The Power Brokers

A recent history centers the Lakota and the vast territory they controlled in the story of the formation of the United States.

December 3, 2020 issue

In the spring of 1870 Congress was in the process of debating the Indian Appropriations Bill. While the bill’s main purpose was to renew or enhance funding for Native peoples and communities, it contained a rider that finally formally ended what is known as the treaty period of federal Indian policy: no longer would Indian tribes be treated as independent nations. Rather, Native people would be treated as individuals, and they would henceforth be considered “wards” of the state. Native Americans weren’t considered, and certainly were not treated as, citizens (of the United States or any other nation). Instead, the rhetorical categories of the “Great White Father” and his pitiful “Red Children” were codified into law. But this had been merely one of many possible futures, as Pekka Hämäläinen—a Finnish scholar of American Indian history—makes clear in Lakota America, his profound history of the Lakota people.

Watching from the gallery of the Senate during deliberations about the bill was the Oglala Lakota war chief Red Cloud. Red Cloud had, several years earlier, led a coalition of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho bands in a series of battles against the United States and won. In the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, he had secured for his people a huge homeland: called the Great Sioux Reservation, it was 48,000 square miles and included not only the Black Hills for the Lakota, stretching from western South Dakota to Wyoming, but also “unceded” lands in North Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana, where “no white person or persons” was allowed to settle. This treaty effectively pushed the US out of the upper Great Plains, seriously jeopardizing the very idea of a transcontinental America.

There is no record of what Red Cloud thought as he watched the debate in 1870. There is no way to know if he understood the nature of the discussion, just as there is no way to know, truly, how keen and competent and brilliant he was, how much history he had at his command, and how that history informed his future decisions. But it would be foolish to underestimate Red Cloud or, by extension, the confederation of bands that called themselves the Lakota. Blinded by Eurocentrism and myths about “savages,” the US military had recently paid a steep price for being dismissive of the Lakota Empire that controlled the heart of the heartland. The Lakota had been interacting with foreigners—both Native and European—in their lands for centuries, and with Americans for nearly a hundred years. Though the Americans’ expressions of power waffled between almost orgiastic bloodletting and republican idealism and restraint, the Lakota understood well that the state wanted their lands and that profit was the motive behind much, if not all, of the Americans’ conduct.

This is a passing moment in Hämäläinen’s book, but it perfectly captures the strangeness of our shared but largely unknown and unexplored history: Red Cloud, one of the victorious leaders of a vibrant, violent, and relatively young Indian empire, watching the workings of imperial America, just as young and vibrant and violent. What Hämäläinen sets out to share with us is not merely a story of the rise and fall of the Lakota or, conversely, a story of the rise of American fortune and the erosion of its stated ideals. He situates the Lakota in relation to other tribes, to the United States, and to France, Britain, and Spain. The story he tells is of two countries, one Lakota and one American:

In 1776 two nations were born in North America. One was conceived in Philadelphia, the other in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and they were separated by more than seventeen hundred miles. Exactly a century later those two nations would clash violently along the Little Bighorn River in what is today southern Montana.

Like Romulus and Remus of Roman mythology, these twins—separately and together, in concord and strife—helped create our modern nation.

Growing up, as I did, as an Ojibwe on the Leech Lake Reservation in north-central Minnesota, we viewed the Lakota to our west as a tribe of legend. We were taught that they were fierce and uncompromising and would rather die than be diminished. They ate dogs. They had the coolest ceremonies. They walked or rode on picturesque buttes. They hunted bison. We, on the other hand, negotiated and orated more than we fought, lived in swamps, harvested wild rice, and snared rabbits. The Lakota, we were told, had been and remained our mortal enemies. This despite the fact that I knew many mixed Ojibwe-Lakota people and just as many Lakota who had settled and lived in northern Minnesota. And they were just as American and Native—and complicatedly and confusedly both—as I was.

White America had its fantasies and stereotypes of the Lakota and we had our own, which were equally disconnected from reality. But central to both of our conceptions of the Lakota was the idea that they were defined in opposition to American state power. The Lakota, after all, had handed the republic its most stunning defeats, including the battles that resulted in the Treaty of Fort Laramie and the eradication of Custer’s command at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. They had also suffered from America’s most savage excesses: the exploitation of gold in the Black Hills in the 1870s; the massacre of 250 men, women, and children at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890. What was harder for us to see were the ways in which America grew up in relation to the Lakota, among other Native tribes.

