Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Harney Peak Name Change? A Matter Of Common Decency.

     Is our Governor Daugaard being dismissive or just not paying attention?  On hearing the news a few days ago that the U.S. Board on Geographic Names decided that henceforth Harney Peak
Harney's Massacre
Honored For This?
will be known as Black Elk Peak, Daugaard said in a
press release that he was "surprised by this decision as I have heard very little support in South Dakota for renaming Harney Peak."  Considering that the state's Democratic Party, which speaks for about a third of SD's registered voters, a year ago made a strong statement in support of the name change (part of a conversation that captured the attention of USA Today, where it got extensive coverage last September), Daugaard's reaction seems disingenuous or simply reveals his indifference toward an issue that has much social and emotional significance to South Dakotans.  Judging from the extraordinarily high number of reader comments that this story got in RCJ's report on it last Friday, there's no doubt that feelings on this matter are strong.
     How could Daugaard have missed the underlying tensions regarding the name change? Seems like a lack of leadership and empathy to me.  In his press release Daugaard says that the change "will cause unnecessary expense and confusion," because he "suspects that few people know the history of Harney or Black Elk."  That compels the question, if more people actually knew the history of Harney, would they tolerate honoring his name by placing it on South Dakota's highest peak?  Here's what the Nebraska State Historical Society has to say about Harney's actions (known as the "Harney Massacre") at an Indian village in 1855 at Blue Water Creek, south of the Black Hills:  "While engaged  in a delaying parley with Chief Little Thunder" Harney's troops "circled undetected" toward the village, "where the infantry opened fire and forced the Indians toward mounted soldiers, who inflicted terrible casualties.  86 Indians were killed, 70 women and children were captured, and their tipis were looted and burned."
     This is the same William Harney who was called "A MONSTER !" by the Cincinnati Journal in 1834 for having beaten his female slave Hannah to death.  Her oversight? Misplacing
Black Elk Peak
And Its Namesake
a set of his keys.  Call me old-fashioned, but I don't think behavior patterns like these are the stuff of glorification, especially in this day and age where information gets disseminated instantaneously to the public, generally, and our kids, particularly.  I  pity the poor History teacher who has to explain how a sadistic madman has been honored in perpetuity by having his name festooned to one of the most notable mountains in the United States.  

     And by the way, don't tell me that we shouldn't be judging his 19th century behavior through our 21st century moral lenses. In1864, Congressional investigators called the perpetrators of the Sand Creek Massacre "foul and dastardly."  I'm not a situation-ethicist, nor do I believe 19th century moral standards tolerated massacres like the one at Blue Water creek.  What I do believe is that expunging Harney and replacing it with Black Elk is a matter of common decency.  


  1. Should we also expunge the name "Harney Trail" or the streets signs near my house by the same name Harney or a host of other "place names" named after General Harney? What are we to do with all the government accoutrements like the restored fire tower, steps, water reservoir etc built by the CCC in the 1930's. Are they not worth historical name preservation?
    In defense of the governor, I tend to think his surprise at the decision is directly related to the "finality" of the states recommendation not to change the name after considerable ponderous debate. Clearly, in the past, when the state has made recommendations on place name changes, they have been adopted almost without discussion. Now, when the state officially recommends no change, the appearance that the Fed ignored the recommendation in it's entirety will always be with us no differently than Benghazi will remain HRC's albatross. Regardless of the actual intent, there is always going to be reasonable doubt about the US Board of Geographic Names motives for changing the name and whether or not there was willful disregard for the states' recommendation. What this is likely going to turn into is another "anti-federal government"/states rights argument that can not have any good outcome. I think we can rest assured that there will be at least one piece of legislation introduced into next years legislative session intended to nullify the effects of the fed decision as much as can be done.
    While the thought that common decency should prevail in these circumstances is valid, it begs the question; why now? Has the state been uncommonly indecent over the past 150 years by it's complacency about the name Harney Peak? Perhaps more importantly, what honest purpose is served by the name change and what beneficial changes can the state and nation expect as a result. I'm not opposed to the name change. What I'm opposed to is the superficiality of the motives and artificiality of purpose. Changing the name of a geographic feature initially named by a cartographer that worked for Harney will not erase Harney's history of egregious atrocities toward servants and native Americans no differently than if we changed the name of Wounded Knee to avoid dealing with the atrocities of a revenge filled 7th Cavalry.

