photo & text by nacrowe
i am continually amazed by how little i know about the history of my country. and i took and excelled in my AP US HISTORY class in high school. ask me about the native population in the UNITED STATES and i am clueless.
thus i was particularly motivated to read S.C. GWYNNE's intense EMPIRE OF THE SUMMER MOON: QUANAH PARKER AND THE RISE AND FALL OF THE COMANCHES, THE MOST POWERFUL INDIAN TRIBE IN AMERICAN HISTORY (SCRIBNER, 2011), which as its title suggests explores the trajectory of the COMANCHES, but also serves as a reminder of our own sordid involvement in the tragedy that was the wholesale destruction of the PLAIN INDIANS in the late 19th century.
i want to say at the beginning that the sheer scope of this book is quite an achievement. the central narrative is that of a family, the PARKER CLAN, whose experiences over three generations serve brilliantly as a metaphor for the emerging friction and destructive convergence of two peoples, two cultures and two economies that would not and could not sustain itself. one had to give. by the time of their waining power in the 1870s, GWYNNE states that "the once glorious Comanches were really nothing more than a tiny population of overmatched and outgunned aboriginals who happened to occupy an absurdly large chunk of the nation's midsection." previously they served as an indomitable force along the plains that reached north to NEBRASKA and down well into MEXICO, which basically bisected the UNITED STATES. their presence stopped the onward advance of SPAIN, FRANCE, MEXICO, THE REPUBLIC OF TEXAS and later the UNITED STATES to the extent that both tribes and regional governments sought to buffer their enemies into COMANCHERIA and face certain doom. the COMANCHES were a decentralized, militaristic people who dominated and terrorized the region, INDIAN and EUROPEAN alike.
the brutality and sheer carnage that they brought on their enemies is beyond description. the closest i've thing come across regarding the inventive means of torture of which they contrived and implemented was POL POT in CAMBODIA with his school-based facilities. such was the norm along the plains against rival tribes and encroaching settlers alike. the emerging pioneer populations effectively displaced the tribe, killing the buffalo herds they followed and effectively dismantled their society over time.
this book follows that trajectory, but the fact that they were such an impenetrable force of nature for nearly 200 years is incredible, or as GWYNNE puts it: "that they were able to do so in an era of steam engines, transcontinental railroads, nation-spanning telegraph lines, and armies capable of greater destruction than the world had ever witnessed, was inconceivable."
one of the greater gifts rendered in this book is a GWYNNE's ability to showcase both sides with empathy. you really get a sense of how both sides initially misconstrued the threat of their adversary. the figure of QUANAH PARKER, the last major COMANCHE war chief, whose mother CYNTHIA ANN PARKER was a captive of the aforementioned PARKER CLAN of influential TEXAS pioneers and later prominent statesman. CYNTHIA ANN was captured at twelve and effectively was raised a COMANCHE. when recaptured later in life she wanted desperately to go back to the plains. she died socially isolated and heartbroken at the loss of her family. her son was a brilliant and fearless war chief but ultimately was no match for a war machine headed by the brilliant RANALD S. MCKENZIE who adopted COMANCHE tactics in the field and had superior weapons and munitions as well as a never-ending supply train.
it was no match.
QUANAH ultimately died on his parcel of land in a reservation in OKLAHOMA, but made a go at living according to the ways of his captors. that he was able to do so successfully, looking out for the interests of his people (even when they were ignorant of these centralized bureaucratic systems themselves) while retaining a certain dignity is heartening to consider. you get the sense that in one lifetime he felt the full swing of history drop on his broad shoulders. he never stood a chance, which is largely the story of so many of his native brethren across the continent.
'progress' is a word people tend to throw around quite a bit, even today. it is utilized to justify past decisions and even manipulate future ambitions. for me this book is a comprehensive look at the cost of said progress.
i dont know the solution or right answer to this quandary. for me, that is what makes this such a compelling story. how much richer would our story be if these societies were still intact? is that even impossible or was this genocide and land-grab an inevitability?
this is a great book that corrects historical fabrications taught over the past few generations in TEXAS and is worthy of investigation by anyone interested in AMERICAN HISTORY.