The audacity and persistence of Doreen Chaky, of Williston, North Dakota, have to be admired. She set herself the task of changing the way we tell the story of the Dakota War on the northern plains—a daunting challenge on two counts.
First, because the subject is so important not only to our history but also to our present situation. The events of the Dakota War of the 1860s were simultaneously destructive and formative. They shattered and remade peoples of the plains, shaping how we are organized and relate to one another still today.
Second, because these events are so difficult to comprehend. Our knowledge of them is large but fragmentary. There are not merely two sides to the conflict, there are multiple sides, multiple sovereign nations involved, some of which left rich written documentation, others of which preserved their transactions by tradition. The complexity seems nigh impenetrable.
So now comes Ms. Chaky, no scholarly credentials associated with her name, equipped with a talent for inquiry forged by native curiosity and honed during years as a journalist; with a determined energy that carried her to and through a greater array of primary source materials than any other scholar of the subject; and thankfully, with a talent for workmanlike prose.
The result is a book called Terrible Justice: Sioux Chiefs and U.S. Soldiers on the Upper Missouri, 1854-1868, published late last year by Arthur H. Clark, a venerable publisher of Western Americana.
There are several striking virtues to Chaky’s book, the first being scope. Our telling of the story of the Dakota War has been constrained heretofore by an unfortunate dominance of Minnesota narratives and institutions over the northern plains. The events of 1862 in Minnesota were traumatic and influential, but they did not define the course of the Dakota War, rather they entered into a larger mix of forces.
Chaky goes back to the mid-1850s, including the bloody events at Blue Water Creek in 1855, and carries forward to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. In doing so, she sketches in a myriad of characters heretofore neglected, such as the Hunkpapa Matocuwihu, Bear Rib, who sought so dramatically and tragically to navigate the changing times on the northern plains.
Indeed, by illuminating Matocuwihu and other Lakota and Dakota figures, Chaky, through her own story of inquiry, provides a model for other white historians emerging from a long period of little enlightenment about the events of the Dakota War into an efflorescence of scholarship. She began her work, she recounts, as the story of the soldiers who fought on the northern plains, but came to realize that the real story that needed telling was the active agency of the native leaders and people, that they were central to the story.
There is a long way to go in recasting the telling of the Dakota War to discern who is involved and who is driving the story. Chaky shows the way. A next step might be compilation of a sort of program of players, a vast grid detailing who was who and did what and when, incorporating every known native actor in the story.
Meanwhile, Terrible Justice is one of two nominees for the Great Plains Distinguished Book Prize, to be awarded in April by Nebraska’s Center for Great Plains Studies. The work is certainly a worthy candidate for this and other honors.