my French and Russian friends can say without breaking a sweat. Most of my neighbors tremble at my daughter’s name all the time, but the Polish folks in Chicago and Edmonton say “Katarzyna” frequently and with ease.

    And yeah, “Belle Fourche” and “Worcester” should take pronunciation off the table as a deciding factor.

    Hinhan Kaga—unless that’s one of those nasal n’s in the middle, it’s a pretty straightforward phonetic pronunciation, right? Hin-han ka-ga. I’ll admit, it doesn’t feel elegant to me at first glance (first speak?), but give me a hike or two with that name on my tongue, and that will change.

  10. Troy 2015-05-14


    Board members “recalled” testimony it wasn’t historically customary but it doesn’t mean it is against customs or prohibited. Many of the people who recommended Harney be re-named after Black Elk are Indian. And there is precedent. The Indians named the village Swift Bird after Chief Swift Bird (NE SD) and White Horse was named for Chief White Horse (village flooded by the Oahe Dam).

    I support revisiting the names of places in South Dakota, especially when the current name has no connection to our South Dakota. And, in some cases support using the Indian word for it when the translation makes sense to the area as well (e.g. Bear Butte).

    As noted above, the federal wilderness area around the Peak is already called the “Black Elk Wilderness area” and naming it as such was supported by the Indian community. Naming the most prominent feature of the wilderness area in my mind enhances the federal designation and makes the prominence of the area more recognizable to EVERYONE.

    In the end, while I like naming it after Black Elk because I think it will be a name used and broadly accepted, another name can also work. It is just my opinion this name will not be used because the “connection” won’t be generally and broadly “gotten” and thus doesn’t serve the purpose of giving a landmark a name. Just my opinion.

  11. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-05-14

    R, I have better things to do than write this blog (not many, but a handful). Yet I keep writing. We could get into an infinite regress of little things we do each day (putting on a necktie, putting on underpants, buying flowers, cleaning the garage, voting) that should be set aside in favor of some greater, nobler cause. But what would be the ultimate cause to which we’re all supposed to dedicate our energies? Even among the options Mrs. Nordstrom lists, which is the main priority: education? sobriety? safety?

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-05-14

    Rep. Bordeaux says in his letter that he suspects that Black Elk would not have wanted his name on a mountain. That’s less than hearsay; it’s imagine-say. But it’s a thought.

    Nonetheless, Troy’s argument is worth discussing. I’ve never seen an owl on the mountain… but then I’ve never seen a Bear at Bear Butte or the Devil at Devil’s Tower. (And the “Highlands” district in Aberdeen? Don’t get me started….)

    What does a name evoke when we see it on a map or the welcome sign at the visitor center? Right now (or better yet, pre-controversy), how many people think of General Harney when they visit Harney Peak? How many would think of Black Elk the man post-renaming?

    Hinhan Kaga might have more immediate resonance in and of itself, since even without any historical knowledge, first-time readers/hearers would likely recognize that it is a non-English name. Most would conclude it is a Native name and thus be reminded that folks were here before we marched in. That’s one main point of the renaming, isn’t it?

    For those who read the caption under the tourism pamphlet or the inscription under the historical marker, the name Harney immediately invites the colonialism critique. The name Black Elk would remind readers and visitors of the folks who came first whom we displaced; however, it could rile people like Larry who think we need to exile all Catholics (hmm… should we really base policy on that brand of rage?) or historically equalizers and pacifists who say Black Elk’s participation with enemy forces in killing American troops at Little Big Horn make him unworthy of a mountain name. Hinhan Kaga is in itself historically and morally harmless…

    …although maybe I should run a secularist critique on giving the mountain a name that memorializes a particular religion’s spiritual beliefs. That business about ghosts going to the peak to start their journey to the Milky Way… is there a hint of establishing religion there, like naming a street “Ten Commandments Way”?

  13. Troy 2015-05-14

    I think Rep. Bordeaux is right that Black Elk wouldn’t have wanted his name on a mountain because he was first and foremost a humble man. Nor would he have ever grasped or expected his historical significance.

    At the end of the day, there is a very short list of people who are truly MOST significant with regard to our history (Indian and non-Indian) over the last 150 years. And, the list who were held in highest regard both during their life and especially when seen through the eyes of history and in both the Indian and non-Indian communities is even shorter. Black Elk is on that most short list (Sitting Bull is in my opinion the only other Indian). And, Norbeck might be the only white man on the list.

  14. jana 2015-05-14

    What is the Lakota translation for Stolen Mountain?

  15. mike from iowa 2015-05-14

    I read somewhere that Bear Butte was named so because it looked like a bear laying on its side or some damn thing. Doesn’t really matter what white boys think of Indian names,it only matters what the Natives themselves think. It is their mountain,afterall,isn’t it?

  16. Nick Nemec 2015-05-14

    It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see the bear in Bear Butte.

  17. Roger Cornelius 2015-05-14

    And then there is Crazy Horse Monument, just saying…………

  18. Roger Cornelius 2015-05-14

    I’m surprised that the Christian community isn’t trying to change the name of Devil’s Tower over in Wyoming.

