‘Lakota America' by Pekka Hämäläinen’

by Pekka Hämäläinen

11 Sep 2020

This is part of our 2020 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize series celebrating the five non-fiction books shortlisted for promoting global cultural understanding. In this extract from, ‘Lakota America', Pekka Hämäläinen explores the history of the Lakota Indians and their profound role in shaping America’s history.


This book recovers the untold story of the Lakotas from the 16th into the 21st century, and it also recovers the story of the North American interior, the immense swath of land stretching from the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains and from the Canadian Shield to the edges of the American South. The interior has long been a blind spot in American historical consciousness. In most histories of early America, the story centres on the continent’s outer rim, where Europeans built colonial outposts and rooted themselves in the New World. That is where, supposedly, all the pivotal imperial rivalries over North America took place, France vying for supremacy with England on the eastern seaboard; Spaniards, Comanches, Mexicans, and Americans jostling for position in the Southwest; and Russians pushing down the Pacific Coast in search of pelts and challenging Spain’s claims to California. The interior world was a sideshow, too marginal to stir potent imperial passions, too vast and vicious for proper colonies. It was Thomas Jefferson’s imagined Louisiana whose settlement would take a thousand generations. Jefferson’s myopia will no longer do. The great interior, the setting of this book, was a dynamic, cosmopolitan, and intensely contested world. Dozens of Indian nations and four colonial powers sought to rule parts or all of it, producing a shifting constellation of expansions, conquests, retreats, and collapses. Here, for generations, Lakotas were key players within a larger coalition of seven Sioux nations, clashing or allying with nearly all the other contestants at one time or another. The Sioux confederation was formidable, but it was also dangerously isolated, separated by numerous Native rivals from the colonial frontiers where power-giving novelties – guns, powder, iron – flowed inland. Becoming central people, drawing Europeans and their goods to them, became an all-important quest for Lakotas and their allies. It was the most paradoxical of expansions, Indians cajoling European empires to come to them in a desperate effort to prevail over Native rivals. It took roughly a hundred years, but by the mid-18th century the Sioux had succeeded. Their homelands between the Great Lakes and the Missouri Valley were a geopolitical hot spot where the most promising of the European imperial projects, New France, made its bid for continental hegemony with the Sioux nations on its side. It was then and there that Lakotas began to detach from the Sioux confederation, launching an expansion of their own that saw them becoming the dominant people in the great interior. It was a massive gamble.

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Drawn by bison and horses in the West, they were pulling away from the major continental trade corridors, entering a strange new world in the western plains that was on the verge of transforming from a backwater into an imperial crossroads. As Lakotas shifted westward, an array of competing empires rushed in, seeking to control the deep interior and its rivers, wealth of furs, and thousands of potential Native allies, only to realise that the interior was not theirs for the taking. The Spanish, French, British, and American Empires did not simply clash in the heart of the continent; they converged on the expanding Lakota realm. How Lakotas harnessed that imperial cauldron to serve their interests – how they learned to cut the newcomers to size – is one of the great untold stories in American history. By the time Lewis and Clark plunged – quite innocently so – into the cauldron in 1804, Lakotas were ascendant people who saw themselves as the rightful rulers of the North American interior. Like the French, British, and Spaniards before them, Americans had to readjust their imperial ambitions around Lakota ones. The great paradox of Lakota history is that by helping prevent the realisation of other Wests – French, British, Spanish – Lakotas inadvertently paved the way for an American West and, eventually, their own downfall. Yet, as the pages that follow will show, for half a century after the Louisiana Purchase Lakota and U.S. interests converged rather than collided. The two nations pushed westward in tandem as military allies and trading partners. Lakotas transformed themselves into formidable equestrian people capable of shaping human fates on a vast scale, and Americans were their firm allies, one of the many peoples who had realised where power lay. How this happened, how two expansionist people managed to coexist in the same space, each feeling safe and certain of its supremacy, is a historical conundrum that needs an explanation.

It also requires a new way of looking at Indian-white relations, empires, and space. North American historical writing has a long tradition in the study of cross-cultural relations and has spawned a number of models – the frontier, the borderland, the middle ground – that help explain how different societies and cultures have clashed and coexisted in the past. A set of assumptions, some clearly articulated, others more vaguely sensed, runs through this scholarship: that a collision of two expanding powers must result in either a retreat or a borderland where power and authority are perpetually contested; that empires are mutually repelling organisms that can overlap only at their far-flung edges; and that mutual weakness, inability to dictate terms to others, is the necessary ingredient for enduring coexistence between Indians and colonists.

The history of the Lakota-U.S. relations challenges all those assumptions. Lakotas and Americans expanded simultaneously into the West, often claiming the same tracts of land and water. Their regimes overlapped and interpenetrated rather than brushed against one another, and yet they managed to coexist for two generations, well into the 1850s. How and why this happened was an outcome of many factors, but one was crucial: neither Lakotas nor Americans compromised their core convictions about themselves and the world. Convinced of the essential rightness of their respective beliefs and principles, they created a yawning mental crevasse where two expansionist powers could fit. They valued, desired, sought, and fought for different things and often talked past one another, which, ironically, made them compatible. It was only when nature itself failed to sustain both that coexistence became impossible. The rise and might of the Lakotas, symbolised by the Lakota-U.S. wars of the 1860s and 1870s, was thus much more than some anomaly in a history that was rolling irresistibly toward U.S. hegemony. Expansion – territorial, commercial, and cultural – had transformed the Lakotas into an imperial power in the midst of another. Seen against this background, the Great Sioux Wars and the Battle of the Little Bighorn take on drastically new meanings. Lakotas were fighting for survival, to protect the bison and their sovereignty, but they were also fighting to keep alive a broader vision of America where coexistence through right thoughts and acts might be possible. By 1876 that vision had guided them for two centuries, pushing them into successful alliances with France, Britain, Spain, the United States, and numerous Native societies, keeping them powerful and safe. It was all but unthinkable to Lakotas that this America had run its course.


© Pekka Hämäläinen from Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, Yale University Press, 2019

Lakota America is shortlisted for the 2020 Al-Rodhan Prize.

Pekka Hämäläinen is Rhodes Professor of American History and Fellow of St. Catherine's College at the University of Oxford. He specialises in early American history with a focus on Native American, environmental, and borderlands history. His landmark work, The Comanche Empire, published by Yale University Press in 2008, received a dozen awards, including the Bancroft Prize and the Merle Curti Award. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Helsinki.

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