Sunday, August 1, 2010

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

The entire time I was reading this book I kept coming back to the fact that my dad was a grown man (25 years old), when Quanah Parker died and therefore lived in the era of the Native American genocide! Wow! For those of you who don’t know, Quanah Parker was the last chief of the Comanches, and son of Cynthia Ann Parker, a captive white girl, and Comanche Chief Peta Nocona. Although I know almost nothing about my dad’s side of the family, there are three things that make me think that there’s some Native American blood running through my veins. First, my dad had Native American facial features. Second, he was from Oklahoma, and third, I vaguely recall my mom saying something about her in-laws being "a bunch of Indians," insinuating something like hillbillies.  I tend to romanticize about Native Americans, and although I think that their genocide by European American and Mexican settlers was horrible, humanity has always had, and probably always will have, a propensity for “running off” whoever has something they want. Not to condone it, but history also tells us that Native American tribes fought over territory as well. As war-prone as humanity has always been, evolution seems more about survival of the "fight-est" than than the fittest! Click on Read More Below...

I’ve often wondered what it must have been like living the Native American lifestyle in the country of my roots, west Texas, and this book pretty much clears that up. It was harsh, especially after the intentional decimation of the buffalo herds, a primary source of food for the Comanches.  (Photo below right, taken around 1890, is of bison skulls) In fact, although I’ve read quite a few books about the people indigenous to west Texas, I’ve apparently never read one that didn’t sugarcoat the truth.  Author S. C. Gwynne graphically describes horrific brutality committed by both the natives and the soldiers in their attempts to scare each other away. He also talks about the extremely difficult day-to-day of simply trying to feed a family, and the virtual slavery of the Comanche women. 
Funny thing was, (not funny as in ha ha, but rather as in strange) they all must have been horrible shots. In many of the historic battles described in this book, they’d fight for hours, days even, and only one or two people would die. The high body counts mostly occurring when unprotected native villages or settlements full of old people, women and children were attacked. Nice.

The book is really educational (assuming it is accurate) and even entertaining, but I found the stories about the amazing horsemanship of the Comanches and Quanah Parker’s late-in-life lifestyle particularly interesting – perhaps because it was new information to me. However, I wonder if there were Native American womens’ accounts of that period in time? There are a number of Anglo women’s diaries that are fascinating and very different than the men’s accounts of the same period, my favorite being, Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel.

If your reading taste leans less towards history and more towards entertainment, read Ride The Wind by Lucia St. Clair Robson, which is a really lovely novel based on Quanah Parker’s mother and father. If you like history, well written, I think you’ll like Empire of the Summer Moon.

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