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The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism
from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee
Jeffrey Ostler

New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
$ 21, 99, 406 pages, ISBN 0-521-60590-3.


Reviewed by Gerardo Del Guercio


Department chairperson and professor of history at the University of Oregon Jeffrey Ostler’s latest study, The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee, examines the misunderstandings that occurred between Native Americans and European-Americans that eventually caused the Wounded Knee massacre of December 29, 1890.  Native Americans maintained a “defensive position” [6] against U.S. cohesion to “resist total assimilation into a dominant social system and loss of cultural integrity” [13].1 Some native practices that the U.S. sought to suppress included the Ghost Dance and domestic education. Although natives were willing to accept certain western practices such as trade, what natives fought against was complete cultural integration. European-Americans insisted that native children receive a western education that would slowly dissolve all Indian customs. Native parents disagreed with such a system given that U.S. officials deemed that native children be separated for months or sometimes years fearing that parents would continue to impose native values onto their young. Reservation schools obliged native children to cut their hair despite the cultural significance that long hair had in Indian tradition.

European settlers envisioned a gradual western domination of North America that would ultimately establish a continent that spoke one language and “governed in similar forms” [13]. The European’s quest became problematic since settlers reserved no place for native society in their ideal land. Jeffrey Ostler notes that natives had only two alternatives: “[t]hey could resist and risk being exterminated, or they could assimilate” [13]. Whichever choice natives decided upon was irrelevant considering that either selection would inevitably lead to the termination of native cultural and community practices. Furthermore, the legal system established by European settlers purposely excluded natives since only property holders could rebel against tyranny. Natives were slowly forced to exchange their land for basic necessities and steadily compromise their legal rights because only European settlers were permitted to own land. Where the misunderstanding occurred in terms of land rights was that natives believed that colonialism would someday provide natives with a greater degree of autonomy and reclaim the territory that European-Americans had taken from them. European-Americans instead intended to prolong their utter cultural cleansing.

A monumental event of the American colonial period was the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark expedition. Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark along the upper Missouri River to explore the newly acquired region. Great emphasis was placed on the Sioux because “[t]hey occupied a powerful position as middlemen in the region’s trade” [19]. Jefferson’s envois were to institute a trade pact with the Sioux that would increase the colonist’s profit margin. Through the aide of an interpreter Lewis and Clark claimed that “the Spanish and French fathers had departed and that a new father, the chief of the seventeen nations (the states) had taken their place” [20] to prompt peace and commerce. Sioux leaders expressed great dissatisfaction with the rations and gifts that Lewis and Clark proposed causing the natives to refuse Lewis and Clark to depart unless their demands were met. Discontent with the expedition’s failure to establish absolute dominion over U.S./Sioux trade, Lewis averred that the Sioux were the “vilest miscreants of the savage race” [21]. Lewis’ avocation demonstrates that European-Americans viewed native restraint towards colonial practices as a degenerate act that would stunt North America’s development towards civilization. The main misconception of the Lewis and Clark expedition was that U.S. colonialists were searching for a treaty that would reinforce their hold on natives, while natives wanted a pact that would have them gain equal compensation for surrendered land.

The Crazy Horse killing exemplified how colonialist used force to assimilate native communities into accepting western practices. Great uncertainty continues to obscure the murder of Crazy Horse given that historians have been unable to ascertain exactly what happened once Crazy Horse was incarcerated for treason. One account suggests that Crazy Horse was fatally wounded instantly after Capitan James Kennington led him into a nearby building. Crazy Horse presumably resisted arrest and was subsequently stabbed by either Little Big Man or William Gentles. General George Crook alleged that the U.S. government attained its goal in killing Crazy Horse for the reason that the murder “was more than an historical accident or simply a tragedy. It was a logical consequence of U.S. policies for governing a newly conquered people” [105]. Alternative to opting for a fair agreement that would have facilitated European-American and native trade, colonialists decide on a forceful cultural cleansing of an entire population.  

Colonialists continued their gradual native cleansing by mandating that Sioux children attend reservation schools that would apply western pedagogy only. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School oftentimes separated Sioux children from their parents to avoid any exposure to native tradition. Richard Henry Pratt, former U.S. soldier, announced his plan to the Rosebud agency in September 1879 to relocate Sioux children to a new boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Spotted Tail stated that Pratt’s proposal was the perfect example of how “[t]he white people are all thieves and liars” [149] intent on corrupting the Brulés young. The lying and stealing that Spotted Tail referred to were the broken promises that the U.S. government made to natives that they could practice their traditional lifestyle on the reservations without colonial interference. Reservations were therefore used to contain natives and facilitate the assimilation process. Natives typically countered restriction by educating themselves against “European-American mendacity” [151]. Unfortunately natives were forced into accepting the colonialist’s directives because reservation officials threatened to reduce rations if the Indians refused to comply with U.S. laws. Although the Carlisle project did compel natives into accepting western pedagogy “administrators were never able to establish complete control” [164] since schools lacked the assets to fulfill their aim. Once again colonialists termed native resistance an act of deviltry. The native’s actual goal was to maintain practices they felt were bringing the universe closer to God.

