Power  /  Book Review

The Power Brokers

A recent history centers the Lakota and the vast territory they controlled in the story of the formation of the United States.

In the spring of 1870 Congress was in the process of debating the Indian Appropriations Bill. While the bill’s main purpose was to renew or enhance funding for Native peoples and communities, it contained a rider that finally formally ended what is known as the treaty period of federal Indian policy: no longer would Indian tribes be treated as independent nations. Rather, Native people would be treated as individuals, and they would henceforth be considered “wards” of the state. Native Americans weren’t considered, and certainly were not treated as, citizens (of the United States or any other nation). Instead, the rhetorical categories of the “Great White Father” and his pitiful “Red Children” were codified into law. But this had been merely one of many possible futures, as Pekka Hämäläinen—a Finnish scholar of American Indian history—makes clear in Lakota America, his profound history of the Lakota people.

Watching from the gallery of the Senate during deliberations about the bill was the Oglala Lakota war chief Red Cloud. Red Cloud had, several years earlier, led a coalition of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho bands in a series of battles against the United States and won. In the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, he had secured for his people a huge homeland: called the Great Sioux Reservation, it was 48,000 square miles and included not only the Black Hills for the Lakota, stretching from western South Dakota to Wyoming, but also “unceded” lands in North Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana, where “no white person or persons” was allowed to settle. This treaty effectively pushed the US out of the upper Great Plains, seriously jeopardizing the very idea of a transcontinental America.

There is no record of what Red Cloud thought as he watched the debate in 1870. There is no way to know if he understood the nature of the discussion, just as there is no way to know, truly, how keen and competent and brilliant he was, how much history he had at his command, and how that history informed his future decisions. But it would be foolish to underestimate Red Cloud or, by extension, the confederation of bands that called themselves the Lakota. Blinded by Eurocentrism and myths about “savages,” the US military had recently paid a steep price for being dismissive of the Lakota Empire that controlled the heart of the heartland. The Lakota had been interacting with foreigners—both Native and European—in their lands for centuries, and with Americans for nearly a hundred years. Though the Americans’ expressions of power waffled between almost orgiastic bloodletting and republican idealism and restraint, the Lakota understood well that the state wanted their lands and that profit was the motive behind much, if not all, of the Americans’ conduct.