In college I took a transformative class entitled “Native Americans Making North America.” It was an upper-level history course and the expected reading was heavy—often an entire book every week, plus other selections. One of those assigned books was Pekka Hämäläinen’s acclaimed debut work The Comanche Empire. Although I enjoyed the chapters I was able to read, I ended up having to skim through most of the book the day before the in-class discussion. I still have The Comanche Empire on my bookshelf, but I’ve never read it cover to cover.
When I perused the Ketchikan Public Library a few weeks ago—wearing a mask, not touching any books unnecessarily—I was suddenly struck by the name Pekka Hämäläinen. He published a new book in October of 2019, Lakota America, and my wonderful local library had acquired it.
I then realized I had a chance at REDEMPTION if I could read Lakota America cover to cover, atoning for my failure to finish The Comanche Empire. Over the last two weeks, I did it! And, after putting in all that effort to read Lakota America, I figured I should share my thoughts. Here’s my review:
When reviewing a dense historical tome like Lakota America, I think it’s wise to first address its readability. The text itself is 392 pages long, with occasional maps and images. Then there are another 106 pages of endnotes, which is where you have to go if you want to examine Hämäläinen’s sources, since there is no bibliography provided. In general, I don’t think the academic vocabulary used in Lakota America is particulary difficult or extreme. A larger problem is that terms in Lakota and other languages are used without careful attention to consistently providing English definitions. (Reminding readers of definitions in parentheses or footnotes would have been kind.) However, there is a Lakota glossary in the back of the book, and for all other terms there’s Google!
The difficulty in reading Lakota America is not that the writing is overly convoluted or academic; it’s that the content is so dense and comprehensive. A Goodreads review by “Dustin” states that the book “reads like an extremely long encyclopedia entry.” Although I think that sentiment goes a bit too far, Dustin has a point. The book is billed as “the first comprehensive history of the Lakota,” addressing nearly 400 years of history from the early 1600s to the present. Hämäläinen also explicitly states that he wants to make the Lakota “unfamiliar again” (4) by focusing on the lesser-known parts of Lakota and Dakota history and by de-centering and de-emphasizing well-known events like the Battle of the Little Bighorn or the Massacre at Wounded Knee, challenging the sense among many Americans that these are events that all of Lakota history leads up to.
I think Hämäläinen’s goal here is understandable, admirable, and beneficial, and he is entirely successful in achieving it. However, it is worth warning would-be readers that this work consciously rejects a beginning-middle-end narrative format. If that premise doesn’t faze you, and you’re intent on learning all you can about the history of the Lakota and Dakota people, then this book is for you!
Why Not “The Lakota Empire”?
One of the first questions I had when I began reading Lakota America was about its title: Surely Hämäläinen was bound to make the same general point about the Lakota that he had made about the Comanche in his book The Comanche Empire — that this powerful Indigenous nation had constructed an empire, even if it hasn’t often been recognized as such. Why wouldn’t this book follow that precedent with a title like The Lakota Empire? If the Comanche created an empire, didn’t the Lakota create one too?
Well, the easy answer to that question is yes — Hämäläinen does acknowledge that the Lakota created an empire on the northern Great Plains, similar but not entirely equivalent to the empire he argued was created by the Nʉmʉnʉʉ (Comanche) on the southern plains. However, Hämäläinen does not make any extensive comparison between the Lakota and the subject of his previous work, nor does he go to any lengths to qualify how much of an empire the Lakota created, or when it may have begun or ended.
In this work, I think Hämäläinen moved away from the idea that Indigenous history needs to be legitimized or brought greater attention through emphasizing potentially sensational terms and ideas like “empire.” Indeed, it’s clear that he does not believe the Lakota were an imperial power for all or even most of their history, so focusing on the time period in which he could claim a “Lakota Empire” existed would detract from his foremost goal of writing a comprehensive work that brings the unfamiliar history of an otherwise well-known Indigenous nation to light. Instead, Hämäläinen demonstrates the might and adaptability of Lakota and Dakota people through focusing on the actions they took and choices they made throughout the entirety of their turbulent past, not just some time of imperial dominance.
I have taught a unit on Lakota history as part of a high school U.S. History course, and in early 2017 I believe I did a pretty good job of drawing my students’ attention to the relevance of mid-19th century treaties, the creation and destruction of Native reservations, and late 20th-century Native political movements in looking at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests going on at that time. After reading Lakota America, I wouldn’t say that anything I taught about the Lakota in the past was wrong, but my knowledge was certainly incomplete.
The most revealing thing I did in any of my lessons about the Lakota was that I made a “Lakota history timeline” and started that timeline “around 1800” with the statement that “The people of the Lakota (“Sioux”) nation dominated the northern Great Plains at this time through their recently-adopted horse culture.” There’s nothing terribly incorrect with that sentence, and many Americans’ understanding of the Lakota would probably begin with something like that sentence. However, Americans’ ignorance of Lakota history before the 19th century is precisely one of the problems Hämäläinen is writing to counteract!
Hämäläinen explains, “Through a quick rear-view look, Lakotas enter the scene fully formed as fierce horse-mounted hunter-warriors…” (2) but for most of their history, the Lakota weren’t the dominant people of the plains. Much of their life was focused on river valleys, and it took generations to adopt horse culture and build large herds. Often the Lakota weren’t even the best-armed Indigenous group in their region!