  19. Roger Cornelius 2015-05-14

    Apparently Nordstrum thinks that all us Indians do is sit around obsessing about the name change of Harney Peak.
    That must be why I haven’t eaten in forty years.

  20. Troy 2015-05-14


    Good point about what someday will be the greatest wonder of the world honoring a single Indian leader and Indians in general- Crazy Horse Memorial (which kinda makes Harney, Bear Butte etc. seem small in comparison).

    Maybe I’m mistaken but I’m taking your last statement as one of balance similar to a comment of Cory’s: The name change to something recognizing Indian heritage would be nice but you aren’t bound up about it.

    If the I’m reading you right and it isn’t a huge item, just the same I’d like to know your personal preference for a name since you are Indian. Black Elk, Hinhan Kaga, Harney Peak, or something else.

    Regarding Devil’s Tower, I think we should name it Coor’s Tower in honor of when we had to go to Wyoming to buy Coors or Black Cat Tower because of all the Wyomingites who used to have to drive by it to buy fireworks. :)

  21. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-05-14

    Good answer Roger.

    Cory, your link to place name pronunciations was fun. There is a small town in southern Missourah (my aunt’s pronunciation) named Nevada, but pronounced Ne-VAY-duh.

    I guess if we can butcher so many European place names, why not Lakota also?

  22. mike from iowa 2015-05-14

    There is a Ne-Vay-duh in iowa,too.

  23. Roger Cornelius 2015-05-14

    The Crazy Memorial pretty much dismisses the claim that physical attractions should not be named if Indian leaders, the arguments are strong against that belief. Since the Lakota culture is not written, the closest we have is Black Elk, it is sometimes difficult to determine what is Lakota culture and what is not.
    My personal preference for the Harney Peak name change is Black Elk for a number of reasons.
    At the top of my list of reasons is that when people want to know more about Black Elk, they will learn more about our history and culture.
    And Larry is right, many tribal members felt that Black Elk sold out when he joined the Catholic Church, I never understood his reasoning.
    Red Cloud did the same thing and a Catholic School on the reservation is named for him and he is buried in a Catholic cemetery.
    About my last comment regarding Nordstrum, there is a pattern in South Dakota where when any subject relating to Native American comes up, so many feel the need to inject some form of their own racial contempt into the discussion.
    Using the Rapid City Journal as an example, they can have an article about successful Native women and the same commenters week after week will engage in a hateful discussion about freebies Indians get or an all out assault on Indian culture and everything in between.
    My preference for Harney Peak is Black Elk, it need not be cluttered with () or other explanations.

  24. Roger Cornelius 2015-05-14

    As a young guy I remember making many trips across the Wyoming border to get that Coors and the trips from Colorado to keep a stock. Of course there were those that asked me to bring back a case for them.

    When Coors made their bee available in South Dakota it somehow lost its lure.

  25. leslie 2015-05-15

    both across fence & bordeaux cited r appreviated. little thunders comments to board were COMPELLING!

    penn cty auditor/treas&custer cty r AGAINST rename :(

  26. leslie 2015-05-16

    reoublican politics are largely anti rename and should be cAlled out at ballot box and larrys name calling would be appropriate

  27. Troy 2015-05-16


    If you want to send a joint letter supporting Black Elk from an Indian perspective and me from a white perspective, I am in. Cory has my email.

  28. larry kurtz 2015-05-16

    Hehaka Sapa is Black Elk’s real name: how is that better for the white forked tongue than Hinhan Kaga?

  29. larry kurtz 2015-05-16

    It’s time for the Board of Geographic Names to erase the Custer name from a state park, a county, a town and a Northern Hills peak, too.

  30. Roger Cornelius 2015-05-16


    That sounds a worthy idea, I’ll have Cory forward my email to you.

  31. leslie 2015-05-21

    lonis wendt, commenting here on these threads makes a direct appeal to vice chair Vogt to keep him apprised of the status of the name change he wishes to defeat based on, inter alia:

    1.native low graduation rates;

    2.high unemployment;

    3.foster care;

    4. child adoptions;

    5.alcohol and drug addictgions (ewww-both mind you);

    6.poverty; or

    7. increased taxes.

    Let’s discuss each of these here Lonis, if you have time what with all your Deadwood Days of 76 and retracing Sidney to deadwood stage trail activities, following historic Indian trails no doubt.

    Lonis has thune’s ear too (google-Vivian, South Dakota elections on … $250 to JOHN THUNE FOR SOUTH DAKOTA on 10/29/02. LONIS WENDT …) so perhaps he can marshal the Vivian/murdo communities to wrap their heads around some of the compassionate and historically accurate concerns generational trauma Gen. Harney started in the name of the Morman cow. I am guessing Scotty Phillips showed this kind of compassion.

  32. Paul Seamans 2015-05-21

    Leslie; I am fairly sure that Scotty Philips had compassion for the Indians. Scotty’s wife was a sister to Crazy Horse’s wife. She was considered instrumental in Scotty’s work to save the buffalo.