    1. I'll just deal with Black Elk Peak right now and deal with other place name issues when and if they arise. The Fed is under no compulsion to accept a state's recommendation. Changing a place name is not intended to erase historical events. It just removes an honor that should not be bestowed on the perpetrator of those events.

  2. "And by the way, don't tell me that we shouldn't be judging his 19th century behavior through our 21st century moral lenses."

    It's called presentism and that's what exactly you're doing. Your conflation of the two separate incidents of the Sand Creek Massacre and the Battle of Ash Hollow (Blue Water Creek) only serves to destroy what is already a weak argument on your behalf.

  3. Conflation of two massacres (Ash Hollow/Blue Water was not a "battle" by any definition I ever heard of) regarding the contextuality of the moral values of their era is appropriate. "Presentism" is exactly what I'm rejecting, anonymous. Take the last word.

  4. For the record I taught American History at SDSU for more than three decades, and Mr. Tsitrian has the right of it. As for why now, Dr. Martin Luther King was not the first to observe "the arc of the moral universe, is long, but it bends toward justice", and he won't be the last.

  5. If Anonymous' views are correct, then everyone should be fine with Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin, who were hugely popular in their day. Millions voted for the Nazis. Millions joined the Nazis. Millions were fine with the Holocaust, as long as it wasn't happening to them.

    The whole point of being human is that we can change our minds, improve our treatment of each other, and we can move on from the "nasty, brutish and short" reign of might is right, to one where we actually care about what happens to human beings who are/were powerless. And we no longer defend the indefensible. A name change? That's the least of it. And I'd rather honor a profound religious leader any day than a genocidal major general.

  6. Anonymous' attitude should surprise no one. The previous Governor, now our US Senator, took a very similar attitude toward Native Americans, when he was governor. When Long View Farms sought to bring their pig factory to Marty from Iowa, the then Governor used the States Highway patrol (31 strong with raised guns) to defend the out of staters against the protests of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, who were/are residents of the state, all in the name of economic development.

    The current governor, while still in the legislator and as Lt GOvernor and still as governor, has shown complete disregard for the ICWA federal law passed back in the 1970s to protect Native children, all to the benefit of his former employer South Dakota Children's Home Society.

  7. Anonymous says it is not opposed to the name change. BS. Its initial post is a scatterbrained diatribe, mixing the current Presidential campaign and the Wounded Knee Massacre into some weird indigestible stew. And the second comment (assuming that it's the same Anonymous) about a supposed conflation of Sand Creek and Ash Hollow is simply gibberish.

  8. Your suggesting that because I'm a Democrat I support your somewhat biased blog. Wrong! I'm surprised you didn't suggest removing General Harney from Arlington Cemetery. Rather than trying to make this a political us against them issue just call it what it is; a political correctness appeasement that most South Dakotans don't support.

    1. Not really suggesting anything about you, Mr. Anderson. Just making a point that when the state's Democratic Party takes an official stand favoring the name change, Governor Daugaard's claim that he "heard very little support" for the name change sounds like he's either dismissive or not paying attention. Detailing Harney's atrocities as the basis for removing his name from the mountain may be PC "appeasement" to you and many others, but I stand by my opinion and support the federal board's decision. As to removing Harney from Arlington, I assume that he had all the necessary qualifications for burial in a national cemetery and doubt that there's a mechanism for removal in the first place.

  9. Mr Anderson, Thank you for coming out from behind Anonymous. I agree with John but I will take it one step further. I was at a question and answer session at the Center for Active generations here in Sioux Falls, when a Native American veteran asked Senator Rounds if he would put forward a bill to take away the medals of honor awarded to the 20 soldiers who were involved in the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, just as previous Senators Daschle and Johnson had done. The Senator said that he could not do that because he was not there and didn't know what happened.

    As a veteran myself, I lost a lot of respect for the awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor, when I found out about that awarding to those involved in the Wounded Knee Massacre. Some issues are not political. They are just plain common sense and call on us to use some sense of morality in making decisions.

    I don't know what was known about Harney when he was honored by the naming of the Peak and Trail, but when it became perfectly obvious that a mistake had been made, then that mistake needed to be corrected.