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Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power

by Pekka Hämäläinen

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1235169,070 (3.9)3
The first comprehensive history of the Lakota Indians and their profound role in shaping America's history   This first complete account of the Lakota Indians traces their rich and often surprising history from the early sixteenth to the early twenty‑first century. Pekka Hämäläinen explores the Lakotas' roots as marginal hunter‑gatherers and reveals how they reinvented themselves twice: first as a river people who dominated the Missouri Valley, America's great commercial artery, and then--in what was America's first sweeping westward expansion--as a horse people who ruled supreme on the vast high plains.   The Lakotas are imprinted in American historical memory. Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull are iconic figures in the American imagination, but in this groundbreaking book they emerge as something different: the architects of Lakota America, an expansive and enduring Indigenous regime that commanded human fates in the North American interior for generations. Hämäläinen's deeply researched and engagingly written history places the Lakotas at the center of American history, and the results are revelatory.… (more)

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This mostly thorough history of the Lakota people has the same general aim as the author's earlier [b:The Comanche Empire|3304956|The Comanche Empire|Pekka Hämäläinen|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1328826282l/3304956._SY75_.jpg|3341882]: to recast a powerful Native American tribe as rational, decision-making actors in history, rather than the more common pop-history images of either savage barbarians or victims. The main challenge in this is that the militarily powerful Lakota and Comanche largely did not have written histories at the apex of their power, so Hämäläinen is forced to rely on recontextualizing colonist histories, as well as archaeological and climatological evidence. For Lakota America he adds the Lakota's "winter counts," images on buffalo hide made each winter to recount the band's memories of the past year.

Still, a consequence of this paucity of history is that there's more historiographical material available for later events, and so an over-large portion of the book gets devoted to the final years of the Lakota empire, culminating in the famous and comparatively well-documented Battle of the Little Bighorn/Greasy Grass. (The aftermath of the battle is disposed of surprisingly quickly.) Much of the book is variations on a theme: Hämäläinen describes an interaction between whites and the Lakota, portrayed paternalistically in colonist accounts, and explains how it actually shows native power, cunning, wisdom, etc., rather than the colonists' interpretation of them as childlike or weak. All of this is enlightening and informative — I learned quite a few things about the Lakota's history that I never did in six years living in South Dakota, which is mostly on me — but I was left wishing for some more variety, if not in the sourcing (which might have been impossible) than in the writing. This repetition might have been less of an issue for people who hadn't read "Comanche Empire," though.

It's also worth noting that some informed Lakota historians have compiled a number of objections to this history of their people, including a number of alleged factual errors, and objections to Hämäläinen's tone.

Recommended if you're interested in the topic, as an accessible one-volume history of an overlooked and oft-misconstrued people (who are, it must be emphasized, still around!), with some mild hesitation. ( )
  dhmontgomery | Dec 13, 2020 |
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. ( )
1 vote jwhenderson | Sep 23, 2020 |
I had been really impressed by the author's book on the Comanche nation but somehow this work fell a bit flat for me. Perhaps that the last third of the book feels a bit like a rehash (Hamalainen leans heavily on such stalwarts as Bob Utley). Perhaps that, as much as Hamalainen emphasizes the adaptability of the Lakota, what it all really comes down to is that the Lakota could usually field more warriors than their rivals; quantity has a quality all its own. Or maybe it's because that Hamalainen refers to the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration as the "National Archives Records Service;" excuse me if I've worked for said institution for almost thirty years. Still, Hamalainen's examination of how the Lakota came to create a unique style of diplomacy to deal with aspirant colonial powers, a result of having been burned by the French one too many times, is an important contribution of the ongoing project to understand how the First Nations tried to defend their ground. ( )
  Shrike58 | Jul 19, 2020 |
Incredibly thorough, and yet riveting. This is classical history, in both tone and scholarship--if that means something to anyone but me. It exposes the biases of western/white-oriented narratives of this era and geographic region, but it does so while using the same tools of erudition, and scholarship, and measured-ness, and historical fact, as any history coming from an academic/scholarly tradition. It's a completely different tone from, say, a Zinn book, where I often feel like I'm being told how to feel about the facts, without being told the facts to begin with. It's not at all like [b:Cheyenne Memories|1610399|Cheyenne Memories|John Stands In Timber|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1404480194l/1610399._SY75_.jpg|1604009] by [a:John Stands In Timber|746158|John Stands In Timber|https://s.gr-assets.com/assets/nophoto/user/u_50x66-632230dc9882b4352d753eedf9396530.png], where the goal is to preserve a historical tradition that is/was an oral tradition. It's not a heart-wrencher like [b:Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West|76401|Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee An Indian History of the American West|Dee Brown|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1388209846l/76401._SY75_.jpg|1240262], which is history written to be a call to action, or at least a call to atone for past wrongs.

Hämäläinen begins with a painstaking etymological discussion of the terms "Sioux" and "Lakota" and as he moves forward he continues to take the time to unthread these and other terms, exposing their hidden meanings and origins, so that we know what he's talking about every step of the way. It's a careful, deeply researched story, that at each stage continues to be thoughtful about language, where the 'facts' are presented, and 'historical truths' revealed, page after page, with an almost mathematical precision. ( )
  poingu | Feb 22, 2020 |
Decided to read this on a whim after spotting it on a reading list somewhere. Always am looking for books to learn more about Indigenous peoples and thought this would be a good pick.

As the blurbs say, it's a look at the Lakotas as a people throughout history and their own history. As other reviews say, it is overwhelming for someone who is not familiar and one review that describes it as a college-level text is right. It's hard for me to really critique this book because I don't know a lot and it also felt a bit inaccessible to me as a layperson just trying to learn more without other greater context.

I'm sure if read in conjunction with a class or by someone with more knowledge it would have gone over better, but as it was, this was probably too much and dry to boot. I borrowed this from the library and it's probably best unless you're taking a class or you need it as a reference. ( )
  HoldMyBook | Jan 5, 2020 |
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The first comprehensive history of the Lakota Indians and their profound role in shaping America's history   This first complete account of the Lakota Indians traces their rich and often surprising history from the early sixteenth to the early twenty‑first century. Pekka Hämäläinen explores the Lakotas' roots as marginal hunter‑gatherers and reveals how they reinvented themselves twice: first as a river people who dominated the Missouri Valley, America's great commercial artery, and then--in what was America's first sweeping westward expansion--as a horse people who ruled supreme on the vast high plains.   The Lakotas are imprinted in American historical memory. Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull are iconic figures in the American imagination, but in this groundbreaking book they emerge as something different: the architects of Lakota America, an expansive and enduring Indigenous regime that commanded human fates in the North American interior for generations. Hämäläinen's deeply researched and engagingly written history places the Lakotas at the center of American history, and the results are revelatory.

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Acknowledgments — A Note on Terminology — Introduction: Dark Matter of History — A Place in the World — Facing West — The Imperial Cauldron — The Lakota Meridian — The Call of the White Buffalo Calf Woman — Empires — War — Shapeshifters — Upside-Down Soldiers — Epilogue: The Lakota Struggle for Indigenous Sovereignty — List of Abbreviations — Notes — Glossary — Index
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