Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Rise and Fall of Comancheria

I just read The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hamalainen. It is one of those books that changed my view of history.

It tells the story of the rise and fall of Comancheria from the time of the Pueblo Revolt (1680) to the scorched earth policy of the U.S. Army in the 1870s. I would quarrel with the author's use of the term "Empire", which indeed seems in conflict with a fundamental postulate of the book -- that one has to understand Comanche culture in its own terms and not those of Euro-Americans. The Comanches did not have an emperor nor an imperial bureaucracy. They did not seek to mark out and hold land in the same way that European empires did.

The Comanches enter history as an offshoot of the Shoshones migrating into Ute territory, a people whose language was similar to that of the Shoshone. The Utes accepted the small tribe making them allies. The arrived after the Pueblo revolt which temporarily forced the Spanish out of what is now the state of New Mexico, and left large herds of horses available to the Comanches.

Adoption of the horse was the first of many innovations described in the "technology" of Comancheria. Others included metallic tools (e.g. arrowheads, lance tips, knives, pots, and firearmes. The Comanches used this technology to vastly increase their effectiveness as buffalo hunters, to increase their mobility, and to become among the most effective cavalry in North America,

They developed trading networks which extended over thousands of miles. In addition to metal products, they also traded for plant foods, cloth and clothing. In return they provided buffalo hides, meat, furs and later horses and mules as well as captives (for ransom.)

The Comanches also developed a system of raiding by which they obtained horses and mules for their own use and for trade to northern and eastern markets, and captives (most often women and children) to be incorporated into their own society as laborers and/or members, as well as to be exchanged with Euro-Americans (who sometimes forced the ransomed people into involuntary servitude or peonage). They also developed systems of tributary payments from Spanish, Mexicans, Texans, and eventually Americans.

Hamalainen suggests that the Comanches conceived of people in categories: those with familial ties, the larger Comanche polity, those with virtual family ties (often established by treaties) and others. Within the family. materials were freely given from those who had to those in need. Within "virtual families" there was reciprocal gift giving (rather than commercial transactions). Others could be raided and their goods simply taken.

The Comanches fought wars with the Euro-Americans, mestizos, and indians on the borders of their lands, although at time went on they successfully negotiated lasting peace with many of the bordering peoples.

While Comancheria did not have formal borders in the sense of Euro-Americans, at the peak of Comanche power they had a hunting, pastoral and trading economy dominating portions of six U.S. states, and raided many hundreds of miles into Mexico. Their population had soared from a few thousand to some 40,000. (I would note that in part this was due in part to the success in providing a good nutritional diet due to their "economic" success and to the practice of polygamy.

The population was spread over a very large land area, and the people lived in relatively small rancherias which moved frequently. This habit of life may have helped postpone the impact of Eurasian disease epidemics which apparently did not decimate the Comanches until late in the 18th and through the 19th centuries.

The decline of Comancheria was due to a combination of factors. After the little ice age, around 1850, there were droughts which reduced the grazing on the southern plains for buffalo, horses, and mules reducing the supply of meat and animals for trade and bringing economic hardship and hunger to the Comanche. The removal of Indian tribes from east of the Mississippi to the western Indian territories brought new pressures to bear on Comancheria. Buffalo hunters decimated the buffalo herds upon which the Comanche hunting and drought had already begun to thin. Finally, after the Civil War, the United States brought its full might against the Comanches, with troops under Sheridan and Sherman using the scorched earth policies that they had perfected in the Shenandaoh Valley, Georgia and South Carolina.

The end of the Comancheria was marked by a few thousand survivors moving (or being moved) into a reservation in Oklahoma, dependent on handouts from a corrupt government bureaucracy until they mastered a new way of life. Fortunately (although not covered in this book) the Comanche nation has been resilient, with its people recovered in number, its pride restored, and its prosperity on the increase.

One problem for the historian of an Indian tribe is that all the written records are from Euro-Americans. This book is I think good history (it won the Bancroft Prize for American History in 2009). However, I would have liked to see the history from the point of view of Comanches themselves, as well as from the Osages, Kiowas and other Native peoples with whom they interacted.

Indeed, will seek to learn more about North American peoples with unique histories such as the Apaches, the Iriquois, the Lacota, the Navajo and the Pueblo.

One of the revisionist assertions of this book, which seems quite reasonable to me as a non-historian, is that the outcome of the conflict between Mexico and the United States over the Southwest was significantly determined by the Comanche (and the Apache). Centuries of raiding by these tribes in Northern Mexico kept them from being developed and more fully integrated into the society centered around Mexico City. Indeed by the time of the Mexican-American War, much of the northern area in dispute was a devastated wasteland and states of Northern Mexico were in revolt against the central government which was not protecting them from the Indians. Thus the forces of the United States had a much easier conquest than they might otherwise have faced, and the central government was more willing to relinquish its northern lands than it might otherwise have been.

This book makes some things very clear. One was that the Euro-Americans and Comanches generally misunderstood each other for centuries because neither fully understood the cultural context of the other. The Comanches must have found it hard to understand subservient people giving allegiance to a king located so far away that he was never seen, and the role of a hereditary aristocracy. So too, the Spanish must have found it difficult to understand a people whose society was so meritocratic, who believed in gift giving rather than commerce, and who were so totally devoted to individual liberty for the members of society (within the society's cultural norms).

Comanche culture changed radically over the centuries of the Comancheria. Those who would freeze a culture at a moment of time should recognize that Comanche success in the 18th and early 19th century (as well as in the 20th century) was due to radical cultural innovations that the Comanches were able to adopt and integrate into a continuously changing cultural system.

For pre-literate societies, we tend to depend on archaeological records, ascribing high levels of cultural achievement only to those cultures that leave impressive ruins such as the Aztecs and Incas. The Comanches in their 18th and 19th century heyday were a nomadic hunting, pastoral and raiding people who left no record in stone buildings. Hamalainen shows that they had a complex civilization, flexible in its political, economic and social dealings with a wide variety of bordering peoples, which provided a good life for its members.

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