The Americans and Lakotas — two expansionist powers, as Hamalainen describes them — were occasional allies, oddly compatible for parts of their shared history. Colonial incursions were constant and inventive, however, and the railroad powered “a new kind of arrogance toward the continent’s indigenous peoples.” The sovereignty of the Lakotas depended on bison, and the American government embarked on a program of extermination. In a three-year period, hunting squads killed more than three million bison, close to 3,000 animals a day.
The challenge of writing this history, Hamalainen notes, was making iconic events and figures unfamiliar again, which is never more necessary than at the twilight of the Lakota empire. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Lakotas dealt the Americans a humiliating defeat, and the American Army responded with a campaign of terror, beginning with the Wounded Knee massacre, in which soldiers slaughtered hundreds of Indians. Missionaries and social reformers began their work in zeal; children were taken from families and sent to boarding schools whose explicit mission was to annihilate the Lakotas’ language, religion and culture. Nearly every aspect of Lakota life became subject to surveillance and control. The winter counts are few from these years, reflecting the trauma, the ravages of dispossession and suicide — “colonialism working exactly as intended.”
Hamalainen finds notes of optimism in recent years, however, in the protests around the Dakota Access pipeline, which attracted global attention, and the Lakotas’ unflagging efforts to recover the Black Hills. “Lakotas will endure because they are Iktomi’s people, supple, accommodating and absolutely certain of their essence even when becoming something new,” he writes. “They will always find a place in the world because they know how to be fully in it, adapting to its shape while remaking it, again and again, after their own image.”
It’s tempting to dismiss such a sentiment as unforgivably glib — and a disappointing moment in such an accomplished, and subtle, study. I did at first; how easy it is to appeal to resilience at a comfortable distance, I groused, as if the obligation to endure weren’t itself a brutal burden. When I went to poetry to ward off cliché, I was chastened. In Layli Long Soldier’s spellbinding “Whereas,” a finalist for the National Book Award in 2017, she investigates the wording of treaties and other government communications with Native Americans, noting the violence coiled in official language. In the midst of this muck of doublespeak and prevarication, her own words rise, anthemic. “I am a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “In this dual citizenship, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother” — notice the double meaning of “must,” which describes both what she is forced to endure but also how she goads herself forward. “I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.”