- Associated Press - Friday, January 22, 2016

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - South Dakota lawmakers moved Friday to limit the power of a state board after it considered whether to recommend a new name for Harney Peak based on concerns from American Indians.

The House State Affairs committee approved the plan along party lines with Democrats opposed. Republican Rep. Lee Schoenbeck’s measure would restrict the board from acting on a name change unless a geographic place name has been identified in state law as offensive or insulting.

Lawmakers created the South Dakota Board on Geographic Names to recommend replacements for offensive geographic feature names. The group worked largely in obscurity until members considered a request from an Oglala Sioux member to rename Harney Peak.

Schoenbeck said ahead of the hearing that the board acted beyond its authority when it considered a new name for the peak. His original proposal would have dissolved the board, but Schoenbeck put a new version forward in the committee.

The board in June voted to recommend that Harney Peak should keep the name of Army Gen. William S. Harney, whose soldiers in 1855 killed American Indians in Nebraska. The vote was a reversal, even though some find the peak’s name offensive.

The group had issued a preliminary recommendation in May that Harney Peak be renamed “Hinhan Kaga (Making of Owls).” But members decided not to back a change after a slew of public comments against the plan, including from at least two members of Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s cabinet.

Daugaard said Friday that most South Dakotans don’t find the name Harney offensive because they’re unaware of the history behind it.

Basil Brave Heart, who proposed the change in 2014, has said that the peak shouldn’t be named after a man who committed atrocities against American Indians.

Democratic Rep. Kevin Killer opposed the bill. He said the board is one of the few places for South Dakota residents to have an honest dialogue about history. He said the group plays a “vital role” in helping eradicate symbols of racism in the state.

“As South Carolina finally rid itself of the Confederate flag as a symbol of slavery and racism in the South, so should South Dakota continue to rid itself of geographic names that stand for racism, inequality, disrespect, inhumanity and cultural genocide of the Lakota, Dakota people and African American communities,” Killer said.

Schoenbeck said policy decisions about offensive names should be made in the Legislature, “not by this five-person board.”

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation declined to comment for the agency and the chairwoman of the Board on Geographic Names. The board’s vice chairman forwarded request for comment to the Department of Education, whose spokeswoman declined to comment.

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