By Black Hawk, narrated by Brett Barry — This short book—the full title of which is Autobiography of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, or Black Hawk, Embracing the Traditions of his Nation, Various Wars In Which He Has Been Engaged, and His Account of the Cause and General History of the Black Hawk War of 1832, His Surrender, and Travels Through the United States. Also Life, Death and Burial of the Old Chief, Together with a History of the Black Hawk War—was the first autobiography of an American Indian leader published in the United States and therefore something of a phenomenon when it appeared in 1833.
Black Hawk was born in 1767 on the Rock River in Illinois, as a member of the Sauk (Sac) tribe, which at that time populated lands east of the Mississippi River, in Illinois and Wisconsin. His reminiscences were edited by a local newspaper reporter, J. B. Patterson, and recount Black Hawk’s experiences with the French, the British, the American settlers, and other tribes.
What turned him against the Americans was an 1804 treaty, which an unauthorized group of Sauks signed, that unilaterally gave away their lands, providing American settlers the legal right (as if such niceties mattered) to appropriate them, and forcing the Indians to resettle to the west.
I found by that treaty, that all of the country east of the Mississippi, and south of Jeffreon [the Salt River in northern Missouri, a tributary of the Mississippi] was ceded to the United States for one thousand dollars a year. I will leave it to the people of the United States to say whether our nation was properly represented in this treaty? Or whether we received a fair compensation for the extent of country ceded by these four individuals?
Because of this opposition, Black Hawk fought with the British during the War of 1812. Twenty years later, when he was 65 years old and after a trail of broken promises, he led a band of Sauk warriors against settlers in Illinois and Wisconsin in the 1832 Black Hawk War.
Eventually, he was captured and gave up the warrior life. He traveled extensively in the United States on a government-sponsored tour, marveling at the size of the major cities, the railroads, the roads. In his attempts to negotiate with military leaders, provincial governors, and even the Great Father in Washington, he interacted personally with many of the leading politicians and military men of the day. President Andrew Jackson (a major character in NPR reporter Steve Inskeep’s recent book about another betrayal of the Indians) desired that Black Hawk and other chiefs see these sights, in order to convince them of the might of the United States.
Black Hawk provides his point of view quite clearly and compellingly. To no avail, of course. According to the University of Illinois Press, “Perhaps no Indian ever saw so much of American expansion or fought harder to prevent that expansion from driving his people to exile and death.” His prowess as a warrior chief is now honored by the U.S. military, which has named several ships after him, as well as the Black Hawk helicopter.