Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Puzzle of the Lakota Empire

Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power
Lakota America: 
A New History of Indigenous Power 

"The central challenge in writing about the Lakotas is to make them unfamiliar again. Their mythical place in popular consciousness as the vanquishers of Custer and as the masters of the western plains has made their rise seem pre-ordained."(p 4)

What is civilization?
According to Felipe Fernandez-Armesto in his book, Civilizations, it is "a relationship between man and nature". (p 14) In his estimation it is contingent upon the environment in which a people exist. Ludwig von Mises, in his book Theory and History, claims that "Civilization is like a biological being; it is born, grows, matures, decays, and dies." (p 223) Just one of the questions raised as one reads Lakota America is whether the Lakota nation was a civilization. The author claims in the introduction to his book that it is the "solution to a puzzle". (p 3) Whether he succeeds in finding that solution or not, he has produced a voluminous record of the Lakota and other indigenous Indian tribes in America from the 17th century to the end of the 19th.

The author presents the relations between the Lakota (a group of several tribes) and other groups, including other tribes of native Americans, the French, the British, and finally the Americans who, following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the War of 1812, were their primary source of commerce, their benefactor, and as time went on often their opponent.

As the Seventeenth century ended the natives appeared to be in a fairly constant war with each other, with some groups gaining in prominence from time to time. "A new technological frontier centered on the horse had been launched." (p 51) The Lakotas were notable in using this technology to enhance their mobility in this era, as they would continue to throughout the next two centuries gradually migrating from the area known as the Northwest Territory toward the Northern plains and the Black Hills.  The indigenous groups first contact with Europeans were the French traders in this era. The author highlights the advance of technology introduced by the Europeans. This became important to the Lakotas as they were viewed as "pragmatic" and "adaptable". Along with technology the Europeans also brought diseases such as Smallpox, spread by the increase in commerce and this took a severe toll on the native Americans.

Along with the narrative of the Lakota's migratory activities the author highlighted the continued encroachment of not only the French and then the British, but the Americans. This was escalated following the Louisiana Purchase with the expedition of Lewis and Clark up the Missouri River and through the northwest to the Pacific. All the while the Lakotas continued to migrate and adapt. "The U.S. empire was built on institutional prowess and visibility, whereas the Lakota empire was an action-based regime, which gave it a fickle on-and-off-again character." (p 241) The history also includes the complexities of native culture including polygamy and the training of young warriors. The only constant was the continued encroachment of the Americans accelerated by the discovery of gold in California and the building of the railroads through routes in the south, center, and ultimately the north.

The story concludes with the era of armed engagements following the Civil War in the 1870's culminating with the famous battle of Little Big Horn. While Sitting Bull came out of that as the victor over General George Armstrong Custer, the reprisals over the subsequent decade would result in the effective demise of Lakota power with the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.

I found the book to be most effective and informative through the early history of the indigenous peoples; a history with which I had no familiarity. The century following the American Revolution was one in which technology and commerce overwhelmed the Lakotas and other tribes, who for the most part were unable to adapt to changes in their environment. The nature that the indigenous peoples knew as the environment that formed their culture changed so tremendously that their civilization gradually decayed and became a mere shadow of what it once was. The author notes that "The Indians remained a subordinate people, subject to the whims of a foreign empire." (p 382) The complexity of the new environment left them dependent on the government of the United States for support. This is a situation, with few exceptions, that continues to this day.



Brian Joseph said...

Great review. This sounds fascinating and informative.

A few years ago I read S. C. Gwynne’s Empire if the Summer Moon. That book covered similar ground but its subject was the Comanches. I remember thinking that at the time I wished that there were more books out there that covered particular Native American groups. The history and cultures of these groups is so worthwhile to delve into.

CyberKitten said...

Ooooh... That's on my Amazon Wish List!

James said...

Thanks for your observation. This book focused on the Lakotas (the successors to the Dakotas in prominence among the Sioux tribes). Their interactions with other tribes are chronicled, especially eastern Indians like the Iroquois who were very fierce, but also the Crows, Comanches, and others. My own heritage on my Mother's side of the family goes back to the Cherokee Nation. They were not a part of this story.

James said...

This is worth reading if you are interested in the Lakota story. It is well-written, but sometimes has a softer image of the indigenous tribes than their actions among themselves would seem to demonstrate. One aspect that was troubling was the treatment of women who seemed to be regarded as mere chattel whose only purpose was providing new warriors and, through polygamy, providing a symbol of the wealth of the more powerful among the leading warriors.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

This one is a must for me, sometime, soon, I hope. I thought Hämäläinen's Comanche Empire was a landmark, brilliant in its use of both evidence and theory. I assume Lakota is similar.

James said...

Thanks for recommending Comanche Empire. I had not explored the author's other writings and will consider that one. His use of evidence in Lakota America was impressive as he referenced indigenous information in addition to other literature. There was an undercurrent of subjectivity that was handled well until the epilogue which was, unfortunately, a polemic about victimhood.