Thursday, December 26, 2019

Lakota America, A Book Review

The cover of Lakota America features the art of Lakȟóta artist Jim Yellowhawk (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe; Itázipčho). A simple photo of my copy of this book. 
Lakota America, A Book Review
This Book Fuckin' Moved Me
By Dakota Wind
Hämäläinen, Pekka. Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 2019. $35.00 (hardcover). 544 pages + ix. Acknowledgments, a note on terminology, introduction, epilogue, a list of abbreviations, notes, glossary, index, maps, photos, illustrations.

“Yet this book is decidedly a history of the Lakotas, written from sources that seek to convey their perspective, often in their own words. An extraordinary archive makes this possible to an unusual degree. Lakota communities traced the passage of time by drawing on a buffalo hide a pictograph of one memorable event for each year. Lakotas call these calendars waníyetu iyáwapi. They draw attention to the mundane and reveal the sublime. Perhaps most important, as a body of historical record, winter counts capture what fascinated Lakotas and what mattered to them most. Lakota America makes the fullest use yet of this Indigenous archive in writing Lakota history.” (Hämäläinen, 2019; 8)

Thus begins Hämäläinen’s Lakota America, a post-colonial contact history of a people referencing their own historical records, and in this process, treating these pictographic records with a serious care and careful regard that these primary resource documents deserve. Most histories regarding the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, Seven Council Fires (or “The Great Sioux Nation), are constructed primarily from colonial records (i.e. explorer journals, trader records, and missionary accounts). Hämäläinen embraces the indigenous record as a concurrent history, complemented by the colonial record.

I felt a deep sense of gratification reading this beautiful work.

Hämäläinen paints a picture of a people occupying a known and busy landscape inhabited and shaped by other indigenous peoples from trade, war, disease, and expanding colonial empires, to displacement, removal, imprisonment, and survival in a post-reservation world.

The story begins not with conflict, but with the arrival of Thiyóškate (Plays In The Lodge) on a diplomatic mission to Montreal to secure peace in the interior of North America. Conflict spread west threatening to invade Očhéthi Šakówiŋ homelands for beaver pelts in a trading system that left indigenous peoples dependent on iron wrought trade items.

There are many books about the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, among them other notables including Royal Hassrick’s “The Sioux: Life and Customs of a Warrior Society,” Thomas Mails’ “Mystic Warriors of the Plains.” Nearly all western history books agree that the horse arrived in the mid-1700s. Hämäläinen breaks from academic consensus by informing readers that the horse arrived on the northern plains following the Pueblo Revolt of 1682. (Hämäläinen, 2019; 55)

The chapter, The Lakota Meridian, explores the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ in the context of world history. Hämäläinen reconstructs the setting of the interior of North America following the arrival of the horse, the gun, and smallpox epidemics which obliterated or weakened so many other first nations. The Lakȟóta secured and manipulated trade to their benefit. The Arikara War of 1823, the first American military campaign against Plains Indians sees the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ side with the United States, years after refusing “to be discovered” and acknowledging the United States as sovereign. (Hämäläinen, 2019; 140)

Lakota America is not a conflict history of the American West. It is closer to a biography in tone, but not on any one individual or few of Očhéthi Šakówiŋ leadership. It is not so much a cultural examination either; there are other resources for that. This work is like a study of the character of a people throughout several generations. Hämäläinen briefly articulates the cultural story of the White Buffalo Calf Woman and the Gift of the Sacred Pipe but reimagines this ancient narrative as a story of new urgency as the Lakȟóta ventured west from the Mnišóše, the Water-Astir (or Missouri River). (Hämäläinen, 2019; 164-165). He does reiterate throughout his work that Očhéthi Šakówiŋ identity is evidenced by virtue of practice and language. 

The image above was drawn by Sitting Bull's own hand. In his later years, Sitting Bull and his own people, the Húŋkpapȟa, identified him as a medicine man or spiritual leader. 

Očhéthi Šakówiŋ homeland is determined by occupation of waterways, in particular, the Mnišóše and all his tributaries. Boundaries are determined by the waters, and those boundaries were recognized in both the Fort Laramie Treaties. Hämäläinen carefully determines and explains how those boundaries were set through conflict and diplomacy. Their villages moved from valley to valley across the plains. The traditional Očhéthi Šakówiŋ recalls that the people moved from stream source to stream source across the plains.

Hämäläinen explores Lakȟóta political philosophy in their own terms as well as they dealt with the decline of the great bison ganges and the arrival of more fixed signs of American occupation. Iwáštegla, meaning “moderate,” “gentle,” and “easy,” but for also for the greatest maximum benefit, that which is “wašté,” or “good,” for the people. “Lakotas still expected wašíčus [sic] to compromise more than they did: after all, most of their interactions took place in Lakota territory. In this charged moment one can glimpse something essential about Lakotas’ ability to accept new realities, adjust to changing governing conditions, and yet remain indigenous.” (Hämäläinen, 2019; 300)

Lakota America has many strengths. Meticulous research is one, but what makes Hämäläinen’s work stand out is that he acknowledges, employs, and attributes the history (oral and pictographic) of the people he writes about, putting it on the same page as colonial records equating its importance.

Lakota America touches on the greatest conflict to shape the American West, Pȟežíšla Wakpá Okíčhize, or the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Every year there’s a book written about Lt. Col. Custer and the fate of the 7th Cavalry. Every book published about the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ includes this fight. It is refreshing that Hämäläinen does not dedicate an entire chapter retreading the last great Indian fight.

Hämäläinen does not stop his narrative of Lakȟóta history with Čhaŋkpé Ópi Owíčhakte, the Wounded Knee Massacre. No, he brings the story of adaptation, survival, and self-determination up to recent events at Íŋyaŋ Iyá Wakpá, the Talking Stone River (or the Cannonball River). A people and their history did not end at the turn of 1900. It lives and is a constant story of change. Hämäläinen gets it.

Lakota America is an engaging read. I found myself stopping several times throughout, lost in thought, and provoked to remember that indigenous occupation includes several other first nations who contested the landscape and gratified to discover how much Hämäläinen relied on Lakȟóta history to create this immensely reflective work.

My only concern, and it is a very minor thing, is that not all Dakhóta-Lakȟóta use the same term for the “winter count:” Northern Lakȟóta (i.e. Húŋkpapȟa) and Iháŋkthuŋwaŋna (i.e. Wičhíyena, or “Upper Yanktonai”) refer to the pictographic records as Waníyetu Wówapi, which means, “Keeping an Account of the Winter.” The Dakhóta and Lakȟóta who were placed at Fort Peck refer to winter counts as Hékta Yawápi, or “Counting Back.”

Lakota America has earned its place on my bookshelf. Get your copy as soon as you can to add it to yours. 

1 comment:

  1. Great review and recommendation! Thank you for taking the time to think about it and share it with us.