- Witness: A Hunkpapha Historian’s Strong- Heart Song of the Lakotas by Josephine Waggoner
A book written from a Native person’s point of view provides a rare—and therefore much-needed—narrative about American society’s impact on indigenous peoples. Emily Levine’s 745-page work, Witness: A Hunkpapha Historian’s Strong- Heart Song of the Lakotas provides such a narrative. Josephine Waggoner, a Hunkpapha Titunwan, lived at a time when American colonization intruded into Oceti Sakowin Oyate daily life.
Nearly half the book speaks to how Waggoner experienced this intrusion; the remaining half is sixty short biographies of Lakota and Dakota leaders who led their nation through difficult transitions. For example, several Lakota leaders remained in Canada after the 1876 Greasy Grass Fight as political refugees, but some returned (e.g., Sitting Bull) and some did not (e.g., Inkpaluta). During this period, Americans were annexing the twenty-six-million-acre Great Sioux Reservation as US territory, which led to the present-day reservations (1889 Sioux “Agreement”); US legislators [End Page 117] were implementing a land- allotment scheme on reservations at the turn of the nineteenth century that further reduced Native land (e.g., “surplus land”); strong Dakota/Lakota leaders were being neutralized; and the United States was sending Native children, such as Josephine Waggoner, off to boarding schools to be “educated.”
Operated in military fashion throughout much of their existence, boarding schools were designed to “kill the Indian” within in order to “save the [hu]man.” Josephine Waggoner was among the first generation of Lakota children to experience boarding school. She was shipped off to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a technical school primarily for blacks. Levine’s documentation, which is quite thorough, reveals that, among other interesting insights, the Sioux Nation was well represented at Hampton Institute. Waggoner’s experience gives insight into a topic deserving more scholarship: the racial contact between Native and blacks other than as warriors and buffalo soldiers. Waggoner discloses how Native children perceived education as they observed how blacks at Hampton desired an education. But Waggoner also notes how whites at Hampton frowned upon, if not discouraged, interracial intimacy between Natives and blacks.
Waggoner’s Hampton Institute experience is one of many that cuts through US colonization’s propensity to dehumanize nonwhites. Other critical aspects of the book make Witness a prized resource: the manuscript’s prepublishing journey; Levine’s extensive footnoting; the inclusion of Lakota/Dakota orthography; as well as maps, pictures, and appendixes. Finally, I concur with Levine’s assessment that nonacademics are doing some of the most important research in Native Studies. Witness is proof enough.
St. Paul, Minnesota