[Marxism] Query

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Feb 1 18:48:27 MST 2013

On 2/1/13 8:31 PM, dajj1950 at primusonline.com.au wrote:

> You may find some interesting stuff in T.R. Fehrenbach, Comanches: The History
> of a People, United States, Pimlico, 2005.
> regards
> doug

Yeah, that was the first thing I read. It looks like the book I have 
second in my queue nails it. The reviewer, btw, wrote a damned good book 
nailing Obama as a rightwing asshole.

London Review of Books

Roger Hodge

     Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of 
the Comanche Tribe by S.C. Gwynne
     Constable, 483 pp, £9.99, July 2011, ISBN 978 1 84901 703 9

On 19 May 1836, less than a month after the Texan Republic won 
independence from Mexico in the Battle of San Jacinto, a large group of 
Indians rode up to the gate of Parker’s Fort, near present-day Mexia, 
east of Waco. The Parker clan had travelled from Illinois to the 
extremities of the Texas frontier three years earlier, with 30 oxcarts 
of belongings and a religious zeal that was anything but missionary. In 
1835, six of the Parker families, three of whom had received land grants 
of 4600 acres, had built a heavily fortified cedar stockade that covered 
an acre of land; it contained six log cabins and four blockhouses, and 
was laced with gunports. The Parkers had fought Indians in Illinois, 
Tennessee and Georgia, and they expected to fight them in Texas as well. 
They probably didn’t realise, however, that their grant from the Mexican 
government had placed them deep in Comanchería, the area of the 
South-West controlled by the Comanches, or that the Mexicans intended to 
use the rapidly growing colonies of English-speaking settlers from the 
US (known as Anglos) to create a human shield between the Comanches and 
their traditional raiding grounds further south. It is unlikely the 
Parkers would have passed up the free land in any case. They were devout 
and aggressive Baptists who believed that God had empowered them to make 
the barbarian deserts bloom. ‘The elect are a wrathful people,’ Elder 
Daniel Parker said, ‘because they are the natural enemies of the non-elect.’

When the Indians arrived, ten of the Parker men were working in the 
fields about a mile away. Six men, including James and Silas Parker, 
both Texas Rangers, were still at the fort, along with eight women and 
nine children. The armoured gate was open. The Comanches were apparently 
taking advantage of the disorder created by the Texans’ violent divorce 
from Mexico to carry out raids on settlements that penetrated too far 
into their hunting grounds. Estimates of their number range from one 
hundred to five hundred. Their horses painted for war, the Indians 
approached the fort with a white flag. Benjamin Parker walked out of the 
gate and spoke to the warriors, who asked for a cow; Parker refused, 
though he offered other supplies, and thus abandoned whatever hope he 
and his family had of surviving the encounter.

Comanches were used to accepting tribute from Euro-Americans; 
gift-giving was integral to Comanche political culture, so the frequent 
refusal of Texans ‘to share’ was considered insulting and hostile. While 
Benjamin spoke to the Indians, other members of the Parker family were 
fleeing out of the fort’s back door. Rachel Parker Plummer, who survived 
21 months of Indian captivity (possibly among the Shoshone in 
south-western Wyoming, rather than the Comanches as she believed), 
watched as her uncle Benjamin was surrounded, clubbed, impaled with 
lances, shot with arrows, then scalped. Rachel took her little boy James 
and began to run, but, as she wrote after her release, ‘a large sulky 
looking Indian picked up a hoe and knocked me down.’ Silas Parker went 
for his bag of shot and was soon killed, as were the other men who 
remained in the fort trying to protect the women and children. Some of 
those who fled were caught, mutilated and killed. Granny Parker was 
raped and stabbed but survived. Taken captive along with Rachel and her 
son James were Elizabeth Kellog and Silas Parker’s children John and 
Cynthia Ann. John grew up to be a Comanche warrior, perhaps ending his 
life as a rancher in Mexico; Elizabeth was ransomed; Cynthia Ann became 
the wife of the war leader Peta Nocona and the mother of Quanah Parker, 
whom S.C. Gwynne, taking his place in a long line of writers, calls the 
‘last chief’ of the Comanches. It might be more accurate to call him the 
first chief, but that would diminish the mythological attraction.

