By Barbara Ehrenreich
By Dan Simmons
Little, Brown. 487 pp. $25.99
The premise of Dan Simmons's new novel, "Black Hills," is not promising. A Lakota Sioux man named Paha Sapa ("Black Hills"), who is a paragon of Native American spirituality, goes to the Battle of the Little Big Horn and gets infected by the soul of Gen. Custer, thus becoming locked in uncomfortable interior intimacy with the celebrated Indian killer.
A stolid, hardworking survivor of so many battles and massacres, Paha Sapa is himself a kind of node in history, bringing together Crazy Horse and Custer, white expansionism and red defiance, not to mention astronomy and native mythology, as well as reverberations from the incipient European Holocaust.
I don't think any pre-modern society had a great way of disposing of waste besides 1) leaving it in place or 2) flushing it downstream and making it someone else's problem. Moreover, since carcasses and other forms of organic waste get recycled into nutrients, I don't think they're ecologically harmful. Therefore, I'd say the Indians are not guilty of being "ecological vandals."
For more on that subject, see Dennis Prager and The Ecological Indian.
As for the "ruthless, relentless invasion machine," I believe the basic facts are true. But the picture is incomplete unless it includes the Euro-American pressure on tribes to move west against their will. If your choice is fighting a war of extinction or "invading" someone else's territory, you don't have much of a choice.
Unless the "Sioux" were equally ruthless and relentless before and after European contact, it's unfair to simply label them without context. It's also unfair to focus on them without noting the many tribes that didn't engage in warfare as a way of life.
For more on that subject, see Warlike Indian Cultures.
Unfortunately, Ehrenreich's review is more a description than a critique of Black Hills. We'll have to wait for more reviews to learn how good it is. But judging by Hyperion and The Terror, Black Hills is probably worth reading.