Harney Peak Fire Tower and Hiking Trail In The Black Hills
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A federal board voted last August to change the name of South Dakota’s highest peak in a move that even surprised supporters.
The Federal Board of Geographic Names voted to change Harney Peak to Black Elk Peak.
“I’m honestly a little surprised it happened so fast,” said state Rep. Kevin Killer of Pine Ridge, a Native American who favored removingHarney’s name from the 7,242-foot peak, which is the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains.
Harney Peak was named after Army Gen. William S. Harney, whose troops fought against Indians during American expansion in the West. Harney was also a U.S. government negotiator with Native American tribes over treaties.
Troops under Harney’s command were involved in an 1855 battle in Nebraska during the First Sioux War in which Sioux warriors as well as women and children were killed. Opponents of the Harney name argued the deaths of women and children was an atrocity committed by U.S. troops.
The battle occurred after Sioux warriors killed 30 U.S. soldiers.
Last year, the South Dakota Board of Geographic Names took testimony from across the state on requests to change the name to either Black Elk – named after a Sioux holy man – or Hinhan Kaga (Making of Owls). But the state board backed away from the idea amid public backlash.
But the Federal Board of Geographic Names moved ahead with the change, despite opposition from the South Dakota Department of Tourism and the Department of Game, Fish and Parks.
“I am surprised by this decision, as I have heard very little support in South Dakota for renaming Harney Peak,” Gov. Dennis Daugaard said in a statement. “This federal decision will cause unnecessary expense and confusion. I suspect very few people know the history of either Harney or Black Elk.”
In a release, Sen. John Thune stated he was upset by the board’s “unilateral decision” to rename one of the state’s best 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,” Thune stated. “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.”
Lou Yost, the executive secretary for the board, said he was unaware of who in the four-person office told Thune's office that the issue would wait until next year.
"Who told him that it wasn't going to be addressed until next year? As far as I know, we haven't had any correspondence, and we're a pretty small office," he said.
The 17-member board is appointed by department secretaries that have an interest in names. Besides Harney Peak Thursday, the board considered 12 other requested name changes or requests to name unnamed places, Yost said. There was no notice or agenda of Thursday's meeting published on the board's web site.
Typically, the board considers 200 to 250 name changes or requests to name unnamed places each year, Yost said.
Last year, the Interior Department renamed Mount McKinley in Alaska, the highest peak in North America, to Denali.