Eaglets v. Chickens

Richard White

  • The Sioux: The Dakota and Lakota Nations by Guy Gibbon
    Blackwell, 311 pp, £30.00, December 2002, ISBN 1 55786 566 3

I live and teach in a country as parochial as it is powerful, and there are moments that bring home to me how American I am. Several years ago a colleague, who had served as the American ambassador to Pakistan, tried to arrange a series of meetings between a visiting Pakistani general and teachers and students at Stanford University. In those innocent days before the semi-autonomous tribal regions of Pakistan had become a staple of the coverage of terrorism, and pictures of ‘tribal’ leaders in Iraq graced the pages of every American newspaper, I wasn’t quite sure why he wanted me and my students to meet the general. He told me he thought it might be interesting to compare American Indian history and policy, which had yielded semi-autonomous Indian nations within the larger American polity, to Pakistan with its tribal areas. This should have been obvious to me, but it wasn’t. Something happened in Pakistan and the general cut short his visit. The conversation never took place.

Now, in coverage of the Middle East and elsewhere, the word ‘tribe’ is everywhere. It is loosely used to mean people who are linked by ties of language, kinship and culture that existed prior to, and are separate from, the citizenship of modern states. Journalists present their members as being not quite modern; they sometimes infiltrate states and influence them, but mostly they hover dangerously on the edge of state control. They are assumed to be throwbacks, pictured, like the larger Muslim world, as having somehow managed to inhabit the modern world without themselves being modern. They surface as states collapse. They are represented as dangerous – armed with Kalashnikovs, testy, edgy and ignorant – and yet sometimes necessary as allies. Ultimately, they are hopelessly outmatched in a world of satellite-guided bombs, helicopter gunships hovering over villages, and grim crew-cut special-ops who descend from the sky to kill, capture and disappear.

The United States, however, is also filled with tribes. One of the first American fatalities in Iraq was, I believe, a Hopi Indian woman. For most American Indians, the moment when an expanding nation-state overtook them was in the 19th century. The American state negotiated treaties and guaranteed them a semi-autonomous status they would have to struggle actually to achieve in the 20th century. They are, in part, creatures and creations of the state that overwhelmed them.

The great iconic symbol of such Indian peoples is the mounted warrior of the Great Plains (whose depiction in art owed much to European portrayals of Arab horsemen). These Indian warriors, in the popular imagination of both the United States and the rest of the world, are virtually always Sioux. The 19th-century moments in which the Sioux are frozen are always moments of violence. The choice is between the Battle of the Little Big Horn, where they defeated General George Armstrong Custer, and the first Wounded Knee Massacre, when soldiers of Custer’s old regiment, the Seventh Cavalry, mowed down Ghost Dancers with the combination of military efficiency and cultural confusion that characterises American incursions into the ‘tribal’ areas of the Middle East today. These moments were etched into both Sioux and American consciousness because they were illustrations of larger stories that still influence the US and the Sioux. The Little Big Horn is about Americans as victims, attacked and massacred by a cruel enemy, and thus entitled to righteous revenge. The moment erases everything that led up to it. Wounded Knee is part of the story of the Sioux as victims, a brave people, but outmanned and outgunned, conquered and slaughtered for trying to be Sioux. The complexities of Wounded Knee, too, are erased by the sound of Gatling guns blowing apart women and children. Americans have tried, and will undoubtedly try again, to cast this story and its equivalents as a regrettable tragedy of innocents caught in the crossfire of American soldiers confronting religious fanatics.

The Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee, for all their symbolic power, no more contain the history of the Sioux than they do that of the United States. Guy Gibbon is an archaeologist, but The Sioux is a synthesis of a broad range of scholarship. It is a thoughtful and earnest attempt to examine Sioux history from before contact with Europeans to the present day. The strength of Gibbon’s synthesis is his insistence on making the Sioux a people of history. Tribes, both in certain kinds of scholarship and in the romantic nostalgia for older ways of life that pervades Western cultures, lack history. They exist before history, and history, to the extent that it affects them at all, eats away at them like an acid. In the most troublesome versions they are not only without history, they are antithetical to history. In utopian fantasies of tribal life, Indians exist in harmony with each other and nature. They are walking critiques of modern industrial and post-industrial societies. In this they are nothing if not versatile. As Gibbon points out, ‘New Age religious movements, feminist movements, gay rights movements, alternative health movements and New Ecology movements’ have all embraced ‘traditional’ Indians as models of an alternative world. And these are just the most current variants of ‘noble savagery’.

