Sunday, October 29, 2017

Comanche Empire, A Book Review

As if to belie the fact that this is a history book, the cover features a modern studio photograph. 
Comanche Empire, A Book Review
First Nation Recognized As Colonial Power
By Dakota Wind

Hämäläinen, Pekka. The Comanche Empire. New Haven, CT; Yale University Press. 2008. $40.00 (hardcover; out of print). 512 pages + viii. Introduction, abbreviations, notes, bibliography, index, illustrations, maps.

Taking a page from the late Vine Deloria, Jr. (Standing Rock), and what he said regarding native peoples making a cameo in American western history – of making a dramatic entrance and then fading away into the manifest destiny of colonial expansion, Hämäläinen makes the Comanche nation the focus of his work, which includes an inter-tribal narrative from the perspective of the Comanche people, and a narrative of the Comanche as seen from other first nations and the colonial empires.

The Comanche nation rises from quiet encounters with the Spanish at the turn of 1700 to a powerful dominate power of the American Southwest (the Spanish North?), a fiercely protected territory called by the colonial empires, Comancheria. The Spanish, Mexicans, Texans, and Americans at one point all sought aid from the Comanche on their terms, or fought long, desperate, costly campaigns against them.

The agent of change, that which made the Comanche nation, is the horse. The Comanche broke off from their relatives, the Shoshone, because of a dispute over game, but also to escape an epidemic, and to acquire the horse. Then they invaded the plains. Before the horse, the main agent of change was primarily reactionary to a changing environment (drought, the Little Ice Age). The last major agent of change was the gun.

Hämäläinen regularly describes the movements and advances of the Comanche as invasions, but how else to describe an expanding nation than an invasion? The Comanche turned west into Ute territory, but rather than invade and displace, they learned how to survive and adapt. Clearly their agenda didn’t mean the subjugation of other first nations. At that time.

Much of the premise of Comanche Empire is establishing Comancheria as a nation, recognized by Spain and the Mexico. As a nation, Comancheria did as the colonial empires did: expand or invade, displace indigenous, appropriate the landscape through military example, and absorb pacifist nations in a melting pot. In fact, because of Comancheria’s manifest destiny, because of deliberate Comanche planning, the region stabilized. They reached out to old enemies, even as natives were displaced from their homelands back east during the Indian Removal Act.

Mexico and the United States used Comancheria as a middle ground to trade. Mexico invited Americans into the region, but instead of trading with the Mexicans, they brought their trade to the Comanche. Americans moved in and discovered they wanted, needed, the landscape for its resources, resources that they didn’t see before, and after their war with Mexico, Texans turned an imperial eye to the landscape.

Comancheria was a real first nation State. Comanche Empire includes maps of this real State. Because Hämäläinen focuses on the development, invasion, expansion, and economy of this State, his work, by necessity, concludes with the collapse and deconstruction of Comancheria. In this, Hämäläinen does not carry through with a study of the Comanche Nation as a federally recognized domestic dependent nation headquartered in Lawton, OK.

There are other books out there that touch on the Comanche after the reservation era. One almost hopes that Hämäläinen decides to write a history of the Comanche that does just that. Comanche Nation. The Comanche were forced onto reservations in New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Chihuahua, Mexico. It was the only way for the United States and Mexico to deal with a powerful first nation. I’d buy that book too.

In the meantime, get yourself a copy of Comanche Empire. This is an investment for American Western historyphiles.


Saturday, October 21, 2017

Terrible Justice, A Book Review

Whitestone Hill, this image appeared in Harper's Weekly, based on a pencil drawing by Gen. Alfred Sully. 
Terrible Justice, A Book Review
No Detail Too Grim Left Out
By Dakota Wind
Chaky, Doreen. Terrible Justice: Sioux Chiefs and U.S. Soldiers on the Upper Missouri, 1854-1868. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. 2012. $39.95 (hardcover). 408 pages. Illustrations, maps, photographs, bibliography, and index.

