Friday, June 25, 2010

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History

First, Gwynne's book booms with rhetorical crescendos, especially the language of super-grandiosity: "most hostile," "most remote, primitive," "most violent and warlike on the continent," "at the edge of the known universe," "a vast, trackless, and featureless ocean of grass." Many of these phrases paint the Comanches or the Quahadis in the most extreme colors. I'm never clear, in the view of the horrid deeds of Anglos, why the Comanches are the "hostiles." Why are they the "savage" ones? Or, if we are all savage, then why use such a meaningless, undifferentiating term at all?

Gwynne's research is extensive, and I appreciate the fact that he has actually walked the earth of which he writes--the Pease River Battle area and others. However, unlike Pekka Hamalainen's The Comanche Empire, Gwynne's book does not reflect the insights of Spanish and Mexican historians and historical records. Though he probes beyond the conventional sources into Comanche life and biography, his tone still betrays an ethnocentric bias reminiscent of Walter Prescott Webb (The Texas Rangers) and T.R. Ferhrenbach (Comanches). This betrayal, for me, occurs most tellingly in his bibliographical note: "[Walter Prescott Webb's] work on the Texas Rangers remains definitive." This is absurd. Webb relies on the Rangers' own accounts to tell their story. Surprise, then, that the Rangers are such tough, resolute patriots. Gwynne should check into the views of Americo Paredes and others before canonizing Webb as the definitive source on the Rangers. The "rinches" were certainly not heroic to most Mexican Americans. And any "definitive" account should, I would think, exhaust all possible perspectives.

Again, I share Gwynne's fascination for the Comanches. I grew up near the headwaters of the Pease River (though the "headwaters" barely amount to a trickle any longer), and I have come to empathize (from reading of them and walking where they walked) with the Comanche life along the Caprock Escarpment and on the Llano Estacado. Too often Gwynne's fascination lapses into grandiose diction, always urging our spines to tingle at the immensities, vastnesses, and horrors. I, too, think the Comanches played a significant role as a kind of "empire" in the southern plains. But the case must be made in clear interpretation and plainsong, not shrill insistence. And I think it's time to stop calling American Indians "hostiles" or using the word casually (with "savage") as an adjective. Any proud people surrounded by enemies and threatened with extinction will become hostile, I assume. And the enemies and their threats of extinction are quite hostile, too.

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