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From Wounded Knee to Pipeline Access, the Lakota’s Enduring Power

The recent Senate confirmation of the first Indigenous American, Deb Haaland, to lead a Cabinet department gives us reason to rethink our assumptions about First Nations’ relationship to power. A new book can help.

Indigenous women walking at a rally.
Indigenous women at a solidarity rally with the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters. (Shutterstock)
Most histories of the “Indian Wars” in the American West end with the Wounded Knee Massacre on Dec. 29, 1890, when U.S. troops of the Seventh Cavalry killed between 200 and 300 Lakota (Sioux) people, the majority of them women and children, most of whom had been disarmed, at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota, just one year into its statehood. The great Nebraska epic poet and historian John Neihardt (1881-1973) gives his Lakota seer Black Elk the last word — “I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.”

But that’s not really the story, as Pekka Hämäläinen reminds us in his magnificent new book, Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power. The Lakota still exist. They are still a sovereign nation state embedded in the larger jurisdictions of the Dakotas and Montana. They still resist white encroachments, including cultural appropriations, and they are working strenuously to reinvigorate parts of their traditional culture. They existed as a nation long before the United States was born, but Hämäläinen marks their takeoff point in 1776, when they left the lake country of the Midwest and moved out onto the Great Plains, while back in Philadelphia Mr. Jefferson was writing the birth certificate of another great American nation. The Lakota survived the great onslaught of the 19th century. And, as the last sentence of Hämäläinen’s book declares, “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.” 

Hämäläinen’s book is not a romantic and hand-wringing account of the impact of white civilization on the Lakota (formerly known as the Sioux) in the manner of Dee Brown’s ground-breaking 1970 book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, or Ralph K. Andrist’s 1964 lament, The Long Death: The Last Days of the Plains Indian. Every page of Lakota America is an implicit rebuke to the widely held notion that American Indians should be seen as noble but doomed victims of American settler colonialism. Or as a prominent American historian has put it, part of a vast sad Greek tragedy. Hämäläinen criticizes the “many acts of historical misrepresentation that, over generations, have diminished the Lakota people as historical actors.” 

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Author Pekka Hämäläinen

Hämäläinen addresses the Lakota as a sovereign nation, like Mexico or France, just as responsive to the dynamics of modernity as every other nation on earth. He sees the Lakota as a highly adaptive nation — flexible, creative, resourceful — expanding its inland empire right up to the moment when the U.S. government, employing steam locomotion, superior firepower, and what amounts to a starvation policy, finally crushed armed Lakota resistance at the end of the 1870s. It was only in 1875-76 that the Lakota realized that “the wašíčus [white people] had turned themselves into an existential threat. Lakotas had clashed with them again and again, but now they would be fighting for cultural survival.”

Hämäläinen calls the Lakota shapeshifters. This unusual characterization has the benefit of reminding us that the Lakota cannot be understood without coming to terms with the deep and pervasive spirituality of their negotiation with the cosmos. As one Lakota spiritual leader said, “the sacred is like rain; it falls everywhere but pools in certain places.” That constant awareness of the Great Mystery (the wakhán) does not mean the Lakota were incapable of doing the hard, violent, geopolitically necessary things that strong and expanding nation states must do, especially in the face of a massive, unprecedented invasion of aliens from the east, but it means that the Lakota, like so many other Indigenous American groups, saw the world through lenses that white Europeans have no access to. This has led, and continues to lead, to enormous cross-cultural confusion and conflict.

The Earth Shattering Arrivals of Europeans and Railroads

The arrival of Europeans on the eastern coast of North America in the 17th century, but also inward along the St. Lawrence River, touched off a ripple or domino effect that continued for two full centuries, until the reservation system and the designated Indian Territory of Oklahoma finally gelled out at the end of the 19th century. Actually, the metaphors of pond ripples and cascading dominoes don’t begin to do justice to this incredibly complex story of response, hospitality, reaction, conflict, migration, war, accommodation, resistance, negotiation, adaptation, removal, resilience, dependency, kaleidoscopic alliances, cultural collapse and cultural renewal. The complexity of all of this is usually simplified into a story of the arms race that was touched off when European trading companies, including the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company, began supplying firearms to favored Native tribes closest to their North American warehouses. Thus, when Lewis and Clark met the Shoshoni along the continental divide in southwest Montana in August 1805, they recognized that the once-strong Shoshoni had been driven from the plains into the Rocky Mountains, reduced to a marginal refugee status, their leader Cameahwait “with his ferce eyes and lank jaws grown meager for the want of food.” The other standard trope — true but superficial — was once summarized by the Oglala leader Red Cloud, “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.” Hämäläinen wants us to know it was much more complicated than that. “In the spirit of the distinctly modern iwáštegla policy, Lakotas were gradually adjusting to a reality where coexistence with the wašíčus was a fact of life.” The Lakota word iwáštegla means something like “political philosophy.” Throughout Lakota America, Hämäläinen forces us to see the Lakota world partly through their own terminology, because such terms as “tribe,” “band,” “medicine,” “shaman,” and “chief” carry so much distorting cultural baggage.