Chaky’s Terrible Justice begins with the Ash Hollow conflict of 1854, as settlers migrated across the Great Plains to better lives on the west coast or in the Rocky Mountains. Her research was sparked after participating in an archaeological survey at Fort Rice, and she soon realized that as much as the story of adventure belonged to the soldiers, it was a story that ultimately belongs to the Sioux. She was not satisfied that so little was published about the military’s role in Manifest Destiny there at Fort Rice and across the plains.

An example of an outstanding feature in Terrible Justice is Chaky’s use of Little Crow’s actual name, which is Taóyate Dúta (His Red Nation), and her continued use of his real name throughout her book. She doesn’t mince words in her description of the punitive military campaigns – Generals Sibley and Sully were sent to make war, take prisoners, destroy food resources, and secure Dakota Territory for white settlement.

Chaky carefully constructs the 1863 Sibley campaign on the orders of General Pope and his orders to secure Dakota Territory from President Abraham Lincoln. Sibley’s march is an invasion, and the conflict between the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (the Great Sioux Nation) and Sibley's command began when his campaign left from Camp Pope on the Minnesota River, not when a young man from the band of Íŋkpaduta (Scarlet Point) shot and killed Surgeon Weiser.

Terrible Justice isn’t an apologist’s narrative. Chaky describes in great detail the gory violence and destruction committed by men, native and non-native; scalps taken by soldiers and warriors. But, she draws close when she includes brief remembrances of Pvt. Phebus, Sgt. Martin, and acting Gov. Hutchinson, several years after the Whitestone Hill massacre.

Federal “Indian Policy” has always been one of dispossession and displacement. As settlers advanced west into Indian Country, tensions erupted in an escalating conflict until the military came in to secure the peace by forcing first nations to sign treaties (land cessions and reservations). Treaties were generally signed by a majority of grown men, sometimes not even by that (ex. Treaty of New Echota).

The Sibley-Sully campaigns were pre-emptive. The Yanktonai, who, at that time yet lived in their homeland, were killed, imprisoned, and forced west across the Missouri River without ever signing a treaty to cede their lands. The land between the Missouri River and the James River is still unceded Yanktonai territory.

Chaky signed my copy, “Dakota, I hope I’ve represented the Sioux properly with this book. I enjoyed doing it very much. Doreen Chaky, 7/28/13.” It’s a book that’s not hard to read, but it’s straight content and elaborate description make it hard to read. These are my people. Chaky began her narrative that this was “the story of the Sioux.” A quick review of her bibliography reveals six recognizable works by first nations, and one hopes a second edition of Terrible Justice would draw on more the surviving oral tradition. 

Recognizing that there are many, many books available for purchase on the subject of the Little Bighorn conflict, Chaky brings her work to a tidy close, by barely mentioning that fight (one sentence). Wounded Knee receives no mention. That’s all right, not every history book about the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ needs to include that tragedy. Chaky focuses on the conditions of peoples, native and settler, of the Great Plains. 

It's a good book. Go get yourself a copy. The maps are a great visual aid.


Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Spirit and The Sky, A Book Review

The Spirit And The Sky, A Book Review
Astronomer's Study Of Lakota Starscape
By Dakota Wind
Hollabaugh, Mark. The Spirit and the Sky: Lakota Visions of the Cosmos. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press. 2017. 276 + xii pages. $50.00 (hardcover). Illustrations, tables, photos, notes, bibliography, and index.

The title of Hollabaugh’s The Spirit and the Sky calls to mind Norman Greenbaum’s 1969 psychedelic/gospel classic rock anthem Spirit in the Sky. I contacted the author about this, and he personally assured me that the title of his book is inspired by Lakȟóta star knowledge (which is touched on at the end of chapter 9).

Hollabaugh’s bibliography draws heavily from non-native resources who’ve spent considerable time learning Lakȟól Wičhóȟ’aŋ (Lakota language, tradition, lifeways, philosophy) direct from the Lakȟóta themselves. These resources reach back through the years with specific references to winter count (pictographic records) years, and recorded oral tradition.

