Saturday, December 1, 2012

Horse Warriors of the Southern Plains


“The Empire of the Summer Moon – Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History,” by S.C. Gwynne, 2010

Up in the upper Midwest, we know our Dakota, our Ojibwa, our Potawatomi, our Mandan.  But the Comanche’s were only a rumor.  Even a bigger rumor than the Apaches – after all, Geronimo, Cochise and the Chiricahua, the Mescaleros, Mangas Coloradas, Victorio - were as well known as Sitting Bull, Red Cloud and Crazy Horse. 

The rumor ends here.  Gwynne brings the riveting and yet sad story of the Comanches to life, making many claims about the powers of the Comanche nation.  The story centers on the high plains of the Llano Estacado, a sea of grass rising above the western part of Texas in the Panhandle, covering 37,500 square miles – the seat of Comanche hunting territory and Comanche power.  Several large rivers – the Canadian, the Red, the Brazos, the Pecos – originate from it.   

Originally they were a miserable tribe chased out of the mountains of the north, who, upon coming into contact with wild Spanish horses as they moved south, adopted the horse as their mainstay.  Gwynne contends that the Comanche became the best horse warriors in North America.  They were the only tribe to learn to breed them.  Their military fortunes turned the minute they understood what horses could do.  As a result, they held off the colonial Spanish, the Mexicans, and later the Texans and then the United States, from 1598 until 1877. They perfected fighting at night, especially under a “Comanche Moon” and were able to travel hundreds of miles with little food and water.  They could unleash dozens of arrows in the time it took a muzzle-loader to get off one shot.  They were the Spartans of the Plains, basing their life on the hunting of buffalo and brutally successful warfare against other Native Americans and white men.  Comanche society was simple, patriarchal and nomadic, ranging from Colorado to Mexico.  The women did most of the work, while the men practiced polygamy, hunting and warfare.  But the women also fought on horseback. Gwynne maintains that they were more of a barrier to white migration than any other tribe in the U.S.

Interwoven with the story of the rise and fall of the Comanche tribe and bands is the story of Cynthia Ann Parker and her half-native son, Quanah.  Cynthia Ann was the woman made famous in the John Wayne film, “The Searchers.” She was a white woman kidnapped by a band of Comanche and later married one of their most powerful chiefs, had 3 children including Quanah, and lived with the band for many years.  When she was recaptured by the whites, she wasted away in anger and unhappiness, eventually dying by self-starvation.   Quanah grew up to be the leader of the Quahadi Comanches, the most uncompromising band, who had as little contact with whites as possible.  Quanah eventually reads the writing on the wall in his mid-twenties, and becomes a well-known and model reservation Indian.  In this story, more of Quanah’s life is taken up with the latter than the former.  Eventually, both Quanah and his mother were buried side by side in Cache, Oklahoma, where Quanah lived for many years in a large, 10-room house. 

Gwynne captures the constant Comanche raiding and settler retaliatory strikes that took place in Texas, resulting in massacres, military defeats, army and Ranger victories, burning villages and towns, escapes and standoffs.  The Comanches, being war-like, brooked no quarter on the battlefield, only took young or female prisoners, practiced torture, burned civilian towns, and escaped with as many horses and goods as they could steal.  The Texans eventually learned the lessons of Comanche warfare.   They were as brutal to the native people, if not more so. 

Gwynne is a reporter for the Dallas Morning News.  There is a bit of political wobbling in his narration of this dramatic tale, using terms like ‘advancing civilization’ and the “Comanche problem,” while at the same time denouncing the atrocities committed against the Plains tribes; praising the skills of the Comanche horse warriors, and equally their tough opponents, the Texas Rangers or U.S. generals like Ranald McKenzie.  Being a reporter, 'fair and balanced' is how we like it, it seems.  Gwynne ultimately understands the Comanches were being killed to get them off the land – but, as his narration implies, this was inevitable.  The Comanches were a hunter/gatherer society coming face to face with advancing agrarian/ merchant capitalism.  The latter had its Four Horseman of the Indian Apocalypse – Colt six-shooters, Sharps carbines and buffalo guns; disease and whiskey; thousands of settlers; and many dead buffalo, the Comanche’s food.  In the rear marched racist Christianity, Manifest Destiny, greed and private property.  These would prove to be an unstoppable force. 

One day as a gift, the Comanches are let off the Fort Sill Reservation in Oklahoma to go buffalo hunting, just as in the old days.  However, they could find no buffalo to hunt – just heaps of bones and rotting meat.  When they returned to their old camping grounds in Palo Duro Canyon on the Little Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River, they found a white rancher had already laid claim to their canyon.  This canyon was the site of one of the last battles of the southern Plains Indian wars in 1875.  There, fittingly, few lost their lives but the Army commander McKenzie killed nearly all the Comanche horses, thus breaking the back of the hold-out bands.  The very last Comanche was led onto the Fort Sill reservation by Quanah himself in 1877.   This marked the destruction of this southern hunter/gather society – a story unfamiliar, but somehow not.

And not so dissimilar to what is still happening to indigenous, tribal peoples all over the world, at the hands of a more 'civilized' capitalism. Inevitable?  I don't think so. Gwynne prefers to historicize these events, as if they have no relevance to the present.  But they do. For instance, see my review of "Walking With the Comrades," below.

And I did not buy it at May Day Books!
But we have a large selection of books on Native American issues.  Come in for our Holiday Party...
Red Frog
November 30, 2012

1 comment:

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