Elder McDonald vows to change Sully's Hill name back to "White Horse Hill"

Staff Writer
Devils Lake Journal
Demus McDonald looks toward Spirit Lake at Sully's Hill. McDonald , 76, explained why the Dakota people named Sully's Hill “shunk-ska-pah-ha” [White Horse Hill] long before it was named Sully's Hill. The famed steam boat "Minnie H." used to steam past the hill and there used to be countless reports of people sighting a sacred, white horse that dwelled within the forested area.

By Shinoah Young

DL Journal Reporter

Demus McDonald said two weeks after his sixth birthday, back in August 1950, he was taken [by government law] to St. Michael’s Indian Mission where he endured many years of abuse alongside several other young Dakota children.

He said all were forcibly schooled there, despite any opposition of parental consent.

McDonald stated that one of the hardships they suffered was being persecuted by members of the clergy, for innocuous daily habits such as speaking his mother tongue – the Dakota language. “When school was out I went home to the Indians. I went home to the Dakota people and we talked Dakota all day long. We never spoke English.”

“I started praying in Indian, the way I saw my grandmother pray,” said McDonald. “The nun grabbed me by the ear and marched me to an office where I had to kneel on a ruler for hours at a time.”

After surviving boarding school at the Indian Mission, McDonald’s grandmother Mary Blueshield was his rock. “She said ‘You put that way back in your mind and leave it there. Just leave it there.’ she said,” McDonald said as he folded his hands, looking downwards.

McDonald’s grandmother, helped him move past all the angst from attending the Indian Mission – he did so by turning back to teachings from  Dakota elders by using their traditional ways.  

Today, at 70-years-old, McDonald, now a school bus driver and respected knowledge keeper in Spirit Lake Nation, said an ongoing motivation is speaking to Dakota youth about being confident in who they are as Native people.

McDonald was also chosen by his community to serve as a Wodakota Peacemaker for the reservation’s tribal court system, sworn in this past spring. “There’s no rest for the wicked,” he said, laughing at his own comment.

With a glimmer in his eye he continues to pursue his most recent undertaking, working through the process of changing the historic Dakota landmark named “Sully’s Hill” [located in Spirit Lake Nation], back to its original, traditional Dakota name pronounced “shunk-ska-pah-hah” which translates into "White Horse Hill" in the Dakota language.

Furthermore, McDonald added that the U.S. Army General Sully, who slaughtered hundreds of Dakota people in the early 1900’s [many of them were McDonald’s ancestors], is still being credited for having this sacred landmark named after him.

But to officially change the “Sully’s Hill” name back to “shunk-ska-pah-hah” or White Horse Hill, McDonald [and several other community members] made a motion to write up a resolution at Spirit Lake Nation’s General Assembly which took place last Thursday [Sept. 27] at the Blue Building in Fort Totten. Eventually, tribal council's final decision will need to be brought forth to the United States Congress at Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.

McDonald said he wants His people to know, there is more than what meets the eye.White Horse Hill (shunk-ska-pah-hah) represents an important part of Dakota peoples’ past- and their futures.  

“One of the Elders was told by his parents that when a boat called the Minnie H. used to bring mail across the water to Fort Totten they would see that white horse come down out of the trees and he would be drinking water from the lake and slowly go back into the woods.”

“There was a wagon trail and a white stallion would be seen running through the trees,” explained McDonald. “Then it would dissappear.” He credits the late Sam Cloud for being given this sacred and historic knowledge.

“It’s going to take an act of Congress to try to get that name changed to White Horse Hill,” he said.

He also said the region of Sully’s Hill is home to ancient ceremonial sites,  the prairie dog town and many types of forested trees where birds seek refuge near and around the waters of Spirit Lake. There are also herds of elk and bison that reside and mate on this wooded expanse of sacred land. He added that the animals then eat natural medicines which grow down underneath water. Several other natural medicines freely grow over top the entire expanse of White Horse Hill or "shunk-ska-pah-hah."

Sully's Hill is a refuge for the Dakota people, wild game, plants – and a plethera of tourists visit from all over the world, which is why he said, it is all the more important to change the Sully’s Hill name back to White Horse Hill.

“We want them [the youth] to know the real history of Spirit Lake,” he added, looking down at his collection of heart-shaped rocks and unique mementos that help him to teach countless youngsters within the Lake Region community.

“Mother Earth is happy,” he said, while wearing a white and red cap that reads “Honor Mother Earth.”

Spirit Lake Tribal council may carry a resolution asking to change the name on a later date, if so, eventually the request needs approval from Capital Hill in Washington D.C.