What makes The Spirit in the Sky special is that Hollabaugh draws on carefully constructed relationships with contemporary Dakhóta and Lakȟóta people since the ‘90s, and fully acknowledges lasting friendships with scholars, native and non-native in his preface.

A chapter on Telling Time gives readers an insight into how the Lakȟóta reckon a year (generally thirteen months), a month (a lunar month; from new moon to new moon), and seasons (winter is the longest, and why a year is called a “winter”). The times of the month are explained (phases of the moon) as well as times of day (position of the sun). Counting sticks are touched on briefly insofar as the Lakȟóta attempts to measure the months and years, which is frustrating to any who try to tack down exact times. The general acceptance of natural time in the Lakȟóta tradition encourages a non-reliance of exactness. What matters is Wókiksuye, or Remembrance.

A chapter on Eclipses and the Aurora Borealis examines Lakȟóta beliefs of the two events. The eclipse is regarded as the sun’s death by many Lakȟóta, and some reacted with fear. Some said/say that a great serpent swallows the sun, but the sun proves victorious and lives again, and some fire their guns or holler into the air in triumph. The Northern Lights have several names, and several narratives – none more important than another. Surprising to this reviewer is the connection of the Northern Lights to Woȟpé (Falling Star Woman) of Lakȟóta myth-history, and to the Huŋkáyapi (the Making-of-Relatives; when one is taken as a relative).

A chapter on Stars and Constellations explores the cultural narratives of the night sky. Many of the same familiar Greek and Arabic constellations have Lakȟóta counterparts with equally interesting stories. The children of the Sun and Moon dance forever around one wakȟáŋ (with-energy; “holy,” or “sacred”) star, Wičháȟpi Owáŋžila (The Star That Does Not Move), and those who do not, fall down as Wičháȟpi Hiŋȟpáya (Falling Stars).

Hollabaugh doesn’t conclude his study with the establishment of the reservation era. His work breaks that tired trope and includes an entire chapter dedicated to the living tradition of Lakȟóta star knowledge. It’s necessary to show the Lakȟóta as they are today, survivors of a system that has tried to extinguish language, culture, and tradition. Some of Hollabaugh’s native resources and informants are still alive and still sharing.

What makes The Spirit in the Sky an essential for studies of the North American Plains is that the Lakȟóta relationship with the land is reflected in the sky. The Lakȟóta star stories are indigenous and to hear them, one must go to an elder to hear them. This book is a good place to become acquainted. 

The only thing that would make reading this resource better would be to read, deconstruct, and interpret each topic as it’s mentioned with a Lakȟóta elder or other knowledgeable person. It would be a wonderful supplement if Hollabaugh or his publisher included a slideshow or an interactive online feature or smartphone application to articulate the heavens as one goes through each chapter. 

The Spirit in the Sky isn’t hearty enough for college instructors to develop an entire course around – Hollabaugh might even agree with this, but it is solid enough to pique anyone’s interest whether he or she have a passive or deep interest in the stars or Lakȟóta views of the heavens and earth. Make certain your local library has a copy, or get yourself one.



Monday, October 9, 2017

Forgotten Fires, A Book Review

Wíačhéič’thi, "The Sun Makes A Campfire For Itself." In English, you'd call these "Sundogs."
Forgotten Fires, A Book Review
Historic Narratives Of Fires
By Dakota Wind
Stewart, Omer C. Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness. Edited by Henry T. Lewis. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. 364 pp. $24.95 (paperback). Illustrations, bibliography, and references.

As a boy, my younger brother and I were fascinated with fire. Sometimes, around the Fourth of July, Golf Hill (aka “Boot Hill,” “Agency Hill,” or even as the Cheyenne knew it, “The Hill That Stands Alone”) would burn. It was an annual occasion. At some point, before I cared, someone had arranged and painted white some stones to say on the hillside, “WARRIORS.” Following one of the fires, my brother and I took to rearranging the letters to spell, “ASS.” You could see it fifteen miles away.

