2010-12-08 / Voices

Few Good Books about Indians…


I often receive unsolicited books from publishers, requesting that I review them. This puts pressure on me feeling that, out of courtesy or gratitude, I need to give the books a positive review – pressure that I don’t like, because there are so many bad books out these days.

However, I have received several books over the past year that I very much enjoy, and would recommend them. These have included Mark Trahant’s new book, The Last Battle of the Indian Wars, Walter Echohawk’s “In the Courts of the Conqueror: The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided,” Dr. Heather Cox Richardson’s “Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre,” and the Lakota Language Consortium’s “New Lakota Dictionary.”

It’s nearing that time of year when the Wounded Knee Massacre took place 120 years ago, a tragic memory for Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people, and Dr. Heather Cox Richardson’s new book is timely. She is Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Not only is her book an excellent account of the massacre, but it gives a long history of things leading up to Wounded Knee and causing the massacre.

I had written one time that I discovered a depiction of Manifest Destiny. Although the painting I found does not carry the title, it nevertheless depicts what Manifest Destiny stands for in relation to the American Indian. Dr. Richardson’s book on Wounded Knee gives an excellent literary depiction of Manifest Destiny and how it works. To sum it up, whenever the Natives are in the way of expansion, white settlers, development, or political ambitions, they have got to go. They lose; they sacrifice, most often at the hands of politicians.

In her introduction to the book, Richardson writes, “The fate of the Minneconjous at Wounded Knee was sealed by politicians a thousand or more miles from the rolling hills and cathedral clouds of the Great Plains. The soldiers who pulled the triggers in South Dakota simply delivered the sentence.”

This was obviously not written to exonerate the troops involved in the massacre, but to show how the military was used for political purposes – mostly to give settlers security, and for the economic benefit of the farmers, ranchers and merchants who supplied the troops in the field. In return, the politicians expected the votes of those same frontier beneficiaries. In the ten weeks prior to the Wounded Knee massacre, the build up of troops in the region grew to be the largest military mobilization since the Civil War. Fully one third of the U.S Army was in South Dakota and northern Nebraska to meet the shrill alarmist insistence of the corrupt Indian agents that the Sioux were massing for a major outbreak, signaled by the Ghost Dance. Richardson also explains clearly the corruption and political actions that drove the tribes to despair and desperation from which they sought hope in the Ghost Dance.

Despite some small historical inaccuracies, this book is a thoroughly researched account of an important historical era in Indian-white and Indian government relations, and covers Red Clouds final stand as a statesman, the martyr deaths of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, culminated by the horrible massacre of the elders, men, women and children at Wounded Knee. Though it covers a broad era of American history, the book is exciting from beginning to end, and the excitement is often in the anger and disgust one feels upon reading of the political machinations that bring on suffering and death to the Indian people.

Dr. Richardson is to be commended for her addition to the great body of literature on the Wounded Knee tragedy, and her book takes its place at the top.

Another excellent book I received is the New Lakota Dictionary produced by the Lakota Language Consortium. This is a treasure, especially compared to the books produced by linguists, including the important books by Eugene Buechel S.J., and others.

Many months ago, I complained about the spelling of Lakota words in those books, and gave the example my own Lakota name, Red Willow: “I treasure that name and carry it with great pride. But in the Lakota dictionary it is spelled cansasa, which most people would pronounce like the name of the flat state Kansas. However, it is pronounced Cha SHA Sha, with a nasal “n” at the end of Cha. The use of the single letters ‘s’ or ‘c’ for the Lakota pronunciation of ‘ch’ or ‘sh’ is more like the Italian language uses for those consonants.”

This new Lakota dictionary goes a long way to phoneticize the words and make them easier to pronounce – especially the guttural sounds so prevalent throughout the language.

Another challenge the Lakota Language Consortium ought to tackle is to correct the English translation or interpretation of Lakota family names. In one of my earlier columns, I wrote about sitting with a small group of old Lakotas at Pine Ridge in 1972. They were talking about the old chiefs like American Horse, and I asked what the name American Horse is in the Lakota language, because I had never heard a specific Lakota word for American, as we have for German, Chinese, and French nationalities. One said it was ‘Tasunka Wasicu,’ White Man’s Horse, but another said that the original name was ‘Tasunka Milahanska,’ Cavalry Horse, because in the old days only the white military was referred to as ‘Americans.’

In that same column I asked “What is the true translation of the Lakota name ‘Tasunka Witko,’ which has been accepted to mean Crazy Horse? It certainly does not mean insane horse, I am sure, or foolish horse. In context, it must have some more rational meaning than the word “crazy,” or “foolish,” as Lakota dictionaries have translated the word Witko over the years.”

The Lakota Language Consortium has done Indian Country a great service with their New Lakota Dictionary, perhaps they can take on the challenge of researching and translating traditional Lakota names to more rational meaning than the half-baked translators who interpreted the names for the early census takers. Charles E. Trimble is Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. His columns and cartoons were 2010 award winners in the South Dakota Newspaper Association Contest. He may be reached at His website is

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