The Crow vs. Lakota Long War

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 192-193:

In the winter of 1830 Lakotas killed some twenty Crows at Matȟó Pahá (Bear Butte) about twenty miles north of the fabled Racetrack. Crows had attempted to surprise a Lakota camp in an unusually snowy winter, but Lakota herders had detected them. Numerous winter counts recorded the battle, underscoring its importance: it marked the beginning of a war that would last, with short respites, for nearly half a century between Lakotas and Crows—the longest known war in the history of North America.

That the battle took place at Bear Butte was significant. Lakotas had banished Crows from the Black Hills in the 1820s, but the violence persisted, turning a vast arc stretching from the hills toward the North Platte, the Big Horn Mountains, and the Yellowstone into a battleground. At stake were spiritually significant places like Matȟó Pahá and Matȟó Thípila Pahá (Devil’s Tower) where Crows, Lakotas, and Cheyennes gathered to hold ceremonies and seek visions. At stake were also robes, protein, carbohydrates, and timber. The contested terrain, an alluring mosaic of steppes and mountains punctuated by a series of lush and well-forested river valleys, was rich in bison and wild plants and made for some of the best horse pastures in the Great Plains. The fighting became unyielding, bringing violence to the doorstep of the Lakota villages. An 1837 Oglala winter count reported one such incident: “Black-face, who painted half his face black from the nose down, camped away from the circle and was killed by the Crow, he and his whole family.”

The Crow war presented a singular challenge for Lakotas: it was their first full-blown conflict with other horse nomads. Crows were formidable warriors who had acquired horses long before Lakotas, possessed more animals per capita, and were generally known as superior equestrian fighters. They were also well integrated in the fur trade. They visited Fort Union near the Missouri-Yellowstone confluence every year and also rendezvoused with Rocky Mountain trapper-traders who considered the quality of Crow beaver pelts second to none. From both outlets guns, powder, and lead flowed into the Crow country. The experienced fur trader Denig considered the Crows “cunning, active, and very intelligent in everything appertaining to the chase, war, or their own individual bargaining.” Powerful and confident, they looked the part to Denig’s nineteenth-century sensibility. “The warrior class is perhaps the handsomest body of Indians in North America. They are all tall, straight, well formed, with bold, fierce eyes, and as usual good teeth. These also dress elegantly and expensively.”

The Crow-Lakota conflict was an uncompromising tug-of-war over the control of the borderlands that separated the Black Hills from the Crow country to the west. This meant that Crows were fighting in terrain they knew intimately and that Lakotas were entering foreign lands to face an enemy that matched or surpassed their firepower and horsemanship. But Lakotas had a number of advantages that compensated for their weaknesses. Their population dwarfed the five-thousand-strong Crows, and their clustering in Pahá Sápa allowed them to coordinate military action at an unprecedented scale. At the moment the Black Hills became home, they also became a front line.

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Lakotas Arrive in the Black Hills, 1830s

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 167-169:

Oglalas and Sicangus were the first to turn west, ascending the White and Bad [rivers] which offered reliable water and wood, serving as superb passageways. As they inched upriver, they clashed with Kiowas and Crows, pushing the former to the south and the latter to the west. Sicangus joined forces with Cheyennes against the Kiowas, while Oglalas spearheaded campaigns against Crows under the leadership of Bull Bear whose boldness and resolve seemed to have given their operations particular sharpness. By the late 1820s Crows had retreated from the Black Hills into the Powder River country a hundred miles to the west, and Oglalas and Sicangus established themselves on Pahá Sápa’s eastern side. By that time Sans Arcs, Minneconjous, Two Kettles, Sihasapas, and Hunkpapas had also begun to shift west, establishing the Cheyenne and Grand [rivers] as entryways.

Lakotas had turned west, decisively, but they remained people of river valleys first and people of the plains second. They ventured into the western grasslands and Pahá Sápa from multiple points along timbered river valleys and moved back regularly along those same valleys to the Mníšoše [Missouri R.], which remained vital to their cosmology and economy. Essentially protrusions of the Missourian riparian woodlands, the White, Bad, Cheyenne, and other tributaries provided Lakotas with safe and familiar pathways into the West. When they began pulling away from the Missouri, they were not so much casting themselves loose on the open plains but extending their old riverland world into the West.

