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'In Sacred Motion': Five Years Ago, A Lakota Elder Beat The Establishment And Renamed Harney Peak

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Basil Brave Heart participates in a 2016 ceremony at the base of Black Elk Peak.

Basil Brave Heart showed up at the Rapid City Journal one day in 2014 and asked to see a reporter.

The message got relayed to me, and that’s how I lucked into one of the most fascinating series of stories in my career.

Brave Heart said he wanted to change the name of South Dakota’s tallest mountain, Harney Peak. He had been reading about the peak’s namesake, the late Gen. William S. Harney.  

The view from the summit of Black Elk Peak. (Seth Tupper/SDPB)

In 1855 in Nebraska, troops under Harney’s command carried out the Harney Massacre, also known as the Battle of Ash Hollow or Battle of Blue Water Creek. U.S. soldiers killed not only male combatants but also women and children in a Lakota camp.

During our first meeting in the Rapid City Journal conference room, Brave Heart said Harney’s name dishonored the highest point in the Black Hills. Brave Heart proposed the replacement name Black Elk Peak in honor of the late Lakota holy man Nicholas Black Elk, who had a boyhood vision about being transported to the summit of the mountain.

I recognized the news potential of the proposal, so I wrote a story about it for the Journal. But I did not think Brave Heart would succeed.

Five years ago today, he proved me wrong. On Aug. 11, 2016, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names – acting on Brave Heart’s request – changed the name of Harney Peak to Black Elk Peak.

For Brave Heart, it was a long road to victory. The two years between his proposal and the final decision were filled with public debate. Many South Dakotans, including leaders in the state’s Republican political establishment, opposed the name change.  

When I caught up with the now 89-year-old Brave Heart recently by phone, I asked him how he did it. How did he get the better of so many powerful and well-connected people who wanted him to fail?

He said it all started with a dream. Around the time he was reading about Harney, Brave Heart had a dream about his grandmother and the lessons she taught him about forgiveness. That gave him a sense that “something was in sacred motion.”

“A dream – that is an email or a call from the divine saying, ‘I’m with you,’” Brave Heart said. “I had the deepest awareness and knowing that this was going to happen.”

That awareness and knowing drove Brave Heart to keep persisting and buoying the spirits of his supporters. He said their testimony and prayers made his dream a reality.

Seth Tupper on In the Moment with Lori Walsh, discussing the five-year anniversary of the Harney Peak name change.

Brave Heart said his opponents often deflected criticism of Harney’s military record by saying, “Let history be history.” He’s heard the same language recently during the country’s ongoing reckoning with Confederate monuments and other symbols associated with slavery.

“The fear of bringing the history, the truth, was something that I was hearing loud and clear,” Brave Heart said. “So we were kind of hitting something there that needed to be done.”

In the years since the Black Elk Peak decision, people have sought Brave Heart’s help with other proposed name changes, with forgiveness and reconciliation ceremonies, and with other matters. He said the Catholic Church contacted him about the ongoing sainthood case for Nicholas Black Elk, who was a practicing Catholic later in life.

Brave Heart says representatives of the church asked whether the peak renaming was a miracle. He thinks it was.

I'm still the skeptical journalist I was when Brave Heart encountered me in 2014, so I find a simpler moral in his story.  

He is living proof that one person with an idea – and the courage to act – can inspire a monumental change.

- Seth Tupper is a supervising senior producer for SDPB. He was previously a reporter at the Rapid City Journal, where he broke the story about the Harney Peak renaming proposal in 2014 and continued covering it through the national board’s decision in 2016.