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July 22, 2014 06:22 PM

Vote On Shannon County Name Change Set For November

Pine Ridge, SD

It's set: Shannon County voters will decide in November whether to change the name of the southwest South Dakota county to Oglala Lakota County.

Fall River County officials, who do election services for Shannon County, confirmed Tuesday that the petitions filed by advocates of the name-change vote had enough valid signatures to qualify it for the November general-election ballot in Shannon County.

It's been a long time coming, this vote on a new name. For Jesse Short Bull and other members of the Oglala Tribe who pushed a petition drive calling for the vote, it will mean a lot more than the need for a few new road signs and, eventually, amended maps.

"The importance of having a vote on changing the Shannon County name is, I think it gives the people an opportunity to have a say in what the name of the county is," Short Bull said. "And I don't think they had a say back in 1875, when it was first designated."

That was a period of pioneer expansion and land consolidation in western South Dakota. Short Bull discussed the need for the name change recently near an abandoned railroad right-of-way near the Badlands town of Scenic. The right-of-way is a relic of that time of 19th century expansion.  Railroad owners were pushing west to connect eastern South Dakota with the Black Hills and hoping for pioneer settlement along the way.

A judge named Peter C. Shannon helped negotiate land deals with Native people that many tribal members still resent. Short Bull says having Shannon's name on the sprawling core of the Pine Ridge Reservation, including some of its most sacred lands, doesn't make sense.

"I think changing the name, it definitely gives us ownership over the last little piece of sovereign Lakota country, and that land has been in our history.  That could be debatable, but it goes back a very long time," Short Bull said.

Though no one has voiced opposition to the name change up to now that could develop in the months leading up to the November vote. The county, which includes parts of Badlands National Park, is a complicated patchwork of land with a variety of owners, including some non-tribal members.

Still, more than 90 percent of the people living in the county are Native American, most of them members of the Oglala Tribe. And while tribal members tend to show up to vote in non-tribal elections in extremely low numbers, Short Bull expects this issue to inspire a much-bigger turnout.

"You know, when the petitioners took this out to the people, it was quite surprising how supportive folks were," Short Bull said. "And achieving the signatures came rather easily and swiftly."

Fall River County Auditor Sue Ganje earlier confirmed that the petition carriers had collected more than the 1,167 valid signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot. And it has since been cleared by the county state's attorney. Ganje said the only question now is whether the name vote will require a separate ballot or if it can be added to the general election ballot for Shannon County.

Short Bull is happy to have reached a stage where those are the only questions left before the election. He thinks tribal voters will turn out in good numbers.

"I think the key thing is giving a name that fits Oglala Lakota Country," he said.

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