This tripartite pattern—a trunk line in the east, an elevated, magnet-like anchor in the west, and a row of arterials in between—formed the core of the Lakota world from the 1830s onward. It was in those three places where Lakotas spent most of their time—cooking, eating, sleeping, socializing, smoking, praying, raising children, tending horses, preparing hides, making clothes, tools, and weapons—and where most of them entered and left this world. This was the homeland Lakotas would defend against invaders and, when needed, expand.

The western tributaries were keys to land and wealth and power, but they were also conduits into a perilous new world, for they carried Lakotas toward greater aridity. The western Great Plains lie in a long rain shadow cast by the Rocky Mountains. Pacific winds pump moist maritime air eastward, but the air sheds much of its moisture while climbing up the Rockies. The shadow effect is strongest in the west, the 98th meridian marking a default line where evaporation exceeds precipitation and the soil starts to go dry. The grass cover reflects this, becoming shorter toward the west. Around the 105th meridian densely tufted blue grama and buffalo grasses become dominant and the plant canopy shrinks down to a few inches. The bison had adapted over the millennia to these semi-arid conditions, thriving on the stunted short-grasses that retained protein in their dry stalks, making them ideal winter forage. Tens of millions of them lived in the plains, their huge bodies a hunter’s delight.

That was when the Black Hills began to loom large in a material sense. When severe droughts struck the grasslands, the bison tended to seek relief in the high-altitude microclimate around the Black Hills where summers were cooler, rainfall higher, and pasture more lavish. Lakotas did the same. This introduced a new dimension to Pahá Sápa’s allure: it became a sanctuary and a meat pack. Lakotas gathered there to sit out droughts and subsist on buffaloes that seemed to give themselves up—just like the White Buffalo Calf Woman had promised. The control of Pahá Sápa became a spiritual and material imperative without which nothing in the world was secure—not its unearthly bounties, not the hunt, not the survival of Lakotas as a people. Hand paintings on Pahá Sápa’s rocky planes—red spots marking slain enemies—bespeak of the violent struggle that turned the mountain range into an exclusive domain of Lakotas and their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies. By the late 1820s Lakotas were wintering in Pahá Sápa. The Black Hills belonged to them.

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Fall of the Dakotas after 1815

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 155-156:

In the summer of 1815, seven months after the Treaty of Ghent, U.S. officials invited the western Indians to a council at Portage des Sioux just north of St. Louis. Two thousand Indians showed up, and Americans made treaties with Lakotas, Mdewakantons, Wahpekutes, Sissetons, Wahpetons, and Yanktons. The pithy compacts pardoned past aggressions and brought the Sioux under the protection of the United States. The Americans understood the last article as a corroboration of U.S. jurisdiction over the Sioux, but the seventy-two Sioux delegates who touched a pen probably understood it as a confirmation of the prewar status quo whereby Americans traded with them without dictating to them. When U.S. soldiers began building an unauthorized fort at Prairie du Chien a year later, Mdewakanton chiefs approached British agents in the upper Great Lakes, pleading for help in preventing their “final extinction.” It was only when the agents refused them that the chiefs realized that they would have to face the United States without British counterweight. Their fall from power was shockingly fast.

Left alone to face the Americans, Dakotas were soon reeling. In 1818 Benjamin O’Fallon, a newly appointed U.S. agent for the Sioux and William Clark’s nephew, led two heavily armed keelboats up the Mississippi and Minnesota to stop Canadian incursions and establish American authority in the region—an enterprise that echoed his uncle’s famous expedition fourteen years earlier. O’Fallon found the Sioux divided and quarrelling over trade. At a Mdewakanton village, chief Shakopee, “ferocious and savage,” complained that his warriors lacked guns and could not contain their Chippewa enemies. O’Fallon urged them to “be always last in war” and place their faith in “the Great Spirit.”

Cut off from the British trade and political support, the Mdewakantons accepted O’Fallon’s gifts—a little whiskey and some goods—and demands. Within a year the U.S. Army started planning a military fort at the Mississippi-Minnesota junction on lands Pike had purchased fourteen years earlier.

