Saturday, February 1, 2014

Empire of the Summer Moon: Three Stories

I recently finished the book Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne. Wow, what a read. This is the story of the rise and fall of the most dominant Indian tribe on the Great Plains, the Comanche’s, most specifically centered on the story of their last great Chief, Quanah Parker.

The story of the Comanches traces their meager beginnings as Neanderthal-like hunter-gatherers to their radical transformation into dominance upon being introduced to horses. It was at this point that they did what few other tribes had; they mastered the art of breeding horses and warring from their horses. They became extremely skilled at shooting bow and arrow from the back of the horse, and even learning to slide over the side to protect themselves and shoot from under the horses neck, all while maintaining a full gallop and deadly accuracy. A great portion of the book – probably 2/3rds – is given to this tale, but all of it provides the necessary backdrop to Quanah’s story.

One of the things that makes Quanah’s story so intriguing is his half-European heritage. His mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was captured from her family’s fort as a nine-year old white girl and quickly became a full-fledged member of the Comanche tribe that kidnapped her. She became so ingrained in the Comanche culture that she eventually married a tribal chief, thus leading to the birth of Quanah. Her story alone is worth reading the book, along with some of the other stories that appear of other women who were kidnapped and lived to tell the tale of surviving among the Comanche tribe. I don’t want to give too much away here, but she is eventually ‘rescued,’ yet her response to the rescue and her ensuing circumstances were not as she had hoped.

One thing about the book that is simultaneously fascinating and incredibly difficult to read is the amount of savage brutality that occurred among the many warring Indian tribes. Rape, pillaging, plundering, and all types of creative tortures are described to the extent that would have made Saddam Hussein’s sons blush. Not only are the acts shocking, but the extreme volume at which they occurred and the pleasure with which they were enacted. No doubt there were many peaceful Indian tribes. This book doesn’t focus much on them. And yes, there were all kinds of atrocities committed by the White/European settlers against the Indians. This book reports many of those as well yet interestingly casts very little moral judgment against either side.

That was one of the more intriguing parts about the book for me. Here you have the clashing of two cultures at an alarming rate and with violent consequences. Never before or since on the American continent is there such a gulf between two civilizations, coming together to fight for their existence. It is hard to imagine a time when roaming out west would most likely have meant an incredibly painful death. Yet this summer I walked and biked freely all over the foothills of the Rockies.

But the main reason I want to talk about this book is because of three stories that especially stood out to me, each of which I give greater attention to below.

Comanche Manhood Initiation
The first is that of an initiation rite the young Comanche boys went through for their transition into manhood. Gwynne explains it as such: 

“For Comanches it began with a swim in a river or stream, a form of purification. The young man then ventured out to a lonely place where he would see no one, clad only in breechclout and moccasins. With him he carried a buffalo robe, a bone pipe, tobacco, and fire-making materials. On the way to his secluded spot he stopped four times, each time smoking and praying. At night he smoked and prayed for power. He looked for signs in the animals and rocks and tress around him. He fasted. Unlike some of the northern plains tribes, there was no self-torture involved. Usually this lasted four days and nights, but the idea was for the young brave to remain in place until he received a vision…. After they returned, there was singing and drumming and the young men danced, imitating the cry of eagles. The idea was that they were young eagles attempting to leave the nest.”

The interesting part of this for me was the statement in bold. Much has been made by men like Robert Bly (as in his book Iron John) about the significance of the wounds that are given to young boys in their transition to manhood (whether intentionally or unintentionally). Robert Lewis talks about how men can learn to deal with these different types of wounds. I’m sure you’ve read or heard of some of those terrifying ceremonies that that caused painful wounds to boys as they became men. But here we have the Comanches, likely the toughest and most dominant tribe of their time and era, and yet they avoided this approach all together. Instead they sought to build the inner man with a vision that he can embrace and employ. Make no mistake, these boys would have endured many hard times and lived very tough lives, but their initiation moment was centered on a deeply spiritual and reflective experience, rather than an act of betrayal from an older man.

A Comanche Romance

Secondly there was the story of Quanah’s marriage. Much about this story is all wrong (for instance, this was his second of what would eventually be 8 wives), and parts of Quanah’s later life contradict some of the heroic love portrayed here, but the story stands as deeply romantic. I can only imagine that any woman reading this would be honored to be treated in a similar way (other than the whole being traded for horses thing).

“Quanah was in love with Weckeah. They had grown up together. She was in love with him. She beaded his moccasins and bow quiver. [ah… true love] They wanted to marry. There was just one problem: Her father, Old Bear, opposed it. This was partly because of Quanah’s white blood and partly because, as an orphan and thus a pauper, he had no standing in the tribe. Complicating matters was a rival suitor, one Tannap, son of Eckitoacup, who was a wealthy chief. Weckeah did not like Tannap at all. At the heart of Quanah’s problem was that most important unit of Comanche wealth: horseflesh. Tannap’s father, who owned a hundred horses, offered ten of them for Weckeah’s hand in marriage. Quanah could offer only one horse.
Still, Weckeah implored him to try to match Tannap’s offer. So Quanah went to his friends and managed to gather up ten horses. He then drove them to Old Bear’s tipi and presented them. Unfortunately, Eckitoacup had already heard of his plan and had doubled his offer.

