(Photo: Jake DeGroot/Wikimedia Commons)
The highest point in South Dakota - and perhaps North America's highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains - is no longer Harney Peak. And the reason for the change isn't a sudden geological event or stunning new data, but a simple name change.
For more than 150 years, the 7,242ft/2,207m high mountain in the central Black Hills was known as Harney Peak. It was named for William S. Harney, a Civil War general that most people have never heard of. But it turns out that Harney had a bit of a checkered past, including leading a battle against the Sioux that resulted in the deaths of women and children - a fact pointed out to the authorities last fall by South Dakotan Basil Brave Heart.
Officials initially agreed that naming the highest point in the Black Hills for Harney was probably a bad idea. The Black Hills have long been considered sacred by indigenous people - the same people Harney apparently massacred indiscriminately. But after pressure from the state's largely white conservative political establishment, the original name stuck. Until last week, that is, when a federal board decided to overrule the state. They declared the mountain Black Elk Peak, named for a famous Lakota medicine man whose visions were recorded in the influential 1932 book Black Elk Speaks.
Initially, South Dakota officials seemed poised to fight the name change, but this morning Governor Dennis Daugaard confirmed that the state will let the name change stand. That means that road signs, maps, and visitor information across the state - and particularly in Custer State Park - will soon be updated to read "Black Elk Peak."
If you haven't hiked the mountain before, it's well-worth the effort on your next trip to the Black Hills. It takes most people three or four hours to climb up the mountain, with the hike down taking two or maybe three hours. The trail is well-marked and well-traveled, and the view from the top is incredible. The stone fire lookout on the peak gives the summit a nice atmosphere, and provides a little shelter from the wind for a quick picnic.