People who appeal to the idea of the noble savage usually have little interest in modern Indians: they are after purer and more perfect people. The irony of most talk of noble savagery is that people who want to effect change look to a cultural ideal that is supposedly changeless. Any departure from primal perfection is inevitably taken to be a symptom of decline. Modern peoples control the future, creating themselves as they go: tribal peoples emerge fully formed, and their history is a history only of loss. In the end, having lost everything, they disappear. Gibbon wants no part of this ethnographic presentation of ‘distinct, sharply bounded, traditional, unalterable cultures’. Most Sioux ethnographies, he contends, ‘are based on the tacit assumption that there is an ancient and genuine culture to be discovered that the contemporary Sioux have lost or are losing’. Such ethnographies write tribal peoples out of a modern world defined by change.

The idea of genuine, unchanging, traditional cultures is itself, however, a modern construct which is shared by many members of modern tribal groups and by their admirers and sympathisers in Europe and the US. It is, indeed, one of the things that makes tribes so modern. It is also an idea with complicated consequences. In the United States it can create a narrow but privileged cultural authority (knowledge is a product of birth and upbringing and unavailable to outsiders), but it has more often been an invitation to a privileged powerlessness. If Indian knowledge is traditional, what can it say about the modern world? If it is always endangered, how can those who have it do anything other than withdraw? Since traditional culture can only be retained or lost, it strips Indians of a future and makes them cultural zombies. They are the living dead, the past walking among us. Applied to people like the Sioux, such ideas cannot stand much historical scrutiny.

To make his case for the historical Sioux, Gibbon discusses how they were drawn into a world system of ‘commerce and colonisation’ in the 17th century. Sioux culture, already changing, changed in new ways. What it meant to be Sioux was different in 1650, 1750, 1850 and 1950. It is impossible to talk about the Sioux without specifying the time period, and without talking about the historical and cultural context in which soldiers, travellers, anthropologists, historians, archaeologists and Sioux themselves produced knowledge about the Sioux.

There is no clear moment when the Sioux emerged, nor, as Gibbon’s subtitle indicates, is it always clear that the Sioux can usefully be thought of as a single group. Gibbon gives a careful and reasonably clear account of the different ways of being Sioux. They seem best described as an ethnic group composed of distinct tribes that are themselves grouped into larger ‘divisions’ and subdivided into shifting bands. These divisions and bands all emerged at different times. Gibbon defines tribes as ‘generally egalitarian, functionally generalised, multi-community societies linked together through kinship and friendship ties, a common derivation and customs, and a common language’. Eventually, there were four divisions: the Dakota in the east, the Yankton and Yanktonai further west, and the Lakota, the classic mounted horsemen of the Great Plains who formed the spear-point of Sioux expansion. The Dakota, in turn, were subdivided into four tribes: the Mdewakanton, Wapekute, Sisseton and Wahpeton. The Lakota were subdivided into seven tribes: the Brulé, Oglala, Blackfoot Sioux, Hunkpapa, Two Kettle, Sans Arc and Minneconjou. There was never any central authority for any of the broad divisions: it was rare for a leader even to able to be speak for a whole tribe. The basic social unit was the tiyospaye, an economically self-sufficient village or lodge group of interrelated families that acted together during the year.

Although this sort of complexity makes it difficult to associate any modern tribal identity with prehistoric sites, Gibbon carefully and convincingly links the Sioux with archaeological sites of the Woodland Tradition (200 BC to 1650 AD) in Minnesota. These late Woodland sites belong to a group known by archaeologists as the Psinomani. Around 1300 the Psinomani became the people we now call Sioux, ‘with the aggregation of scattered family groups into clustered villages and the formation of tribal alliances’. The ancestors of these family groups had been in the Central Mississippi Valley for two to three thousand years.

