Terrible Justice: Sioux Chiefs and U.S. Soldiers on the Upper Missouri, 1854-1868, by Doreen Chaky

5/31/2013 • Drafts, Wild West Reviews

Terrible Justice: Sioux Chiefs and U.S. Soldiers on the Upper Missouri, 1854–1868, by Doreen Chaky, The Arthur H. Clark Co. (an imprint of the University of Oklahoma Press), Norman, 2012, $39.95.

Moving from an early conflict “sparked by a cow” through the turbulent creation of the Great Sioux Reservation, North Dakota journalist and scholar Doreen Chaky crafts a thoroughly detailed and mutually sympathetic overview of the Sioux conflict before 1870. More specifically, she explores major conflicts between the Sioux and U.S. soldiers during the 1850s and 1860s, and also delves into the relationships between the various Sioux bands themselves. It is an enlightening work that encompasses a range of both time and people that has rarely, if ever, been so thoroughly explored.

Chaky relies on countless primary source materials (such as journals and military records from the time), which are comprehensively footnoted in a list spanning more than 25 pages. Such detail might cross the line into obtuse academia, but in Chaky’s hands one gets the sense of being immersed in the culture and environment of the times.

Consider, for instance, this gem taken from the report of General Henry H. Sibley during his 1863 campaign, and attributed to Sergeant J.W. Burnham: “The lonely lake, the rocky hills, the naked, yelling Indians, soon discomfited and flying, the battery of four guns all doing their best, the charging cavalry with sabers drawn, the infantry following, while over all was the darkened sky, the heavy rolling thunder and the incessant lightning with but little rain.”

The book is a deserving finalist for two awards, including the 2013 Spur Award from the Western Writers of America, and the Great Plains Distinguished Book Prize from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Martin A. Bartels

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