Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 5, 2009

What made the Comanche exceptional?

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 12:34 am

Over the past 6 months I have been involved in an intensive research project to understand three American Indian peoples that are part of the narrative of Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”. In each instance, the Quechans, the Apaches and the Comanches, who were all important and distinct ethnic groups in the Southwest, are depicted by McCarthy as fiends you might find in a horror movie. Of course, the whites are not much better but that is not what prompted me to do this research. I wanted to better understand American Indians of the Southwest in order to round out a picture that already included the Lakota and the Blackfoot of the Northern Plains that I knew from past studies.

Within the next few weeks I plan to write at some length about Cormac McCarthy’s truly despicable novel but right now want to refer you to the opening paragraphs of the final chapter of Pekka Hämäläinen’s “Comanche Empire”. This is one of the outstanding works of American Indian scholarship that I have had the privilege to read. While it should be obvious from both the title of his book and the excerpt below that Hämäläinen is not interested in romanticizing the Comanches, his account goes along way to correct the image found in westward-ho histories, movies such as “The Searchers”, and finally McCarthy’s pretentious attempt to out-Faulkner Faulkner.


Pekka Hämäläinen:

The icehouse at the Fort Sill agency was not a burial place of a people- the Comanche nation would endure and, in time, flourish again -but it was a burial place of an era. Past and present fell abruptly apart as new peoples, new economic regimes, and new ways of life descended onto the Great Plains, now eerily devoid of any material or geopolitical marks of Comanche presence. Comanches had ruled the Southwest for well over a century, but they left behind no marks of their dominance. There were no deserted fortresses or decaying monuments to remind the newcomers of the complex imperial history they were displacing. Envisioning a new kind of empire, one of cities, railroads, agricultural hinterlands, and real estate, Americans set out to tame, commodify, and carve up the land. Buffalo runners all but eradicated the southern plains bison in the space of a few years, and Texas ranchers laid down a maze of cattle trails that crisscrossed the region. Settlers turned the open steppes into irrigated fields and fenced farms, and boosters conjured towns, highways, and railroad tracks on old Comanche camping sites. With each new layer of American progress, the memory of the Comanches and their former power grew dimmer.

For Americans in the East, the Comanche nation faded even more quickly. In summer 1875, as the last Comanche bands drifted to Fort Sill to surrender, the United States was preparing elaborate centennial celebrations to display its industrial might, continental reach, and hard-won national unity. But a few days before the July Fourth grand finale, disquieting news arrived from the northern Great Plains: the Lakotas and their Cheyenne and Arapahoe allies had annihilated Custer’s Seventh Cavalry, more than two hundred soldiers, in the Little Bighorn valley in Montana. From then on, America’s attention was absorbed by the campaigns against the Lakotas, which did not end until 1890 at the horror of Wounded Knee. By that time, Lakotas were fixed in the national consciousness as the “noble and doomed savages” of Buffalo Bill’s hugely successful Wild West Show. They became multipurpose icons, immensely useful and marketable as the sounding board of America’s shifting feelings of awe, terror, and remorse toward Native Americans and their fate. Fictionalized beyond recognition, Sitting Bull’s ever-malleable stage Lakotas came to symbolize all Indians of the Great Plains, then of the West, and then of all North America, while the other Indian nations were pushed to the margins of collective memory. Already deprived of their traditional lands and lifestyle, Comanches were now deprived of their place in history.

The waning popular interest stifled potential scholarly interest. During the sixty years that followed their confinement to reservation, the Comanches drew little scholarly attention and inspired few academic studies. Scholars did not rediscover them until the 1930s, when two prominent Texas historians, Walter Prescott Webb and Rupert Norval Richardson, gave them a key role in their renowned studies of the Great Plains. The Comanches presented by Webb and Richardson were, however, startlingly different from the Comanches European colonists had known in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Where the Spaniards and French had viewed Comanches variously as diplomats, raiders, allies, foes, traders, spouses, and kinspeople, Webb and Richardson, drawing heavily on the records of mid-nineteenth-century American settlers and soldiers, portrayed them simply as warriors. And whereas Spanish and Mexican sources spoke of the overwhelming economic, political, and cultural power of Comanches, Webb and Richardson depicted them as a military obstacle to America’s preordained expansion across the continent.2

Thus emerged the idea of the Comanche barrier to the westward-expanding American frontier, a metaphor that recast Comanches as savages who resisted conquest with raw military prowess but were devoid of other qualities that make human societies strong and resilient. Reconceived in the minds of early twentieth-century Americans, Comanches were equated with other natural obstacles-aridity, deserts, and distance -that encumbered the colonization of the American West. Aggressive and impulsive, powerful yet passive, they blended into the natural environment to form a potent, essentially nonhuman impediment to the U.S. empire.

