Skip to main content

A New Name For Custer State Park? Let’s Talk About It

Email share
Game Fish and Parks

Open your mind for just a moment, and consider this as an alternative name for Custer State Park:

Elk Song State Park.

Or, in the Lakota: Makoce hehaka olowan.

Lovely, don’t you think? Certainly lovelier than Custer State Park, however attached you might be to that well-established name.

The Elk Song alternative was suggested by Lanniko Lee, a Lakota writer from the Cheyenne River Tribe, when I reached out to her through my friend, Chuck Woodard.

Makoce hehaka olowan is wonderfully lyrical and appropriate for a 71,000-acre park where elk do indeed sing. And a closer interpretation of the Lakota by Lee has it as “Land where elk sing.”

Good land. Great song. And a pretty darn good name.

It’s something to talk about, anyway, which is what I want to do with this blog column. I want to talk about the name Custer State Park and whether a change would be appropriate.

It would not be the only name discussed, of course. Ask around a bit and it doesn’t take long for the name “Norbeck” to come up, as in Peter Norbeck, a former two-term governor and three-term U.S. senator who was instrumental in the establishment of Custer State Park, other Black Hills parks and scenic byways.

Peter S. Norbeck has a nice ring to it, if you’re in to naming things, including a sprawling piece of landscape in the southern Black Hills, after human beings. And in this case, as in the current name of Custer State Park, after white men, something that has been done quite a bit. Perhaps too much.

That’s the feeling of both Lanniko Lee and Craig Howe, an Oglala Lakota who directs the Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies and lives at Windsprings in the Lacreek District of the Pine Ridge Reservation near Martin.

“Lanniko’s suggestion is poetic,” Howe says. “And is far superior to the existing name.”

Still, that name has standing and a big brand in the national and even international tourism market. An effort to change the name would worry tourism interests who fear the loss of such a high-profile brand might cost visitation, tourism spending and the bottom line of the Black Hills tourism industry.

But what about the brand, and the tourism?

What’s lost in that business can be hard to rebuild, says Julie Schmitz Jensen, president and CEO of Visit Rapid City, the official marketing organization for Rapid City.

“Anytime you have to rebrand anything it takes a good campaign and it takes money,” Schmitz Jensen said. “And at this point, Custer State Park is so very popular. It has really become a brand identity.”

That brand identity attracts 1.8 million people in a typical year, and benefits tourism not just in the immediate area of the park but throughout the Black Hills.

Schmitz Jensen said she thinks most people don’t even think of controversial historical figure George Armstrong Custer when they think of Custer State Park.

“I don’t think they think of that at all. If anything, they probably think it’s named after the town of Custer, more than a general who was kind of a jerk.”

But to some -- most notably many indigenous people of the Northern Plains -- the Custer State Park brand comes with a bad name and a bad history. George Armstrong Custer, after all, had a bit of a reputation with indigenous people, and not in the best of ways. In some of the worst, actually.

Woodard, a retired SDSU English professor with deep connections to the Native American community, says there’s no question the name of Custer State Park should be changed.

“Custer was a reprehensible human being. Should that be masked by naming ANYTHING after him?  Should a dishonorable person be honored by having places named after him?” Woodard said. “This isn’t about political correctness. It’s about doing the right thing.”

Part of Custer’s reputation was built as an “Indian fighter” on the Northern Plains after the Civil War. And, of course, he died in one of those fights, along the Little Bighorn River in what is now Montana on June 25, 1876, a day celebrated by people of the Great Sioux Nation each year.

Custer’s expedition through the Black Hills in 1874, a violation of the 1868 Treaty, also discovered gold. And Custer’s reports of precious metals were part of what eventually led to a flood of miners and others to the Black Hills, which the indigenous people of the region considered and still consider to be sacred.

The loss of the Black Hills is associated with many things to Northern Plains tribes. Custer is one of them.

With Harney re-named Black Elk, some think Custer should be next 

Now, five years after the U.S. Board of Geographic names changed the name of Harney Peak to Black Elk Peak on federal land, should there be a discussion about changing the name of Custer State Park on state land?