From this speculative origin, the Sioux eventually split into the numerous groups of the mid-19th century. The Dakota maintained a foothold in the Mississippi Valley; the Yankton and Yanktonai established themselves on the prairies and eastern margins of the Great Plains; the Lakota expanded west to the Rockies and south onto the Central Great Plains. Taken as a whole, this was a history of expansion, transformation and, for a long time, of power and success. Tracing their history involves detailing the Sioux’s relations with empires and later with nation-states, with the fur trade, with exotic biological imports such as the horse, and with other Indian groups. It involves the Sioux reorganising their society to fight and to trade more effectively. It involves shifts in religion: the Ghost Dance and the Sun Dance developed at particular points, and many Sioux became Christian.

Gibbon details the changes brought by the fur trade: the shifts in location, the demographic changes triggered by new diseases to which the Sioux initially had no resistance, the transformations of material culture, the changes in subsistence and settlement patterns. At the beginning of this transition in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the largest group of the Sioux were the Dakota, who had relied for subsistence on large mammals and wild rice. They came to depend more on agriculture and the trapping of small mammals. The fur trade was as much a matter of political and social relationships – the creation of kinspeople, friends and allies – as it was an economic exchange. With its complicated and unstable combination of gift giving, commodity trading, theft and debt, it shaped the Sioux’s relations with the French, the British and later the Americans.

As the Dakota were squeezed to the edges of their original homelands by the expansion of the Ojibwe and Sac and Fox, other Sioux were breaking away from them. At first, they travelled in pursuit of fur-bearing animals, but increasingly they explored the opportunities offered by the combination of horses and bison on the prairies and plains to the west.

As the Lakota pushed west to become mounted buffalo hunters and warriors, the differences between the Sioux groups multiplied. The Lakota were as expansionist as the Americans, and their way of life – scattered for much of the year in relatively small bands – made them less vulnerable to smallpox than the villagers in the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa towns along the Missouri. The Americans compounded these advantages by vaccinating many of the Sioux in the 1830s. Suffering less from subsequent epidemics than their enemies did, they expanded at the expense of these enemies. Yet there continued to be strong connections between the groups. Individual Sioux moved from one group to another. A Dakota could become a Lakota. After the failed Minnesota uprising by the Dakota against the Americans in 1862, refugee Dakota fled west to the Yankton, Yanktonai and Lakota.

The great political problem of the Sioux in the mid to late 19th century was how to deal with the expanding American state. The relationship between the Sioux and the United States was never simple. The Lakota, for example, were American allies for much of the 19th century. When they eventually confronted the US army they won significant victories, but, no matter how effective they were on the battlefield, they could not sustain a modern war carried into their homeland by professional soldiers. The US army pressed them in all seasons; it had enormous advantages in firepower, and, sustained by a modern economy, it could be endlessly resupplied and reinforced. The Americans had subjugated the Lakota by 1877, the year after Custer’s defeat. The Dakota, pressed by the Ojibwe, their economy undercut by the collapse of the fur trade, and increasingly surrounded by American settlers, had sought an accommodation with the Americans much earlier. The failure of this accommodation led to the uprising in 1862.

Military defeat was inevitable by the late 19th century, and it mattered less than the Sioux’s ‘heart-rending and complex’ adjustment to reservation life. The Sioux economy was in a shambles; the people’s health deteriorated in the reservations and the Americans took many Sioux children away to be indoctrinated. Under the Dawes Act, much of the reservation land that remained to the Sioux was broken up into individual plots that were assigned to them whether or not they wanted them. Much of the remainder was opened to American settlement. The Americans banned many existing social customs and religious practices. The Sioux grew poorer and diminished in number.

The goal of this suppression, although Gibbon does not put it this way, was to individualise the Sioux and other Indian peoples. The United States would not need to destroy the tribes and abolish the treaties they had agreed with them because the Sioux would turn into Christian farmers with ordinary school educations; they would choose American citizenship with its constitutional freedoms over tribal membership. Suppression would encourage ‘voluntary’ assimilation. In effect, the people native to the country would behave in the way that Americans imagined immigrants should behave.