Suppressing the Ghost Dance was the primary obstacle European-Americans felt they had to overcome if they were to completely dominate the United States. Mary Crew Dog claimed that the Ghost Dance was a collective bodily experience that carried great importance since “dancing in a circle holding hands was bringing back the sacred hoop—to feel, holding onto the hands of your brother and sister, the rebirth of Indian unity, feel it with your flesh, through your skin” [265]. European-Americans were apprehensive that the Ghost Dance enticed havoc on Earth. U.S. authorities aggressively invaded Indian reservations obliging natives to adopt protective gear. American officials implemented belligerent tactics against natives in order to prevent future undermining of western power. The Ghost Dance was created by Wokova (Cutter or Wood Cutter) to call God for universal peace. A typical Ghost Dance song runs as follows:

The father says so—E’yayo !
The father  says so—E’yayo!
The father says so,
The father says so.
You shall see your grandfather—E’yayo’!
You shall see your grandfather—E-yayo’ !
The father says so,
The father says so.
You shall see your kindred—E’yayo’ !
You shall see your kindred—E’yayo’ !
The father says so,
The father says so. [1-12]2

The above cited “The father says so” opens the Ghost Dance. After several readings of the song it becomes increasingly apparent that it is in no way malicious towards “government authority on reservations throughout the West” [247] as the European-Americans thought.    

Jeffrey Ostler defines the Wounded Knee massacre of December 29, 1890 as the most momentous historical event in European-American and native relations. Colonel James W. Forsyth’s mission was to disarm Big Foot’s band of over one hundred and twenty men using an estimated five hundred soldiers. Neutralizing Big Foot’s contingent was Forsyth’s approach to securing the end of any possible violent protest from the natives towards the military’s stance against the Ghost Dance. Upon containing Big Foot’s band Forsyth’s army suspected that the Lakota had much more firearms than just the two carbines that were surrendered. What resulted was a mass camp search. Capitan Charles A. Varnum commanded the Lakota men to remain in council while U.S. soldiers searched the camp for possible concealed weapons and domestic tools. During the raid a shot was fired causing a counter-strike from the Seventh Calvary. Natives began running in fear hiding underneath the Wounded Knee Creek banks. American troops released several rounds causing the death of nearly three hundred Lakota men and about two hundred Lakota women and children. Many were distraught because almost all of the women and children who were shot at were murdered while fleeing or hiding. Historians have termed the massacre at Wounded Knee a needless tactic implemented by the U.S. military to reinforce the compulsory assimilation of non-European cultures. Had European-Americans properly understood the Ghost Dance the entire Wounded Knee massacre would likely have never transpired. Contemporary Native American artists still use “the Ghost Dance as a metaphor to explore the ongoing possibilities of liberation” [364]. Postmodern native art thus exemplifies the endurance that their ancestors showed towards cultural annihilation.   

Jeffrey Ostler’s The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee offers professional historians and history students an insider’s perspective of U.S. expansionism. Furthermore, Ostler’s study examines the misunderstandings that occurred during the nineteen century concerning land and legal rights that continue to plague the relationship between American policy makers and Native Americans. What makes Ostler’s study valuable is that it can serve both as a reference work for professors who need to expand or support their claims of American settlement as well as to student’s requiring an introductory text to American colonialism. Relying heavily on oral accounts from key nineteenth century figures as well as archives found in academic libraries and historical museums, Ostler documents the euro/ethnocentric assumption that native practices somehow impeded the civilizing process that colonialist wanted to impose on North America. What Ostler ultimately advocates is that the colonialist’s main goal was to eliminate Indian culture in such a way that settlers could acquire land and consumable goods for a very low cost.


1. Ostler Quotes from Beatrice Medicine “Native American Resistance to Integration: Contemporary Confrontations and Religious Revitalizations.” Plains Anthropologist 26 (November 1981) 277.   back

2. “Songs of the Sioux: [The father says so].” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Shorter Fourth Edition, Eds.: Nina Baym, & al. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1995) 1685. Although “The father says so” appears on page 257 of Jeffery Ostler’s text, Ostler omits the E’yayo’! portion of the song that I believe adds an echoing effect that the Lakota added to give their songs a resonating quality that was to spread across humanity and the entire universe. Ostler’s omission is why I chose to quote from The Norton Anthology of American Literature. back       




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