Author Interview--Pekka Hämäläinen (Lakota America) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Pekka Hämäläinen to talk about his new book Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, published by Yale University Press.
Pekka Hämäläinen is Rhodes Professor of American History and Fellow of St. Catherine’s College at Oxford University. Besides a large number of articles, he has also published The Comanche Empire with Yale University Press. The book won the Bancroft Prize in 2009.

Pekka, to start, could you tell us how a suomalaiset gets interested in, first, the Comanche and now the Lakota? Also, what is your argument in Lakota America?

PH: When I was a student at the University of Helsinki, I wrote a couple of seminar papers on Native American history. I then ended up writing my MA thesis on the impact of European expansion and colonialism on Plains Indian nations. It was pretty mechanistic stuff, I have to say. Back then, I was really excited about the French annalists and their ideas of macro-scale history (well, I still am). That drew me to try to write a comprehensive history of the Plains Indians, an annales-style total history, of some 30 nations in all. This was to be my PhD dissertation, and I struggled. In the middle of that project, writing about southern Plains, I came to the Comanches, and I fairly soon realized there was a rather big gap in the scholarship. The Comanches seemed to be all over the place, raiding, trading, conducting diplomacy. I started to wonder what was going on.
So in the end I wrote my dissertation and then a book about the Comanche Empire, but my earlier research had left a lasting interest in the northern Plains and, more broadly, the great North American interior. About five years ago I started to run a research project on nomadic empires in world history, funded by the European Research Council. I then finally had the time and resources to launch a project on Northern Plains and Lakota history.
The basic argument of Lakota America is the centrality of the Lakota nation in American history. There is a lot of superb scholarship on Lakota history, but most studies tend to take the Battle of the Little Big Horn as a guiding coordinate and trace the immediate events and developments, essentially the military build-up leading up to it. I went further back, and the book shows how the Lakotas and the other Ocheti Sakowin [writing this on phone, I'll send you the exact spelling using the correct symbols later] profoundly shaped the colonial and Indigenous histories from the late 17th century onward. So to put it succinctly, I argue that we can't really understand early American history and European colonialism in North America without the Lakotas and their allies in the center.


Pekka, a history of 30 tribes sounds like an ambitious project to fill an entire career, much less a dissertation, but I hope you are going to look at other tribal people in the future, like Apacheria. Speaking of other scholarship, I do want to talk a little about methodology. I remember Ari Kelman in a video mentioning that when he wrote about the Sand Creek Massacre that he very closely worked with the Cheyenne and provided them his manuscript for approval. How was your interaction with the Lakota? How easily did you get access to Lakota sources?

PH: As for Lakota sources, there is plenty, because they played such a central and enduring role in American history, and they still do. That centrality has produced masses of government reports, agency letters, travel accounts, fur traders’ journals, and other documents produced by French, British, Americans, and Canadians. However, the most important body of sources were the Lakota, Dakota, Yankton and Yanktonais winter counts, waníyetu iyáwapi (Waníyetu means “to be winter” and iyáwapi “to count.”). 
At once a record of the past and an active form of remembering, winter counts are a remarkable source that allowed me to illuminate the astounding variety and raw immediacy of Lakota experiences. Winter counts are often emotionally charged and they show not only what happened but also how Lakota people felt about events and outcomes; they draw attention to the mundane and reveal the sublime. Perhaps most importantly, as a body of historical record, winter counts capture what mattered to Lakotas most. They definitely do not adhere to Euroamerican accounts of major historical events and developments and open an alternative, counterhegemonic window into the American past, allowing us to observe Native motives and meanings directly, without a foreign filter.
The winter counts are the documentary spine of Lakota America. I started every new theme or historical period by reading through all the relevant winter counts, anchoring the narrative to Lakota perspectives and priorities. Only after that did I delve into European colonial and U.S. documents. Often the winter counts and Euromerican sources overlapped, but the most exciting things, to me as a historian, where the many instances when they did not. Those moments opened windows into key events and developments that could have strikingly different meanings for Lakotas and the colonial powers. It was also essential to draw from Lakota myths, legends, and recorded traditions when writing about important events, turning points, and epochs in Lakota history. Many of these events were political in nature while also carrying profound sacred meaning. The arrival of the Lakotas to Pahá Sápa, the Black Hills, is a major case in point.
I visited the Lakota country twice during the research, and talked with elders, librarians, educators, community leaders, activists, and many others. People were very generous with their time and insights, which helped my interpretations and writing immensely.  In the spring of 2018 I was able to be at Fort Laramie National Historical Site when thousands of Lakotas and representatives from other Native nations gathered there to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. It was a powerful experience that thought me a lot about how Lakota people think about such crucial issues as sovereignty, self-determination, the unilateral seizing of the Black Hills, the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the broader relations with the U.S. government.


You mention the winter counts and you have a few pictures in the book of winter counts that you used--could you explain a little how to read these winter counts? How to interpret them? I assume they are leather animal skins.

PH: Winter counts are an Indigenous archive, a Lakota way of recording history. Each Lakota community had a historian who traced the passage of time by drawing on a buffalo hide a pictograph of a single memorable event for each year. (This was the traditional method. Later winter count keepers used cloth, muslin, and paper.) The winter counts are essentially mnemonic devices for collective remembering. Each winter count covered roughly a century, give or take, and the most common design seems to have been a spiral that starts from the center expanding outward. There are hundreds of known winter counts, and of course there were many, many more that historians don't know about.
The winter counts were and are an oral tradition. Later, however, captions were added to explain the pictographs, which allows non-Lakotas to understand them. The winter counts are the documentary spine of "Lakota America." When I started a new section in the book, I always started by reading the winter counts for the period in question. Only after that, I delved into US government documents and other non-Lakota sources. The story that emerged from the government documents yielded a clear but somewhat sterile narrative. By contrast, as a body of historical record, winter counts captured what fascinated Lakotas and mattered to them most. Often, they moved the Lakota story away from what we have considered major events and developments. They opened an alternative, counterhegemonic window into Lakota history and, by extension, American history, broadly conceived. Given the vast library of books on the Sioux Wars, many people have come to understand Lakotas as people defined by war. Winter counts powerfully refute that image. Even the biggest battles -- Fetterman and Little Bighorn -- do not figure prominently in the winter counts I have seen.
Quite a lot of the known winter counts have been reproduced and published in various collections. There is a major collection by the Smithsonian called "The Year the Stars Fell," which I used a lot. A young Lakota scholar, Dakota Goodhouse, generously shared his work on winter counts with me, which was immensely helpful.