Quanah’s prominence in recent popular accounts owes as much to his being 
the half-breed child of a captive white woman as to his prowess as a war 
leader. The romance of the defiant noble savage was less attractive 
while the Indian wars still raged. For most of the last 175 years 
Cynthia Ann has been the focus of attention, with the story of her 
abduction and the slaughter at Parker’s Fort told and retold in 
newspapers, magazines and romantic novels that imagined love among the 
prairie flowers between a lovely white squaw and a darkly handsome young 
buck. Her uncle James Parker, Rachel Plummer’s father, made nine or ten 
trips into Indian country, often by himself, over the next decade, 
determined to retrieve his daughter and other captured relatives, a 
quest that was eventually given Hollywood treatment in The Searchers, 
with John Wayne as James and Natalie Wood as his missing niece. Quanah, 
born around 1850, was known only to the soldiers and Rangers who pursued 
him along the cliffs and plains of the Llano Estacado. It wasn’t until 
he surrendered in 1875 and presented himself to Colonel Ranald Mackenzie 
at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, that his parentage became known and the slow 
work of fashioning his legend began.

Since then, dozens of books have been written about Quanah and the 
tragic life of his mother – among them, Arthur Japin’s bestselling novel 
Someone Found (the title derives from Cynthia Ann’s Comanche name, 
Naudah). No other story of frontier hardship can quite compare. Cynthia 
Ann was abducted twice, once by Noconi Comanches and once by Texas 
Rangers, and lost her family both times. Whether or not Naudah’s husband 
Peta Nocona was killed at the Battle of Pease River (Quanah always 
claimed his father died years later), she never saw him or her sons 
again. She did everything she could to escape from her white family 
before she died in 1870, ten years after she was recaptured. When Coho 
Smith, himself a former captive, visited Naudah in east Texas and spoke 
to her in Comanche, she screamed and threw herself at his feet, begging 
to be taken home. When Smith refused, she told him that her heart was 
always crying out for her boys, that she knew where they could steal 
some first-rate horses, and that she would reward him with ‘ten guns, 
ten horses, ten wives’. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon is the most 
ambitious of the many books about Quanah Parker, and the entwined dramas 
of Quanah and Cynthia Ann Parker are only part of the story. Gwynne has 
set out to write a western epic, and his narrative is enormously 
entertaining, but it is hard to discern a coherent historical thesis.

The Comanches entered written history in 1706, when residents of the 
Taos pueblo in New Mexico complained to their Spanish governor about 
attacks from Utes (who gave their name to the state of Utah) and 
another, previously unknown tribe of ‘very barbarous’ Indians. They 
called themselves Numunu, ‘the People’. The Spanish officials, who had 
been preoccupied with Apache raiders, knew nothing about this new tribe 
of mounted Indians, whose given name probably derived from the Ute word 
kumantsi, which historians have interpreted as meaning ‘anyone who wants 
to fight me all the time’, or simply ‘enemy’. A recent interpretation, 
however, endorsed by Pekka Hämäläinen in his magisterial The Comanche 
Empire, suggests that the word actually meant something closer to 
‘newcomer’, and carried the further meaning of ‘a people who were 
considered related but different’, which accords with the current 
consensus that the Utes and the Comanches were both Numic peoples who 
spoke variants of Uto-Aztecan and took different migratory routes out of 
the Sierra Nevadas and the Great Basin. One group, in the first wave of 
the Numic expansion, travelled south in the early years of the second 
millennium and founded the Aztec empire; another, the Shoshone, was the 
parent group of the Comanches. By the 16th century some of the Shoshone 
had migrated to the Great Plains, where they employed sophisticated 
communal hunting techniques and used dogs to haul their hide tipis and 
other belongings on travois, platforms strung between two trailing 
sticks; the archaeological record, including the hundreds of bison jumps 
(indicated by the burned and butchered remains of animals driven off 
cliffs to their deaths) found throughout the Shoshones’ former 
territories, shows that they enjoyed a flourishing economy and a 
relatively prosperous existence. At some point in the late 17th century, 
the Shoshones split into two groups; one of them became the Comanches, 
who went south in search of game and Spanish ponies.

