- Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power by Pekka Hämäläinen
Lakota, Native Americans, Indigenous peoples, Dakota, Empire
A sweeping history of the Lakota nation, Pekka Hämäläinen’s Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, promises to recover “the [End Page 512] untold story of the Lakotas from the sixteenth into the twenty-first century” (5). Another stated goal of the book is that it “replaces the traditional story arc” of Lakota history “with a more unpredictable narrative structure” (4). Finally, Hämäläinen intends to illuminate this history from a Lakota perspective, and the book’s “overarching ambition is to understand how they saw the world and shaped American history” (8). However, the main purpose is to rehash the Indigenous-nation-as-empire trope from Hämäläinen’s 2008 book The Comanche Empire. Lakota America largely fails to live up to any of its promises but thankfully lacks the depth and effort put into this deeply flawed argument as presented in The Comanche Empire. The Lakota were never a monolith; rather, they were comprised of small, independent extended family groups with intentionally weak consensus-driven political bodies and reciprocity-based economies centered on kinship. Forcing the “empire” label onto the Comanche was inaccurate and misguided, pushing the same label onto the Lakota over a decade later with no introspection nor any attempt to further investigate the concept smacks of irresponsibility.
In nine chronological, empirical chapters, the book primarily covers the mid-1600s to 1870s as opposed to the longer narrative stated in the introduction. The first three chapters, the most promising, cover this history to 1800 and in the early years focus heavily on the eastern kin of the Lakota, the Dakota, because of the dearth of Lakota-specific sources until the latter half of the eighteenth century. These chapters chronicle the growth of the Dakota from an isolated and inauspicious nation to a supposed imperial power in the interior of the continent by 1700 and the vicissitudes that followed. The last six chapters illuminate about seventy years of Lakota history from Lewis and Clark to the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 that have been well-trodden by generations of previous historians. These last chapters lack coherence and sometimes gloss over the most deeply impactful events on the Lakota people such as the American theft of the Black Hills in 1876 or the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. Despite the promise in the introduction, the book is quite predictable and reproduces the narrative of earlier Indian Wars historians, only stripped of the warfare and in a way that is less comprehensive and less comprehensible.1 [End Page 513]
The book defaults to a justification at best, or an outright rejection at worst, of centuries of Euro American policies of genocide, land dispossession, removal, and forced assimilation of Indigenous people by inaccurately equating American Indian nations with Euro American imperial powers like France, Spain, or the United States. The acutely problematic assertion of “reversed colonialism” in The Comanche Empire is replaced with the erasure of Euro American settler colonialism. While Hämäläinen makes it clear from the beginning that he perceives the Lakota as an empire, the absence of any meaningful discussion of the concepts of empire or colonialism is peculiar. Effectively, Lakota America exudes a sense of Euro American innocence in settler colonialism. This Lakota tendency to change, periodically remake themselves, and to expand into new territories is characterized by Hämäläinen as puzzling, surprising, and even impossible, and he asserts that Lakota America is “about that something” that permitted the Lakota to do these things without ever explaining what this “something” was other than some nebulous Lakota imperialism (4). But this could be more accurately described, as numerous other historians have articulated, as the actions of a desperate people trying to survive and adapt to a turbulent world brought on by settler colonialism.2
Instead of a Lakota perspective...