Review- Hämäläinen, “Lakota America”

Pekka Hämäläinen, “Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power” (2019) (narrated by Joe Barrett) – Trends in the historiography of Native Americans go around and around, like any history, but a little more fraught considering just how much of the modern world has been built on indigenous peoples’ death and dispossession. The first histories, or anyway the first produced by the American historical profession, depicted the Native Americans as savages who needed to be cleared away for the good of civilization (Theodore Roosevelt contributed to this historiography). Some of these writings allowed that there was tragedy and atrocity involved. But it took a later era to write histories that brought those elements to the fore, coinciding both with the coming of social history, “from below” stuff, and the rise of militant indigenous movements in the sixties and after.

Now the thing is to “give indigenous people back their agency,” though the fact that the leader in this historiography is a white dude from Finland does make it a bit funny, like, “thanks, product of Nordic social democracy, for our agency back!” I’m sure Pekka Hämäläinen is sensitive about this dynamic, he seems a smart and sensible guy. He wrote “The Comanche Empire” a few years back, and now casts his gaze north across the American plains to the domain of the Lakota Sioux. I’m still not sure why he chose the Lakota, specifically — he gets across the idea they were the dominant strain of the alliance that made up the Sioux over the Dakota (even if the latter get the states named after them), and also that Sioux was originally a slur — but either way, he makes an argument about them similar to that he made for the Comanche. The Lakota were not savages but they were also no mere victims. They adapted and remade the world around them. They were ambitious, flexible, human. Hämäläinen claimed that the Comanche played empires off each other, and he claims the Lakota did the same, and more- they offered a competitive version of American empire.

In general, this makes for an improvement on the previous historiography, at least from the cheap seats in which I reside. And it also basically allows good old-fashioned political history — leaders, empires, wars — in through the back door, as it were. Of course, Hämäläinen includes social and ecological context, which is key in thinking about Lakota politics and the politics of the West in general, but he reads the Lakota long counts — illustrated buffalo hides that tell much of the people’s history — like so many war department memoranda.

One niggle- in making the Lakota “human,” what do we mean by “human?” The cultural historians would make great hay of this question, but Hämäläinen throws up the emergency flare of “adaptability” and really, that’s good enough for our purposes. We tend to think of Native Americans as always doing, always having done, whatever it is white people encountered them doing. Even cursory thought shows this couldn’t be true, for anyone and certainly not for the Lakota- horses, the iconic Lakota animal companion, didn’t come to America until the arrival of Europeans (there were some ancient horses but they died off thousands of years before). But the Lakota didn’t take to the horse initially, either. The historical record, and Hämäläinen, first find them in the forests around the Great Lakes, hunting, gathering, and trading. They played the game of trade and war with the French, the Dutch, the British, the Iroquois, and numerous other Native players. They did ok, but ran into trouble and started moving west towards the plains in the mid-eighteenth century.

By and by, the Lakota adopted a lifestyle built around horses and chasing the buffalo herds. Mobile, unified, and capable of both great ruthlessness and clever diplomacy, they created what Hämäläinen claims can only be called an empire. They gathered tribute from other tribes, especially those along the river, who could grow carbohydrate-rich plants that the nomadic lifestyle otherwise lacked. They monopolized control of lucrative trades in furs and buffalo hides, and used these commodities to secure guns, which in turn cemented their military capabilities. Becoming a masterful nomadic military/political machine in a matter of a few generations is, to me, considerably more impressive than some gauzy “we’ve always done this” mythology.

It’s also worth noting the numbers involved. The Lakota didn’t really do censuses, but it seems unlikely they ever numbered above the mid-six figures. Only a minority of those would be fighting-age men. Even at the best of times, the Lakota were afflicted by plagues, internecine fighting, alcohol dependency, the harshness of nomadic life. But not only could they form an empire that subjugated other indigenous people, but one that could, for at least a few years, check the power of the United States, a nation of tens of millions. The Lakota ran the northern plains until the 1870s. They had to adapt to the presence of the Americans, but the Americans weren’t in charge. The Lakota seldom had numerical advantage against the Americans, even tactically (Little Big Horn being a notable exception). What they had was superb tactical and strategic sense paired with unrivaled mobility, leadership structures that valued talent over politics, a solid appreciation for firepower and surprise, and incredible — but sane, calculating — courage. There’s a reason American troops still call uncontrolled areas of countries they occupy “Indian country.” Racism, yes, but also terror- these are still the things insurgents bring to bear to bring down more heavily-equipped enemies.

Of course, it didn’t last. Who knows what a world would look like where it did, or could. Eventually, the Americans decided they wanted the Dakotas and the sacred Black Hills, with their gold. Custer, despite being a self-promoting egomaniac, became a martyr to Americans who went out to avenge him with massacre after massacre. This also entailed ecological warfare, like Phil Sheridan’s orders to destroy the buffalo herds that the Lakota lived off of (it’s hard to admire a lot of Union Civil War heroes — Sheridan, Sherman, Lincoln, Grant comes off a little better but not much — when you read them against their record in terms of indigenous people). Courage and strategy can only do so much in the face of demographics and geography. Once there was enough money in their land — and the Dakotas were a classic boom, a huge rush for gold and land, very soon after which the area became pretty much as depressed and thinly populated as it is today — that was all she wrote.

After the generals and troops came the missionaries and the teachers, unapologetically, gleefully, trying to destroy Lakota culture. They didn’t; as Hämäläinen reminds us in the conclusion, the Lakota are adapters, and have continued to adapt into the present. I know many who’d argue we need that adaptivity, and assorted other “indigenous values,” to survive climate change. There’s probably a lot of truth to that, along with some questionable historical assumptions about indigenous homogeneity. Hämäläinen does a lot of commendable work to undo our assumptions about indigenous communities being homogenous, or homogeneity’s ahistorical partner, timeless.

He doesn’t quite go all the way, though. For example- the Black Hills are sacred to the Lakota. I’m completely fine with the Americans returning it to them. But then… the Lakota took it from the Cheyenne! Not that long ago, as far as these things go (Hämäläinen is pretty good about how Lakota spirituality adapted along with the rest of their lives to changing circumstances). I’m sure the Cheyenne and Lakota could come to a deal without our involvement, and I’m sure pretty much anyone would be better stewards of the lands than white Americans at this point, but the point is, if the indigenous are historical actors, it doesn’t make sense to say “they’re historical, up and until we decide to make them ahistorical again.” Among other things, a more consistent, rigorous historicizing attitude could have done more to illuminate the internal economy of the Lakota, the emerging class structure involving captives and the roles of women that the American offensives of the late nineteenth century interrupted. Or, indeed, have used cultural history resources to interrogate how the Lakota themselves understood what they were doing as they adapted. As it stands, it risks falling into a third stereotype, along with “the savage” and “the victim:” the rational actor of economics. In any event, historiographically, Hämäläinen prefers the more political/ecological approach, and I’m sure we’ll see more like this in the near future. It’s pretty good, but could use to be more complete. ****’

Review- Hämäläinen, “Lakota America”

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