An indigenous woman leading protesters against President Trump’s executive order fast-tracking the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines

Mark Ralston/ AFP/ Getty Images

An indigenous woman leading protesters against President Trump’s executive order fast-tracking the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines, Los Angeles, February 2017

This is precisely what Hämäläinen tries to show in Lakota America. He argues that not only has the importance of the Lakota to the formation of the United States been overlooked, but so has the importance of their contested territory: the North American interior. An “immense swath of land stretching from the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains and from the Canadian Shield to the edges of the American South,” as Hämäläinen describes it, the interior has “long been a blind spot in American historical consciousness.” Thomas Jefferson, far more interested in vying for American dominance on the coasts, believed that the land obtained in the Louisiana Purchase nearly by accident was so wild that it would take “a thousand generations” to settle.

The history of America has largely been understood as beginning in the east and moving west (or “westing”), until the frontier was officially closed in 1890. In this configuration, Indians, like the land, are simply there: difficult and dangerous but ultimately tamed. Hämäläinen shows through careful and detailed research how the US military and the Lakota were both actors navigating a complex matrix of relationships in the area. “Jefferson’s myopia will no longer do,” he tells us:

The great interior, the setting of this book, was a dynamic, cosmopolitan, and intensely contested world. Dozens of Indian nations and four colonial powers sought to rule parts or all of it, producing a shifting constellation of expansions, conquests, retreats, and collapses.

Hämäläinen does an admirable job of disproving the notion that the Lakota were an unchanging people, mounted warriors of the plain living in a state of constant surprise and confusion at the presence of whites. In the seventeenth century, the Lakota and the six other allied tribes collectively referred to as the Sioux were largely woodland dwellers, clinging to and drawing life from the riverine highways of the western Great Lakes region: the St. Croix, Mississippi, Minnesota, and Red River valleys. In the 1680s, the Sioux, living in a beaver-rich area, became a crucial partner in the fur trade with the French, and they grew in wealth and military strength, extending their reach as far east as Montreal, where they traveled regularly on trade and diplomatic missions. But as a result of increasing hostility with other tribes jostling for position in relation to the French and British, by the 1700s the Sioux had begun looking west, pushing beyond the Red River of the North (the western border of present-day Minnesota). They employed their time-honored survival strategy: following the resource-rich rivers. However, this put them into conflict with other tribes living in waterfront villages in the region, among them the Cheyenne, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara.

Without the necessary experience to fight on horseback, and with few guns after the contraction of the French trade after 1700, the Sioux often faced disadvantages in battle, but had enough victories to hang on in the area. In this period, what could be called Lakota political identity began to form, as the need to remain anchored in river valleys consistently brought allied groups into contact, allowing meetings to take place and fostering a sense of unity. But a distinct Lakota political and cultural identity didn’t really coalesce until the mid-eighteenth century, when the Lakota began to pull away from the larger body of the Sioux as a result of persistent westward expansion. They became a plains tribe, reaching as far as the Missouri River in the Dakotas, aided by the horses and guns they had accumulated through raiding and shifting trade alliances. Only then was the Lakota Nation truly born.

Mounted, mobile, armed, and experienced from nearly two centuries of conflict and negotiation with European powers and other tribes, the Lakota were a formidable force. At times in the past they had been an impediment to colonial expansion, foiling French dreams of reaching the Pacific and creating a continental empire, but they now became a conduit for it as they displaced and decimated other tribes and worked tirelessly to make advantageous trade relationships with the French and the British.

This period, from the late eighteenth century until the mid-nineteenth century, constituted the glory years for the Lakota. Their numbers swelled, their territory grew, and they became the foremost force to be reckoned with in the West. By the time of Lewis and Clark’s expedition in 1804, the Lakota were completely in control of the upper Missouri, the first leg of Lewis and Clark’s journey and considered the most important as the gateway to the far West. A month after the expedition departed, on the occasion of an Osage delegation’s visit to Washington, D.C., Jefferson wrote that Americans had to practice careful diplomacy with the Osage and the Sioux “because in their quarter we are miserably weak.” This turned out to be impossible, since Lewis and Clark had next to no knowledge about the Lakota or the complicated politics of the region; they compensated by packing a vast supply of presents and equipping their boats with mounted guns and a swiveling cannon.

The Lakota, by contrast, knew Americans, what they were like, and what could be expected from representatives of the American republic. They had been trading with the British and French for centuries and with isolated American fur buyers for decades. Also, as diplomats and power brokers they had gleaned information from their allies (and enemies) to the south and east and possessed remarkably detailed knowledge of American history and behavior. In Hämäläinen’s telling, the scenes of first contact between the Corps of Discovery and the Lakotas are both hilarious and chilling: the Americans were confused without a skilled interpreter, outnumbered, and immediately stirred up intratribal tensions by recognizing one Lakota leader over another. The situation Lewis and Clark presumed to control devolved swiftly into an armed standoff, but the Lakota deescalated, choosing not to wipe out the entire corps—even though they likely could have—in the hope of integrating them into their trade network. This was Lakota politics, not Lewis and Clark’s luck.