O’Fallon had succeeded where Lewis and Clark had failed. While the Corps of Discovery had inadvertently prompted Lakotas to strengthen their hold of the Missouri and its peoples, O’Fallon had extorted from Dakotas a tacit acceptance of a military fort on their lands. Fort Snelling was in operation by 1820 and was soon accompanied by St. Peter’s Indian agency. The complex marked the beginning of a growing American presence in Dakota lives. It became a hub for the growing fur trade, which soon cut into the region’s animal populations, creating food shortages and entangling Dakotas into chronic wars over hunting privileges with Chippewas and Ho-Chunks [aka Winnebago]. Indian agents tried to mediate, but they lacked the know-how to be effective. Things came to head in 1827 when Mdewakantons and Wahpetons killed two Chippewas in a council at Fort Snelling under a U.S. flag. The fort commander, Josiah Snelling, imprisoned several Dakota warriors and demanded the culprits be turned over to him in return for their release. He was given a few men whom he handed over to Chippewas. Chippewas let them run before shooting them down. Then they scalped them in front of the shocked American officials.

A century earlier, less than fifty miles downriver from Fort Snelling, the French had built Fort Beauharnois to serve Dakotas. That trading fort had been the focal point of a deep Dakota-French accommodation that stabilized the upper Mississippi Valley, fueled the expansion of the fur trade west of the Great Lakes, and made the Dakotas the dominant power in the interior. Now the region’s dominant fort was a military establishment that heralded U.S. sovereignty over the Mississippi Valley, monitored the Dakotas, and staged U.S.-sponsored public executions of Dakota people.

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Great Plains Migrations, 1812-1815

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 153-154:

Lakotas stayed out of the War of 1812, but the war years were a dynamic time for them. There were exhilarating advances in equestrian technology: several winter counts record how Lakotas captured their first wild horses with lariats somewhere in the western plains. The practice signaled a larger expansion of the horse culture across the grasslands. Herds of wild mustangs had multiplied in the southern plains to the point where animals began spreading into colder northern latitudes, and Lakotas may have adopted the use of the lariat from their more experienced Cheyenne allies.

There were also far-reaching political developments. Lakotas fought with Crows in the west, clashing over horses and hunting rights, while also engaging in active diplomacy with Pawnees and Kiowas to the south. The talks were often tentative, rendered so by the very dynamism of the rising horse nations of the plains. Comanches, Kiowas, Crows, and other plains nomads were now rapidly accumulating horses, their ambitions growing along with their herds. They were jockeying for position in the western steppes, competing for the richest hunting grounds, the best riverine pasturelands, and key trade corridors.

Though still bound in the Mníšoše [Missouri R.], Lakotas were not exempt from these rivalries. Most of their oyátes had begun regular bison hunts in the West where, at the edge of the Black Hills, they sometimes wintered with Cheyennes. The western excursions drew them into conflict with Kiowas, who were in a habit of traveling to the Black Hills from their southern homelands around the Arkansas, where they lived in an alliance with the powerful Comanches. Lakotas could ill afford a war with Kiowas, who had become prominent middlemen, carrying Comanche horses to the North Platte where they traded with Cheyennes. In 1815 a Lakota delegation traveled there to hold a peace council with Kiowas. It went badly. A Kiowa tried to steal Lakota horses, and a Sicangu warrior buried a hatchet in his head. Lakotas drove the Kiowas all the way into the Rockies. It was a major event, recorded in numerous winter counts, for it anticipated Lakota expansion into the West.

Lakotas were not plains nomads yet. They ventured into the grasslands to hunt and trade and raid, but they did not feel safe out in the open. They were still building up their horse herds, and the Black Hills were dominated by Crows and Cheyennes who commanded the western grasslands from the rocky bastion. In around 1815 Sans Arcs astonished other Lakotas by building dirt lodges at Peoria Bottom above the Bad River. They then did something even more unexpected: they built large wooden houses, which they occupied for at least two years. The pictographs of the boxy structures appear at once cozy and utterly alien on the buffalo hides.

