Eugene Weekly : Books : 7.29.10


At Heart, the Land
UO history prof’s The Lakotas and the Black Hills
by Suzi Steffen

History’s just a pile of dates, those who dislike it complain. But UO history professor Jeffrey Ostler’s The Lakotas and the Black Hills: The Struggle for Sacred Ground (The Penguin Library of American Indian History; $22.95) makes a litany of 19th and 20th-century dates into a coherent, if horrifying, timeline of betrayal, land theft and obstruction of justice.

Ostler begins with the crowds of tourists at  Mount Rushmore, where four white presidents smile benignly over the Black Hills. He says in his introduction, “Because historical arguments have played (and will likely continue to play) a crucial role in the struggle for the Black Hills, any history of that struggle is of more than academic interest.” Indeed. 

Even those of us who majored in history probably read most of this country’s story from the point of view of the development of the U.S. as a nation, inexorably influenced by the idea of Manifest Destiny — not from the point of view of those whom the U.S. tried to conquer through every policy from disease-spreading to alcohol-peddling to open warfare. 

Ostler uses sources ranging from the winter counts — records of the year, items I once studied in Native art history classes, but which also provide evidence of land use, hunting, disease and warfare — to sources like Lakota storyteller James LaPointe’s Legends of the Lakota, newspaper articles, oral histories, legal documents and much, much more. It’s powerful and powerfully difficult to read about the number of strategies various Lakota leaders (like Red Cloud, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse) used to attempt to deal with white peoples’ encroachment. 

The leaders mixed accommodation, armed resistance, refusal to agree to U.S. government terms, lobbying in D.C., lobbying in Europe, hiring lawyers who had a connection to the Lakota and other efforts designed to retain some sovereignty and gain compensation for what the Lakota lost.

What they lost is considerable, as it is with any of the more than 500 peoples living in the Americas at the time of conquest. Land, hunting rights, spiritual connection, language, healthy ways to bring up their children, sometimes the children themselves, ripped from their communities and forced into tribal schools run by white people who practiced corporal punishment. Ah yes, some people think, I know this story. Get over it, already. That was years ago. 

But Ostler makes readers see that the century and a half since the worst treaty betrayal hasn’t passed idly for the Lakota; they’ve been working to regain their lands by working through the U.S. courts ever since. Check out the government’s forced use of allotments and the 1950s idea of “termination” (seriously — who the hell came up with that plan?), not to mention the 1970s obstructionist ways of the U.S. Department of Justice (hello, irony!). 

In the 1980s, U.S. Senator Bill Bradbury introduced a bill to return part of the Black Hills to the Lakota peoples. That ended up failing, but guess what? The struggle’s not over. Hey, strategy can include becoming educated in your oppressors’ ways and gaining power under their system: I particularly appreciated a tale of a Lakota state park ranger who “discourages ‘wannabes’ and ‘culture vultures’” (that would be those who try to appropriate First Nations religious practices) and also educates the non-Indians in the park about Lakota history.

South Dakota seems far from Oregon, no? But obviously, reading this book, in which a First Nations tribe would very much like its sacred land back, reminded me of the flooding of Celilo Falls. In the 1950s, the government put in the Dalles Dam on the Columbia. In 1957, “the Dalles Dam inundated one of the most productive Native fisheries in North America,” says the Oregon Historical Society ( Check out photos of the salmon run at Celilo Falls at

We’re all living on Native land. Clearly, those of us with ancestors from elsewhere can’t all “go back” to Asia, Europe or Africa. But we could make some reparations — of land, that is, not simply the money that a 1980 Supreme Court case offered the Lakota peoples, who refused it so that they could pursue their claim to the Black Hills. 

And at the very, very, very damn least, we could read books like Ostler’s, calmly written histories of how the U.S. came to be, and what the U.S. could possibly do now to deal with our contentious past and present.

Jeffrey Ostler reads from The Lakotas and the Black Hills at 6:30 pm Saturday, July 31, at Paulina Springs bookstore in Redmond.