This tendency to simultaneously naturalize and demonize the Comanches – and, arguably, to rationalize their subjugation -is apparent in Webb’s 1958 presidential address to the American Historical Association, in which he nostalgically contemplated the forces that shaped his writing in his Texas home. “In the hard-packed yard and on the encircling red-stone hills was the geology, in the pasture the desert botany and all the wild animals of the plains save the buffalo,” he mused. “The Indians, the fierce Comanches, had so recently departed, leaving memories so vivid and tales so harrowing that their red ghosts, lurking in every mott and hollow, drove me home all prickly with fear when I ventured too far” A generation later, novelist Cormac McCarthy offered in Blood Meridian what was perhaps the most troubling reenvisioning of the Comanches. He describes the destruction of a crew of Anglo-American filibusters at the hands of beastlike Comanches who, without provocation or hesitation, abandon themselves on the other side of humanity, “ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows.”5

The unanthropocentric barrier metaphor trivialized the Comanches as a society and, by extension, abridged their role as historical actors. By reducing them to a primal warrior society, Webb, Richardson, and the scores of historians and nonhistorians influenced by them created a caricature of Comanches’ culture and their place in history. The Comanches who appeared in historical studies from the 1930s on terrorized the Spanish and Mexican frontier with relentless raids, but beyond that they merely occupied space. Weak in organization and warlike by nature, they lacked the complex diplomatic, economic, and cultural arrangements that fasten peoples to their environments and instead relied on brutal, almost pathological raiding to defend their homelands. The narratives that spoke of different kinds of Comanches were marginalized. “Los Comanches,” the New Mexican conquest romance that captures Comanches’ penetrating influence on the political, economic, and cultural milieu of the early Southwest, was dismissed as local folklore and ignored by mainstream historians.

Thus, bit by bit, the nature and scope of Comanche power became distorted. Memories of Comanches stirred horror and awe in twentieth-century Americans like Webb -not because they conjured up impressions of imperial-scale power but because they evoked images of nativistic resistance and mindless, primitive violence. In 1974, a century after the battle of the Palo Duro Canyon, T. R. Fehrenbach, another renowned Texas historian, depicted Comanches as “scattered bands of wanderers, never a nation,” and their system of power as a “barrier [that] had stopped European penetration of these plains for almost two centuries. It did not show on maps; it had no shape or form. The Comanche barrier was a wisp of smoke on the horizon, riders appearing suddenly on the ridges, shots and screams at sunset, horror under the summer moons.” Comanches, he concluded, “remained proud, savage, and aloof, determined to deal with Europeans on their own terms. . . . Whether the stance was conscious or distinctive, the People had become a powerful barrier to all future movement across the plains.”4 Fehrenbach’s portrayal of a phantasmal Comanche barrier vas a product of its time, and it represented how historians understood colonialism and Indian-white relations into the closing years of the twentieth century: European imperialism moves history; Native resistance is raw, violent savagery; and frontiers, if indigenous peoples have a hand in their making, are confusing, unsophisticated places.

The task in this book has been to recover Comanches as full-fledged humans and undiminished historical actors underneath the distorting layers of historical memory and, in doing so, to provide a new vision of a key chapter of early American history. In these pages I have traced the evolution of a Comanche power complex that was neither shapeless nor formless, a Comanche foreign policy that involved much more than plundering and killing, and Comanche people who were neither savage nor nationless. Instead of merely defying white expansion through aggressive resistance, I have argued, Comanches inverted the projected colonial trajectory through multifaceted power politics that brought much of the colonial Southwest under their political, economic, and cultural sway.

How did this happen? How did a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers that numbered only a few thousand in the early eighteenth century manage to challenge and eventually eclipse the ambitions of some of the world’s greatest empires? What gave Comanches their edge in the collision of cultures? And conversely, why was it that only the Comanches-among the hundreds of Native American nations -managed to build an empire that eclipsed and subsumed Euro-American colonial realms? In the preceding chapters I have emphasized various mental and cultural traits, ranging from Comanches’ strategic flexibility to their willingness to embrace new ideas and innovations, but those are traits shared by most Native American societies. What was it that made Comanches exceptional?


  1. The Comanche, like the Lakota (Sioux), Cheyenne,
    and Apache are white-man’s Indians. They get cinema fame because they fought the European invaders and the government. They were, until the late 19th Century, imperialistic tribes that warred on smaller tribes and stole their land,
    horses, and game. Tribes more representative of Indians in the real West would include: Hidatsa, Mandan, Plains (Eastern) Shoshone, the Pueblo tribes (all 22), Crow, Salish, Kootenai, Kiowa, Assiniboine, Bannock, and Navaho.

