In Omaha, Harney is just the name of a street — but its namesake has created a controversy.
Citing the name as offensive, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names last Thursday voted 12-0 to change the name of 7,242-foot Harney Peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota to Black Elk Peak.
The Harney name has a Nebraska connection beyond an east-west street in Omaha.
In 1855 at Ash Hollow in pre-statehood Nebraska Territory, along the Oregon Trail near today’s town of Lewellen, William Harney led troops who killed 86 Lakota Sioux in a village, including women and children.
So how did Harney Peak become an issue now?
In 2014, Basil Brave Heart of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, a Korean War combat veteran, wrote the board a letter objecting to Harney’s name on the peak. That led to discussions and eventually to last week’s vote to change the name.
Whether South Dakota will go along with the federal name change is unclear — some elected state officials question it. A state board of names earlier voted 4-1 to keep the name Harney Peak. Others see the name change as political correctness run amok.
But some say it’s long past time to remove Harney’s name from places of honor.
“Harney butchered defenseless women and their babies,” said Frank LaMere of South Sioux City, Nebraska, a Native American long active in Indian causes. “Yet we made a hero out of him.”
LaMere said he applauds federal officials for excising Harney’s name and “naming the most sacred peak in the Black Hills for Black Elk. A great Nebraskan, John Neihardt, gave voice to this holy man.”
Neihardt wrote “Black Elk Speaks,” based on his conversations with the Lakota leader. The book, published by the University of Nebraska Press, has sold more than 900,000 copies over the past eight decades.
Mark Scherer, an attorney and University of Nebraska at Omaha professor who specializes in the history of Native Americans, Nebraska and the Plains, said Harney — though not really known in Omaha — is well-known to historians.
“He stands out as one of the more notorious and ruthless of Indian fighters during the Plains Indian War years,” Scherer said. “He adopted and advocated a very harsh military policy. He believed in fighting to the last man, woman and child until he achieved complete subjugation.”
Harney’s attack at Ash Hollow, the professor said, was punitive retaliation for what’s known as the Grattan fight of 1854, in which Indians killed 30 American soldiers near Fort Laramie.
Defenders of Harney’s reputation say that years later, he took part in negotiations of the Indian Peace Commission and was given an Indian name meaning “man who keeps his word.”
Harney is also listed as a military leader in the Mexican-American War, and later as commander of the Department of the West and as a general during the Civil War. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
At least two books have been written about him: “General William S. Harney: Prince of Dragoons” by George Adams, University of Nebraska Press, 2001; and “Blue Water Creek and the First Sioux War, 1854-56,” by R. Eli Paul, University of Oklahoma Press,” 2004.
Adams last year told the Rapid City Journal that Washington leaders who wanted a clear path west for emigrants share responsibility for what happened at Ash Hollow but that “Harney carried out the assignment with uncommon ferocity and vindictiveness.”
Paul said in a 2004 World-Herald interview that Harney circled troops behind the Sioux at Ash Hollow and then met with their leader, Little Thunder, ordering him to give up warriors from the Grattan fight. Little Thunder professed peace and offered his hand, which Harney refused. Harney told Little Thunder to prepare to fight, and the infantry soon opened fire with long-range rifles.
The Harney Peak name dates to 1857, when a topographical engineer who had served under the general wrote “Harney’s Peak” on maps. It became official in 1906.
Many Native Americans long have felt that the Black Hills — where Mount Rushmore was carved from 1927 to 1941 — were unjustly taken from their ancestors. But Brave Heart’s letter started the recent discussion about Harney Peak.
The U.S. board said its decision came under a policy allowing for name changes “when a name is shown to be highly offensive or derogatory to a particular racial or ethnic group, gender or religious group.”
The Rapid City newspaper reported Sunday that the board’s decision to change the name applies to all federal geographic products such as maps, other printed documents and signs. But the decision does not obligate the state to follow suit.
South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard and U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., have said they are evaluating the situation.
The controversy calls to mind sometimes-heated discussions about mascots for sports teams, such as the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves and Washington Redskins. A number of colleges have made changes, including UNO, whose mascot four decades ago was changed from Indians to Mavericks.
Scherer, the UNO prof, said he always reminds his students that context matters.
No one has come forward, for example, and called for changing the name of Harney Street, which apparently dates to the city’s beginnings. Few in Omaha, if any, attach any meaning to it.
A “city naming committee” exists under city code to review and recommend names, but it apparently hasn’t met for years. City Attorney Paul Kratz said street names can be changed through ordinances passed by the City Council and signed by the mayor, but he has heard no comments about Harney Street.
City Councilman Chris Jerram, chairman of the Public Works Committee, said he was unaware of Harney’s history but would like to know more. A spokeswoman for the mayor also was not aware of Harney and the South Dakota controversy.
Scherer said he is mindful of political correctness and the slippery-slope argument — that if you change every name that offends a group, where do you stop?
A street name is one thing, he said, but last year the name of Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, was changed back to its Native Alaskan name, Denali.
That had great meaning to native people, and President William McKinley of Ohio had no connection to the mountain — a gold prospector reportedly named it for him in 1896, long before Alaska was a U.S. state.
“I really do think every situation is truly unique,” Scherer said. “You have to look at the context, the time and the place.”
An obscure street name may be innocuous, he said, but the context of Harney Peak is painful to many Native Americans.
“The loss of the Black Hills has been an open wound to most of the Lakota people for 140 years now,” Scherer said. “That makes this change perhaps all the more appropriate and reasonable.”
LaMere said he is pleased that the U.S. board has renamed the peak for Black Elk, and he said Harney’s name should be removed from streets, schools and other things.
“We cannot rewrite history,” he said, “but we should revisit it from time to time. Our children and grandchildren will someday learn the truth even if we have tried to hide it.”
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Who was William Harney?
Gen. William Selby Harney (1800-1889) was a Tennessee native and long the namesake of Harney Street in Omaha and Harney Peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He is controversial in part because of the 1855 Battle of Ash Hollow near the present-day town of Lewellen, Nebraska, along the Oregon Trail.
In retaliation for the 1854 Grattan fight near Fort Laramie, in which Indians killed 30 American soldiers, Harney had his troops surround Indians at Ash Hollow. He demanded that their leader, Little Thunder, turn over warriors from the Grattan fight. When Little Thunder refused, the troops killed 86 Lakota Sioux, including women and children.