In this compelling work of historical imagination, West uses the late antebellum Colorado gold rush as a focal point to re-envision the history of human occupation of the Great Plains. People of the Plains have tried to “improve their condition by redreaming it” (xxi). Always, however, their dreams have clashed with the harsh realities of the Plains. Indians and non-Indians alike have been forced to learn the lesson of Francis Bacon’s dictum: “‘We cannot command nature except by obeying her’” (xxiii).
Contested Plains centers on two competing dreams. The first was made possible by the horse. West focuses particularly on the Cheyennes, who, until the late 1700s, were a settled, horticultural people. Their encounter with the horse enabled them to envision the possibility of gaining wealth and power through a mobile life of bison hunting and trade. Choosing this dream, the Cheyennes saw themselves as “Tsistsistas, the Called Out People” (76). The second dream was the more familiar American one of gold and its attendant empires of cattle, grain, and commerce.
West’s book challenges those looking to confirm a simple story of the first dream becoming a nightmare under the heels of the second. Though not ignoring the American conquest of the Cheyennes, West gives as much analytical weight to problems inherent in the Cheyennes’ original vision. West concludes that Cheyennes overhunted bison in pursuit of trade goods; their horse herds consumed too much forage; and their mobility pulled them apart. West notes that these problems were aggravated by the incursions of whites, but he stresses that they were of the Cheyennes’ own making. When Cheyennes protested against white overlanders, they were merely engaging in the common frontier practice of “blam[ing] other people for their problems” (92).
West uses insights from disciplines in the social and natural sciences (archaeology, anthropology, ethnohistory, ecology, geology, and climatology) as a guide to interpret an impressive array of historical sources. He pays less attention, however, to the intellectual and cultural dimensions of American expansionism. West’s approach is surest when analyzing [End Page 537] the economic, social, political, and environmental aspects of the Colorado gold rush and in describing the economic and ecological systems that structured Cheyenne ways of life. His overall interpretation of the Cheyenne experience and United States-Cheyenne relations, however, is less firmly grounded.
Although West’s account of the Cheyennes imagining themselves as a “called out people” is plausible, there is very little evidence to support this, or any version, of how the Cheyennes decided to move onto the Plains and what it meant to them at the time. Indeed, the meaning of the word “Tsistsistas” itself is obscure and subject to various translations. In evaluating the factors behind the destruction of the Cheyennes’ dream, West’s theme of the universal human failure to recognize environmental limitations gives too much analytical weight to the Cheyennes’ own environmental problems and not enough to the American conquest. West’s argument for a fundamental equivalence of the Cheyenne and American visions—an assessment that overlooks how ideologies of race and manifest destiny mark a crucial difference in the American vision—also diminishes the United States’ responsibility.
Contested Plains offers a complicated and nuanced vision of Great Plains history and does so with wit and a great deal of wisdom. Even those who would emphasize different lessons in Great Plains history will find it an engaging and important book.