Hämäläinen previously wrote a good book on the Comanche Empire, but Lakota America is a bolder, more provocative, and more insightful contribution to American history. Hämäläinen is Finnish, with a Ph.D. from the University of Helsinki. He is now the Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford University. That’s a very long distance in several important ways from the Great Plains of the United States, but not being an American turns out to be an intellectual advantage. Like the French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the United States in 1831-32, Hämäläinen is able to see things with eyes we simply don’t possess, I suppose because we Americans are still, no matter how hard we try to liberate ourselves, soured in the brine of “manifest destiny,” and complicit in the conquest of the continent. I know I live on my own private property in the Mandan homeland in North Dakota, land taken by executive order, without consultation or compensation, 150 years ago. I have read enough and listened enough to know that much of what Anglo-Europeans have done since 1806 (or 1492 for that matter) has violated not only our sacred agreements with Indigenous Americans (the trail of broken treaties), but also our own principles of due process, justice, contract and fair play. When we Americans discuss the history of our interactions with Indigenous Americans, we cannot help being defensive even when we don’t wish to be. That’s why white historians invariably find themselves positing some form of “inevitability” for what happened, as if the cosmos endorsed the natural law that a more powerful and acquisitive people will inevitably subject and displace a comparatively weaker or less numerous people. It is easy to find evidence for such a view in the long warp of history. But those other incidents occurred far back in time when there was no means to publish a narrative of dissent or outrage, and the people who overwhelmed their weaker neighbors were not the “enlightened” United States of America, which pledged, in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, that “The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their land and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them.” If this were posted in the lobbies of the tribal headquarters of America’s 574 federally recognized Indian nations, it would be seen as some kind of joke. 

Shapeshifters and the Horse

Hämäläinen has a brilliant mind, bordering on genius, that can see things in a fresh, sometimes almost quirky, way, things that we take for granted. Take his description of the revolution the horse brought to the Lakota (ca. 1740):

Just as steam power was fueling an accelerating industrial revolution in the United States, equine power ushered Lakotas into a new technological age. The horse was more than a tool or a bigger and more muscular dog; it was a means to access the immense pool of energy that spread out boundlessly—and seemingly uselessly—right under Lakota’s feet: grass. Horses were magnificent, empowering creatures of spectacular strength but what really made them so useful for Lakotas lay in their stomachs. The dogs could tap grass energy only indirectly, by consuming the flesh of the herbivores their mastered procured for them, whereas horses harbored symbiotic bacteria in their large intestines that enabled them to digest enormous quantities of cellulose-rich grass.

This is superb. If Alexander Pope defined wit as “what oft was thought but never so well expressed,” Hämäläinen goes even farther to find a way to express insights that have never appeared in quite this way and at this level of historical clarity in any other book about the history of the American West. He characterizes Pine Ridge agent Valentine McGillycuddy as “edgily passionate.” He speaks of the legendary Oglala Crazy Horse as a strange man of “introverted spirituality, single-mindedness, and dazzling performance,” coupled with “unassuming charisma” that wound up being profoundly charismatic nevertheless. I think, however, that his calling Standing Rock agent James McLaughlin “a ruthlessly effective assimilation crusader” may be a little unfair to a complex individual who was at times a strong advocate for Native American rights, especially land rights, at Standing Rock. 

A Border Like No Other: Magic, Medicine and the Power to Stop Soldiers

Hämäläinen provides a fresh reading of the Medicine Line, the U.S.-Canadian border at the 49th parallel, established in 1818. The term “Medicine Line” is usually regarded as an ingenious Native commentary on the fact that the boundary does not follow the contour of a river or a continental divide or a great lake, something immediately recognizable, but rather an invisible and arbitrary line drawn with no regard for landscape. Hämäläinen reads Medicine Line to also mean a “border that seemed to stop U.S. troops like a spell.” That’s a way of saying that the border prevented U.S. troops from following Sitting Bull and other Lakotas into Grandmother’s Land [Queen Victoria] after the debacle of the Little Bighorn. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce was making a sprint for the Medicine Line in 1877 when he was arrested by General Nelson Miles in northeastern Montana, just 40 miles from Grandmother’s Land.

Lakota America belongs to the same school of Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. In both cases, we not only get an intellectual tour de force, but we actually get to witness great minds thinking out loud. Hämäläinen explains why the slaughter of the American bison herd was not curtailed during the economic panic of 1873: “a low-capital industry, hunting was largely immune to the panic.” Then he adds: “and the U.S. government did nothing to stop the slaughter.” Most readers will never have stepped back before to consider what enterprises are immune to economic recessions.

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Spotted Tail


His understanding of the importance of the transcontinental railroads in the disruption of the Lakota world is worth the price of the book alone. Hämäläinen reminds us that the railroads did not merely bisect the Lakota nation, enable the U.S. government to rush troops around lickety-split (6,000-7,000 army troops descended on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the weeks before the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, for example), and facilitate the extraction of millions of tons of buffalo hides (thus destroying the keystone of the Lakota economy) in the only way such bulk could get to market in a cost-effective manner, but — just as important — the railroad lines laid down a necklace of settlements every 10 miles along their routes, first to refill the water tanks of steam locomotives, but with the inevitable accompaniment of hostels, cafes, saloons, sex workers and all the rest that followed in Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier dynamics: the Masonic lodge, the jail, the courthouse, the churches, and the schoolmarm. 

