PIERRE, S.D. – The 82-year-old Oglala Sioux member whose attempt to rechristen South Dakota's highest point for a revered tribal spiritual leader fell on receptive federal ears said Friday that the decision was a sign of compassion and reconciliation.
Harney Peak, named after a man whose soldiers killed Native Americans, was changed to Black Elk Peak by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names on Thursday, determining from input that Harney was offensive for Native Americans. The change applies to federal usage on new maps or other products.
Basil Brave Heart first made the request to change the name as a tribute to "a Native American icon" in 2014; state officials declined to recommend a new designation to the federal board last year.
Brave Heart, who lives on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, said the federal board's move represents compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation. Army Gen. William S. Harney's men massacred Native American women and children during a battle in September 1855, according to historic records.
"I'm elated," Brave Heart said. "It's like saying, 'we acknowledge what happened, and by changing this name, we want to make it right.'"
But Gov. Dennis Daugaard and U.S. Sen. John Thune, both Republicans, said the move came as a surprise and criticized it as rejecting local sentiment about the peak.
Members of the governor's administration opposed recommending a new name. Daugaard's chief of staff, Tony Venhuizen, said in an email Friday that officials are evaluating how best to respond to the decision. For now, the state isn't going to incur any expense to make a change, he said.
Brave Heart said he hopes the change will be embraced. He also plans give to the governor proof of the outpouring of support from people for renaming the peak.
For Brave Heart, the new name is also a tribute to one of his spiritual role models, Black Elk, who died in 1950.
Brave Heart said that when he was a boy working in a Nebraska potato field in the early 1940s, his father pointed out Black Elk working with his family. Brave Heart said he was impressed with the man's humility.
"The profoundness is that we corrected a wrong with a right decision to change the energy from someone who caused harm to a name that epitomizes a good human being," Brave Heart said.