The next period of Lakota history is the one most people know if they know any Indian history at all: the Plains Wars from roughly 1850 to 1890. This is when the modern era in America is thought to have begun, when the frontier was closed and the reservation system put firmly in place. Hämäläinen devotes a good deal of space to relating the history of the expansion and, ultimately, contraction of the Lakota Empire during this time. Again and again a theme emerges: when the Lakota faced other tribes and various European powers at the same time, they flourished. When they faced the emerging American republic, they suffered. No longer able to play Europeans off one another and suddenly surrounded, they began a long period of hardship, warfare, and decline.

Hämäläinen then lays out, in broad strokes, Lakota history from 1890 to the present. But this, frankly, gets short shrift, and feels more dutiful than inspired. It was on Lakota land and with mainly Lakota people that the United States found itself again in armed conflict with an indigenous force—at Wounded Knee in 1973, roughly a hundred years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn—but the incident receives scant pages in the book. The Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016 and 2017 are described with equal brevity.

The book’s strength is in the early material, and Lakota America joins a number of other histories that are, collectively, forcing us to reimagine—or get to know for the first time—the early days of empire. Michael McDonnell’s Masters of Empire (2015) does the same kind of work for the Algonquian Empire that formed near Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and effectively controlled trade in the new world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. McDonnell convincingly shows that the center of power in early North America was not, in fact, New York or anywhere in the east but rather the aqueous crossroads of Sault Ste. Marie. Andrés Reséndez creates a whole new perspective on slavery, disease, and empire in the New World in his stunning book The Other Slavery (2016), arguing that the enslavement of Native people in North America started earlier and lasted longer than the enslavement of African-Americans, and is essential to understanding the changing fortunes of Native peoples. Native scholar Michael Witgen tackles the idea of empire in early America even more forcefully in An Infinity of Nations (2012), and in Violence Over the Land (2006), Ned Blackhawk looks at the relationship between violence and empire in the Great Basin.

These books and others are part of a growing body of single-tribe histories. It would be strange if French history was only understood or explored in relation to the British. So, too, in North America, it should be strange to think of tribes only in relation to European empires and, subsequently, to the United States. Histories like Lakota America are a vital corrective, though it has occasional lapses: Hämäläinen claims that in order to understand Indian history it is necessary to understand that tribes often developed more directly in relation to other tribes than to Europeans, and that, especially in the early days, the overriding concern of Indian communities was not, in fact, white people. But he doesn’t plumb those Native relationships as much as I would have liked. The considerable strength of Hämäläinen’s effort has less to do with the arc of the birth and life of Lakota America (unless we understand that to be over in 1890, which would be a mistake) than with his detailed, surprisingly original archival work, and how he integrates “big-picture” moments in the history of North America:

In the eighteenth century, then, it seemed that there could be four Wests—British, French, American, and Spanish—of which the last appeared the most unlikely….

Lakotas needed the Spanish Empire to last. More than a century of negotiating the chronically unstable imperial landscapes of North America had taught them that empires were most useful to them when they were at once prosperous and seriously threatened—fit to operate but too frail to dictate.

To put the development of Indian empires in relation to European empires (and even to think of tribes as evolving in relation to colonialism rather than perishing in the face of it), to claim that the “West” isn’t enough and we need to think of “Wests” in the plural, is groundbreaking. Among the most astonishing things Hämäläinen asks us to consider are the ways in which what we—with hindsight—think of as inevitable was merely circumstance. What if the Spanish had been able to hold on to their northern domain instead of passing it off to the French? And what if the French had been able to hold on to it in turn? Instead, the French, weakened by the debacle (for them) of the Haitian Revolution, ending in Haitian independence in 1804, sold the whole of their Western American territory to Jefferson for a pittance, as Hämäläinen describes:

When [James] Monroe arrived in Paris in early April 1803, he learned that Napoleon had made a new offer: not just New Orleans but all of Louisiana for $15 million, 530 million acres at three cents per acre. It was an emergency measure. Fearing that Louisiana might be grabbed by the British, who already had entered it via the Mississippi and Missouri Valleys, Napoleon handed over the province to the United States for virtually nothing. A deal was struck, and Napoleon shifted his sights to Europe, North Africa, and Asia.

Of course, it was not his to sell—much of the land was under firm Lakota control at the time. Such a vision—of the connectedness of things, especially between Native nations and empires and European ones—has been sorely lacking in the historical literature, and Hämäläinen (along with the writers I mentioned earlier) fills the void. These moments in the book are eye-opening. In a casual aside he mentions that the Louisiana Purchase suddenly made the United States a truly multicultural society, because along with the acreage came Native nations, Chinese communities, and Latinx people.

