15 April 2008

Tribal Names

Do all the people named the Sioux call themselves Lakota? Does an accent mark belong on Nez Perce? Are the Chippewa related to the Ojibwa (or Ojibwe)? Is Blackfeet plural for Blackfoot?

Each name has a history. Historians should favor the names in the primary sources from which they work, and those preferred by the tribe today. They also should learn and relate the histories of these names.

A few years ago, the Wikipedia entry for Nez Perce claimed that Nez PercĂ© was favored by most scholars. “Ignorant scholars!” I said this phrase to myself, as I changed the article only to see it change back the next day. Back and forth the name went, until it finally stabilized after some discussion. (Also see more on historians and Wikipedia.)

For most of the twentieth century, the Yakama Nation employed the spelling Yakima—also the name of a city in Washington state—but officially changed the spelling to Yakama, which conforms to the spelling employed by Isaac I. Stevens in the treaty that some of them signed in 1855. This treaty was a principle cause of the war mentioned in passing, “stronger tribes such as the Yakimas and their allies put up a stiffer fight” (emphasis added), in James Donovan, A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn—the Last Great Battle of the American West (2008), 17. This spelling error, as I’m calling it, is not fatal to Donovan’s book, but it offers a subtle clue to a weakness in his research. If he skews toward error minor points regarding tribes far from Little Bighorn, he might do something similar for those that killed Custer. Donovan’s work on Custer’s last battle might prove more authoritative in narrating the side of those that lost the battle than of the motives and actions of the victors, and of the terrible consequences they suffered.

Two pages later, Donovan is back on the Plains among the Lakota Sioux, where he tells us, “Sioux being a bastardized French word that they despised” (19). He does not explain that Sioux is shortened from Nadouessioux, which comes from an Ojibwa word for adders (snakes) and connotes enemy. Lakota, on the other hand, means ally or friend, as does Dakota and Nakota. The Seven Council Fires that comprise the Sioux Nation (as they appear in many U.S. government documents) speak three dialects of a common language. Slight differences in pronunciation account for the variable first consonant in Lakota/Dakota/Nakota. There is no need to add the word Sioux after Lakota, as Donovan does consistently, nor is such usage inherently wrong. Combined with other nuances, such usage merely heightens my attentiveness to other possible errors of fact or interpretation.

A Terrible Glory was thoroughly researched and is well written. My quibbles with a few points of Donovan’s book have not yet led me to disagreement with Robert M. Utley’s assessment that the work is “exemplary” (from a blurb on the back of the dust jacket).

Patriot’s History

On the other hand, A Patriot’s History of the United States (2004) by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen employ the term Lakota Sioux in a manner that shatters confidence in their authority.

Farther north the mighty Lakota Sioux also resisted white incursions. Their struggle began in 1862-63 in Minnesota, a theater of the war that ended when U.S. Army General John Pope achieved victory and hanged 38 Sioux warriors as punishment.
Schweikart and Allen, 408.

Colonel Henry Sibley led the troops and usually gets credit for this victory. Yet, the authors of A Patriot’s History are not completely wrong in mentioning Pope, who was Sibley’s superior officer and had charge of the Military Department of the Northwest. Their account of the Indian side of this conflict is another matter.

The Mdewakanton and Wahpekute bands of the Santee are Dakota not Lakota. There was no Lakota uprising in Minnesota in 1862. Moreover, their struggles between accommodation and resistance did not begin with Little Crow’s uprising in 1862, but before the Treaties of 1837 and 1858. The resistance that led to war, and that led to the largest mass hanging in U.S. history, resulted from many factors. Some of the leading elements in the failures of the policy of accommodation stemmed from U.S. failures to deliver on promises made in these treaties, capriciousness by Indian agent Thomas J. Galbraith, and massive influx of non-Indian settlers.

Gary Clayton Anderson’s Little Crow: Spokesman for the Sioux (1986) offers detailed analysis.

… one might wonder why Little Crow agreed to join the war effort. He had always been an accommodationist, and had consistently used his persuasive abilities to prevent violence. … Little Crow undoubtedly concluded that by joining the soldiers, he would be reinstated in his position as speaker for the Mdewakanton tribe. … His decision to join a doomed war effort certainly contradicted his past behavior, but it did not run counter to the traditional obligation of a Sioux warrior to his community and people—that of giving his life when such a sacrifice became necessary for the benefit of the whole.
Anderson, Little Crow, 133-34.

Mdewakanton leader Little Crow was a patriot.

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