A Comanche's story

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Sep 19 06:38:26 MDT 2003

Henry Mihesuah. First to Fight. Edited by Devon Abbot Mihesuah. American
Indian Lives Series. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. xviii +
104 pp. Photographs images. $26.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8032-3222-5.

Reviewed by Jeffrey P. Shepherd, Department of History, University of Texas
at El Paso.
Published by H-AmIndian (July, 2003)

Memories of a Twentieth-Century Comanche Life

In 1945 Henry Mihesuah, a Comanche from Duncan, Oklahoma, joined the
Marines at the urging of a friend. Not someone to tolerate those who "ran
Indians down," Henry Mihesuah decided to confront his Gunnery Sergeant one
morning after he trashed Henry's personal belongings (p. 32). "What's the
idea of kicking our cots over?" Henry asked Gunny (p. 39). In a
contemptuous tone the sergeant asked him if he was a "spic," and Henry said
"No, I'm an Indian." "Oh, you're one of them blanket-ass Indians," the
sergeant retorted. Recalling the situation, Henry Mihesuah says, "I didn't
give it a second thought. I just knocked him down [... and] the sergeant
bounced off the floor" (p. 39). For this challenge to military authority,
Henry Mihesuah received a thirty-day penalty that the Marines surprisingly
did not enforce, perhaps because they felt that the sergeant deserved what
he got. Although few would consider Henry Mihesuah a hostile person, the
story encapsulated the strength and fortitude that marked the entire life
of this very interesting Comanche man.

Devon Abbot Mihesuah is Henry Mihesuah's daughter-in-law, as well as a
professor of Applied Indigenous Studies at Northern Arizona University and
member of the Choctaw Nation. She brings these personal and professional
characteristics to bear in First to Fight, a recent addition to the
American Indian Lives series published by the University of Nebraska Press.
As the editor of the American Indian Quarterly and several collections of
essays on repatriation, American Indian Studies, and research ethics,
Professor Mihesuah understands the dilemmas posed by the "as told to" genre
of biography.[1] Yet, after nearly a decade of listening to Henry
Mihesuah's exploits and recollections she decided to record his stories and
textualize them "for his grandchildren and other tribal members" (p. xvi).
The resulting collaboration manages to avoid many of the methodological and
theoretical errors that other biographies fall prey to. In doing so,
Professor Mihesuah provides scholars with an excellent example of how to
work with Native elders in a manner that respects their views and
contributes to academic and non-academic communities simultaneously.

Mihesuah begins the book by discussing the methodology and motivations
behind her decision to work with Henry Mihesuah on a collection of his
stories. One goal of the book is to counteract the common narratives of
Comanche history created by "scholars who write about Comanches [and]
mainly cite each other" (p. xv). Not only does this limited narrative lock
them into the era between 1700 and 1890, it fails to recognize the people
who adapt and accommodate to life in the twentieth century (p. xv). The
resulting racial stereotypes about the noble or savage Indian, coupled with
the refusal to allow Native people to define their identities,
straight-jackets them in rigid cultural dichotomies. In contrast, this
montage of stories offers an antidote to dominant discourse because it
reflects how Henry Mihesuah sees himself, namely "as an Indian, and that's
that" (p. xvi). Indeed, this book will disappoint readers expecting larger
than life Indian caricatures, marginalized misanthropes, mixed-blood
soul-searching, prophetic drunks, or sagacious mystics. As Mihesuah
forthrightly notes, "Henry reveals no tribal secrets, gives no Comanche
medicinal recipes, and describes no ceremonies [...] that outsiders have no
business knowing" (p. xiii). The modesty of both Professor Mihesuah and
Henry Mihesuah is one of the book's greatest assets.

After Professor Mihesuah's introduction, we follow Henry Mihesuah through
five chapters based on important themes and eras in his past: family; life
as a child and teenager; service as a Marine; the relocation program and
two decades in California; and retirement on his allotment in Oklahoma. The
form and content of the chapters is clear and succinct, with each section
introduced by a brief overview of historical issues and events provided by
Professor Mihesuah. This unobtrusive context quickly yields to lightly
edited transcriptions of Henry Mihesuah's memories, insights, and thoughts
on his life. The chapter entitled "Family" includes a discussion of
pre-contact history that places Comanches within a larger network of
Indigenous communities from the Rocky Mountains to the Great Plains. We
learn that Henry Mihesuah's ancestors participated in the Battle of Adobe
Walls and his grandfather refused to abide by the Treaty of Medicine Lodge
Creek, much like his friend Quanah Parker. These and other early memories
shaped Mihesuah's way of viewing the world and provided him with a strong
sense of himself as a Comanche. Ensuing chapters such as "Early Life"
reflect the hard realities of rural Oklahoma during the Depression, and his
memories are replete with stories about poverty, land loss,
Anglo-hostility, and poor health. Henry Mihesuah recounts these
tribulations with a matter of fact attitude that coincides with his quiet
personal strength. Yet, these years also included fond memories of hunting
and fishing, camaraderie with neighboring African Americans, and curious
characters such as "Honey Bee Jackson," a local beekeeper (p. 21).

full: http://www.h-net.msu.edu/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=196841063954479

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