A version of this story first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in November 2014.
On November 4, residents of Shannon County, South Dakota, voted by a four-to-one margin to drop “Shannon” from the name of the non-tribal jurisdiction that overlaps much of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Henceforth, it will be Oglala Lakota County, named for the tribal nation that lives there.
“The voters made their voices heard,” said South Dakota state legislator Kevin Killer, who is Oglala Lakota (shown right).
In recent years, reports The Rapid City Journal, names of several South Dakota sites have been changed to remove offensive references. When Killer thought of Shannon County following this route, he discussed the idea with his campaign manager Kimberly Killer, county commissioner Anna Takes the Shield, and Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation organizer Andrew Iron Shell. They felt they needed to know who the county’s namesake, Peter C. Shannon, really was. “No one knew much about him. His story wasn’t taught in the schools,” said Killer.
Jesse Short Bull, Native Youth Leadership Alliance communications director, set about finding out. After scouring congressional testimony, obituaries and numerous other historical documents, Short Bull learned that when the county was named after Shannon in 1875, he was a newcomer to the Dakota Territory. President Grant had appointed him chief justice of its supreme court just two years earlier. The Pennsylvania-born judge and sometime legislator had also been a Union Army officer, who “was prominent in raising many troops for the front,” according to an early biographer.
Shannon’s men headed into battle without him, though. He quit before seeing action to work on the Pennsylvania governor’s re-election campaign. In 1864, he helped with President Lincoln’s re-election bid, said Short Bull.
In the early 1880s, another president needed Shannon. Chester Arthur appointed him to the Edmunds Commission, tasked with getting the Sioux bands to relinquish millions of acres of land. To achieve this, commissioners threatened military reprisals and canvassed schools to obtain signatures of Sioux children on the deal, said Short Bull. Tribal members protested, and the effort collapsed. (A later commission succeeded in carving the Great Sioux Nation into separate reservations, including Pine Ridge.)
When Short Bull reported his findings, Shannon didn’t look like much of a hero to Killer. “Why would we name anything in South Dakota after him?” Killer asked.
Going forward, Shannon’s name will disappear from maps, websites, letterheads and Killer’s nameplate in the state legislature, replaced by “Oglala Lakota.” Said Killer, “The people are back in the equation. This is a profound change, with repercussions every time someone sees the new name.”
c. Stephanie Woodard. Photo courtesy Kevin Killer.