Such is the story that emerges from the work of ethnohistorians and 
anthropologists. Although Gwynne has clearly read widely in that 
literature, he repeats the old tale of the Numunu as descendants of 
‘primitive nomads’ who crossed the Bering land bridge and had ‘scarcely 
advanced’ in thousands of years; practised none of the arts of civilised 
life, such as agriculture, pottery and weaving; lacked priests and 
elaborate rituals like the Sun Dance and never thought to chop down a 
tree; ‘grubbed and hunted for a living using stone weapons and tools, 
spearing rodents and other small game and killing buffalo by setting the 
prairies on fire and stampeding the creatures over cliffs or into pits’; 
used dogs to lug their belongings from place to place and ‘squatted 
around fires gorging themselves on charred, bloody meat’. Basically, 
‘they fought, reproduced, suffered and died.’ Gwynne’s sole cited 
authority for these contemptuous statements is the Texas historian T.R. 
Fehrenbach, who categorises native peoples on a sliding scale of 
savagery and barbarism, terms he uses as if with technical precision.

Whatever their anthropological sophistication, all writers on the 
Comanches can agree that the Numunu underwent an astonishing 
transformation in the late 17th century. The early alliance with the 
Utes was highly profitable for both groups. The Utes, who had inhabited 
the Spanish borderlands for some time, introduced the Comanches to 
European goods, including guns and metal tools, and shared their 
knowledge of horses. The Comanches in turn assisted the Utes in their 
wars with the pueblo Indians, the Navajo and the Apaches. Together they 
terrorised the more settled inhabitants of New Mexico.

Within a generation, Comanche culture was revolutionised, by the arrival 
of the horse and the freedom of movement horses allowed. Within two 
generations they were fully mounted. Life on the plains would never be 
the same, especially for the Spaniards’ old enemy the Apaches, against 
whom the Comanches waged a brutal campaign. The Apaches were horsemen, 
but they were also farmers, thus vulnerable to raids, and they had not 
mastered the arts of mounted warfare: like the Europeans, they typically 
fought on foot and so were no match for the Comanches, who all observers 
agreed formed the finest light cavalry in history.

The Comanche invasion of the southern plains was not simply a matter of 
military conquest. Horses enabled the Comanches to raid widely among the 
Spanish pueblos and ranches of New Mexico, and also greatly expanded 
their economic opportunities. By the mid-1720s, they had taken control 
of the Arkansas Valley, long a centre of trade among the peoples of the 
plains. Soon a process of reverse colonisation began as the Comanches 
established trading relations across the Spanish borderlands, stealing 
horses along the lower Rio Grande and trading them in New Mexico, or 
with the traders from Taos or Santa Fe who passed unmolested into the 
Comanche rancherías, or with French, British and American traders in the 
east. The mid-18th century saw a lucrative alliance develop with the 
French and the Taovayas in the eastern Arkansas Valley. The Comanches 
tanned buffalo hides and prepared bear grease and traded these goods – 
as well as the slaves they captured in raids – for guns, ammunition, 
metal tools (often refashioned into arrow points), swords (which became 
the points of lances), textiles, pottery, iron cookware, blankets, 
candles, maize, flour, bread, tobacco, vegetables, beads and clothing. 
They also demanded and received political gifts from those who wished to 
trade with them, and access to such desirable objects (uniforms, medals, 
flags, coloured capes and other trinkets) was an important component of 
their political economy.