America, as Hämäläinen tells us over and over, wasn’t fated to reach from sea to shining sea, and the tribes who ended up within it weren’t fated to suffer and decline. What if the United States had treated Native tribes and combatants as it did the South after the Civil War? What if, instead of trying to drive tribes into the ground, the US had respected tribal rights and lives and sought to heal the rifts that existed between Native America and America proper? After all, the South did immeasurably more damage than all the tribal warfare between 1776 and 1876. By the close of the Civil War, more than 360,000 soldiers from the North had been killed, and yet the South was welcomed back.

By comparison, after the Dakota, eastern relatives of the Lakota, killed around five hundred settlers and soldiers in Minnesota in 1862, all treaties were abrogated and Dakota tribes in the area dispossessed of nearly everything. Just as it is impossible to know what was going through Red Cloud’s head in 1870 in Washington, D.C., it is impossible to know what kind of country would have emerged if the United States had acted in accordance with its ideals rather than its imperial character. Good history isn’t just a matter of getting the past “right,” getting the facts straight. It can, and does, do more: it engages our curiosity and our imagination and directs them not just at the past, but also at our present moment: What possibilities do we miss by clinging to old or false notions? Lakota America is good history.

Lakota America, however, doesn’t quite deliver on all its promises: principally that this is a history of Lakota America from its earliest days into the twenty-first century. In the early chapters, Hämäläinen shows clearly and convincingly that in the turbulent reshuffling in the Great Lakes—France vying for Algonquian allies, Ojibwe-Odawa-Potawatomi empires wrong-footing the French and switching their alliance to the British, Lakota and Dakota making peace with Algonquians in order to resist other tribes and the British—the American Indians made strategic alliances, adopted new technologies, and struggled to live in new ecosystems to meet their changing needs, and in doing so were changed. The book remains strong when dealing with material roughly up until 1876, but there isn’t a whole lot of history on offer beyond that, and in the twentieth- and twenty-first-century history that is included, I couldn’t help but feel that Hämäläinen abandoned his thesis about Lakota adaptability. This deficit in the written record needs to be rectified.

Any narrative without a robust treatment of the last 150 years, without considering what happened after the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the ways in which Native peoples have been shaped by and in turn shaped imperial America even after the reservation period began in earnest in 1890, will end up more regressive than transgressive, no matter how adamantly we claim that tribes were not static. The trouble, which Hämäläinen seems to be aware of, is that our histories seem unable to imagine what Lakota America is precisely when its citizens stopped conforming to our myths of who they are and what they mean: in 1890, after Wounded Knee and at the beginning of the reservation period, nomadic, mounted, and armed Lakota life ended and a new kind of life began.

It is one thing to note that Red Cloud was gazing down on the machinery of disenfranchisement in 1870, but what was the Lakota response to the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, when most Indians became American citizens, or to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which brought “modern” government to sovereign Indian nations? I, for one, am curious about what would happen if Hämäläinen applied the rigor and the radicality of his vision of the early days to the later, modern ones. He shows us again and again how the Lakota made connections and alliances with other tribes, how leadership evolved in relation to changing circumstances, how culture and identity were political as well as personal tools, how Lakota diplomacy was related to violent overthrow, how new technologies like the horse and the gun shaped the culture and outlook of their users, how geography shaped tribal vision. I wanted him to apply this insight to more modern times when, undoubtedly, all of these forces continued to matter.

Lakota America does deliver on its most important points, illustrating how the United States, as a matter of policy, needed to see the Lakota as savage, simple, and disorganized, and how the myths have followed in step. When Secretary of War J. Donald Cameron briefed President Grant on Custer’s disastrous defeat by the Lakota at Little Bighorn in 1876, he began by writing that the Lakota “have for centuries been pushed westward by the advancing tide of civilization.” As Hämäläinen points out, “His was but one of many acts of misrepresentation that, over generations, have diminished the Lakota people as historical actors”:

The secretary could have written about the Lakotas’ vast capacity to determine their own destiny, about their diplomatic and military sophistication, about their foundational role in shaping the course of American history, but he did not. The United States was gearing up to crush the Lakotas as a sovereign nation, and the president and the American people needed a different kind of Lakotas: primitive, treacherous, weak, and controllable. At the very moment the Americans awoke to the reality that there was an unyielding, seemingly unconquerable Indigenous power in their midst, they began a systematic erasing of the Lakotas and their remarkable history—the creation of Lakota America—from memory.

Hämäläinen’s book emphasizes that to understand American history it is vital to understand Lakota—and, by extension, Native American—history; that rather than existing in a state of constant first contact marked by incomprehension and surprise, Native nations and the American nation knew each other, grew up and around and through each other; that contact between the Lakota and European powers wasn’t one-sided and didn’t necessarily spell doom for Indians. The Lakota nation expanded for centuries as a result of European colonization. Native American history isn’t a sideshow any more than it is simply a litany of abuse at the hands of European empires. Lakota America joins, and in many respects leads, a growing body of work centered on single-tribe histories through which we can see, for the first time, the wild making of America.

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