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Lakotas vs. Lewis and Clark

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 144-145:

Lewis and Clark had traversed the Missouri Valley one imperial expansion too late and found it hard to accept. When they returned from their arduous and exhilarating journey to the Pacific sixteen months later, they once again plunged into the Lakota Meridian, which had only grown stronger during their absence. Mandans and Hidatsas were reeling. Whooping cough had ravaged their villages, and Lakotas had intensified their raiding. Lewis and Clark made one more bid to check the Lakota ascendancy. They invited Mandan leaders to visit Washington. The president, they promised, would listen to their troubles, send traders among them, and protect them.

The offer was as unrealistic as it was alluring. Black Cat of the Mandans wanted to see “his Great Father” but said that Lakotas would “certainly kill him if he attempted to go down.” Lakota hold of the upper Missouri seemed now nearly absolute, confining the villagers to the north. Clark asked René Jusseaume, a Canadian trader who had lived among Mandans and Hidatsas for fifteen years, to coax the villagers. He did find one headman, Sheheke, willing to go. What resulted was hardly the kind of embassy Lewis and Clark had in mind: one chief, a few women and children, and Jusseaume, a Canadian, braving Lakotas’ river hegemony. When the Corps set out downriver on August 17, all Mandan headmen saw them off, crying. As Clark was about to embark, the chiefs asked him to sit “one minit longer with them.” They wanted to talk about Lakotas. It was more a lamentation than anything else. After the Americans left, they said, Lakotas would come and “kill them.” Clark told them to fight.

By late August the expedition neared Sicangu [= Brulé] territory, and the explorers grew anxious. They spotted some eighty armed warriors on the northeast bank and hoped they were Yanktons, Poncas, or Omahas. Clark walked toward them on a sandbar, and three Indians swam to him. They were Black Buffalo’s Sicangus. Painful memories flushing over him, Clark had an interpreter tell them they were “bad people.” American traders were arriving soon, he warned, and were “sufficiently Strong to whip any vilenous party who dare to oppose them.” Sicangus told him to cross so they could kill them all. Clark and his men resolved to stare at the Sicangus, thinking that it “put them some Agitation as to our intentions.” Then, quietly, they continued downriver. Twenty-four days later they arrived in St. Louis, finding the city bubbling with expectation, ambition, and opportunism.

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Arikaras as Lakota Vassals, 1800

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 123-124:

Lakotas had blended raiding and extortion with diplomacy and exchange into a flexible economy of violence that left the Arikaras weak and needy. Tabeau thought they saw in them “a certain kind of serf, who cultivates for them and who, as they say, takes, for them, the place of women.” The gendered language was carefully considered. Two generations earlier Oglalas had lived as farmers under Arikara tutelage, but now they were people of the hunt and ascending. While diminishing the Arikaras, they treaded carefully not to alienate them to a point of rebellion. Tabeau realized this and yet failed to avoid becoming a foil for Lakota stratagems. He complained bitterly how Lakotas, having returned from a trade fair on the Minnesota, “announce that merchandise is abundant and wonderful there, give in detail the price of each article and make the Ricaras understand that I treat them as slaves.” Lakotas were manipulating markets and perceptions to their advantage. While forcing Arikaras to pay inflated prices for their exports, they still managed to paint the St. Louis traders as the real exploiters and villains.

Outplayed by Lakotas, Tabeau struggled with the fallout. Hoping that Arikaras’ “customary mildness, long known, would induce the government and the traders to provide them constantly in the future,” he earmarked a good portion of his powder for them. It was too late. Arikaras denounced Tabeau as an outsider who had “seen them without breech-clout, without powder, and without knives” and yet had refused to share his wares. He faced constant insults and demands for largesse and, in the end, declared his bid to win over the Arikaras a failure. They were, he reported, “not a fit subject for a special trade expedition.”

That declaration began a long marginalization and vilification of the Arikaras, once one of the most renowned traders in the American interior. The vilification took time to take root, but once it did, it fixed the Arikaras in the American imagination as an irredeemable menace. It committed the United States to destroying them, inadvertently paving the way for a Lakota hegemony in the upper Missouri Valley.

