Writing in the NYTimes Parul Sehgal reviews Pekka Hamalainen, Lakota America, A New History of Indigenous Power, (Yale 2019):
All nations deserve to have their stories told with this degree of attentiveness, but the Lakotas might have a special claim. Their political philosophy and social organizations were distinguished by a flexibility that allowed them to maneuver among rival colonial powers and hostile neighboring tribes. One of their mythical heroes is the shape-shifting spider-trickster figure Iktomi. The Lakotas’ malleability aided their countless transformations — from foragers to farmers to nomads to hunters on horseback, from an isolated society to the most dominant indigenous nation in the Americas, controlling territory across the Great Plains, and into the Rocky Mountains and Canada. “Lakota America” takes us from the 16th century to the present, with painstaking, carefully marshaled detail, but its real feat is in threading how the Lakota philosophy and vision of the world guided their reinventions and their dealings with colonial powers.
“Lakotas were fighting for survival,” Hamalainen writes, “but they were also fighting to keep alive a broader vision of America where coexistence through right thoughts and acts might be possible.” Theirs was a capacious notion of kinship, in which competitors and even enemies could be brought into the fold. (Lewis and Clark make a spectacularly bumbling appearance in the book as the perfect foils for the Lakotas, marked by an utter inability “to see, learn and adapt.” They were bewildered that Native Americans welcomed American trade but not their “paternal embrace.”)
Hamalainen has the novelist’s relish for the strange, pungent detail, and he conjures early America in swift strokes: fur-trading posts reeking with the scent of entrails; the 17th-century world of cross-cultural diplomacy that relied on semaphore, kisses and tears. In one dreamlike scene, he describes a frozen lake full of the preserved bodies of a thousand bison, “halted in mid-motion.” They had been trapped under a layer of ice and became “a huge natural refrigerator of meat” that sustained the Lakotas for a year.
Note quite the end:
The challenge of writing this history, Hamalainen notes, was making iconic events and figures unfamiliar again, which is never more necessary than at the twilight of the Lakota empire. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Lakotas dealt the Americans a humiliating defeat, and the American Army responded with a campaign of terror, beginning with the Wounded Knee massacre, in which soldiers slaughtered hundreds of Indians. Missionaries and social reformers began their work in zeal; children were taken from families and sent to boarding schools whose explicit mission was to annihilate the Lakotas’ language, religion and culture. Nearly every aspect of Lakota life became subject to surveillance and control. The winter counts are few from these years, reflecting the trauma, the ravages of dispossession and suicide — “colonialism working exactly as intended.”
And yet the Lakota persist and, recently, have protested the drilling of a oil pipeline through their land. And there is poetry:
In Layli Long Soldier’s spellbinding “Whereas,” a finalist for the National Book Award in 2017, she investigates the wording of treaties and other government communications with Native Americans, noting the violence coiled in official language. In the midst of this muck of doublespeak and prevarication, her own words rise, anthemic. “I am a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “In this dual citizenship, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother” — notice the double meaning of “must,” which describes both what she is forced to endure but also how she goads herself forward. “I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.”
* * * * *
A quick thought, I hazard to give it utterance, and yet...so many people's have suffered as the Lakota have suffered, and yet they persist, strive, and even thrive. And no we all face the effects of global climate change. The effects will not be born equitably by the world's peoples, and they will be so bad that no nation will come through unscathed. And yet we will survive. As with the Lakota, so with us all.