Their chiefs were men who through a combination of kinship ties, 
patronage, courage in battle and personal charisma were able to persuade 
other men to do as they wished. War leaders were often young men who had 
little control over civic affairs, such as hunting, trade or the 
frequent need to move a ranchería to find new pastures for the horses. 
Comanche politics were radically democratic, if also radically 
constrained by custom, and all crucial decisions were made in council. 
Women, who performed most of the community’s manual work (tanning hides, 
drying meat, preparing meals, breaking down or setting up camp), were 
not consulted, though they did have considerable influence over the 
economy of honour and martial prestige: the esteem or contempt of women 
was a powerful political force. Chiefs, or paraibos, were leaders only 
so long as they had followers, which made relations with the European 
colonial empires somewhat fraught, since the men who signed treaties 
often had little means of enforcing their provisions. But when the 
Spanish, the French, the Mexicans, the Texans or the Americans provided 
resources to Comanche leaders, they were generally able to justify 
peaceful relations; when trading opportunities became scarce and tribute 
payments were not forthcoming, ambitious young men soon began raiding 
and pillaging, which often led to a cycle of revenge and warfare.

For much of the 20th century, historians generally argued that the 
Comanches lacked any politics, properly speaking; that their social 
organisation never rose above the level of the hunting party or war 
band. More recently, scholars such as Thomas Kavanagh and Hämäläinen 
have found considerable evidence of a sophisticated if highly 
decentralised politics. Unlike the rigid hierarchies familiar to 
Europeans, Comanche political organisations were fluid and consensual, 
alliances of local groups based on kinship, trade and mutual interests, 
and centred on the exploitation of whatever resources were available. 
The Comanches could come to general agreements on matters of warfare, 
foreign policy and trade, and treaties with them were not worthless, 
contrary to Gwynne’s assertions, and were often followed by long periods 
of relative calm. Alliances with other native peoples also took shape, 
prevailed for years, and then broke down as collective interests 
changed. Similarly, general policies of war, especially against the 
Apaches and the Osages, were broadly recognised. Huge multi-divisional 
gatherings were recorded by the Spanish, and from time to time war 
leaders such as Cuerno Verde would appear who quite obviously exercised 
broad civic authority.

In the 1750s, several bands of Comanches pushed south from the Red River 
and established their dominion over the Texas plains. Comanchería by 
that time stretched from eastern New Mexico to the Arkansas Valley, from 
Big Timbers on the Arkansas River in the north to the Balcones 
Escarpment in the south-east, a domain of a quarter of a million square 
miles. They raided along the lower Rio Grande and into Mexico’s 
north-eastern provinces. New Mexico was more and more dependent on trade 
with the Comanches yet continued to suffer depredations. Tomás Vélez 
Cachupín, the governor of New Mexico, sought peace through trade; he 
also saw that close ties with the Comanches might discourage the French 
from infiltrating Spanish territory. A treaty was signed in 1752, the 
first of many, though the Comanches never entirely stopped raiding, and 
the peace did not last long. After Cachupín retired in 1767, his 
successor failed to understand the importance of Comanche diplomacy, and 
as a result his colony was nearly destroyed by unceasing raids. Spanish 
authorities in New Mexico recorded 106 attacks by Comanches between 1767 
and 1777. Officials in Santa Fe complained that the Comanches would raid 
one day and then appear a few weeks later anxious to trade; largely 
ignored by both Mexico City and Madrid, which refused to send forces to 
defend its northern colonies, the New Mexicans had little choice but to 
submit. ‘From war alone,’ Governor Pedro Fermín de Mendinueta wrote in 
1771, ‘all that results is loss of life and property, but from the 
alternative this poor citizenry gains some good.’

The authorities in Spanish Texas made attempts at peace with even less 
success. During the years after the American Revolution, Texas was 
overrun by Comanche raiders and its settler population dropped from 3103 
to 2828. Hämäläinen estimates that the Comanche population during this 
period might have reached 40,000. The Comanches began supplying horses 
to northern plains peoples such as the Pawnees, Cheyennes and Kiowas, 
who travelled to the Comanche bazaars along the Arkansas River. The 
French and British supplied them with guns, agricultural tribes to the 
east contributed carbohydrates, and in return the Comanches supplied 
horses, slaves and buffalo hides of unsurpassed quality.

