Friday, May 31, 2013

Terrible Justice: Sioux Chiefs And U.S. Soldiers, A Review

A Terrible Justice is a must read for the American Western enthusiast.
Terrible Justice: Sioux Chiefs & US Soldiers
Criticism Of An Otherwise Good Book
By Dakota Wind
BISMARCK, ND – I recently picked up a copy of Doreen Chaky’s Terrible Justice: Sioux Chiefs and U.S. Soldiers on the Upper Missouri, 1854–1868. The first paragraph into the first chapter, Terrible Justice, I immediately determined that this wasn’t a narrative of the Plains Indians conflicts, but a serious study about what happened, when it happened and who was there. A narrative is rather like a travel writer’s attempt to take the reader there. The purpose of the narrative is to make the event easy to read, and something is lost in that style.

Chapters like The Battle of Fort Rice are lengthy and detailed. Nearly no soldier or Indian goes unnamed, and I almost felt I was reading Homer’s Iliad. I had previously read, and re-read Ben Innis’ Bloody Knife: Custer’s Favorite Scout for basic information about what Innis describes as a ten-day siege of Fort Rice, and pretty much leaves it at that. Chakey has gone back and scoured every known published source (The Frontier Scout, military orders for the day, muster roles, etc.) and has delivered the most complete telling of Sitting Bull’s assaults on a military fort. More than just a siege or stand-off, with Chakey’s version, one sees the battle as a battle.

Terrible Justice features maps by a Bill Wilson. Maps which have been pain-stakingly reconstructed from explorers’, traders’ and military maps to show where many of the Sioux (Dakota and Lakota) were known to be in the time period the book focuses on. One of Wilson’s maps even features a breakdown of Sioux tribes and their dialects.

I love maps. I love maps that showcase the Northern Great Plains. Wilson’s maps are detailed with battles sites and forts, place names and state lines, all the standard fare and more that one expects in a map of Dakota Territory. I can appreciate the time and detail that has gone into creating the two maps that are featured in Terrible Justice.

There are only two maps in all of Terrible Justice’s 408 pages, but the book could have used one more. I’m sure that there are resources out there, but the only book with a map – a single map too – that attempts to recreate the landscape as the Great Sioux Nation knew it, is Royal Hassrick’s The Sioux, though not enough detail was put into his single map, only major waterways and major landmarks.

Wilson's first map which appears in Terrible Justice, on page 20. 

I’m not tearing down Chakey’s book, nor Wilson’s maps, they’re both wonderful resources to have in your library collection. I’m just sighing at the lack of a map that have traditional native names associated with them. Wilson’s maps are only an indication of Western/American mentality, the landscape wherein the indigenous have been pushed out or wiped out and the landmarks renamed. The identity of the landscape is made over.

In the chapter hauntingly titled Babies On The Battlefield, Sibley’s 1863 campaign against the Dakota and Lakota covers the running conflict from Big Mound through Dead Buffalo Lake through to Sibley’s final conflict with the Sioux at Apple Creek between present-day United Tribes Technical College and the University of Mary. The running conflict is concisely covered in just two pages.

In this same chapter is the account of Ta’Oyáte Duta’s (His Red Nation; aka Little Crow) son Wówinapĥe (A Place Of Refuge) who reported that his father had attempted to find allies among the Arikara, Hidatsa and Mandan Nation at Fort Berthold, but they were in turn attacked for their recruitment effort. Wówinapĥe also shared with Sibley’s men that his father had attempted to reach out the Chippewa up at the Turtle Mountains and find allies, but too was unsuccessful finding friends there. I had only ever heard this story as oral history from Humanities Scholar Jerome Kills Small.

This same chapter, Babies On The Battlefield, goes into far more detail about Sully’s campaign which culminated at Whitestone Hill. Chakey’s strength is entirely academic and shows in this retelling. The only other place one may find a more complete account of the Whitestone Hill conflict is Clair Jacobson’s Whitestone Hill, the only difference here is that Jacobson includes as much of the native perspective of the conflict as well as the Sully’s and his command’s accounts.

On page 176 the reader learns the awful reasoning behind the chapter’s title. Soldiers’ accounts of the days display a kill and let die philosophy in their carnage. Shooting dogs who drug travois carrying babies were shot, and if they missed, the baby was at rest. The harsh use of language clearly dehumanizes the Sioux, and that’s the sad truth of Sully’s campaign. Babies who were found, the innocent survivors, were given to the women prisoners.

There is no mention of the two pictographic accounts of the Whitestone Hill conflict. The absence of these two recorded primary documents is a resounding silence, the Lakota and Dakota remain voiceless without the inclusion of these firsthand accounts.

My concerns are few (maps and pictographs) but I feel important. Chakey’s Terrible Justice deserves a spot on the bookshelf of the student of American History or Native American history. Footnotes rest at the bottom of nearly each page; a wonderful bibliography follows the conclusion of the book which takes the reader up to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. 

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