If you remember in 2015 when it was a controversy, the South Dakota Board on Geographic Names had initial discussions, and held extensive hearings over what the name of Harney peak should be after initial thoughts of changing it. After public commentary, and a complete lack on consensus, they decided to keep it as it was:
The South Dakota Board on Geographic Names issued a preliminary recommendation in May that Harney Peak be renamed “Hinhan Kaga (Making of Owls).” But the board decided not to back a change after a slew of public comments against the plan, including from at least two members of Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s cabinet.
Supporters of the change also didn’t coalesce around a single replacement name for the peak, board members said.
“I have to say, based on what I’ve read, my opinion has wavered,” Board on Geographic Names Chairwoman June Hansen said at the meeting. “I again feel there is not a clear direction from the public.”
A researcher from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names also wrote the South Dakota panel to say that the U.S. Board wouldn’t approve “Hinhan Kaga (Making of Owls)” with the translation in parentheses.
No one could come to an agreement after an initial consideration of naming it Hinhan Kaga, and there was considerable unhappiness over changing it in the first place. Which is why it borders on bizarre that the matter was brought up out of the blue by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.
This is a picture of the Kiowa room at the Department of the Interior where the decision was made last week. A meeting of the Domestic Names Committee of the U.S. Board on Geographic names made the unilateral decision to change the name of Harney Peak to Black Elk Peak without notice or consultation.
It’s certainly a real committee. You can find out about them in this article by the Library of Congress about their work:
President Benjamin Harrison established the U.S. Board on Geographic Names with an executive order on Sept. 4, 1890, with authority to resolve all unsettled questions concerning geographic names. President Theodore Roosevelt extended the board’s authority in 1906, giving it the additional power to standardize all geographic names for federal use, including name changes and new names.
The Board on Geographic Names may be unique among federal entities in that it has no budget, no staff of its own and relies on other federal agencies for staffing and meeting space. Its members are drawn from other federal agencies and receive no additional compensation for their work on the board. Permanent members come from the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Interior and State, the Library of Congress, the Government Printing Office, the U.S. Postal Service and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Research on the proposals for new names or name changes is prepared by staff members of USGS, part of the Department of Interior.
One of the long-standing principles of the BGN is recognition of present-day local usage. And, as in the above case, local usage may change. The Cascade Dam was built by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1948; early maps labeled the reservoir the “Cascade Dam Reservoir.” But by the mid-1950s, the name “Cascade Reservoir” had come into common use. Forty years later, with the renaming of an area park Lake Cascade State Park, local usage has evolved so that the name “Lake Cascade” now makes more sense. The Domestic Names Committee agreed and voted to approve the change.
Four other cases on the docket illustrated another board principle: naming previously unnamed domestic geographic features after deceased individuals long associated with the site, when such names are recommended by local authorities.
So, what’s in a name? A great deal — the history of the land, local lore, decisions by state agencies and hard work on the part of the members of the BGN and the Domestic Names Committee who strive to reconcile local usage with board principles to arrive at the most appropriate names for geographical features that will be used on all federal maps.
In the case of how the renaming of Harney Peak was handled, it’s hard to reconcile their propaganda with how the alteration of the mountain name was actually performed. In other words, it sounds like a line of B.S. And according to a Rapid City Journal article, we have further confirmation that the change happened out of the blue:
Q. Was there any indication that the board would decide to change Harney Peak’s name?
A. There was at least one indication back in April, when members of the board moved and seconded the name change but postponed a vote until August.
After that April meeting, the Journal attempted to poll all of the U.S. board members to seek their opinions about changing the name of Harney Peak. Many of the board members did not respond to phone calls or emails, and several declined to be interviewed or deferred comment to the board’s non-voting executive secretary.
The only board member who agreed to speak with the Journal was Jon Campbell, a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey. He seemed to put the brakes on the notion that the board was on the cusp of changing Harney Peak’s name.
“Some people on the board are more eager for the change than others,” Campbell said at the time. “It only takes one person to make a motion.”
Other factors also seemed to indicate that a name change for Harney Peak was a long shot. The South Dakota Board on Geographic Names had recommended retaining the peak’s name, and a staffer for the U.S. board had said publicly and repeatedly that significant weight is typically granted to the recommendation of a state board. Additionally, the U.S. board’s written principles, policies and procedures discourage name duplication, such as the duplication that has arguably occurred now with the federally designated Black Elk Wilderness area that surrounds the newly named Black Elk Peak.
In watching the controversy unfold after the fact, You can’t deny there are two sides to it. As much as there are those who wanted it changed, it’s evident that there are many who wish to preserve history on the basis that it’s always been known as Harney Peak, and they have no knowledge of, or interest in the background of the person it’s named after.
And once you get past those that are passionate about the name on one side or the other, you also find many who are ambivalent over it. But whether you’re a fierce proponent or opponent of the change, both would have to admit it was an exercise in federal power that no one was vocally asking for, or expecting.
What it does demonstrate is yet another example of a federal bureaucracy, unaccountable to the voters, taking unilateral action and flatly ignoring the decision of the state who held public hearings, and reviewed extensive public comments over the matter.
Consider this.. What would the outcry have been if when Shannon County made the decision to change their name to Oglala Lakota County, someone on a state board had the ability to unilaterally reject the change? There would be a lot of justifiably angry and upset residents unhappy over the decision of an unelected board. They have the right to choose the name, and they exercised it.
Taking it to the scale of what happened here, there’s literally no difference. Because that’s what happened with South Dakota and Harney Peak. We had the opportunity to change it, and we chose not to. The process was followed and honored. And then an unelected federal board swoops in, and made a contrary decision opposite of that made at the state level because they could.
Can we choose to ignore it? We can, and I would not be shocked to see legislation brought this coming legislative session memorializing it. Which seems like a waste of time, especially when you would have thought the federal board would have honored the outcome of the public hearings. (As they claim they do in their propaganda.)
It may be largely ignored in the verbal sparring between those that like it, versus those that hate the change. But I can’t help but notice that our state’s rights seem to have been eroded just a little bit more over how this happened.
In the end, we should be less concerned about the name, and more concerned about how the federal government went about it. That’s where the outrage should be focused.