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Lakota America

Pekka Hamalainen—

In 1776 two nations were born in North America. One was conceived in Philadelphia, the other in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and they were separated by more than seventeen hundred miles. Exactly a century later those two nations would clash violently along the Little Bighorn River in what is today southern Montana. It was a collision between two radically different expanding powers that had conquered their way into the West, and its outcome was spectacular. Lakotas and their Cheyenne allies killed more than two hundred soldiers of the Seventh U.S. Cavalry, destroying five of its twelve companies. Remembered as Custer’s Last Stand, the fight remains one of the most famous, intensely studied, and passionately debated battles in history. 

While the fight itself was not transformative—after all, the railroad was coming and the buffalo were almost gone its ironies and symbolic resonances are unparalleled and, it seems, boundless: the worst defeat the United States suffered in the late nineteenth-century Indian wars and on the cusp of its centennial; a ferocious, flamboyant Indian fighter meeting his fate at the hands of Indians who disposed of him routinely and effectively; a single death that has refused to die as a metaphor, signifying, for different ages, heroism, ignorance, arrogance, and, perhaps most pointedly, savagery—first the Indians’, later Custer’s own.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn was a moment when American history accelerated and turned violently. A perfect victory demanded a perfect retribution, and it sent the Indians into a spiraling decline and sealed the United States’ continental hegemony. Within a year, Custer’s Last Stand had spawned a reckoning that broke the power of the Lakotas and their allies in the northern plains. The Battle of the Little Bighorn fixed the Lakotas, embodied by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, in historical memory and made them an object of enduring fascination. A historical sequence that saw an Indigenous power deliver a humiliating blow to a rising industrial behemoth, only to soon suffer a devastating defeat by the U.S. military, continues to mesmerize because its meanings resonate so broadly—from America’s imperial hubris to the moral complexities of the Vietnam War, from the present-day struggles between nation-states and non-state actors to the confounding unpredictability of history itself. Dee Brown’s acclaimed work, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, remains the most read book on Native Americans in part because it captured those meanings so evocatively.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn has both elevated and diminished the Lakotas in the American mind. Like the Battles of Yorktown and Gettysburg, it is a cultural touchstone around which American identity and self understanding revolves. But unlike the American Revolution or the Civil War, the Lakota story lacks a comprehensive study. There are hundreds of superb works on different aspects of Lakota history from social organization to religious life to the shifting relations with the United States, but most of them take the Little Bighorn as a guiding coordinate, tracing the immediate events—essentially the military buildup—leading up to it. Through a quick rear-view look, Lakotas enter the scene fully formed as fierce horse-mounted hunter-warriors who give Lewis and Clark pause with their haughty confidence, a premonition of the carnage on the Little Bighorn three generations later. The Lakotas of our imagination are props that bookend America’s westward expansion, present at its promise filled inception and at its morally ambivalent finale.

For Lakotas the clash with the United States, culminating in the horror of the Wounded Knee Massacre, was a shattering experience, but it did not define them as a people or their place in history. This book detaches their story from the mainstream historical coordinates, which have reduced them to a foil of the American condition. Here the Lakotas emerge not as quintessential villains or victims, but as central and enduring protagonists who contended with a range of colonial powers since the seventeenth century, variously diverting, foiling, and boosting their ambitions. They emerge as superbly flexible people who went through a series of geneses from pedestrian foragers to sedentary farmers to equestrian hunters to nomadic pastoralists, each a precarious attempt to carve out a safe place in a world where European newcomers had become a permanent presence. They come to life as fiercely proud people who easily embraced outsiders, turning their domain into a vibrant ethnic jumble. Perhaps most strikingly, they emerge as supreme warriors who routinely eschewed violence, relying on diplomacy, persuasion, and sheer charm to secure what they needed—only to revert to naked force if necessary. When the overconfident Custer rode into the Bighorn Valley on that June day, they had already faced a thousand imperial challenges. They knew exactly what to do with him. 

Two centuries earlier, in the middle years of the seventeenth century, the Lakotas had been an obscure tribe of hunters and gatherers at the edge of a bustling new world of Native Americans and European colonists that had emerged in the Eastern Woodlands of North America. They had no guns and no metal weapons, and they carried little political clout, all of which spelled danger: the odds of survival were slim for people who lacked access to Europeans and their new technologies of killing. That crisis set off what may be the most improbable expansion in American history. Lakotas left their ancient homelands and reinvented themselves as horse people in the continental grasslands that stretched seemingly forever into the horizon. This was the genesis of what I call Lakota America, an expansive, constantly transmuting Indigenous regime that pulled numerous groups into its orbit, marginalized and dispossessed its rivals—both Native and colonial—and commanded the political, social, and economic life in the North American interior for generations. Just as there was Spanish, French, British, and the United States of America, there was Lakota America, the sovereign domain of the Lakota people and their kin and allies, a domain they would protect and, if necessary, expand. A century later, the Lakotas had shifted the center of their world three hundred miles west into the Missouri Valley, where they began to transform into a dominant power. Another century later they were the most powerful Indigenous nation in the Americas, controlling a massive domain stretching across the northern Great Plains into the Rocky Mountains and Canada.

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