Richard Arlin Walker
Special to Indian Country Today
The effort to change the name of a Pacific Northwest waterway that now honors a 19th century U.S. Army general with a violent history against Black and Native peoples has gained the support of a notable ally.
One of the general’s descendants has joined the call.
It’s not the first time Paul Stover Soderman has campaigned to rename a place named for his controversial relative, Williams S. Harney, known as “Mad Bear,” who beat a Black woman to death and led a deadly attack on a Lakota encampment in Nebraska.
Soderman, a musician and retired substance abuse counselor now living in Boulder, Colorado, was actively involved in getting Black Elk Peak — a place in South Dakota’s Black Hills sacred to the Lakota people — renamed in 2016 after decades as Harney Peak.
Soderman is now supporting an effort to change the name of Harney Channel, which is located in the Salish Sea between Canada’s Vancouver Island and Washington state. A topographer named the channel for Harney in the 1860s in recognition of his service as commander of the Army’s Department of Oregon, which included the then-Washington Territory.
A group of residents there has proposed renaming it Cayou Channel, in honor of a local Coast Salish political, fishing and maritime leader Henry Cayou.
The name change application was submitted April 17 to the Washington state Board on Geographic Names and, as of June 10, 777 people had signed a petition in support on Change.org.
Soderman wrote to the state Board on Geographic Names that Harney's attack on Chief Little Thunder’s people in 1855 at Ash Hollow, Nebraska — in retaliation for an earlier engagement spurred by the killing of a settler’s cow — drove him to reach out to Little Thunder’s descendants and work to rename Harney Peak in South Dakota.
“Slowly, we made relations with each other and set out to attempt to heal historical wrongs,” he wrote. “Together we worked in supporting removing the General's name from Harney Peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota. … The Peak is sacred to the Lakota People and in sharing time with Lakota there, I can say that the long-suffering energy of oppression has been lifted from that place.”
The journey that led to the removal of Harney’s name from Black Elk Peak turned out to be an odyssey of self-discovery and healing that Soderman said could only have been spirit-led.
Discovery, then healing
Soderman didn’t know of his relationship to Harney when he became an ally and supporter of the American Indian Movement in the 1980s. He later learned his great-great-grandmothers were first cousins and childhood friends of Harney.
“The elders were telling us, ‘Know who your people are. You Anglo guys need to know who your ancestors were,” Soderman said. “I got interested at that point, and then that letter popped up.”
The letter, written in 1934 by Milwaukee lawyer Paul Stover to his granddaughter, Polly Stover — Soderman’s great-grandfather and aunt — was found among the aunt’s belongings in 1998 after she died. In the letter, the elder Stover acknowledged a card he received from the granddaughter during her visit to Washington, D.C., and recalled his own childhood visit to the nation’s capital in 1861. The highlight was meeting President Abraham Lincoln in the White House.
Stover’s father, also a lawyer, had known the president since Lincoln’s days as a lawyer on the Illinois circuit. The father shook Lincoln’s hand in the East Room and said, “I want you to meet my wife, Frances Harney … a cousin to Gen. William Selby Harney.” At the time, Harney was commander of the Army’s Department of the West, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri.
Soderman said he later confirmed the relationship through genealogical research.
After he received the letter, Soderman participated in a walk up 7,800-foot Harney Peak for the Welcome Back the Thunders ceremony.
“I shared that with the people I was walking with. I said, ‘I just found out I’m probably related one way or the other to General Harney,’” he recalled. “When we got to the top, I stood behind Rosalie Little Thunder — I had never directly addressed or talked to her — and she had the pipe in her hand, and she started praying for the family of General Harney. It brought me to tears. I thought, ‘Something is happening here.’ It opened a door for me.”
In the ensuing years, Soderman and members of the Little Thunder family developed a friendship and began working together to walk back the historical trauma associated with Harney’s name. They shared in healing walks and prayer walks and testified for the name change before the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.
Karen Little Thunder, Rosalie’s sister, said at first she didn’t know how she would react in meeting a relative of the man who led the attack on her ancestors at Ash Hollow. Eighty-six Lakota died in the attack; among those killed were women and children who were fired upon by Harney's men as they hid in caves.
Little Thunder said they quickly found common ground — she wanted to resolve the generational trauma that lingered from Ash Hollow; Soderman wanted to help heal the wounds inflicted by his relative there. And both discovered forgiveness.
