An Empire Hidden In Plain Sight: Lakota America By Pekka Hamalainen

In Lakota America, historian Pekka Hamalainen does what few histories of America do: present Native Americans not only from their own point of view, but in a way that recognizes their agency and choices.

Before picking this book up, I confess to not knowing much about the Lakota peoples apart from the broad outlines, and even then, I knew mostly about Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee.

In this book, Hamalainen attempts to provide a comprehensive history of the Lakota people in a single volume. It’s very ambitious. I learned a lot – but at times the prose slipped into something more like an encyclopedia article rather than a narrative of history. Thorough but dry and somewhat removed.

This is particularly true as Hamalainen explores the first couple of centuries of the Lakota after Columbus. These parts of the book are much more of a birds-eye view of things, without a lot of perspective from the people on the ground. That changes as the story progresses into the 19th century, which is when the Lakota hit the peak of their power, building an empire in the American west and outwitting the European powers arrayed against it.

It’s this part of the book that’s the most fascinating, as Hamalainen explores the different views, values and perspectives of Lakota leaders like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, not to mention the fascinating way in which these leaders wielded economic and social power in Western America.

If there’s one thing I wish there were more of, it would be the story of the Lakota after Wounded Knee, which is briefly covered in the book mostly as epilogue, but without nearly the depth the other centuries saw in the book. There’s a lot of history after that and it would have been interesting to know more about how the Lakota withstood the imperial pressures of the United States and maintained their own cultural integrity.

That said, this was still a worthwhile book and helped fill in a tapestry of American history that’s often never spoken of. I recommend it.

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