- The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee
Unhappy with answers given by earlier historians for the reasons behind the deadly assault by U.S. troops on the Sioux at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890, University of Oregon historian Jeffrey Ostler has attempted to place the event in historical context by reexamining the relationship between the Sioux and the United States government during the nineteenth century. His study departs from traditional ethnohistory and the new Indian and military history and uses the concept of what he sees as United States colonialism as a tool to analyze the relationship between the tribe and the government. Ostler hopes he can explain how the army's enforcement of the government's colonial policy made the Wounded Knee massacre almost unavoidable. On the Sioux side of the ledger, he portrays the tribe as a group of individuals who adapted their strategies to help shape events rather than being passive victims, as they have been so often portrayed.
Ostler divides his study into three phases. He begins by looking at Sioux and U.S. relations during what he sees as the precolonial period of the early nineteenth century. During this period territorial expansion was key to the new Republic's success and the United States was committed to installation of a system of colonial rule. To acquire more territory and deal with the tribe, the government eventually developed a policy of restricting the Sioux [End Page 520] and other Indian peoples to reservations. To win concessions and to limit government control, the Sioux endured hardships. This early precolonial period ended with the death of Crazy Horse.
Ostler argues that the development of the reservation system and Indian agencies ushered in a period of American colonialism. The government tried to implement a new policy of controlling the Sioux and forcing assimilation. Government agents used economic leverage and new institutions such as schools as weapons to impose their will. Ostler argues that the Sioux were not passive and broken by this policy. Instead they adapted to reservation conditions and exploited the reservation's economic system in order to continue their former way of life and avoid complete assimilation.
Ostler refers to the emergence of the Ghost Dance and the events at Wounded Knee as a period of anticolonial resistance. He argues that U.S. officials did not plan the massacre at Wounded Knee. It was the government's over-reliance on military power, intimidation, and coercion that led to the tragic event. Ostler argues that General Nelson A. Miles wanted to portray the Ghost Dance as a threat in order to prove that the United States would still need a strong western military presence in the future.
Jeffrey Ostler provides a new view of the Sioux nation and its people. It is an important addition to the extensive literature on the Sioux wars and United States Indian policy. Readers interested in the late nineteenth-century Indian wars and U.S. Indian policy will find this book insightful and thought-provoking.