Harney Peak in South Dakota will now be called Black Elk Peak on federal maps. This unanimous decision was made August 11 by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN). The mountain is not only the highest point in the state, but is the highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains.
The summit had been labeled Harney Peak on federal maps since 1896. The feature is located in the Black Elk Wilderness of Black Hills National Forest in Pennington County in southwestern South Dakota.
The name Black Elk Peak was formally proposed to the BGN in October 2014. The BGN sought opinions from the U.S. Forest Service and the South Dakota Board on Geographic Names (SDBGN), which in turn sought opinions from the county government, numerous local, State, and Tribal organizations, and the general public.
In making the decision, the federal BGN acknowledged the recommendations by the SDBGN and a number of state legislators to retain the name Harney Peak. However, the BGN also recognized the wishes of native peoples and many non-native South Dakotans that a new geographic name should be given to this feature that is regarded as a sacred site by several Tribes.
U.S. General William S. Harney (1800-1889) fought against native peoples in the Black Hills region of South Dakota and in the Seminole Wars in Florida. Black Elk or Nicholas Black Elk (1863-1950) was a revered Oglala Lakota (Sioux) holy man.
One of the guiding principles for the BGN is to adopt for official federal use the names found in present-day local usage. However, an exception to this principle occurs when a name is shown to be highly offensive or derogatory to a particular racial or ethnic group, gender, or religious group.
“The Board’s understanding was that the name Harney Peak for a traditional sacred site was distressing to Tribal people. For that reason, there was a unanimous decision to change the name of the peak to Black Elk Peak,” said Lou Yost, executive secretary of the BGN.
The new name is now considered official for use in federal maps and publications. State and local governments as well as commercial entities generally follow the federal use of geographic names as a matter of efficiency, although there is no law requiring this.
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is the geographic names authority for the Nation. It is a coordinating body made up of representatives from federal departments, agencies, and organizations who receive no additional compensation for this specialized work. The BGN standardizes and approves geographic names so that geographic references can be used consistently in federal publications and communications.
President Benjamin Harrison established the BGN by Executive Order in 1890 to resolve conflicts in geographic names. In 1947 Congress re-established the BGN in its current form by public law.
The standardization of names not only serves to preserve a record of geographic names across the Nation, but it enables the use of uniform geographic names in many digital settings — for example, it makes navigation by GPS possible by facilitating standard location references.