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Bill to rename Custer State Park defeated in Senate committee

The bill, brought by Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, would've opened up a process for South Dakotans to contribute new names to a state board to replace an individual he called "detestable."

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Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, D-Mission, speaks at a news conference on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — A South Dakota Democrat who calls the Rosebud Indian Reservation home asked the Senate State Affairs committee on Wednesday, Feb. 16, to close their eyes and imagine an "Indian hunter."

"Now who pops into your head?" asked Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, D-Mission. "My guess is General George Armstrong Custer."

And, Heinert continued, that man shouldn't be the namesake for South Dakota's crown jewel of a state park in the Black Hills.

Under the terms of Senate Bill 178, an act to remove Custer from the park's nomenclature, citizens could be able to contribute new names to the Board of Geographic Names, who would, in turn, submit the names to the Legislature by 2023.

What would the park be called? Heinert said that would be up to citizens. But he didn't want Custer — a man whom Heinert called "detestable" and who led a military engagement into the Black Hills and forever became ensconced in U.S. lore for his defeat at the Battle of Greasy Grass — associated anymore with the park.

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"There's a significant portion of our population in South Dakota that I would say George Armstrong Custer changed our life forever, when he went into the Black Hills and said that gold was coming up with the roots of grass," said Heinert.

The bill drew opposition from Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller, R-Rapid City, who represents Custer County. Attending a cracker barrel meeting with constituents over the weekend, Frye-Mueller said many citizens were "really upset" about the proposed name change.

"They would like to keep it as it is," said Frye-Mueller. "It's history. We can't keep changing names to erase things that we don't like."

In rebuttal testimony, Heinert dismissed the idea that he was attempting to rewrite history.

"It's not like we change the name and the buffalo are going to come back," said Heinert.

But the Senate state affairs committee was unmoved in their opposition to the bill.

Senate Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck, R-Watertown, said he thought of Crazy Horse — not Custer — when Heinert asked them to close their eyes, noting a history of battles between the Oglala Lakota leader and other tribal nations. He added Mount Rushmore was carved by a "KKK activist."

"We ought to look at all of history, not one perspective of it," said Schoenbeck.

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The committee defeated the measure on a vote of 8-1, with Heinert the lone dissenter.

Christopher Vondracek is the South Dakota correspondent for Forum News Service. Contact Vondracek at cvondracek@forumcomm.com , or follow him on Twitter: @ChrisVondracek .

MORE FROM CHRISTOPHER VONDRACEK:
The state's biggest political leaders have touted inbound migration, so-called "blue state refugees" who flooded South Dakota. But the biggest driver of partisan races this coming summer and fall appears to be a redistricting process, log-jamming Republicans in primaries and opening up new turf for Democrats.

Related Topics: GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
Christopher Vondracek covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at cvondracek@forumcomm.com or follow him on Twitter at @ChrisVondracek.
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