PIERRE, SD (KELO) — Custer State Park’s name should not change, a panel of South Dakota lawmakers has decided.
The Senate State Affairs Committee rejected the legislation Wednesday 7-1.
Senate Democratic Leader Troy Heinert of Mission wanted the state Geographic Names Board to choose a new one for the park in western South Dakota.
The park is named after Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, whose 1874 expedition led to the Black Hills Gold Rush.
Heinert, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, said Custer changed the way of life “forever” for the indigenous people who had lived there for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived.
Heinert noted that the state board previously changed the names of places that used the word “squaw.” State Law says “squaw” is “offensive and insulting to all the people, history and heritage of South Dakota”.
“I would say that for a significant portion of our population, Custer’s name is offensive,” Heinert said.
SB-178 did not suggest any alternate names. Heinert said he hoped the park wouldn’t be named after a specific person.
The state government would have four years to rename the park under the proposal. “And they could make it as exciting as they want,” Heinert said. “It’s the same process we used for Good Earth (State Park) at Blood Run.”
The odds were not in his favor. Heinert had only other Democrats as co-sponsors of the bill. He was the only Democrat on the Senate committee. Republicans control 32 of 35 Senate seats and 62 of 70 House seats.
Ross Garelick-Bell, who lobbies for several tribal governments, also testified in support. Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller, R-Rapid City, whose legislative district includes Custer County, testified as the sole opponent. Heinert’s bill was presented at a community crackerbarrel last weekend.
“It’s really upset some citizens that this issue will be resolved,” Frye-Mueller said.
Heinert had started his presentation by asking committee members to close their eyes and see what came to mind when they thought of the term “Indian fighter.”
Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, R-Watertown, said the image in his mind was Crazy Horse.
Crazy Horse helped lead members of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in the June 25-26, 1876 massacre of Custer and other troops of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry at the site of Little Big Horn or Greasy Grass in the Montana Territory.
Schoenbeck said Spotted Tail, a Brule leader who was shot in 1881, might have been a worse killer than Crazy Horse.
“We have to look at the whole story, not just one piece,” Schoenbeck said. He called for the legislation to be reversed and urged the committee to “stick to the established brand name”. He pointed to the Crazy Horse Monument sculpture and the Mount Rushmore National Monument sculpture by Gutzon Borglum. which was associated with the losing Confederate side of the American Civil War.
Heinert said the legislature cannot control what happens at the Crazy Horse site because the owner is a private foundation, and cannot control what happens at Mount Rushmore because it is a site. federal. He said the legislature can control what happens with the Custer State Park name.
“We are more inclusive. That’s why I brought this bill,” Heinert said.