When Washington Bureaucrats renamed a mountain, and didn’t bother to ask.

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.

Read that here.

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.

Read the entire article here.

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.

Read it here.

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.

10 Replies to “When Washington Bureaucrats renamed a mountain, and didn’t bother to ask.”

  1. Porter Lansing

    What it does demonstrate is that a letter writing campaign to President Obama has weight and those letters are read by staff and recommendations are passed up the chain. (It also worked to get Obama to Watertown)

    1. Anonymous

      So a few thousand yahoos writing to the Socialist in the White House can change something that doesn’t need to be changed. Sounds like a great way to do things. I’m going to try to get a letter writing campaign to ask Obummer to resign since he is a terrible president.

        1. Anonymous

          He’s a terrible president, and the current one; geez, can’t you guys read!?!

          As for who I am, it’s enough for you to know that I’m a legal American Citizen and a resident of the State of South Dakota (unlike Porter; Wayne, I don’t know your residency, so I can’t comment).

  2. Troy Jones

    There are people in South Dakota who live in towns named for the daughter of a guy who mapped our state’s railroads water stops for the steam locomotives. Other towns were named for the hometown or home country or political leaders of its founders. While that history means very little, and before it got “codified” legally, it was accepted by tradition.

    Personally, because my forebears were forced into Luxembourg refugee camps by Otto Von Bismarck because they were Catholic, I guess I could find Bismarck, ND “offensive” and petition for a name change. But the thought never crossed my mind. The motivations of the founders has little connection to the people who live there now and thus nothing more than the name of the state capital of North Dakota.

    Similarly, I have never heard of a Ree or Crow Indian being offended for living in a state named after their historical arch-enemies, the Sioux, who happened to be the dominant tribe in the region at statehood because they had decimated most of the Ree in war and pushed the Crow west into Wyoming and Montana.

    That said, names can be opportunities to remind of us of history. “He who is ignorant of history is bound to repeat it” speaks to the need to learn from history. I grew up in Pierre (which as originally named Mahto which is bear in one of the Sioux dialects) which takes its name from Fort Pierre Chateau which was named for an early French fur trader. Studying the names of landmarks Pierre, Oahe, Sully, etc. is both interesting and illuminating about my home area prior to Statehood.

    Another that said (need transitions), the names of landmarks is heavily dominant of influences from 1885 through 1900, which in perspective today are of little relevance today (e.g. towns named for the daughters of railroad mappers in Chicago who never even visited our state). For instance, if the people of Onida, SD they don’t want to have their town named (and misspelled) for a New York Indian tribe, I couldn’t care less if they petitioned to change the name of their town.

    At the same time, if a Ree Indian wants to change the name of North and South Dakota or I want to change the name of Bismarck because “I am offended by the symbolism*” from 150 years ago without regard to the simple acceptance these are the names of places people have called home since lacks perspective and frankly self-centered. *Remember, we don’t know if the “namers” even knew of the abuses of the Sioux against the Ree, Bismarck against Catholics, or Harney against Indians so assuming it was intended to promote what people can charge it means today is more than a stretch.

    Now to the matter at hand:

    1) This peak’s name is most likely has its roots more similar to the railroad mapper honoring his daughter than some nefarious attempt to denigrate Indians or this Harney did against Indians. Reading into the name some grand scheme to offend Indians is more than a stretch.

    2) This peak’s name has virtually no real connection to our history just as the name of Onida SD has no connection to our history. Its greatest virtue for keeping its name is that is the name that has been used for over 125 years. But, just like the people of Onida who accept the name of their town, usage for over a century isn’t trivial. A person who grew up in Onida, grew up in Onida, and probably doesn’t want to say I grew up in “Lamburg” formerly known as Onida.

    3) On the other hand, equating the name of your hometown to a mountain peak one may have never seen, much less climbed is more than a stretch. I don’t think a person who climbed Harney Peak (or lived near it) is going to care much if they had to say “Black Elk Peak” formerly known as Harney Peak. Its probably most analogous to the farmer who grew up on the gravel road called “Green Lake Road” because it ended at Green Lake but has now been named “North 474th Street” because EMT ambulance drivers, etc. want to be sure to be on the right road during a medical emergency. We just need a name on a map so people who want to get to the right farm in an emergency or hike the right peak are able to do so.

    Personally, I like the idea of changing the name of our highest peak to something significant and related to South Dakota. And, I think Black Elk is a person to whom I’d be willing to so honor. But, at the end of the day, except for a vocal minority who were “offended by the symbolism” (See my earlier discussion of Bismarck, ND) appealed to people who have likely never been to South Dakota, much less seen the peak or would ever hike up it (see my earlier discussion of the absurdity of me changing the name of Onida) decided to exercise effective dictatorial fiat without regard to their stated objectives (see Pat’s earlier discussion).

    Bismark is the capitol of North Dakota and not a symbol of atrocities against Catholics or Ree Indians. Same with Harney Peak just being the highest point in our state and a place to admire or hike.

    Thus, I think this name change is deeper and more insidious than Pat’s assertion that this is an erosion of our State’s rights. I assert this is an action that asserts we (collectively as a state or individuals or our history or our tradition) mean absolutely nothing to an elite few from far, far away.

    Don’t get me wrong. I supported efforts to change the name to Black Elk Peak but I do not support going behind the backs of my neighbors and having it shoved down their throat.

  3. Springer

    It is and will be Harney Peak in the minds of most South Dakotans. Very few know or care who it was named after. If it was so easy to get the dictator in chief to do something by simply writing a few letters, I’d love to start one to end his federal over-reaching regulations, end Obamacare, end his war on coal (which will impact South Dakotans a whole lot more than the name of a mountain), end his race baiting rhetoric, end his class warfare rhetoric, and on and on. But I know he wouldn’t pay any attention to any such letters addressing issues that most people really DO care about. But hey, renaming a mountain, that’s something he can get behind in a heartbeat even if it affects nothing.

  4. Anonymous

    Pat, it hasn’t always been known as Harney Peak. The U.S. Board acted within its scope and discretion. If this were state land, the U.S. Board would not be involved. To those of you who feel aggrieved, I suggest writing one of your congress people. They really don’t do much out in DC anyway. Otherwise, stuff it in your peace pipe and smoke it.

  5. Cliff Hadley

    I recall after the JFK murder how so many schools and parks and Idlewild Airport were rebranded in the Kennedy name. Cape Canaveral became Cape Kennedy for awhile, too, but in that case there was a stink from residents so the name was reverted and the NASA launch site became Kennedy Space Center.

    As long as the feds want to rename Harney Peak, why don’t they reach for the brass ring and do the same to Rushmore? Or Pearl Harbor? Or all those Spanish saint cities in California?

    I agree with Mr. Jones, that it’s pointless and destructive for the feds to adopt new placenames just because they can.