2017-08-17 / Front Page

Local Paper Makes Marketing Blunder


RAPID CITY – For the last several years an effort has been made by both Native and non-Natives in South Dakota to rename the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains. One local newspaper, however, seemingly is not prepared to let the old name go.

In 2016, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names voted unanimously to change the name of Harney Peak to Black Elk Peak. The decision was met with harsh criticism from non-Natives in the Black Hills area and state officials who originally signaled that they would not go along with the federal board’s decision. In a written statement South Dakota Governor Dennis Dagaard slighted Native people when he said, “I am surprised by this decision, as I have heard very little support in South Dakota for renaming Harney Peak,” wrote Daugaard.

“This federal decision will cause unnecessary expense and confusion. I suspect very few people know the history of either Harney or Black Elk.”

The irony of the statement is the effort to change the name received an abundance of support from tribal-nations in the area. Black Elk is revered figure in Lakota history and his story is taught at many reservation schools and has had multiple books published about his life.

When the Custer County Chronicle attempted to market its newspaper by posting a photo to Instagram and Facebook advertising a t-shirt with the name Harney Peak on it, along with the hashtag #Harneyforever the backlash was swift from commentators.

The post has since been deleted but the comments made opposing the sale of the t-shirts described the actions by the Chronicle as both “tone-def” and for some a deliberate attempt to antagonize Native people who supported the efforts to rename the mountain.

“It is funny (how) people no more than two or three generations deep in this country have no personal connection to William Selby Harney believe a peak named after a coward whose own men consider a baby killer should be memorialized,” wrote Gary Ashley.

Tribal-citizens commenting on the post also expressed frustration over the paper’s hashtag that seemingly looked to defy the attempts to rename the peak that was originally named after a man who was known to be anti-indian and who participated in the massacre of women and children.

On September 2, 1855, U.S. Army forces led by Gen. William Selby Harney attacked a camp led by Mni Coujou Lakota Chief Little Thunder near Blue Water Creek. Little Thunder was a leader who advocated for peace with the settlers. Despite pleas for nonviolence from Little Thunder to other Lakota prior to the incident, eighty-six Lakota died that day, including 40 women and children.

The attack was in retaliation for the destruction of a contingent of Army soldiers led by Second Lieutenant John Lawrence Grattan by a camp of Brule Lakota warriors. Grattan had attempted to arrest members of Chief Conquering Bear’s band on August 17, 1854, after a visiting Mniconjou named High Forehead who had slaughtered a migrant’s cow that had wondered in to the camp just east of Ft. Laramie and near the highly traveled Oregon Trail. After Gratten had arrived at the camp he demanded that Conquering Bear turn over those responsible for killing the cow.

Instead Conquering Bear, in accordance with Lakota practices at the time, offered to make amends for the incident by offering a horse from his personal herd or one of the tribe’s cattle. Unable to reach an agreement, Grattan would leave the camp and return along with 30 soldiers and an interpreter named Lucienne Auguste, all of whom intended to entice the nearby Lakota in to a fight.

After arriving at the camp tensions increased and a misfired gunshot led to a battle where all of Grattan’s men were killed. The incident marked one of the first encounters of the plains Indian wars as well as one of the government’s first encounters with a young Lakota warrior named Red Cloud.

On that day, Red Cloud led a band of his Bad Face warrior society to cut off 18 soldiers who were seeking cover in nearby cliffs.

The Lakota that Harney encountered and slaughtered at Blue Water Creek had openly opposed conflict with whites in the area and was absent of any individual involved in the Grattan incident.

In a release from the South Dakota Democratic Party in support of the name change historian Eric Zimmer, a doctoral candidate at the University of Iowa and a research fellow at the Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation said Harney “likely never set foot on the mountain. Harney’s actions before and during his time in the Black Hills, moreover, were deplorable under any standard of human decency.”

“While living in St. Louis in 1834, Harney murdered a slave child named Hannah. He was well known for his short temper, and historians have surmised that the girl’s only transgression may have been as minor as misplacing the soldier’s keys. Even in the antebellum South, the attack sparked a public outrage and Harney was indicted for murder. He was ultimately acquitted because, in the repulsive logic of their time, he was a decorated white soldier and she a forgettable slave girl,” said Zimmer.

In a phone call with LCT, a representative of the Custer County Chronicle said that, “the shirts are collector’s items.” And that they had received a plethora of calls from people looking to purchase the shirts featuring the old name. When asked about the hashtag attached to the photo the paper said that it was included by an employee who “was new”.

The efforts to remove the name were initiated in 2014, by esteemed Lakota elder, Basil Braveheart, who sent a letter to the South Dakota secretary of tribal relations requesting the name be changed. Braveheart’s efforts would gain the support of Myron Pourier, the grandson of Black Elk, who is currently organizing an official changing of the name ceremony at Sylvan Lake for August 28. Governor Dennis Daugaard and South Dakota’s congressional delegation have been invited to attend.

(Contact Brandon Ecoffey at

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