  33. leslie 2015-05-31

    not sure I trust romantic histories, paul. but my concern is thune’s compassion.

  34. leslie 2015-05-31

    speaking of scary: as cory pokes fun at an effort to rename the heart of Paha Sapa from the “morman cow punisher”;

    the state is coming out against the name change by reopening the comment period to June 15 so that the Secretary, Game Fish & Parks, South Dakota Historical Society (which seems unable to excerpt anything negative about Harney in history) and other republican appointees can weigh in with their own brands of negativity and state-wide, single party control; along with Boys and Girls Club of Sioux Empire, Rapid City realtors, and Philip residents who are obviously not too keen on change or opening up the rez boundaries.

    Ironically, one new naysayer quotes the recent Omaha World Herald for his interest. In the 1800s the OWH went after Harney for his war campaign at the Blue Water but history seems to have “misplaced” those articles. Can anyone find them now?

    please people, get your timely,positive comments in to:

    show the world that the old guard in SD is no longer in control. peace instead of vitriol our children do not need to grow up with.

  35. leslie 2015-05-31

    Oh, forgot to add: the Rapid City Journal commenters, no surprise, are 30 or 40 to 5 against, according to another new naysayer.

    see PUBLIC COMMENTS. you can also listen to the powerful, emotional audio testimony of some the Lakota AND Crow people in support of the name change.

  36. leslie 2015-06-08

    what would governor michelson do?

    meanwhile daugaard’s cabinet is falling in line, lockstep. Dept of tourism is negative on the name-change.

  37. leslie 2015-06-17

    Update: the comment period is now open thru 6.20.2015.

    email david.reiss@state/sd/us

    PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE get your positive comments in NOW; or postmark your mail to Pierre by 6.20 to:

    SD Board Geographic Names, 302 E. Dakota Ave, Pierre SD 57501

    The board stated in its 5.07.2015 draft minutes that this deadline was five days earlier, 6.15.2015. This created confusion.

    The board next unanimously voted to rename Harney Peak because the large majority of comments were in favor. (This was very publicly covered by the media, stirring up a red-neck hornets nest, conceivably.)

    An issue raised in hearings was whether to use the name “Black Elk”. The board member employed by the tribal office moved to use the name Hinhan Kaga. It is pronounced “eehahn kahgah”. Not too tough, even for a white person.

    Since then, lots of negative press, fronted by Custer County Commissioners, complained heartily. LOTS of angry white comments since then. Very, very disturbing read.

    Then, the board’s CHAIR, employed by SDDOT as ADA compliance officer, wrote formally opposing the name change. The State Historical Society, also represented on the board I believe, wrote formally opposing the name change. The State Department of Tourism, also represented on the board, wrote formally opposing the name change. Game, Fish and Parks, offensively wrote formally opposing the name change.

    Does Gov. Daugaard have many more cabinet members that will formally oppose the name change? This is very much a republican v. democrat issue, it seems.

    i am ashamed to have grown up in this state.

    Cory, instead of covering a non-issue like hippys and swan, please cover this one last time. The depth and importance of this issue is truly epic for the welfare of our Indian brothers and sisters, and historical. Four days to go. Then the Dept. of Interior takes over.

  38. Tracey Oliver 2015-08-09

    Mr Brave Horse more energy and power to you.

  39. leslie 2016-02-28

    Trolls like you and the following public officials for example, express yourselves as afraid of Indians taking over the misnomer “HARNEY PEAK” with a more suitable name.

    Meade County Commissioner Galen Niederwerder 6.20.15-“Even hearing the name…brings a feeling of peace and comfort.***I’m saddened that some people’s sensibilities are so easily offended…that…we must somehow make amends to…elusive…reconciliation, or…justice to atone for…a century ago.***Nobody I know gave a tinker’s dam[sic] about changing…Shannon County to Oglala County. But Harney Peak belongs to all the people…this beloved mountain.”

    Custer mayor Gary Lipp 6.15.15- “The City Council and I…do not support the changing of history.”

    Southern Hills Publisher Charley Najacht-6.22.15 “We are submitting a packet of [newspaper articles ect. we wrote and] Custer…and Pennington County residents…Custer County Commissioners and…City Council…agreed the name should remain…and nothing else….and…it would be frivolous and irresponsible to change the name….there is no compelling reason to change….”

    Gary Hanson [PUC] 6.18.15- “…Lakotans[sic] also committed horrible murders of women and children.”

    You (and all of us) named a sacred peak on their 1851 territory* for yourself, took the gold, took the land, killed the buffalo, and built your state capitol. The takeover was yours. The sacred peak is “the center of all there is”, not Harney’s or anyone else’s peak. It now belongs to all of the citizens of the nation.

    * “aforesaid Indian nations do not hereby abandon or prejudice any rights or claims they may have to other lands; and further, that they do not surrender the privilege of hunting, fishing, or passing over any of the tracts of country heretofore described.”

Comments are closed.