Undeterred, Quanah cam up with a new idea. Now he told Weckeah that their only hope was to elope. This was not uncommon in Comanche culture… In such a case the relatives and friends of the boy might supply the necessary ponies to soothe the dishonor suffered by the wife’s parents. Quanah had no such family. Which meant that by taking Weckeah he risked death, as did Weckeah.

But Quanah had something more than simple elopement in mind. Before he and Weckeah left, he recruited what amounted to an insurance policy: a war party of 21 young warriors. Together they rode south for seven hours, not breaking a trot except when crossing streams. This was as fast as Comanches could travel, and could only have been done with a large number of mounts for each warrior. So fearful were they of what might be pursuing them that they traveled by night for two nights, split up and rejoined a number of times, then split again into units of two, coming together at Double Mountain, near the present town of Snyder in west Texas. They finally stopped on the North Concho River near the town of San Angelo and, as Quanah put it, “went to stealin’ horses.”

They stayed there for more than a year, during which time Quanah built the camp into his own power base… With time, some of his young and daring cohorts returned to their main camp, telling tales of riches and adventure, and Quanah’s leadership, returning to the North Concho with their sweethearts or wives, as well as other young men who wanted to ride with Quanah. At the end of the year, Quanah’s band numbered several hundred. They owned a large horse heard.

Meanwhile, Weckeah’s elopement had not stopped gnawing at Eckitoacup, and he finally decided he would mount an expedition to get her back. By now everyone knew where Quanah was. Eckitoacup rode south with a war party and arrived at the renegade camp on the river. It is not clear what he expected to find, but what he and his warriors found themselves confronting was Quanah’s entire band, armed and painted and drawn up for battle. Shocked by the number of warriors, Eckitoacup became alarmed for his own safety. Instead of fighting, he decided to settle.. After much smoking and haggling, a deal was made. Eckitoacup would receive nineteen horses, the pick of Quanah’s heard. In exchange Quanah would be granted the right to return to the tribe. (Quanah observed, after the deal was concluded, that he knew a ranch were he could steal 19 horses in a few hours.) The deal was sealed with a night of feasting and dancing. Because Quanah’s band had by this time become too large to be left in peace in that part of Texas, he followed Eckitoacup back home the next day, where he found that he enjoyed new status as a fully fledged war chief.”

Like I said, all kinds of issues with this story, but there is certainly something that speaks to his intense love of Weckeah to take that kind of risk and put forth that much effort.

An Epic Reversal

Lastly there’s a story that has garnered the greatest amount of my attention over the last few weeks.

“Quanah Parker… became the most successful and influential Native American of the late nineteenth century and the first and only man ever to hold the title Principal Chief of the Comanches. His rise was doubly strange since he had been the hardest of the hard cases, the last holdout of the last band of the fanatical Quahadis, the only band of any tribe in North America that had never signed a treaty with the white man. At the time of his surrender he was twenty-seven years old. He was known as a fierce and charismatic warrior, a true killer, probably the toughest of his generation of Comanches, which was saying something. He had killed many Indians and white people in his short life, a statistic that will remain forever unknown because in the reservation years he quite intelligently refused to address the subject. He had led his own band in the wilderness after his elopement with Weckeah and was famous for having done so… he was the most prominent and the fastest rising of the young war chiefs. His surrender to Mackenzie in June 1875 ended such traditional career prospects forever.

But it also marked the beginning of something. His attitude toward his captivity had completely changed by the time he arrived at Fort Sill. He would take the white man’s road. He would leave the glories of the free life on the plains behind and he would not look back. Just as important, he would strive to lead his often recalcitrant, retrogressive tribe down that road. That meant the white man’s farming and ranching, white man’s schools for the children, white man’s commerce and politics and language. The void that loomed before the pitiable remnant of the Comanches was for Quanah Parker a grand opportunity. He would remake himself as prosperous, tax-paying citizen of the United States of America who dressed in wool suits and Stetson hats and attended school board meetings. And he would try to haul the rest of the Comanche nation along with him. In the dreary, hopeless winter of 1875-76, the notion of bourgeois citizen-Comanches was just short of ridiculous; no one would have wanted it anyway. But Quanah saw the future clearly. On the high and wild plains he had been a fighter of jaw-dropping aggressiveness; now he would move just as resolutely from the life of a late Stone Age barbarian into the mainstream of industrial American culture.

Wow. Such a radical shift, and almost overnight. This stands out as solid leadership. He saw where
things were headed. There was no going back. A new path had to be blazed. And boy did he blaze it. He slowly amassed a small fortune and built the largest home of any Indian on the plains, all while continuing to give toward those in need among his tribe. Tons more to this story, but a great picture of leadership on this account. Sometimes there is great wisdom in giving up and leading those under your care to embrace a new direction. In fact, sometimes this requires changing everything you though you knew in order to survive in a new world.

Great book. Worth picking up if you have the time. I borrowed the audio book from my library. You can also listen to an interview with the author on NPR here:

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