Three thousand Arikaras had become virtual vassals of Lakotas, their economies and very lives remolded to accommodate the new masters of the Missouri. Tabeau wrote off the entire valley from the White to the Heart River—a 250-mile stretch of prime fur country—and shifted his sight to the Mandans farther north. “A post among the Mandanes,” he mused, “would be a gathering-place for more than twenty nations and would be the means in determining the Ricaras to take up a station nearby.” He envisioned a vast trade emporium extending upriver from the Mandans to embrace the Cheyennes, Crows, Shoshones, and many other people. The plan was as ambitious as it was improbable, for Lakotas would not allow it.

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Smallpox Epidemics of 1775, 1779

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 94-96:

The smallpox epidemic began in late 1775 in Quebec and spread down the eastern seaboard with the peripatetic British and Patriot armies. The epidemic’s most significant intrusion into the war came in 1781, when it caught up with the loyalist African Americans who had joined the British Army in a march across the South. In September General Charles Cornwallis was besieged in Yorktown, his black allies dying in masses and his soldiers succumbing to malaria. When Cornwallis surrendered, his army had nearly melted away under the double pathogenic assault. The first British Empire had come to an end.

While smallpox was thriving in the war-ravaged East, it found another opening some fifteen hundred miles to the west. This epidemic originated in Mexico City in August 1779 and moved from there to New Orleans, San Antonio, and Santa Fe by December 1780. There trade became the principal vehicle for transmission. Comanches, who dominated the lands amid those colonial capitals, were infected and seem to have passed on the pestilence to their trading partners, some of whom transmitted it into the Missouri Valley. Carried by equestrian Indians, the malady could travel far during its long incubation period, and a trading expedition may have reached the Missouri with the virus before succumbing to it.

Dying began in 1781—just as the British Army was wasting away at Yorktown—among Arikaras and Mandans. Lakotas contracted the disease around the same time, possibly while raiding. Oglala and Sicangu winter counts record two successive years of smallpox. They depict human figures in agony, their faces and torsos covered with red spots, documenting the infection’s aggressive spread from small blood vessels in the mouth and throat across the body until sharply raised, pus-filled blisters covered the skin; they capture the ineffectiveness of traditional healings methods in the face of an alien organism. There is no way of knowing how many died. Lakotas’ migratory way of life and dispersal into small hunting bands gave them a measure of protection against the pestilence, but cold and erratic weather around the outbreak must have compromised their ability to fight off the virus.

While the epidemic ravaged Lakotas, it nearly ruined the villagers. The virus found in the crowded villages an auspicious setting to spread. Arikaras may have lost more than three-fourths of their people, and they abandoned all but seven of their thirty-two villages. Mandan losses were similarly catastrophic. Their eight villages were reduced to two, and their thirteen clans became seven. The Hidatsa population was cut by half. An ancient political geography collapsed in a matter of months as the combined villager population of tens of thousands was reduced to roughly eight thousand. Thick clusters of Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa villages melted into thinly sprinkled nodes; permanent settlements no longer governed the riverscape. Cheyennes, too, were afflicted. Most of them abandoned their Missouri villages, making an abrupt and uncertain leap to a nomadic existence in the open plains to the west. Only one band, the Masikotas, stayed along the Missouri, attaching themselves to Lakotas.

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First Sioux Mounted Warriors, 1750s

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 80-81:

The booming trade in the Mississippi Valley drove Lakotas deeper into the prairies in search of castor. Impatient with rival hunters from the Missouri River villages, they fought more intensely and widely: almost every midcentury Sicangu [= Brûlé] winter count records a clash with some enemy group or another. Sicangus now had guns, enough to seize the prairies and their beaver streams all the way to the turbulent, meandering Mníšoše [Missouri R.]. It was sometime during this westward thrust that they launched their first mounted raid. “Went on the warpath on horseback to camp of enemy,” the caption for the 1757–58 count reads, “but killed nothing.” In spite of the underwhelming outcome, it was a transcending event. Sicangus had accumulated enough know-how to wield a lance on a beast galloping at twenty to thirty miles per hour, enough animals to put an entire war party on horseback, and enough confidence to launch an attack. Sicangus edged westward in a close partnership with Oglalas, who probably began experimenting with mounted warfare around the same time.

