Saturday, January 7, 2012

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

Subtitled: "Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History." This was an extremely riveting account of a very significant period in American history that I knew basically nothing about. Am I the only one?

Pre-colonization, the Comanche tribe was living what Gwynne calls a stone-age existence, scratching out their survival mostly by foraging, falling victim to neighboring tribes with more complex culture, technology and religious rites. Post-colonization, as the invading Spanish managed to lose entire herds of horses to the wilderness, they transformed themselves with fierce determination into an unrivaled force, building their warrior culture around their almost superhuman skill on horseback.

Boys were given their first horse at age two or three, and within a few years were expected to perform small tricks, like picking up an object from the ground while riding. This little trick gets progressively more challenging until adulthood, at which point they could approach a fallen comrade, pick him up, and put him on the back of their horse without breaking stride. They were known to drop to the side of their horses when passing an enemy, with just one heel hooked over the back of the animal, and could release between ten and twenty arrows from beneath its neck before their opponent could reload their cumbersome ball and powder guns. This incredible discipline allowed them to master the art of mounted warfare apparently better than anyone before or since, and stop the advancing line of settlement in western Texas for over 150 years, at times even reversing it.
A large portion of the book is devoted to extremely graphic descriptions of the kind of brutality the Comanche inflicted on their enemies, rival tribes and white settlers alike. The mutilation, rape and murder of white settlers by Comanche bands was widely published (and often exaggerated) in Texas, drumming up anti-Indian sentiment to a fever pitch. Gwynne's timeline of the different militia groups and federal dispatches that tried and failed to solve the "Indian problem" gets muddled and confusing (how many unsuccessful military engagements am I supposed to keep track of?), but engaging nonetheless. He presents the Texas Rangers as a filthy, ragtag band of bloodthirsty adventure-seeking young men who proved the most successful opponent to the Comanches until the federal military managed to subdue them completely in the late 19th century (SPOILER ALERT).

Quanah Parker starts as something of a side story that Gwynne keeps returning to, and eventually takes center stage as the leader of one of the last free bands of Comanches that managed to resist the reservation, the Quahadis. His story is emblematic of the American west at the time: his mother, captured by a Comanche war band at age 9, was adopted into the tribe as an equal. She married a minor war chief, had two sons, and was forcibly returned to white society after her band was attacked by General So-and-so's latest expedition. She spent the rest of her life trying to return to them. Quanah went on to rally the remaining Comanche bands to form a resistance movement that managed to route the federals for a while but, surprisingly, surrendered when he realized it was hopeless. He went on to become a strong proponent of his tribe's assimilation, becoming the first principal chief of the Comanche tribe.

I'm rambling, but it's hard to know where to stop. The entire book is completely engaging, and manages to stay relatively impartial throughout. I don't know if I expected this going into it, but there's no clear picture of who held the moral high ground throughout, and Gwynne gives as much attention to the bloodlust and brutality of the Comanches as he does to the groups of settlers who would strike down Comanche women and children on revenge raids. There are moments of tenderness and humanity on both sides, and the clearest picture I can take away from such a complex history is that these were two cultures doing everything they could to preserve their ultimately irreconcilable ways of life.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

Dude, you can't put the alert AFTER the spoiler.