Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Pekka Hämäläinen's "Lakota America"

Pekka Hämäläinen is the Rhodes Professor of American History and Fellow of St. Catherine’s College at Oxford University. He has served as the principal investigator of a five-year project on nomadic empires in world history, funded by the European Research Council. His book, The Comanche Empire, won the Bancroft Prize in 2009.

Hämäläinen applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, and reported the following:
The test better than works—if I could have chosen any page, 99 would have been a strong contender. It finds the Lakotas in the Missouri Valley in the early 1790s in the middle of talks with the Mandan and Omaha Indians, trying to forge an accommodation. Having shifted westward from the Minnesota Valley homelands in search of horses and bison, the Lakotas had reached the Missouri—Mníšoše to them—three decades earlier and had almost instantly clashed with a number of villagers who saw them as invaders. The result was a long and violent struggle between the Lakotas and Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras over the mastery of a river that was about to emerge as one of North America’s key commercial arteries. The peace process failed. The Missouri was home and sacred for the villagers, a place where all their history had happened, and they were determined to keep the Lakotas out. Soon after the Lakotas attacked a Mandan village of fifty-eight lodges and killed everyone in it.

That was one the one of the most significant turning points in Lakota history. Demoralized, the Mandans retreated upriver, pushing north until they reached the Hidatsa villages at the mouth of the Knife River. A few years later the Arikaras, too, abandoned their remaining villages near the Lakotas and sought refuge in the west and north. Nearly a two-hundred-mile expanse of the Missouri now lay vacant ahead of the Lakotas. They pushed in, gaining a massive reservoir of water, grass, game, timber, and shelter. They had become the masters of the Missouri Valley who gave Lewis and Clark a pause, a premonition of the carnage in the Little Bighorn Valley three generations later.

We tend to see the Lakotas as quintessential horse people who dominated the vast grasslands of the Northern Great Plains, but that was a later development. Here the Lakotas reinvent themselves as river people who made Mníšoše the center of their world. It was there that they assumed their sacred form as the seven oyátes, or “people,” splitting up and linking up along the life-giving river. It was there that they learned how to contain colonial powers and it was there that they began to develop the strategies that would allow them to build an Indigenous empire in the northern plains in the late nineteenth century—and frustrate the United States’ westward expansion for decades.
Learn more about Lakota America at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue