Lakota Elites, c. 1850s

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 184-185:

In the early nineteenth century Lakota men were born into an increasingly competitive world with an uneven playing field. Boys were raised to be brave and ambitious in war, hunting, horsemanship, and courtship, and aspiring young men had to participate in several raiding expeditions to accumulate enough horses for a dowry. Many accomplished this in their late twenties after which they could settle down to family life, gradually give up raiding, and assume the role of an elder. As their families grew, they could marry off their daughters to other prominent men, receive handsome bride prices, and embed their families into expansive kinship networks that brought prestige, prosperity, and security. The most successful men—those who had become wiča, complete men—could sponsor extravagant feasts and giveaways in their sons’ name, paving their way within the fiercely competitive male sphere. Many celebrated Lakota leaders were born into this kind of privilege and were in turn able to bestow their sons with similar benefits. If competent, their sons could succeed them as hereditary chiefs and assume their names. They Fear Even His Horses the Younger and American Horse the Younger belonged to old and highly esteemed lineages, their names both a privilege and an obligation.

If not quite aristocracy, such men nonetheless possessed decisive advantages over others. Sitting Bull was born into a long line of chiefs and raised by two powerful uncles—Four Horns, a prominent band leader, and Looks-For-Him-in-A-Tent, a renowned war leader—whose eminence reflected on him, propelling his rise among aspiring Hunkpapa men. Camp heralds publicized his exploits as a hunter and a warrior—he earned his first military honors at fourteen, chasing a fleeing Crow on horseback and bringing him down with a hatchet-blow to the head—a position of advantage that blended with his innate spiritual prowess, physical courage, and quiet charisma to elevate him above rivals. He had a powerful dream in a vision quest at a young age and became the leader of the prestigious Strong Hearts warrior society in his mid-twenties.

Curly Hair was the son of Crazy Horse, who was the headman of the leading Hunkpatila band of the Oglalas, which traced a proud lineage of elders and holy men. At the time of Curly Hair’s birth in 1840, his father’s band included over ten tipis of blood relatives and in-laws, all of whom looked to Crazy Horse for spiritual and political leadership. Curly Hair was a child of privilege who grew up having his first steps and words celebrated with public feasts and gifts to the poor. Through his Minneconjou mother Curly Hair found another set of supportive kin relations and a further source of esteem: his family was the key proponent of an Oglala-Minneconjou alliance that shaped Lakota politics for a generation. His family promoted solidarity in both oyátes through giveaways, accruing admiration and followers; High Backbone, an ambitious Minneconjou headman, adopted Curly Hair as his protégé, engaging him in two-way character-hardening play fights and equestrian feats. When Curly Hair became a man and assumed his father’s name, he was primed for success. Young women wanted him for a husband, fathers wanted their daughters to marry him, young men wanted to be his kȟolá, and warriors were willing to follow him into war.

Men like the young Crazy Horse inevitably overshadowed less privileged men who lacked their kin connections, family wealth, and fame. For them the path for social recognition was paved with toil, anxiety, and violence—relentless raiding that gradually, often after several years, yielded enough clout to court women and enough horses and robes to pay bride prices. Lakotas raided and fought several neighboring groups in the mid-nineteenth century, but they did not do so as a monolith. Elite men raided horses to augment their possessions, but, backed with wealthy relatives, they could also afford to focus on collecting coups—war honors earned through audacious exploits like touching the enemy with a hand or a coupstick in the midst of hot battle—which further solidified their credentials as leaders. For other men raiding was an economic necessity that could consume their lives into early middle age. Some of them succeeded in turning themselves into warrior-traders with several wives, but many died trying. Their raw, anguished ambition to become men of substance was a latent impetus behind the expansion that made Lakotas the masters of the northern plains. Red Cloud, who lacked the pedigree of some of his rivals, spent nearly twenty years raiding before he dared to make a formal bid for chieftainship.

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