Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Pekka Hämäläinen's Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power - theory and practice

Portland has, by my standards, an outstanding public library, meaning they have new books but also old books, even in languages other than English.  The process of moving has not been good for what I will call intellectual activity, but I now have a new library to play with, and my reading has become a little more ambitious. 

And this book needs to get back to the library, so here it is.

Long ago, I wrote a little four-post series on Pekka Hämäläinen's original and surprising The Comanche Empire (2009), in which Hämäläinen conceives of Comanche-occupied territory as a state, a nomad empire, allowing him to apply a great deal of illuminating international relations theory to what at first seems to be sparse evidence.  Much becomes clear.  He finds an interpretive framework that makes sense of a lot of puzzles.

In Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power (2019), he does something similar with the history of the Lakota Sioux.  The differences are, I think, as follows:

First, the new book is much more synthetic than The Comanche Empire, based less on Hämäläinen’s own archival work and more on that of other historians.  Having said that, it is clear from the notes – not the bibliography; there is no separate bibliography – that the last twenty years, and perhaps especially the last ten, have been an exciting period in the history and anthropology of the interior of America.  There must have been plenty of times when Hämäläinen had to tear up some part of his own book as new archeological or documentary results were disseminated.  The work on Sioux sources, especially the complex pictographic winter counts, is crucial.

Second, and related, Lakota America is more of a narrative history and less of a social history than The Comanche Empire, with more “characters” and with much of the methodology and theory moved to the background.  More readers will likely find the book accessible.  Perhaps that is intentional.

I remember Larry McMurtry, in the New York Review of Books, complaining that there were so many books about Custer and the battle of the Little Bighorn that even he, a top collector of books about the American West, had stopped bothering with “Custeriana” (although a few years later he wrote his own Custer book).  One little irony here is that Lakota America becomes, in the last third or so, another Little Bighorn book, even if here, from the Lakota point of view, it is the battle of the Greasy Grass, and the opposing, losing, general, PȟehíŋŋskA (Long Beard), is neither a martyr nor hero.

But it’s an exciting story from many perspectives; what can you do.  The entire history is an exciting story.

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