Other treaties were signed in 1785 and 1786, following the Bourbon 
reforms that revitalised the Spanish Empire’s administration of its 
northern frontier. New Mexico’s new governor, Juan Bautista de Anza, 
pursued the Comanches into the plains and killed Cuerno Verde, then made 
a peace that lasted, more or less unbroken, until the Mexican Revolution 
of 1821, which brought independence from Spain. Spain was trying to 
pursue a policy of ‘peace by deceit’, hoping to bind and assimilate the 
Comanches to the empire as dependants, and the Comanches played along, 
keeping raiding to a minimum and assisting the Spanish in their policy 
of exterminating the Apaches. The Spanish saw the Comanches and other 
plains Indians as a buffer against the territorial ambitions of the US, 
yet Comanche trade with the Americans, contrary to Spain’s wishes, 
intensified. With the collapse of the Spanish Empire, trade ceased to be 
so lucrative along the south-western margins of Comanchería; in Mexico 
City, the government was preoccupied with internal matters. By 1821, 
Hämäläinen writes, the Comanches ‘commanded a vast commercial empire 
that encompassed the Great Plains from the Rio Grande valley to the 
Mississippi and Missouri river valleys, and they looked to the north and 
east for markets, wealth, allies and power.’

The early 19th century marked the height of the Comanche empire’s power, 
before disease and environmental pressures began to undermine it. 
Eastern Indians were being driven west and that created both 
opportunities and conflicts. Trade with the Americans was flourishing, 
and the Comanches looked to Mexico for plunder. The commercial heart of 
the South-West was no longer Santa Fe but Comanchería itself, as most 
trading now took place in the rancherías along the Arkansas, Red and 
Brazos rivers. In desperation, the Mexican government permitted 
empresarios – men who recruited and took responsibility for settlers – 
to bring Anglo colonists to Texas, hoping to use them as a buffer 
against the Comanches. The policy had the opposite effect. Raiding south 
of the Rio Grande only intensified; the zone of Comanche depredations, 
dotted with desolate smoking ruins, extended at times nearly to Mexico 
City. Texas wasn’t spared. In 1832, five hundred Comanches rode right 
into Bexar (as San Antonio was then known) and had their way with the 
citizens of the provincial capital without apparent concern for a local 
garrison of Mexican troops, who did nothing to interfere. Lacking funds 
for gifts after that, Bexar was raided for the next two years until the 
flow of tribute resumed. Purchasing peace in this way disgusted Anglo 
Texans such as Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, who when he became president 
of the Texas Republic in 1838 had a policy of exterminating all Indians, 
like a good Jacksonian Democrat.

Gwynne’s portrait, conforming to the old notion of the Comanches as a 
‘barrier’ to American settlement, focuses on the anarchism of Comanche 
politics, their undeniable brutality, their astonishing horsemanship and 
their alleged ugliness (compared with whom, the Texan settlers?). The 
book abounds in accounts of torture, disembowelment, scalping and gang 
rape, but the general drift of the narrative is one of Comanche 
victimhood. Yet as Hämäläinen and other recent historians have shown, 
for more than a century the Comanches dictated the terms of their 
relations, both military and commercial, with Spain, Britain, France, 
Mexico, Texas and the United States. New Mexico was nothing less than a 
Comanche colony. Gwynne remarks at one point, when discussing the 
relentless conflict between Apaches and Comanches, that ‘ironically’ the 
Apaches were doomed by their pursuit of agriculture, ‘a higher form of 
civilisation than the Comanches ever attained’. Such simplistic notions 
overlook the complexity of Comanche society at its zenith. The Comanches 
were buffalo hunters, but they were far from being primitive 
hunter-gatherers simply following the herds and carrying out raids in 
the spring and summer. The adaptability that led them to adopt the horse 
so enthusiastically enabled the Comanches to create a hybrid 
market-based culture of great sophistication. They were 
hunter-capitalists whose enormous wealth was accumulated above all in 
the form of horses.

