Paha Sapa, a name that literally means Black Hills in his native Lakota sneaks off to count coup as a small boy during the battle of Little Bighorn. He inadvertently touches the dying Custer and absorbs part of his ghost. Over the next decades he witnesses the destruction of his people, and participates in Wild Bill’s Wild West Show, helps build the Brooklyn Bridge and works as a powder man on Mount Rushmore under the ever watchful eye of Gutzon Borglum.
The story and the prose are excellent as all Dan Simmons’ writing is — by the end Paha Sapa has become a friend. A melancholy and quiet one, he has a lot to be melancholy about. (With the exception of the story parts from Custer’s point of view — those serve no purpose in the story, whatever).
The way the United States treated the native people that were here in America is inexcusable — there is a lot of inexcusable mistreatment throughout history. However, when faced with tribes like the Lakota as led by Crazy Horse I sometimes wonder what other choice they had. The Lakota had systematically wiped out any of the weaker tribes in their area and refused to honor treaties. They didn’t just conquer they slaughtered, maimed and tortured their enemies, for no other reason than that they were male Lakota and that was what male Lakota did. It was expected.
Faced with that kind of power on their borders it’s no wonder that the United States decided to become aggressive. In their eagerness to strike preemptively they struck out at many other tribes that did not possess the same kind of war mongering attitude as the Lakota.
We’ll never know if the Lakota had not had a charismatic and probably sociopathic leader in Crazy Horse might they have been more open to discussion and treaty? If some of the American leaders at the time hadn’t been so xenophobic and overzealous in their pursuit of ‘Indian hunting’ might our nation be one in which the native population never had to be confined to reservations and driven into poverty for decades.
We will never know. Those things did happen and so we have the world we have today but Dan Simmons asks us to examine this questions and to think about it.
Black Hills is about history and how much power history plays in the lives of those who live it. It’s also about finding freedom from pain and loss.
With one major caveat: Custer doesn’t show up more than a few times but those few times are enough to make this book almost impossible to recommend — if Custer’s scenes can be skipped then the rest of the book is astonishing.