We loved fire. Especially starting them. My enthusiasm for fire waned one day after burning myself on the smoker in the backyard. My brother’s infatuation continued unabated. He’d carefully cut open fireworks to light the powders. One day he almost burned down the house when he lit our mother’s god’s eye that hung in the corner of the dining area. I still remember him saying, “It started by itself!” I threw a pitcher of water on it, and he hung it back up after turning it around. When our mother discovered it, she thought it was the result of one of her parties.

Omer’s Forgotten Fires is a great resource for all things fire related in native North America. Historic fires, like the Chicago Fire, isn’t included here, and with good reason. One can find a number of resources on that one topic. Omer has combed through the journals of explorers, traders, trappers, and artists and has delivered an astonishing read that challenges the notion of Indians living harmoniously in a pristine Garden of Eden.  

There are several reasons to start fires on the Great Plains and Omer explores them all. From renewing the grass so that horses could consume fresh green grass and driving game to signal fires and maintaining trails.

Omer perfectly captures George Catlin’s fascination with the great prairie fires, “sparkling and brilliant chains of liquid fire.” Catlin also describes a firestorm, “…there is yet another character of burning prairies…that requires another letter, and a different pen to describe – the war, or hell of fires!” The kind of firestorm that creates and sustains its own weather, drawing in air with hurricane force winds, which overtakes the swiftest horses, and animals coming to an immutable and terrified stop when such fires cross the plains.

The German traveler Maximilian Wied-Neuwied mentions that some of the fires were caused by the natives in order to escape the pursuit of their enemies, and witnesses fire whirls or, “graceful undulations, to the zenith.” Catlin and Bodmer never seem to run out of adjectives and adverbs to describe the wildfires.

Other firsthand accounts of fires range across North America from the woodlands to the mountains, plateaus, and valleys. Omer’s book is an amazingly fast read because of it. And suffers because of it. These accounts are overwhelmingly non-native, that the book title should perhaps be instead Forgotten Fires, Forgotten Resources: Non-Native Accounts of Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness.

There is no mention of sedentary agricultural tribes like the Arikara, Hidatsa, Mandan, or Pawnee burning their fields in the fall after a harvest, or why. The resources to draw from are out there, like Bowers’ Mandan Social and Ceremonial Organization or Hidatsa Social and Ceremonial Organization. These two tribes are still with us today, it’s not as if one couldn’t ask them “why?”

While there’s some mention of fire used in warfare, there isn’t one native narrative regarding the use of fire in war. Garrick Mallery’s Picture Writing of the American Indians, Vol. 1, contains part of such a narrative when the Cheyenne resorted to prairie fires in retaliation against a Thítȟuŋwaŋ (Teton; Lakota) war party in the 1760s.

Lastly, what’s missing is an inclusion of the living memory of Native Americans regarding fires, actual and metaphorical. There are many descriptions for fire, but here’s a basic few to consider: óna (prairie fire), pȟetá (fire), and očhéthi (the council fire). Fire is for more than burning, cooking, signaling, and destruction. It’s constructive, has spiritual significance, and for gathering the community together.

If one is studying the Great Plains, one needs this book. It contains immense ecological value about establishing a balance on the Great Plains between natural and human benefit. It is worth one’s time to revisit it a few times more, and certainly worth referencing Omer’s scholarship. Forgotten Fires is a good book, it's only missing a little. If it’s worth this much time to read and re-read, get a copy for yourself. 




Saturday, October 7, 2017

The History of Wells County, A Book Review

The History of Wells County, A Book Review
Book Offers Insight To Place Names, Stuff
By Dakota Wind
Spokesfield, Walter. The History of Wells County, North Dakota and Its Pioneers, with a sketch of North Dakota History and the Origin of Place Names. Jamestown, ND: North Dakota, 1929. 804 pages. Index, illustrations, maps, and photos.