Between the 1730s and the 1830s, as their wealth, population and power 
grew, Comanche society became more hierarchical, with greater 
disparities between those who were horse-rich and horse-poor. Their 
increasing prosperity did not come without costs; the enormous herds 
competed with the buffalo for food, and in sharp contrast to the 
romantic image of the virtuous natives who took only what they needed, 
the Comanches killed far more buffalo than they required for 
subsistence. Long before the railroad brought the white hunters with 
their Sharps rifles to the plains, the Comanches were already causing 
the bison population to crash, slaughtering far too many of the animals 
for hides, which they had traded for Spanish goods since the early 18th 
century. When drought came in 1845, the Comanche empire began to wither. 
By the 1850s, Indian agents were discovering large groups of Comanches 
near starvation. Although the Civil War gave them a brief respite, they 
were in terminal decline by the time Quanah came of age as a war leader 
in 1869. Six years later he would be living on the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache 
Reservation in Oklahoma.

Gwynne sees the Comanche decline in terms of cultural contamination. The 
Comanches, he asserts, grew weak and decadent as a result of their 
promiscuous adoption of the white man’s ways – his whiskey, his iron 
pots – and abandoned their austere hunting culture. He derides their 
adoption of feathered war bonnets and other elaborate costumes and 
claims they ‘stole’ the Sun Dance from the Kiowas. The problem with this 
interpretation is that the Comanches were never ‘pure’ in any sense: 
their rise was predicated on a European import, the horse, and they were 
exposed early on to European crafts and manufactured goods. Syncretism 
in religion and dress was the rule among Comanches rather than a 
decadent affectation.

As the Comanche economy collapsed most Comanches submitted to 
demographic and military inevitability, but the bellicose Kwahada band 
formed as a kind of end-times movement, complete with a charismatic cult 
leader called Isatai (Wolf’s Vulva) who persuaded his followers that his 
puha, or ‘medicine power’, would protect them from the American 
soldiers’ bullets. It was Isatai who was most influential in the 
ill-fated decision of Quanah’s group of Kwahadas to attack the Adobe 
Walls trading outpost in 1874, a humiliating defeat that led to a wave 
of summer raids and revenge killings, which in turn brought the full 
force of the US army into the field against them. It was Isatai too who 
initially made the decision in 1875 that it was time to surrender to 
Colonel Mackenzie at Fort Sill. Quanah agreed, we are told, the 
following day. After the Kwahadas arrived at the reservation and Quanah 
announced that he was the son of Cynthia Ann Parker, his transformation 
into Quanah Parker, the first principal chief of the Comanches in their 
history, was rapid. Not everyone among the Numunu was ready to accept 
his ascent, but the Americans, perhaps because he was half-white, made 
their preferences clear. According to most accounts, Chief Quanah was a 
just and decent leader who did his best to protect his people from the 
white man’s perpetually forked tongue.

Gwynne’s version of the ‘Comanche barrier’ thesis obscures what the 
recent work of Hämäläinen and Brian DeLay has made clear: the Comanches 
were precisely the opposite of a buffer to American settlement. By 
lashing the Spanish and Mexican frontiers with raids for more than a 
century, they unintentionally prepared the way for the American conquest 
of northern Mexico. By destabilising the borderlands, which their empire 
of fear had made as broad and porous as possible, the Comanches created 
the conditions for the Texas Revolution and the Mexican War and the 
collapsed horizons of a thin brown borderline along the Rio Grande. 
Their lucrative trade in buffalo hides drew American buffalo hunters 
westward, resulting in the permanent collapse of that essential 
resource. The Comanche empire, like most expansionist and aggressive 
powers, contained within itself the logic of its own undoing.

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