The actual history was far more complicated, and Gibbon’s account details many of the complexities. Tribes that the Americans thought would be hollowed out from within were, by the same process that asserted American power over them, legally constituted as semi-sovereign nations within a larger nation-state. Regarded as relicts, tribes were nonetheless recognised and reconfigured by the modern state; and, in their altered form, they were not incompatible with modernity. The idea that being Sioux and being American posed a binary choice proved false. By the early 20th century it was possible to be a member of a reservation community of the Sioux nation and an American citizen. It was possible to be Christian and to participate in ‘traditional’ religious practices. It was also possible to take part in new syncretic religions such as Peyotism, which became institutionalised in the Native American Church. Educated Sioux became spokespeople for new pan-Indian identities which added yet another layer to the complex loyalties of individual Sioux, who might now be, for example, lala, Lakota, Sioux, Indian and American. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, new Sioux identities and practices were evolving. These were, even more than Gibbon acknowledges, always in conversation with the larger culture. Indians created their own narratives about their identity and place in the larger American nation.

Framed as indigenous, these identities were in fact hybrids. Gibbon, who is usually careful about identifying ‘authentic’ Sioux voices, has modern Sioux contesting ‘Western discourse’, but there was, and is, no easy way to disentangle Sioux narratives from the ‘Western discourse’ they are said to oppose. The Sioux have adopted Western discourses about Indians, just as Americans have assimilated Sioux understandings of the United States. The changing valence of the Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee are good examples. The Little Big Horn has ceased to be a ‘massacre’ by Indians and has become a military victory; Custer is more often regarded as a fool or a villain than as a hero. Wounded Knee is no longer celebrated as an American military victory worthy of numerous medals of honour, but has instead become a slaughter of women and children.

The New Deal significantly increased the political and cultural autonomy of the Sioux, but it remained limited and contested. Alien structures and institutions of representative government were imposed, with tribal councils turned into a centralised power that many Sioux thought dangerous and oppressive. It wasn’t only the changes on the reservations that mattered. Within the larger society, there was a political reaction against increased Indian self-governance, which eventually led to an attempt, beginning in the late 1940s, to terminate the government’s treaties with the tribes and abolish their special status. The attempt failed, but military service and new employment opportunities pulled Sioux off the reservations and into urban areas during and after World War Two.

The migration to cities meant that the Sioux split into urban Indians and reservation Indians, but many moved between the categories, living sometimes in one place and sometimes in another, leading to new kinds of cross-fertilisation. The American Indian Movement, for example, began in Minneapolis-St Paul among urban Sioux and Ojibwe in the 1960s, but spread back to the Pine Ridge reservation, where it became involved in disputes between opposing factions, usually labelled ‘traditionalists’ and ‘mixed-bloods’. When AIM seized the hamlet of Wounded Knee, the federal government conducted a long siege that received heavy media coverage. Far less attention was paid to the brutal mini civil war which followed.

The modern Sioux are plagued by modern social problems. At the beginning of the 21st century, their population is increasing rapidly and they are experiencing a cultural revival that aims to reinforce a common identity. At the same time, they are divided among themselves and spread out far beyond their reservations, where only roughly half of the Sioux population lives. They remain disproportionately poor, and rank at the bottom of virtually every social indicator, with worse health, higher death rates and higher rates of unemployment than Americans as a whole. The Pine Ridge reservation is often cited as the poorest place in the United States. They survive as ‘an amalgam of related, conscious ethnic groups’ among, and intermarried with, other ethnic groups. Most ‘contemporary Sioux are multicultural and of mixed-blood ancestry.’

Having created a persuasive portrait of historical change, struggle and hybridity, Gibbon becomes oddly hesitant at the end of the book. Some passages seem to undercut his own most compelling arguments. He almost reflexively repeats the cliché that ‘a people’s language is the soul of their culture,’ even though he has stated that few Sioux today speak Dakota or Lakota. English is their lingua franca, and he has shown the culture to be resilient and vibrant with or without the Dakota and Lakota languages.

In part his reversal has to do with the current politics of Indian country, which have taken on an essentialist tinge, but his closing anecdote is something more. He tells a folk tale about two eagle’s eggs placed by accident in a chicken farm. When visited by an eagle and told they were meant to soar and fly, not peck and scratch, the eaglets resist, until one takes a chance and is restored to his true life. The true life, in this story, must be in the blood, it must be unchanging; it is a primal identity. The Sioux by this logic must be defined by race rather than history, to put it crudely. Their true nature, which is wild and free and not domesticated and confined, is within them from birth. Virtually everything in this book until this last story undercuts this conclusion. The Sioux live, as Sioux, among the rest of us 21st-century chickens.