A well-told history of the Lakota Sioux
Having grown up in these Cherokee hills, I became interested in things native from an early age. This interest, spawned by my boyhood friends over on the Snowbird Reservation, has continued throughout my life and until today.
So, when a friend recommended the novel “Black Hills” by Dan Simmons (Little Brown & Co., 2010) to me, I went to the Sylva Library and checked it out through interlibrary loan. Not having any expectations, boy was I surprised! For myself and for early American history buffs, I found this to be an amazing read. Told in an intimate and personal fictional account of much of the history of what went down in the Black Hills of South Dakota between the Lakota Sioux and the U.S. Army during the 1870s and focusing in on Gen. George Armstrong Custer and the battle of the Little Big Horn, we experience a kind of time-travel back to those days and that era through the character of Paha Sapa (which is Lakota for “black hills”), a Lakota boy eleven years old and his first-hand account of Native American life, traditions, and hardships at the hands of the U.S. government and the following colonization.
In a book that almost reads like a filmscript, we get to hang out with such notable First Nation people as Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Black Elk, Kicking Bear, Red Cloud, Little Big Man, Standing Bear, Crow Dog and other well-known names of First Nation warriors and chiefs from that time. Simmons transports us back into the fray and the finesse of what it was to be of Native American descent from the eyes of a boy who has clairvoyant qualities as a “dreamer,” a savant and headed on the path at an early age to becoming a medicine person for his people.
In the spirit of “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells, not only are we privy to the years and actions around 1876, but we are also transported forward in time to 1943 and to the construction of the Mount Rushmore project on which Paha Sapa is working in his elder years and not at all happy with the monumental sculptures of the faces of the four American presidents that he sees as a desecration of a sacred landscape. In the back and forth of this novel set in two separate time frames, we get Custer’s very intimate letters from the Black Hills to his wife back home in the East. We get a whole chapter devoted to Paha Sapa’s remarkable vision quest experience. We get up close and personal time with Crazy Horse and his conversations with Paha Sapa. And we get Paha Sapa’s vision of Crazy Horse’s death as well as the visionary experience of his tribe’s demise and white colonization. Oh, yes, and there is an intriguing Paha Sapa love story!
Simmons has truly done his homework for this book, as evidenced by the lengthy acknowledgements section at the end of the book. His grasp of the Lakota language is used extravagantly throughout, lending a kind of credibility, authentication and focus to the Native American point of view. “In listing the names of animals, the words rattle in Paha Sapa’s aching skull: sintehahla, itignila, anunkasan, hitunkala, sung manitu tanka, sung mahetu, pispia ....” And there are many such examples of Simmons’ interest and knowlege of the Sioux dialect giving credence to the ethnic foundation for his book.
But in the end, it is the quality of this award-winning author’s ability to tell a proper historical story in a delicate and heart-rending fashion that stays with you. This, then, from the part of the story depicting Paha Sapa’s relationship with Crazy Horse:
Paha Sapa has only eleven rather uneventful years of his own to remember, while Crazy Horse thought himself to be thirty-four years old this summer when he poured all his memories into Paha Sapa’s aching brain, and — somehow, despite his will not to — Paha Sapa’s vision saw forward another year or two to Crazy Horse’s death by bayonet. Crazy Horse’s memories are tinged red with memory-emotions of violence, near insanity, and a constant strangeness. Paha Sapa, the adopted son of Limps-a-Lot hopes to be a holy man like his respected tunkasila, but Crazy Horse, the son of another holy man, has always wanted to be heyoka, a dreamer and servant for the Thunder Beings.
With this kind of intimate portrayal and personalizing, Simmons has brought this history’s legendary characters theatrically to life.
But this isn’t a book about Crazy Horse, it is a book about Black Hills (Paha Sapa) as we follow him through his youth and then his elderly years. While this is a big book of almost 500 pages, I couldn’t put it down. Maybe I was overdue for a good fiction read, but I think that I have also been impressed by Simmons telling of this important tale and the manner in which he has told it — right up until the end when he writes:
Sometime in 1937, Paha Sapa moved to a remote place deep within the Black Hills and built a small but comfortable home there. After World War II, word got out among the Ikce Wicasa that there was an old man in the Black Hills with the name Black Hills and somehow the legend grew and then young men and women traveled from many reservations — even Cheyenne, Crows and Blackfoot from Wyoming and Montana. When members of tribes from California and Washington state began visiting the old man — tribes Paha Sapa had never even heard of — he laughed and laughed. Many of those who visited Paha Sapa in those last decades remember that one of his favorite phrases was Le anpet’u waste! ‘This is a good day.’
(Thomas Crowe is a regular contributor to The Smoky Mountain News and author of the multi-award-winning non-fiction nature memoir “Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods.”)