Healing journey unites generations
Descendant of a 19th-century general known as ‘Mad Bear’ is helping remove his relative’s name from a waterway
Paul S. Soderman and Philip Little Thunder Prayer Walk. (Photo courtesy of Paul Stover Soderman)
JUN 15, 2021
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.
Discovery Then Healing
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.
Henry Cayou and his wife, Mary Reed, were married 24 years until her death in 1912. Cayou was the son of a Lummi/Saanich mother and French-American father. Reed’s mother was Tlingit and her father was Irish-American. Islanders in the Pacific Northwest want to rename a waterway for Henry Cayou. (Photo courtesy of the Karen Jones-Lamb family)
Brig. Gen. William S. Harney, center with white beard, sits next to Gen. William T. Sherman at the 1868 signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty. Harney was known by the Lakota as 'Mad Bear' and 'Woman Killer,' but he later apologized to one Lakota leader and testified before Congress that he felt Native Americans had been mistreated by the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Paul Stover Soderman)
Phil Little Thunder, Paul Sover Soderman, Karen Little Thunder at Ash Hollow Nebraska. (Photo courtesy of Paul Stover Soderman)
Karen 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.”
Stover’s great grandfather, 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.
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.”
Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, lives in the Samish homeland of Anacortes, Washington, about 80 miles northwest of Seattle.