I think so. So does USD professor Tim Schorn, who brought up the Custer name in a discussion about the Black Elk Peak anniversary in a social-medical discussion about the Black Elk name change.

“Custer State Park should be next,” he said.

And, of course, that idea of changing the Custer State Park name isn't new. It has been raised by Native Americans and others over the years.

Any renaming effort would have to involve indigenous people as well as tourism representatives. But it would involve South Dakota legislators, too. 

Like other state parks, the name Custer State Park is in state law. So it would take legislative action to re-name it.

That could be an issue. I don't cover the Legislature closely anymore, but it doesn't seem like a collective body that would be highly receptive to this change.

Which means, of course, that legislators would have to be convinced by constituents that it was worth considering.

And they wouldn’t be the only ones who would need convincing. If, by chance, the Legislature were to approve a name change, it would then go to Gov. Kristi Noem.

And I don’t see her as being all that receptive to it.

“I think it would be a really tall mountain to climb, especially with our Legislature today and our governor’s office today,” Schmitz Jensen said. “I think the atmosphere right now, there’s nothing going to be gained by it, except inspiring some animosity and bringing out some of the hard-core conservatives.”

Could be. But that doesn’t mean the discussion shouldn’t start. I think it should.

Peter Norbeck has been discussed as a replacement name

And in that discussion, how would Peter Norbeck rank? He was a great promoter of parks, the outdoors and tourism, he played key roles in the development of Iron Mountain Road and the Needles Highway.

He was also a major force in bringing Gutzon Borglum to the Black Hills and securing money for the carving of Mount Rushmore, a point that might enchant some fans of the massive stone memorial but could be sticky for indigenous people.

Wind Cave National Park, Badlands National Park and, of course, Custer State Park, including Sylvan Lake developments, also were influenced and promoted by Norbeck.

So, he had plenty of credentials as a two-term governor and U.S. senator who died during his third term in the U.S. Senate on Dec. 20, 1936.

It wouldn't be the first time Norbeck's name was the subject of discussion as a new name for Custer Park, either. Such talk goes back at least to the 1930s.

After Norbeck's death, Borglum was among those who promoted the idea. But it never went beyond discussions.

Today, Norbeck would be part of any discussion of name changes for Custer State Park. But that discussion should also include something more favorable to indigenous people. and perhaps something more befitting to the nature of the park.

But maybe the park should name itself, in song

Consider some of the appropriately named parks in other areas of western South Dakota and beyond: Wind Cave National park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Badlands National park, Bear Butte State Park. Or over East River, Sica Hollow State Park, Good Earth State Park, Palisades State Park, Fisher Grove State Park, Newton Hills State Park.

Or, beyond the state parks like Yellowstone, Canyonlands, Arches, places that show their name as Makoce hehaka olowan would speak it. Sing it.

Now, it’s true that rebranding would be necessary for Custer State Park after any name change. But a new name with direct ties to Native Americans and the flora and fauna of the park would be a powerful selling point with reach across the nation and particularly in nations overseas with strong interest in indigenous people and the environment.

During the discussion on this issue on my Facebook page, Hermosa area rancher and writer Linda Hasselstrom suggested a name:

Tashunka Witco State Park, which in English would be Crazy Horse State Park. Hasselstrom likes the Lakota name, however.

 “Wouldn’t that drive map-makers and tourists wild?” she said.

I think so in both cases. It also would make an interesting discussion point, although Craig Howe believes any name of a person — even an indigenous person important to Native people — would be a mistake.

“Not named after a person. Period,” he said.

Lanniko Lee had similar feelings.

“Of course, men want to name places after themselves,” she said speaking a truth that’s pretty hard to deny.

But Lee thinks the renaming process has been going on naturally in the park for generations, and is continuing today

“That area is named each time an elk sings there,” she says.

Elk Song State Park. Or Land of Singing Elk State Park.

Either way, it makes you want to go there and hear for yourself.