Sicangus and Oglalas pushed to the James River and beyond, entering the Coteau du Missouri, a poorly drained plateau that flanks the eastern side of the Missouri River. The Coteau was an inferior trapping and hunting country, and Sicangus and Oglalas moved rapidly across it, facing little resistance. They touched the Mníšoše amid several Arikara villages that housed thousands of people. For Arikaras the Missouri was tswaarúxti, Holy Water, along which all of their history had happened. They lived in some thirty villages on its banks and were determined to keep the newcomers out. Sicangus and Oglalas found a relatively safe niche in an eastward protruding meander that would be later known as the Big Bend of the Missouri. Stretching out for thirty miles in near full circle, the bend enveloped a fertile, grass-covered island that teemed with bison, elk, and other game—a superb base from where Sicangus and Oglalas could raid Arikaras for food, horses, and captives and dominate the prairies to the east.

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Why the Lakota Migrated West

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 47-49, 83:

The long struggle for allies, trade, and relevance had been spearheaded by the four Dakota [council] fires, the Mdewakantons, Sissetons, Wahpetons, and Wahpekutes. They had played a key role in the birth of the all-important Sauteur [Ojibwe] alliance and in nurturing the relationship with the French, and their lands around Mde Wakan [Mille Lacs Lake] were the place where most foreigners sought access to the Sioux. To the outsiders they seemed “the masters of other Scioux.” But the long struggle involved all seven fires. No oyáte [‘people, tribe’] or thióšpaye [‘local band’] was immune to the seemingly endless blows or denied the rewards when they finally came.

Distance shielded the Lakotas, the westernmost Sioux division, against the hardest blows—the massacres, the repeated border conflicts, the exasperating indifference of French traders. They remained a shadowy, enigmatic people to the French, who caught only glimpses of them. They were “Nations Tintonha,“The Inhabitants of the Meadows,” who lived in the West “certain Seasons of the Year.” Eventually, to facilitate deepening western excursions, growing numbers of Lakotas moved permanently west of the Mississippi. By the late 1690s the French knew the lands around the upper Minnesota Valley as the Lakota domain—“Pays et Nations des Tintons”—and few years later Le Sueur was struck by the geographical and cultural distance that separated Lakotas from their eastern kin: they did not gather wild rice or use canoes, and they kept to “the prairies between the Upper Mississippi and the river of the Missouris” where they had no fixed villages.

What to the French seemed a Lakota detachment from the eastern Sioux was actually a part of a larger strategy of fueling the growing fur trade. When the trade took off, Sioux needed large quantities of castor: one gun cost approximately ten skins of winter beaver, and the thousands of Sioux warriors needed thousands of guns. The greatest castor reserves lay to the west, in lands still beyond the fur trade’s long tentacles but within Lakotas’ reach. Each fall Lakota bands left for the western prairies beyond the forest line, spending months in scouring the rivers and streams for thickly furred beavers and living in light deerskin lodges. While there, they lived off the bison, which seemed to grow more abundant with distance, and clashed with the resident hunter-farming peoples who saw them as invaders. Already in the late 1680s the the Arikara Indians on the Missouri River—more than two hundred miles west of the Lakota domain—seem to have been engaged in grueling wars with the westering Lakotas.

By the turn of the century the Lakotas were a growing and often violent presence on the tall-grass prairies west of the Minnesota River. But they were sojourners, not conquerors. They were in the West, but the West was not theirs. Each spring they returned east to the precious prairie-forest ecotone where they could enjoy one of the best diets on the continent. There, they reconnected with their kin, traded skins for iron, shared the calumet, and reaffirmed their place in the world as one of the Seven Council Fires. Sicangu Lakotas came together with their kin every seven years to make offerings to Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka, Great Spirit, and reaffirm their interconnectedness.

Lakotas were suspended between western promises and eastern realities. Their firsthand experience of the new world of Indians and Europeans was limited, but they knew its challenges and opportunities intimately through their eastern relatives whose sufferings and successes were theirs. They knew what not having allies or guns meant, and they had learned that people were capable of astonishing violence to secure them. They knew that the world had changed irrevocably and that no one could ignore the European newcomers and their wašíčuŋ [superhumans]. And they knew that this new world was an unforgiving place where people often were expiring if they were not expanding.

When Lakotas finally pushed into the West in the early eighteenth century, drawn by its tremendous possibilities, they carried with them a specific set of convictions about the world. They would have to adapt to new western realities, but so too would the West have to adjust to theirs.

