Recap: “Lakota America,” Oxford Exchange Lecture w/ Pekka Hämäläinen

Though his October 15 talk at MU, the first in a series of Oxford Exchange Lectures organized by the Kinder Institute, began and ended with the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, St. Catherine’s College Rhodes Chair in American History Pekka Hämäläinen stressed that understanding the significance of this historical touchstone requires tracing the Lakota’s movement across the American interior in the century-plus prior to Custer’s Last Stand. In this, he added, it requires Winter Counts, the Lakota pictorial calendars that mark each year with a specific event and that form the metaphorical spine of the narrative of imperial development that Prof. Hämäläinen unpacks in his new Yale University Press book.

This pre-story began along the St. Lawrence River, with the Sioux surrounded by hostile empires and on the wrong side of a technological divide. From here, the Lakota geographically detached from the larger Sioux confederacy and moved west into the Minnesota River Valley, where horses, being traded from the American Southwest across the interior, reached them in the early 1700s. The Winter Counts marked this as a transcendent event—in some cases, as the beginning of Lakota history—and for Prof. Hämäläinen, it was the first in a series of reinventions that the Lakota underwent on their way to becoming an expansive indigenous empire. Now a horse people, the Lakota embarked on the first concerted westward expansion in American history, entering into a generational war with other tribes on the high west plains as they forged a domain one river valley at a time, all the while inching closer to the region’s strategic center: the Missouri River. The Winter Counts marked these as dark years, but it was also a time when the great technological frontiers converged for the Lakota. British traders, still acknowledging the primacy of a Sioux alliance, outfitted the Lakota with guns, and they became the first peoples to fight on horseback with significant firepower. After the small pox epidemic of 1781 spread up and down the Missouri, the Lakota—shocked by the epidemic but not decimated, as others were—engaged in a series of violent raids that ended with them securing a 200-mile expanse along the plains’ major artery.

In the second of three reinventions that Prof. Hämäläinen would outline, they were now a river people, occupying land along the Missouri between the British empire to the north and the Spanish empire to the south. Seeking outer tributaries that might lead them west to the Pacific, the Spanish in particular would have to learn how to navigate the Missouri without alienating the Lakota who were policing it, a position of weakness that effectively turned the river into a “tribute-reaping machine” for the tribe. Additionally, now fortified by horses, guns, and military power, the Lakota developed a mixed strategy of diplomacy and violence that rendered neighboring tribes, cut off from bison by the Lakota’s territory, needy and reliant. Little changed with the Louisiana Purchase, as Lewis and Clark crashed arrogantly and headlong into the unyielding Lakota Meridian. U.S. forces from the east would go on in the coming decades to build trading posts for the Lakota, sell them guns, and vaccinate them over rivals, an acknowledgment that placating the people whom Clark called “the pirates of the Missouri” was a new normal.

“Sublime and practical,” as Prof. Hämäläinen described them, the seven bands of the Lakota would scatter further west during the 1830s and 1840s, toward the spiritual epicenter of the Black Hills. They would here encounter other horsebound nations, necessitating a final shifting of shape: into a power capable of national mobilization. Though dispersed, through unifying reforms and sophisticated communications networks, the seven Lakota bands kept neighboring nations under constant siege, ultimately gaining control not of people but of resource nodes across the Great Plains in what would be the final step in their becoming “a kinetic empire.” Not even gold rush fever would tear the empire apart. When the U.S. Army brought tribes to Ft. Laramie in 1851 to negotiate safe passage along the Oregon Trail, the Lakota, claiming right of conquest, left with rites to a huge swath of the Great Plains, and they would continue to expand their holdings in the region throughout the 1850s, “hiding their empire in plain sight” as they severed other tribes’ access to resources, namely the thinning herds of bison.

The final chapter in Prof. Hämäläinen’s talk unfolded in the years after the Lakota’s 1862 conflict with the Union Army in the Dakota territory, after which all Sioux were declared enemies of the United States. As a result of this, Prof. Hämäläinen explained, the end of the Civil War brought about two reconstructions: one in the Confederate south and, although rarely cast as such, another to pacify the indigenous west. Initially, at least, the Lakota empire would only grow as a result of this, as the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty, which came on the heels of Red Cloud’s War, would see the U.S. cede more than 400,000 square miles in the Black Hills to the Lakota, making this sacred land off limits to settlers.

Which brings us back to 1876 and the Battle of Little Bighorn, the direct result of U.S. settlers defying the terms of the Ft. Laramie Treaty after gold was discovered in the Black Hills. For Prof. Hämäläinen, this was a battle of two empires that had expanded their way to this “moment of historical acceleration.” The Lakota, as their third reinvention proved, were an organized nation capable of rapid mobilization and highly coordinated military strategy. The U.S., on the other hand, were governed by bravado and ignorance, incapable of mapping, or even understanding, the indigenous systems of communication and power that had developed over the past century. The result on the battlefield was Lakota-controlled chaos and a U.S. defeat that kindled the United States’ imperial hubris and led to a seismic act of military retribution that would break the Lakota’s hold on the high plains.