    As far as cultural “exceptionalism” with regards to language use, only the Crow and the Navaho
    (of the tribes listed) have a majority of their tribal members that still speak their native language. Interestingly, both tribes more or less took the Gandhi route in regards to Europeans and the U.S. government. Indeed, today over 60% of all Plains Indian children that still speak their own language are speaking Crow (Plains Indian tribes: Blackfeet, Sarsi, Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, Crow, and Comanche).

    Comment by Awe' — January 5, 2009 @ 2:13 am

  2. Dear “awe” your full of it, to put it diplomatically….WHY?!, Because, to say that the Comanche, Lakota Cheyenne and Apache were “white mans Indians” is a load of B.S.. ALL INDIANS WARRED ON AND TOOK FROM WEAKER NATIONS’ ..PERIOD!!!!…That was the same whether it was woodland Indians or Plains Indians

    No one has any moral high ground, no ones hands are clean and this has been the same since history began to be recorded….people are people, that is to say they are principally selfish and greedy and arrogant and for the most part, excluding” BUDDHA, CHRIST, DOCTOR KING AND GHANDI and a handful of others aside, all they REALLY understand is an ass-whipping, PERIOD!

    Speaking specifically about the plains Indian culture, what made the difference when it came to power struggles over hunting grounds and the inevitable outcome; was simply numbers to replace fallen warriors and access to guns and ammunition and NO ONE and I mean NO ONE took the “GHANDI route” as you suggest.

    The closest one gets to any RECORDED figure of that spiritual dimension is TASHENKO WITKO, otherwise known as CRAZY HORSE, but some would blanch at the comparison and I would well understand that reaction, because CRAZY HORSE took lives… Read MARI SANDOZ’S book “CRAZY HORSE THE STRANGE MAN OF THE OGALALA’S”


    The Crow and the Navajo, two tribes you mention in this “GHANDI” context, BOTH scouted for US government and they did it for two basic reasons, one:because they able to get back at their enemies, in the case of the NAVAJO, it would have been the KIOWA and COMANCHE, both of whom during most of their history were in alliance with one another and in the case of the CROW, scouting against the SIOUX or LAKOTA and the CHEYENNE., both of whom were constantly trying to take the rich hunting grounds of the CROW

    And your absurd claim that 60% of plains tribes speak CROW is as absurd and unfounded as your previous statement!!!………. READ A BOOK on NATIE AMERICAN history.



    Comment by Rubio — October 16, 2013 @ 8:43 am

  3. PS. in reference to the above regarding the SIOUX and the CHEYENNE/ARAPAHOE: after 1850 or so, the SIOUX became allied with the CHEYENNE/ARAPAHOE alliance, it was one way the latter could maintain their influential place in the trade routes and rich hunting grounds and thus retain their power BY HOOKING UP WITH THE WARLIKE AND NUMEROUS SIOUIX.

    The smallpox epidemic of 1837 upset the balance of power in the Northern plains by decimating the BLACKFOOT, especially the PIEGANS or PIKUNNI, who were the Southern most of the three tribes and thus more directly in the path of settlers; THE SIOUX then became the primary power on the Central and Northern plains. The Cheyenne and ARAPAHOE were both relatively small tribes, 3500 people a piece.

    The LAKOTA branch alone of the SIOUX nation had 25,000 – 30,000 people!!….Together the Sioux and Cheyenne/Arapahoe contingent dominated the Northern and Central plains driving the less numerous CROW from their rich hunting grounds by sheer weight of numbers, which was the principal reason the CROW enlisted as scouts against their enemies the SIOUX, CHEYENNE and ARAPAHOE.

    This warfare between the SIOUX alliance continued until the alliance were finally defeated in the late1870’s. Some resistance continued to some degree for a few years after that time frame but after CRAZY HORSE and SITTING BULL were shamefully assassinated; SIOUX life as they formerly knew it, was then over

    Comment by Rubio — October 16, 2013 @ 9:13 am

  4. The main differences between the native American and the Europeans is we never war with other tribes I as a Comanche/Kiowa they were just a skirmish only. we could have defeated any Native American with our massive horses…………….HISTORICALLY WE OR ANY OTHER NATIVE AMERICAN BANDS OR TRIBES EVER ENSLAVE ANY TRIBES IN THE LAND CALLED AMERICA…THAT IS A FACT.


    Comment by wolfchief — January 3, 2017 @ 6:08 am

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