“When Paul first contacted me, I was kind of shocked and it took me a while to return his call,” Little Thunder said. “It was scary. I’m not a physically violent person, but I was afraid I’d slap somebody in the beginning. Then I met Paul and he’s such a likable person and that’s how I have come to adopt him as my brother.”
Soderman talked of the healing process — a process that requires the sincerity of action rather than mere words of apology.
“What I was told is all of these memories are held in the blood,” he said. “One of the reasons you want to do these things is it relieves some of this historical grief, some of this historical trauma that’s locked in the DNA. I learned this from the elders: When you change the name of a place like Harney Peak, the energy of oppression is lifted off of that place and there’s a new energy that I would call a healing, and it ripples out to other things in the world. There’s a different vibration at that place now. You can feel it, it’s palpable.”
Basil Brave Heart, a Lakota spiritual healer, told the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, “I believe it will represent more than a name change. I believe the energy of this name change will resonate with all our people.”
Indeed it has. When the peak carried Harney’s name, 20 to 30 people participated in the Welcome Back the Thunders ceremony there. Now, as many as 800 participate, Soderman said.
“There’s a lot of pride that that name has been changed to Black Elk Peak.”
‘We can begin to recognize and heal it’
Soderman is also now involved in the effort to change the name of Mount Evans, at 14,235 feet the tallest peak in Colorado. It’s located on Cheyenne and Arapaho ancestral lands but is named for the governor who incited the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre.
Soderman said such efforts can only facilitate healing and forgiveness.
“I got reverse-assimilated by Indian people. They talked to me for the last 35 years about their experience,” he said. “I was born and bred to live a life of white privilege and somehow I ended up in these circles of AIM warriors who reeducated me. I learned little by little what the real history was from their side of the story and I started to wake up.
“To me, America is like a tree. The top of the tree is dead, so people are getting out their ladders and climbing to the top of the tree with their water buckets and they’re pouring water on the dead leaves of the tree. The water belongs on the root of that tree.
“Where the country began its downfall was in these genocidal acts that occurred against the very people who lived here, with no accountability for it. It’s not taught in our schools. My feeling is if you can put the water on the root of our country, then we can begin to recognize and heal it.”
Ken Carrasco, lead proponent of the effort to change the name of Harney Channel in the San Juan Islands, agreed. He said place-name changes “make a statement that we believe that the U.S. Constitution should apply to all people and not just a privileged few — whites. We want a culture and society that, in fact, welcomes all people, including the people who were here before us and including the people who were enslaved by us. If people want to say it’s ‘cancel culture,’ I say right on — we are trying to cancel our viewpoints of the past and evolve beyond our [historical treatment] of Indigenous and Black people.”
Soderman believes his journey has lifted a burden from his lineage and has been a sort of act of contrition on behalf of his controversial relative.
“I’ve come to have some compassion for General Harney,” Soderman said. “He was a military guy and that was the day and age and it was his job to create havoc and intimidate and scare the hell out of the people out there and he did that. He wasn’t a very nice person. He was an alcoholic who put down the bottle and never drank again but he was sort of a dry drunk and he loved to fight.”
A bitter end
Harney hoed rows of pain in his life.
A hothead who was quick to act on his impulses, Harney beat a Black woman to death with a cane in the 1830s and in 1840 hanged several Miccosukees without trial for their alleged involvement in a raid on a Florida trading post.
In 1848, he was court-martialed for insubordination during the Mexican-American War. In 1859, while commander of the Army’s Department of Oregon, he almost escalated a territory dispute between Great Britain and the United States into armed conflict. After Gen. Winfield Scott intervened, the two nations jointly — and peacefully — occupied the San Juan Islands, on the U.S.-Canada border, until the dispute could be settled.
Early in his Army career, he abandoned his daughter and her Winnebago mother in Wisconsin when he was transferred. His wife from a subsequent marriage left him after 20 years; in his will, Harney — who owned property in several states — left their children $5 each.
“At the end of his life, he died bitter, kind of sad and lonely,” Soderman said.
Harney’s treatment of Native Americans may have weighed on him, Soderman said.
“At the end of his life, he would host Indian people at his home in St. Louis,” he said. “Early in his life, he had refused to shake an Indian’s hand. Now, at the end of his life, he was trying to shake as many Indian hands as he could.”