By the mid-eighteenth century the Sioux had shifted shape many times over. They had opened their lands and villages for real and potential allies—Sauteurs [Ojibwe], Cheyennes, Mesquakies [Fox], Frenchmen, and many others—while contending with numerous rivals as they struggled to find a place in the rapidly changing world. They had reached out to Onontio [‘Great Mountain’, the French colonial governor] far in the East—Sioux visits to Montreal had become almost commonplace—while expanding aggressively in the West. The boundary of the four Dakota oyátes shifted gradually west and south from Mde Wakan as bands sought safety from violence and trade along the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers; Lakotas expanded their domain all the way to the Mníšoše [Missouri R.] in search of beaver, bison, horses, and captives. Along the way they pushed aside the Iowas, Otoes, Omahas, and Poncas, turning the prairies into a shatter belt of displacement and destruction—a western version of the mid-seventeenth-century Iroquois shatter zone in the Great Lakes. As Lakotas gradually took over the vacated lands, they turned the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ [Seven Council Fires] into a territorial giant that commanded nearly one hundred thousand square miles of land—the second largest Indigenous domain in North America after the rising Comanche empire in the southern Great Plains.

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European Islets, Indigenous Sea, 1600s

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 46-47:

Seventeenth-century North America was a vast Indigenous ocean speckled with tiny European islands. The Spanish, English, and French newcomers claimed vast chunks of the continent through the doctrines of discovery and terra nullius (no one’s land), but such claims mattered little on the ground where the Indians controlled the balance of power. Through shrewd diplomacy, warfare, and sheer force of numbers, the Indians held the line. In 1700 French settlement remained tethered to the St. Lawrence and a small foothold on the mouth of the Mississippi, and the Spanish possessions amounted to two isolated clusters of missions in New Mexico and in Florida. English settlers were more numerous and assertive, but they too huddled on the margins, expanding up and down the coastal lowlands rather than inland. Conquistador fantasies stayed alive, but they were becoming increasingly detached from reality.

Yet, wherever they planted themselves, the colonists were a force to be reckoned with. Their fringe outposts were pockets of dense military-technological power that could shape developments far beyond their borders. The Europeans fought, dispossessed, and enslaved nearby Indians, whose ability to resist was severely compromised by disease epidemics. The more distant Indians in the interior required more subtle measures, for the colonists could not simply rely on pathogens to obliterate them. Numerous and fiercely independent, the interior Indians could be neither killed nor commanded; they needed to be cajoled and co-opted. The key instrument for achieving this was a frontier post. Europeans thought of trading posts and missions—military forts would come later—as means to claim and control faraway lands. Indeed, an inland post brought the frontier into existence and demarcated it by announcing that the lands around and behind it belonged to the people who had built it. Posts made empires.

Such ideas were laughable to the Indians, who thought that land belonged to those who lived on it and whose ancestors lay in it. They almost invariably welcomed trading posts and missions on their lands because they were concrete expressions of the newcomers’ largesse—both material and spiritual—and of their willingness to share their power. A trading post was particularly desired because it signaled a commitment to a particular people and its needs. This is why the Indians competed so fiercely to secure them. A single post could dramatically change their fortunes by opening access to the new technologies that had irrevocably changed the parameters of the possible. Reliable access to guns, powder, and iron was a promise of safety, prosperity, and otherworldly power, while lacking them spelled hurt, retreat, and shame.

At the turn of the century Sioux knew both sides of the equation. Since the 1650s they had seen how French trading posts proliferated in the western Great Lakes among their enemies, rendering them horribly vulnerable. An alliance with Sauteurs [Ojibwe] in the late 1670s punctured the imagined wall that cast them as outsiders. They had their own post from 1685 onward and, at last, a secure access to firearms. Guns gave military teeth to their overwhelming demographic strength, making them the epicenter of interior politics. French officials saw them as the last best hope to contain the Iroquois and save New France, and they worked hard to integrate them into their alliance system. For decades Sioux had grappled on the margins of the bustling Indian-European world of trade and alliance that had emerged in the east; now that world began to converge around them, bestowing them with substance and power. They now had options and, it seemed, time to weigh them.

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