The History of Wells County is heavy reading. There are some images scattered throughout, but it’s the kind of book that expects its reader to read, but it’s also the kind of book that is easy to get through once you become familiar with its layout. It also helps to know that the index is at the end of the book.

Google is an impressive search engine, and its book search shares excerpts of many books and features many books online, but this isn’t one of them. There’s something satisfying about going to the North Dakota State Library and finding something that isn’t online yet, and it’s there where I found this dusty tome. It was equal parts dusty, dry, and delicate, and frankly, I was surprised that I was allowed to take it home. I swear the book was almost grateful that I checked it out.

The subject of site names, and origin of place names is what piqued my interest, and this book has it. Spokesfield put more into this book regarding this subject than one could think possible. It is certainly more edifying than Mary Anne Barnes Williams’ 1966 effort: Origins of North Dakota Place Names.

Spokesfield research on North Dakota’s place names doesn’t have the finesse of works like contemporary place name historians like Mr. Louie Garcia, but then Mr. Garcia has the advantage of insight by marrying into the Dakhóta people. Spokesfield has something, however, neither Williams nor Garcia has, and that’s the sheer size of his work. Spokesfield has not just place names, but alternatives in names and narrative.

An example of rediscovering a place for me is “Hawksnest,” found in section 26 of the Hawksnest township, located about a mile south of Sykstown, ND. Spokesfield writes of this location as Huyawayapaahdi, written in what’s called “Mission Dakota,” which is how priests and missionaries wrote the Dakhóta language. Spokesfield’s “Huyawayapaahdi” means nothing to me, until I read his narrative: the Dakhóta saw an eagle (or hawk) carrying a bit of meat in its beak as it took to the sky. Suddenly, I can deconstruct Spokesfield’s word and pronounce it. Using the new Lakota Language Consortium’s standard of writing the language, I would write Spokesfield’s word as: Ȟuyá Wayápȟa Akdí (Eagle [archaic] To-Hold-Things-In-The-Mouth To-Return-Bringing-Something).

Hawknest was an overnight campsite when Dakhóta went west to the Missouri River, and for when the Lakȟóta went east to Spirit Lake.

History is also a collection, a who’s who of pioneers, but he also acknowledges explorers and the indigenous. Many of the narratives of people and places, at least in the first half of the book, are written in the first person. One narrative is outstanding for its concise information regarding horse thieves in 1896 operating between Spirit Lake and the Missouri River. The Wells County sheriff and deputy captured four horse thieves, but failed to secure one of them properly which resulted in the escape of one. The others were later released for lack of evidence. Eventually, the sheriff married one of the supposed horse thieves’ sister.

Another eye-catching narrative is about the “Teton Okandandas.” When I see a word that looks “native” I try to pronounce it several ways, with different accent placement, and with glottal pronunciations until the word comes to me. This is another “Mission Dakota” word. In this case, this is an archaic word in Dakhóta for “They Scatter Their Own.”

Spokesfield probably never intended his written word to be powerful or emotive, but his work is certainly inspiring. Near the end of his work, I found myself unexpectedly moved: The Indians were grossly misunderstood and long cheated and abused. They objected to the intrusion of the white men because it interfered with their roamings and their hunting grounds and fought only for their lands and their homes, which were often wrested from them through force and intrigue.

Spokesfield gives all the people of North Dakota their due. Names of First Nations leaders appear along with prominent pioneers and settlers. Histories of early explorers get mentioned. The Corps is included, and Spokesfield coverage of them is not overdone. General Custer, the 7th Cavalry, and the Little Bighorn Campaign are included, neatly and concisely in Spokesfield’s writing, not aggrandized, but certainly more is written of than contemporary North Dakota Studies.


This book deserves to be in all North Dakota city, county, college, and university libraries. It probably is. Go check it out. 