One of the greatest revelations from Lakota America is all of the rich history of Lakota and Dakota people that comes from the 17th and 18th centuries. I was vaguely aware that the Lakota and Dakota had lived further to the east, around present-day Wisconsin, and then moved westward, but the story of that movement, and all of the conflicts and cooperation that accompanied it, is downright epic. Here’s my attempt to outline it in a single sentence: The Lakota and Dakota repeatedly adapted to changing conditions in their world, accomodated and exploited other actors—including the French, British, Spanish, and American empires, as well as other Indigenous nations—and blazed a new trail for their people into the west that led to the creation of their own empire. Read the book for all the rich details!
The other great revelation Pekka Hämäläinen provides in Lakota America is that he reframes our understanding of “westward expansion” in the narrative of U.S. history. There are times in this story when the U.S. government and military seem surprisingly weak, vulnerable, ignorant, naïve, or all of the above—and those descriptors are rarely seen in many tellings of American history. I kept anticipating there would be a point in the chronology when the imperial power of the Lakota would reach its peak, and then the subsequent decline in the face of American expansion would be clear. No such moment came. The way Hämäläinen portrays the Lakota 19th century, pressures were gradually rising due to deteriorating ecological conditions, (namely, the decline of bison populations), but the Lakota continued to persevere, adapt, succeed, and make astonishing displays of power all the way up to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. That battle in and of itself was not a climax or an endpoint, (Hämäläinen spends only about 5 pages on the battle), but it was yet another example of “Lakota America’s” strength.
The last major question I should address is how Lakota America can be used in education, and what impacts it can or should have on our common historical understandings.
Perhaps I don’t need to say this, but there’s no way I could assign any significant portion of Lakota America as reading in any of my high school history courses. Most of my students wouldn’t be able to crack it. I could try to select passages of a few pages or less that could be read as part of an in-class activity, (I did as much in the past with passages from The Comanche Empire), but the issue with Hämäläinen’s writing is that it’s largely a “slow burn” of profound conclusions that accumulate over the course of many paragraphs, pages, and chapters. In other words, he doesn’t provide many “snappy” passages that I could use to give my students a solid summary of his findings. If anyone out there is willing to produce a “SparkNotes” summary of the book, I’m sure educators around the country would love it!
Probably my greatest wish for a pedagogical tool from Lakota America would be to have a thorough but concise timeline of all the major developments described in the book. The book is structured as a pretty strict chronology, so it wouldn’t be too difficult to make a timeline myself, but it would have been awesome if one was provided. The goal for the timeline would be to illustrate succinctly the whole scope of Lakota and Dakota history—from the 17th-century struggles in the forests of the Great Lakes region to the 18th-century expansion into the river valleys of the Missouri and its tributaries, and on to the 19th-century domination of the Great Plains. Most fundamentally, I think today’s American high school students need to understand that Indigenous peoples’ histories are as deep, rich, and complex as the histories of any other place or nation—including the United States. The “big picture” view of Lakota history that Hämäläinen provides is an amazing resource to pursue that end.
One of the reasons I’m so passionate about teaching history is that it’s a constant struggle to negotiate what narratives of the past are believed and promoted in our society. (We can of course quote Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”) When it comes to Lakota America, there are any number of critical points made in the book that I wish the broad American public was more aware or accepting of. Here are three big ones:
- European empires never conquered or controlled the entirety of North America; there were always powerful and independent Indigenous nations that held sway over large parts of the continent.
- The United States was just as much an imperial power in North American history as France, Britain, and Spain were. We can’t deny that the United States actively conquered lands and subjugated Indigenous peoples.
- Indigenous people are not a monolith, and many Native groups had longstanding historical conflicts. However, none of that conflict provides any moral justification for the realities of U.S. conquest and oppression.
That final point calls to mind a recent tweet I responded to:
This apologist for American colonialism would learn a great deal from reading Lakota America, although I doubt he has the intellectual honesty to read anything that would overturn his beliefs or even the intellectual curiosity to read anything centered on Indigenous people. His central claim that “the [Lakota] stole [the land] from the Cheyenne, who had stolen it from the Kiowa” is just flatly false, although it might be loosely based on a couple dubious sentences in the “Black Hills” Wikipedia article.
Aside from that, however, it’s clear that many Americans still have a long way to go in understanding and acknowledging how the United States was created. I don’t have any easy answers for the problem of how to change our society’s perceptions of the past, but if we each do as much as we can to keep learning and sharing our knowledge, I think that’s a great place to start.
There are many points and issues that I could have explored more in this review, such as the accessibility of academic writing, Hämäläinen’s use of Lakota primary sources, and the intellectual bankruptcy of equating Indigenous conflicts with settler colonialism. If any of those topics sparks your interest, please leave a comment below and I’ll be more than happy to elaborate.
Pekka Hämäläinen’s new work Lakota America satisfied my expectations in every way: I knew it was bound to transform my understanding of Lakota history and introduce me to a treasure trove of new knowledge. If you share my desire to learn as much about America’s Indigenous peoples as possible, and you have the stamina to tackle 392 dense pages, I have to recommend that Lakota America should be at the top of your reading list. I’m so glad that I challenged myself to read this book cover-to-cover, and now I know I have to fully redeem myself by reading all of The Comanche Empire too.