The Author as Careful Reader

Hämäläinen has a genius for finding the perfect quotation, often never previously extracted from the extensive archives. On this subject, he quotes Secretary of Interior Jacob D. Cox’s 1869 annual report:

The completion of one of the great lines of railway to the Pacific coast has totally changed the conditions under which the civilized population of the country come in contact with the wild tribes. Instead of a slowly advancing tide of migration, making its gradual inroads upon the circumference of the great interior wilderness, the very center of the desert has been pierced. Every station upon the railway has become a nucleus for a civilized settlement. 

Hämäläinen restores nuance and complexity to the lives and work of such leaders as Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Spotted Tail, and Gall, and resists the urge to dress them up as “noble indigenes” in the manner of Rousseau. He sees them as shrewd and resourceful leaders, capable of greatness and occasional blundering like the rest of us, each following his own path for the same purpose: Lakota survival, resistance to the conquest. The old notion that Red Cloud won the Powder River War of 1876 and then settled down as a Native accommodationist cannot survive a reading of this book. Spotted Tail has usually been regarded as even more accommodating than Red Cloud to the white world, but he gets off some of the best lines in Lakota America. When he visited Washington, D.C., in 1875, he was subjected to a sumptuous White House dinner under massive chandeliers. Spotted Tail wryly observed, “the white man has a great many more good things to eat and drink than they sent to the Indians.” He said he would be happy to settle down and take up farming, as the agents insisted, “if you will always treat me like this and let me live in as big [a] house.” When officers of the government extolled Indian Territory in Oklahoma as a wonderful place for the Lakota to relocate, Spotted Tail said, “I want nothing to do with it. I was not from there; but, if it is such a good country, you ought to send the white men now in our country there and let us alone.” 

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Red Cloud


That the Lakota thought they could abort the completion of the Northern Pacific’s transcontinental railway may seem naïve in retrospect, but from a Lakota point of view it made perfect sense. The line had been stuck at the Missouri River at today’s Bismarck, N.D., for nine years. The Lakota were able to disrupt and turn back the two military-escorted Northern Pacific line surveys in Montana in 1872 and then again in 1873. It was in 1872 that Sitting Bull strolled out into the no man’s land between the U.S. and the Lakota armies, sat down well within rifle range, quietly smoked a pipe while bullets thucked into the earth all around him, then got up and strolled back to his people. From a white power point of view this was a foolish and futile gesture, but it gained Sitting Bull enormous prestige and added to his political capital among the Lakota. It was also one of the greatest gestures of defiance in the history of the American West. The panic of 1873 and the mismanagement of the Northern Pacific had more to do with the stalled construction than the Lakota, but they could not entirely know that. As Hämäläinen summarizes the 1872-73 skirmishing, “And then the wašíčus vanished from the Yellowstone basin, their railroad seemingly abandoned . . . Lakotas appeared to have stopped U.S. expansion in its tracks.”

One of the best moments in the book begins with the words, “That same year a Lakota boy had a vision in the Little Bighorn Valley. He was a sensitive child who heard voices and communicated with spirits.” As soon as I started reading this passage, I reckoned Hämäläinen was referring to Nicholas Black Elk, the subject of Neihardt’s marvelous but in some ways problematic book, Black Elk Speaks. My initial response was to wonder why Hämäläinen did not just name him right away. Then I recognized the author’s disruptive purpose. By withholding the name Black Elk until the end of the passage, Hämäläinen prevents us from dwelling on our cultural privileging of Black Elk — one of the best-known and best-loved Indigenous Americans in U.S. history — at the expense of his important 1873 vision. Himalayan’s historical strategy is to pull us as far away from our mythic memory of the “Indian Wars” — our own continuing Wild West Show — as possible, and as often as possible, so that we have the opportunity, if we accept it, of looking at this critical period of American history with fresh eyes.

Lakota America should be regarded as an introduction to all future studies of the plains “Indian Wars.” It should be read by every student of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, everyone who wishes to make sense of the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) crisis that brought thousands of people from all over the world to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. It should be read by everyone interested in the history of colonialism and post-colonialism, everyone who seeks to understand the Custer debacle at the Little Bighorn or the Massacre at Wounded Knee. It should be required reading in the high schools of the Dakotas and Montana. Above all, it should be read by people who want to know more about the extraordinary and resilient Lakota Nation that continues to flex its culture and power at the heart of the North American continent.

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Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power

Pekka Hämäläinen

Yale University Press, 544 pages, October 2019, $35.00


You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and the new Governing podcast, The Future In Context.

Clay S. Jenkinson is the editor-at-large of Governing. He is a humanities scholar, historian and founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center. He can be reached at cjenkinson@governing.com or on Twitter at @ClayJenkinson.
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