Activists work for Native American-friendly site names

AP News
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Posted: May 01, 2015 12:48 AM
Activists work for Native American-friendly site names

WOUNDED KNEE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota's Shannon County will now be Oglala Lakota County, removing the name of a man who Oglala Sioux Tribe activists say helped with negotiations that were a precursor for the breakup of tribal lands.

The name change, which is official Friday, follows an April proclamation from the governor. More than 80 percent of the county's voters approved the change in November.

Officials in South Dakota and other states have for years moved to do away with overtly offensive names for geographic places and monuments. But South Dakota's recent moves extend to names that might not be obvious except to Native American communities and others who know the history behind them.

The South Dakota Board on Geographic Names is hearing a request to provide a new designation for Harney Peak, the highest point in the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains. It was named for Army Gen. William S. Harney, whose men massacred Native American women and children during a battle in September 1855, according to historic records.

"I don't want to see a peak that's named after someone that violated women and children," said Basil Brave Heart, a member of the Oglala Sioux who proposed the change in September. "Our people had to live under that icon, that man who did that to our people."

For supporters of renaming Harney Peak, many of them Native Americans who also supported the shift to Oglala Lakota County, the change would be a step toward reconciliation. The Black Hills are a sacred place for some, and many features had names before Americans assigned them designations.

"The closer that you can get to naming something ... after the tribal name that was removed, the better off it is for future generations to be able to go back and to know that the world is finally recognizing them as a people who have a rightful place," said Lionel Bordeaux, president of Sinte Gleska University on South Dakota's Rosebud Indian Reservation.

Opponents argue Harney's actions are more than a century old and say the name shouldn't be sacrificed for political correctness.

One suggested name is Black Elk Peak, but many others have been proposed. The board is taking public input and could issue a recommendation for a new name to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

Native American activists in South Dakota appear eager to institute more name changes in the future for other sites with names that are not overtly offensive.

"There's the possibility that with increased sensitivity to the wanton slaughter of Native American people west of the Mississippi that the name of a general who was involved in that slaughter would be no less offensive than the word 'squaw,'" said Mark Monmonier, a geography professor at Syracuse University in New York who wrote a book on offensive names. "Harney could be the new 'squaw' if you want to look at it like that."

After discovering the history of the man behind Shannon County's name, activists successfully passed the ballot measure to designate it Oglala Lakota County. Peter Shannon was a chief justice of the Dakota Territory Supreme Court who later helped with land negotiations with the Lakota that were the precursor for the breakup of tribal lands, said Jesse Antoine Short Bull, who researched Shannon's history as part of the ballot measure.

Following procedural approval from the Legislature, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard proclaimed the change official.

Oglala Sioux Tribe member Dorothy Sun Bear said she voted for the county name change and was "elated" when she heard about the proposal to rename Harney Peak. She said more names should be changed.

"Those men went out and killed our people," she said, standing in front of her home in Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. "It's not just another name. People don't know the story behind the men."