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Preview — Lakota America by Pekka Hämäläinen
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Read between July 30 - August 19, 2021
Europeans thought of trading posts and missions—military forts would come later—as means to claim and control faraway lands. Indeed, an inland post brought the frontier into existence and demarcated it by announcing that the lands around and behind it belonged to the people who had built it. Posts made empires.86 Such ideas were laughable to the Indians, who thought that land belonged to those who lived on it and whose ancestors lay in it. They almost invariably welcomed trading posts and missions on their lands because they were concrete expressions of the newcomers’ largesse—both material ...more
Roughly at the same time as the Pueblo Revolt unleashed the horse frontier northward, the consolidation of English commerce in Hudson Bay and New France’s liberal trade policy thrust the gun frontier westward. Separated by more than a thousand miles, the two technological frontiers began inching slowly toward each another, propelled by Native traders.
Lewis and Clark fell silent on their personal feelings, but Clark’s hurt seeps through the compiled observations on the Missouri Indians he put together at Fort Mandan. The Indians had acted nothing like the captains had hoped. They had welcomed America’s merchandize but not its paternal embrace; they had accepted the Americans as traders and potential allies, but not as their sovereigns. They had, in other words, refused to be “discovered” by the Corps and brought into the American fold as the children of a new great father.63
The interior between the Missouri and the Rocky Mountains became a single economic system fused by steam- and horse-powered transportation. The system was not without its challenges and hardships—the Missouri iced over for several months each year, and long winters drained horses and their owners—but no other region in the interior could compete with the northern plains in terms of transportation efficiency and sheer economic output. By 1840 some ninety thousand bison robes were shipped each year from the region to eastern markets, yielding the fur companies more than half a million dollars.
Ranging widely but ruling lightly, they moved constantly through space, seeking trade, tribute, plunder, pastures, and game, and it was that mobile action that demarcated their territory and supremacy. Theirs was a malleable, forever transmuting regime—call it a kinetic empire—built on mobile power politics.
I was struck in both this book and Spruyt’s “Sovereign State and Its Competitors” by the notion of state without border: if you want to be in, or you happen to be in, you’re in; none of the tight line-drawing exercises of the modern state (or corporation).
Washington’s dream of an expanding empire of liberty, Jefferson’s utopian schemes for Louisiana, and Monroe’s famous doctrine had been early versions of the imperial mindset, but it was only in the 1840s that Americans possessed the means—sufficient administrative capacity and an ability to borrow money on a vast scale—to start turning imperial abstractions into reality through state-sanctioned violence.
Lakotas and Americans seemed fated to clash, but their different understandings of power, property, territory, and rule delayed the collision. Americans were content with a cartographic proof of U.S. sovereignty. They thought that reservations and annuities would discipline and hem in the nomads. Lakotas, old hands at managing imperial agents, believed that their words had forced the wašíčus to recognize their right to harness whatever resources they needed to survive, a right that reduced any territorial arrangements to a paper abstraction. Lakotas sought the land’s resources, whereas ...more
The mutilations were a response to Grattan’s arrogance and the unnecessary violence he had unleashed, but there were deeper reasons to Lakotas’ wrath. The unilateral decision to cut the annuity payments had taught them that the U.S. government saw them not as allies but as wards, a quasi-nation under its patriarchal control. It was an insult and a rejection. For half a century, from Lewis and Clark’s thwarted imperial posturing through Colonel Leavenworth’s pathetic leadership to the booming fur trade and the Horse Creek council, Lakotas had been in charge of the situation, allowing the ...more
Its most potent word was wólakȟota, which means bonds of peace grounded in kinship.
The herds no longer made “the prairie appear black, as formerly, as far as the eye could scan the horizon.” Now bison could be found “in small bands only” and “very far distant for the tribes of Indians of this agency.” It was a moral challenge hidden behind an unspoken rhetorical question: if your world was dying, would you not fight?
The United States that now shared a treaty-sanctioned border with the Lakota nation also existed on a chronological frontier. The late 1860s saw the arrival of the modern. The already ragged old order of the local, the personal, and the improvised would linger on, but the post–Civil War years ushered in, with heated moralistic fury, a new order of professionalism, rationalization, service-centered bureaucracies, and corporate capitalism. Yeoman farmers and rural enterprises lost ground to wage earners and urban factories, and self-sufficiency began to give way to a dependency on faceless ...more
Modernity, it seemed, was finally catching up with the nomads, closing the window to their imagined retrograde barbaric existence. A tidal wave of civilization—of forts, farms, ranches, towns, hotels, banks—was about to wash over them.
Contemporary Americans saw the Powder River country as an Indigenous retreat, an insular world intentionally cut off from the rapidly expanding American empire of cities, railroads, settlers, farms, ranches, and capitalism—a perception that has dominated outsider views of the Lakotas ever since. In reality, the Powder River country under the Lakota rule was a safe and dynamic cosmopolitan world of its own where transnational commercial circuits converged, where Indians enjoyed many comforts and advantages of the industrial age, and where new ideas about being in the world were constantly ...more
This was iwáštegla, a new political philosophy that recognized that Lakotas would have to gradually learn to live with the wašíčus, whose presence in their world had become an irrevocable fact. In the long run, this could mean farming and settling in reservations. In the short run, it meant accepting whatever material and political support the Americans could offer while thwarting any American attempts to civilize and remold them.
Less than three years later, at the World’s Fair in Chicago, Frederic Jackson Turner, a young Wisconsin historian, delivered one of America’s most influential scholarly lectures ever. He argued that the American West, a wilderness, had been conquered with the ax and the plow, not armies and violence. Turner was already writing the Lakotas—and the Wounded Knee Massacre—out of history.