Monday, June 10, 2024

Book Notes: Pekka Hamalainen on Lakota America; Mark Bourrie on Brebeuf

I've been reading in Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, a recent book by Pekka Hamalainen. Hamalainen is not an American historian with a Finnish name, but a true Finn, raised and educated in Europe. He teaches at Oxford and is part of a European network of scholars interested in nomadic empires: societies that endured and held power even without a fixed territorial base. His main work is in a field its practitioners in the US call "the new Indian history" ('new' for a few decades now): trying to look at North American history from Indigenous perspectives.  

Lakota America presents the rise of the Lakota from a minor Siouan-speaking group in the woodlands between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes in the 1600s to being (in the 1800s) a dominant power on the great plains around the headwaters of the Missouri River. In that process they contended variously with gradually shifting French, Spanish, British, American empires, and other indigenous powers. They were the power that put George Custer's army to the sword in 1876 1776 but which was overwhelmed (and slaughtered) by the American army at Wounded Knee. It's a big book, but a bold and impressive one. 

What brought me to Lakota America was reading about Mark Bourrie's current best-seller Crosses in the Sky, a biography of the Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf, who spent 15 years among the Huron-Wendat and died in 1649 at the hands of the invading Haudenosaunee armies that were overrunning Huronia. 

Let me be clear; I have not read Crosses in the Sky, and I will give it proper attention when I do.  Even from publicity and reviews, it is clear Bourrie did not come here to hero-worship. His sympathies seem to be entirely with the Huron-Wendat, for whom contact with all things French and European turned out to be almost entirely disastrous. This is no white-saviour narrative. 

But it does seem to be a white-centered narrative, for sure, using Brébeuf's career to seek a way into what was done to the Huron-Wendat.  I find myself wondering, meaning no disrespect to Bourrie's project, what a Huron-Wendat-centred history of that story, the collapse of Huronia in the 1640s, would look like, and if one could be written.  

It may be possible. I don't have those contacts (to my regret and shame) but I once talked to an anthropologist/ethnohistorian who claimed to have talked with members of the Haudenosaunee nation who preserved oral history passed down from the masses of "Neutral" ancestors incorporated into the Haudenosaunee after the destruction of the Neutrals. Who knows, really, what indigenous historical traditions endure from the mid-17th century Huron-Iroquois war? Well, only indigenous scholars and memory-keepers know, if anyone does. But I would not be very surprised if significant versions of that story do exist among existing Haudenosaunee or Wendat communities.

How different the historic of the mid-17th century wars in what is now southern Ontario would be if the Jesuit Records were not practically the only source historians use! If an indigenous-kept historiography of those events exists.  

Hamalainen's Lakota America at least tries to imagine a long and consequential war in the centre of North America from a non-European perspective -- as in a different voice Bourrie's Crosses in the Sky also attempts. But I note that Haimalainen's Wikipedia biography includes mention of vigorous criticism of his work by indigenous scholars who apparently reject his whole "empire" construction of the Lakota and (it seems) insist instead on Lakota victimization at the hands of the settler-colonial world.

I don't know what an indigenous-written history of "early Canadian history" would look like.  Or who would write it. No doubt many Indigenous scholars have more recent matters urgently demanding their attention. 

But I think it may start to appear sometime, and that there will be sources, there will be perspectives, that are entirely new to most historians who have (in effect) only the Jesuit Relations to go on.    

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