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  • The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism From Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee by Jeffrey Ostler
  • April R. Summitt
The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism From Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee. By Jeffrey Ostler. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge, 2004.

In this work on the Plains Sioux, Jeffery Ostler provides an engaging and thorough examination of how motives and decisions lead to intended and unintended consequences. Ostler’s work covers familiar territory, revisiting a history about which much has already been written. However, he manages to provide a new way of viewing the history of the Plains Sioux and their interaction with U.S. government agents. In the end, the author forces the reader to reconsider previously held ideas and to question the validity of sources usually employed to narrate the past.

In the beginning of his work, Ostler explains his use of the term “colonialism” as both a “fact” and “an analytical tool.” He seeks to illustrate the various layers of colonialism, from the decisions as they were handed down from the top, to the various efforts the Sioux made to resist and contest them. While ultimately the U.S. government did take much of Sioux land and resources, destroyed the buffalo herds, and suppressed religious and cultural practices, the Sioux resisted and contested these actions every step of the way. They also made adaptations when necessary and used the art of diplomacy and compromise when it best served their efforts to survive. The story of the Plains Sioux is thus one of creative and dynamic interaction and resistance to colonialism.

Ostler creates three specific layers in his analysis of the colonizing process: politics among the dominant, white culture, the interaction of natives with the colonists, and internal politics among the Sioux. In the first instance, Ostler illustrates changing motives and conflicting aims among army officers and their subordinates over how to conduct military operations on Indian land. While some government officials felt sympathy for the Sioux and even sought to increase food allotments or decrease the encroachment of white settlers on Sioux land, others sought as much destruction of the Sioux as possible. Such conflicting desires ultimately led to promises made by some and broken by others, increasing Sioux skepticism regarding white intentions. Although Ostler does spend some time examining public opinion in response to the Battle of Little Big Horn, or the employment of the army in Sioux territory just before Wounded Knee, he could have done more in this regard. Nevertheless, he accomplishes his aim to illustrate how ad hoc policies and the personal ambitions of individuals such as General Nelson Miles led to avoidable tragedies.

In the second layer of his argument, Ostler examines how various Sioux leaders and groups sought to cope with the colonizing process. Some chose armed resistance while others used the appearance of cooperation and even conversion to Christianity as bargaining chips for everything from specific land tracts to larger food rations. While appearing to succumb as victims to suppression, Ostler shows how native leaders insisted on fair treatment, demanded compensation, and reciprocated when demands were met. When pressured to abandon cultural practices such as the Sun Dance or the later Ghost Dance, Sioux leaders incorporated the language and even some western beliefs into their explanations of their own culture to persuade government officials to accept cultural pluralism.

It is in this layer of his examination that Ostler makes his greatest impact. This part of the story is seldom told or only recited using non-native sources. Ostler seeks to untangle assumptions about the motives of Ghost Dancers or of leaders like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, illustrating the complexity of each choice made by the Sioux. Throughout his analysis, Ostler clearly illustrates with ample evidence that Sioux people consistently resisted the destruction of their culture with a remarkable willingness to adapt and incorporate ideas and habits from whites as well as other native peoples. Sioux culture was a dynamic one, not static, and ever persistent in the face of misunderstanding and attempts to destroy it.

The third layer of Ostler’s examination reveals the frustrating conflicts Sioux leaders had with each other. Although there were often personal...

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