Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power by Pekka Hämäläinen, Yale University Press, 530 pages, $35
At first glance, Lakota America is every inch a sober, stately work of scholarship — and one long overdue. It is purportedly the first complete history of the Lakotas, the tribe of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, the regime that long dominated the American interior, thwarting Western expansion with charm, shrewd diplomacy, and sheer might.
Look again, however, and you’ll catch something roiling beneath that professional composure: a lively truculence that gives this book its pulse and its purpose. Pekka Hämäläinen’s impressive history is also a quarrel with the field, with how history — and the history of indigenous Americans, in particular — has been told and sold.
Hämäläinen’s previous book, The Comanche Empire (2009), which was awarded the prestigious Bancroft Prize, resurrected the lost stories of a prosperous and sophisticated people of the American Southwest. The new book also responds to the long legacy of erasing and suppressing the history of indigenous America, or reducing it to a backdrop. That distorted perspective lives on in the language we still use. The word “Sioux” refers to a coalition of seven allied and related nations, including the Lakotas, but the word itself is a French corruption of “Nadouessioux,” an Ojibwe word meaning “snake” — or enemy.
Hämäläinen renders the Lakotas as full protagonists. This is an American story with their contribution, influence, and version of events at the center — and to build that story, there is a rich, idiosyncratic archive to draw on. The Lakotas marked time with pictographs, called waniyetu iyawapi (“winter counts”), originally painted onto the hide of a buffalo. Each year was depicted by the image of a signal event: plentiful bison to hunt, war. When colonists brought the devastating smallpox virus to the Americas, decimating indigenous populations who had no immunity, the winter count documented a small face so covered with marks that only tiny eyes were visible.
In retrospect, history often seems preordained; vulnerabilities seem garishly announced, outcomes a matter of course. Winter counts, however, illustrate sudden, pitiless twists of fortune. In writing Lakota America, Hämäläinen seeks to do the same, to infuse a sense of chance and contingency in the narrative, to remain “alive to the ever-present possibility that events could have turned out differently.” He sows this feeling of uncertainty into the composition of the book, replacing a traditional arc with “a more unpredictable narrative structure that is full of triumphs, twists, reversals, victories, lulls and low points, big and small. If the book’s Lakotas — haughty and imperial at one moment, fearful and vulnerable the next, prudent and accommodating the third — seem strange and unfamiliar, this portrayal has succeeded.”
All nations deserve to have their stories told with this degree of attentiveness, but the Lakotas might have a special claim. Their political philosophy and social organizations were distinguished by a flexibility that allowed them to maneuver among rival colonial powers and hostile neighboring tribes. One of their mythical heroes is the shape-shifting spider-trickster figure Iktomi. The Lakotas’ malleability aided their countless transformations — from foragers to farmers to nomads to hunters on horseback, from an isolated society to the most dominant indigenous nation in the Americas, controlling territory across the Great Plains, and into the Rocky Mountains and Canada. Lakota America takes us from the 16th century to the present, with painstaking, carefully marshaled detail, but its real feat is in threading how the Lakota philosophy and vision of the world guided their reinventions and their dealings with colonial powers.
“Lakotas were fighting for survival,” Hämäläinen writes, “but they were also fighting to keep alive a broader vision of America where coexistence through right thoughts and acts might be possible.” Theirs was a capacious notion of kinship, in which competitors and even enemies could be brought into the fold. (Lewis and Clark make a spectacularly bumbling appearance in the book as the perfect foils for the Lakotas, marked by an utter inability “to see, learn and adapt.” They were bewildered that Native Americans welcomed American trade but not their “paternal embrace.”)
The challenge of writing this history, Hämäläinen notes, was making iconic events and figures unfamiliar again, which is never more necessary than at the twilight of the Lakota empire. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Lakotas dealt the Americans a humiliating defeat, and the U.S. Army responded with a campaign of terror, beginning with the Wounded Knee massacre, in which soldiers slaughtered hundreds of Indians. Missionaries and social reformers began their work in zeal; children were taken from families and sent to boarding schools whose explicit mission was to annihilate the Lakotas’ language, religion, and culture. Nearly every aspect of Lakota life became subject to surveillance and control. The winter counts are few from these years, reflecting the trauma, the ravages of dispossession and suicide — “colonialism working exactly as intended.”
Hämäläinen finds notes of optimism in recent years, however, in the protests around the Dakota Access pipeline, which attracted global attention, and in the Lakotas’ unflagging efforts to recover the Black Hills. “Lakotas will endure because they are Iktomi’s people, supple, accommodating and absolutely certain of their essence even when becoming something new,” he writes. “They will always find a place in the world because they know how to be fully in it, adapting to its shape while remaking it, again and again, after their own image.”
— Parul Sehgal/The New York Times