Powwow Highway, A Film Review

Powwow Highway (1989)
Authentic Film About Modern Indians
By Dakota Wind
Powwow Highway. Directed by Jonathan Wacks. Produced by Jan Wieringa, George Harrison, and Dennis O'Brien. By David Seals, Janet Heaney, and Jean Stawars. Performed by A. Martinez, Gary Farmer, and Amanda Wyss. U.S.A.: Handmade Films / Warner Bros., Feb. 24, 1989. Film. 87 minutes.

When Powwow Highway (PH) hit the Pheasant Drive-In Theater in Mobridge, SD, in the spring of ’89, my maternal grandparents took my brother and me to see it. I remember an impatient evening, waiting for sundown, and then a sense of growing anticipation for darkness to descend on a largely vacant parking lot. I watched it again, and made my sons watch it with me.

It’s low budget, made in the ‘80’s, and set on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana. And it’s a buddy road trip movie. It’s the biggest movie to come out featuring natives since ‘83’s Triumph of a Man Called Horse, and unlike ‘Horse, PH holds up fair.

If one has spent considerable time on a reservation, one experiences a ten to twenty year time lag, and as a result, PH time is ambiguous enough to have been filmed in the ‘70’s or the turn of the twenty-first century. The clothing (lots of denim, apparently Indians like to wear jean anything), vehicles (rusty “rez” cars and pick-ups on the verge of falling to pieces are still driven today, and probably without insurance too), and depressing, crowded homes (project homes built cheaply and without variation) are as much a part of genuine Native American reservation life as the film exposes.

The protagonist, a hot-headed Buddy Red Bow (named in honor of the Oglála Lakȟóta musician activist) attends a tribal council meeting in Lame Deer, MT and advices his people (the Northern Cheyenne) against a new strip mining contract – in real life, the Northern Cheyenne passed a Class I Clean Air Act on their reservation, which was challenged by the strip mining town, Colstrip, MT (located just north of Lame Deer, off the reservation) which was challenged and taken all the way to the US Supreme Court, who ruled in favor of the Northern Cheyenne, which required that Colstrip install filters on all their stacks. There’s more to this story, and I couldn’t appreciate the details as a punk kid).

The Rez runner "Protector," or Philbert's war pony. Your reservation experience isn't real until you've ridden in one. 

Buddy’s sister is set up for possession of illegal drugs during a traffic stop, and the police officer knows just where to look for the stuff when he pulls her over. Buddy needs to get his sister and her kids out of New Mexico and back to Montana, but he’s unable to get there and back again with just enough money to make bail too, so he enlists his part-time friend and recovering alcoholic. Enter: the eccentric Philbert, who works in a vision quest and gathers traditional medicine along the way.

Philbert sleeps nude. He loves food, and leaves a Hershey’s chocolate bar as an offering to the ancestors in his hero’s journey. Philbert looks at a field of rusty, broken, peeling, junked cars out of a filthy window and sees a herd of horses. He trades his weed for a spotted war pony. His car is practically a character in itself, and is a humorous, yet genuine, addition as the protagonists’ vehicle: Protector.

The film reaches its climax when Buddy and Philbert rescue Buddy’s sister Bonnie. Buddy finds his “medicine” when he chooses to stand and face down a police car, and Buddy unexpectedly transforms into a warrior – Protector’s window becomes a tomahawk – when he leaps into the air to protect his own. Reality is suspended for just a moment, or maybe it’s the viewers’ turn to see Buddy as he sees himself.

PH is categorically a drama; maybe it is too serious at times to be a comedy, but it isn’t dark. Nor is PH a tragedy. The fact is, this is a quintessential ‘80’s low budget “B” movie. The acting is great, but this is a “B” movie, and there has to be some stilted, wooden acting. Thankfully, Joanelle Romero steps in to cement this “B” movie’s status, but her scenes are few and fast.

PH isn’t bad enough of a “B” movie, and nor does it have popular “cult” movie status, so it will never be riffed on Mystery Science Theater 3K. It doesn’t need any of that. It’s not high art. It’s a good escape at about eighty-plus minutes. Go see it.