S. C. Gwynne has written a history of the Comanches that gives us a new picture of Native American history, as well as the history the United States and the world: Empire of the Summer Moon (Scribner, 2010). The problem with this book is not what it says, but what it neglects to say about this history.
The history of the Comanches
First we need to look at the outline of this story. The Comanches were several nations of people who initially were less developed than their neighboring tribes. As a result, the Comanches were treated badly by their neighbors. This all changed when the Spanish introduced Native Americans to the horse.
The Comanches became the most effective riders of horses and would eventually dominate all the Indian nations of the Southwest. The Comanche empire included large areas of Texas, and New Mexico and stretched from Oklahoma to Northern Mexico. For over 100 years the Comanches blocked the expansion of the Spanish, the Mexicans, the French, The Texans, and, for a while, the United States. The tactics of the Comanches were similar to those of the Mongols, who were mounted warriors who dominated most of Asia.
At one time, perhaps 20,000 Comanches dominated this vast area. They routinely rode for hundreds of miles on raiding parties and knew every inch of land in this vast, and inhospitable territory. It was said that Comanches could follow verbal instructions that would take them over hundreds of miles on horseback, without getting lost.
The goal of these raiding parties was to take as many horses as they could, and trade for goods manufactured in the industrial centers of the east. S. C. Gwynne’s book is different from most other books on Native Americans in that it documents the fact that during these raids the Comanche engaged in murder, rape, torture, and kidnapping of many of the people they came in contact with. The problem with Gwynne’s book is that he, for the most part, fails to place these actions into a historical context.
The untold history of the so-called primitive people of the world
In order to begin to understand why the Comanches engaged in these seemingly horrendous acts, we need to look at Evelyn Reed’s book Woman’s Evolution – from matriarchal clan to patriarchal family. Reed argues that in the so-called primitive societies humanity did not understand the concept of natural death. All deaths were blamed on neighboring tribes and revenge was a routine part of life.
On the other hand, humanity at this stage of development did not understand the concept of yours and mine. Literally everything was shared. Because individuals didn’t have the responsibility for only providing for themselves, people lived a relatively carefree existence where life was celebrated. Gwynne confirms this aspect of Reed’s argument with evidence that the Comanches would routinely dance every evening.
At this period of history, rape was virtually unknown, since women were respected for the immense contributions they made. In fact, during the time of matriarchal society women had political power and men could only rule with their consent.
One of the factors that changed this state of affairs was the herding of domestic animals. This was the beginning of the fall of the matriarchy and the rise of patriarchal society.
Because horses were introduced into the Comanches when they were a relatively underdeveloped society, they, no doubt, engaged in practices that were completely new to their way of life. Gwynne gave no evidence that the Comanche men ever raped or abused Comanche women.
Genocide against the Indians
Understanding this history brings us to another problem with this book. Many authors now view the policies of the United States government with respect to Native Americans as acts of genocide. Gwynne never makes this statement. His approach is to show atrocities committed by both Indians and non-Indians in an attempt to merely report on history.
However, when we look at the full story of this history, we can see that there is no question that the US government committed acts of genocide against Native Americans. We need to understand that the Native Americans were here first and had lived on this land for tens of thousands of years. The goal of the descendants of people from Europe was to work diligently to remove all native people from most of this land.
Armies routinely attacked villages murdering women and children. Treaties were signed with the US government that the lawmakers in Washington routinely betrayed. The government encouraged sharpshooters to murder millions of buffalo in order to starve-out the Comanche. Schools were set up that forced Native American children to forget everything about their culture in order to emulate the “white man.”
The government did not commit these acts because Native Americans carried out atrocities. The problem was that Indians did not understand the concept of yours and mine. They shared everything and travelled to wherever they needed to attain necessities. This style of life was incompatible with capitalist values that promote private property as the core of economic and political relations.
Quanah Parker is the main character in this book. His mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was kidnapped by the Comanche as a young girl. The US army kidnapped her again after she became a mother. For the rest of her life Cynthia Ann attempted to return to the Comanches. This was in spite of the fact that Comanche women routinely performed the arduous work of skinning and butchering buffalos.
Quanah Parker combated enormous odds and refused to accept defeat for many years. He confounded the best generals in the US armed forces. These generals had enormous advantages over tribes of women and children who needed to travel over vast areas of treacherous terrain in order to avoid the advancing armies.
However, when Parker finally surrendered he needed to wait in line for inadequate amounts of food. Facing all these horrendous difficulties, Parker found a way to prosper. He would eventually live in a large home and have a substantial herd of cattle.
Yet, while this was a clear Native American success story, the lawmakers in Washington decided that they needed to steal Native American land again. In the end, Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanches, only had a few hundred dollars, his home, a few horses and mules. While Washington took away almost everything he had, Parker never turned away anyone who was in need.
When I went to high school in Newark, New Jersey, no teacher taught us how all the land in this country was stolen from Native Americans. They never told me that the government stole this land by using acts of genocide. This is the clear conclusion that S. C. Gwynne refuses to make. However, any realistic history of the United States must take these facts into consideration.