When I was going to college and studying History, there was a big stir about a new book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown (which, a generation later, would become the 2007 motion picture of the same title). The book was sensational in its depiction of the violence and wrongs done against American Indians. Because it was sympathetic to Indians, we thought we were becoming really enlightened about the subject.
The problem was, Dee Brown’s Indians never really did anything except wait around for white people to do mean things to them. They were just victims. At least they weren’t just savages, as they had appeared in histories to that time. Since then, though,Indian historians have been trying to flesh out the story, recognizing that historical Indians had families, culture, and aspirations, that they did both noble and wretched things.
A new book from Yale University Press goes about as far as anyone has yet to provide a fully human history of an Indian people. The Comanche Empire, by the Finnish scholar Pekka Hamalainen, strives “to recover Comanches as full-fledged humans and undiminished historical actors.” In doing so he stands much of what we thought we knew about the history of the Great Plains on its head.
Here’s the story as commonly told-in fact, pretty much as I have often told it myself. The arrival of the horse with Spanish colonization revolutionized Indian life on the plains, creating a bison-hunting culture that was glorious, but short-lived. The Spanish, then the French, and finally the Americans hemmed in the Plains Indians, who died of European diseases and lost out to capitalist enterprise. They fought hard, but could not win, and their way of life ended.
That’s a nice, tragic story-line, with Europeans and Americans doing the acting, Indians just reacting. Now, here’s the story of the Comanches, as told by Hamalainen. Responding opportunistically to the opportunities of bison on the plains, the Comanches emerged from the Rocky Mountains and took up horse culture. They became mainly pastoral people, that is, people devoted to animal husbandry. They hunted not only to feed themselves but also to produce a marketable surplus.
The Comanches also organized themselves admirably. Most life and governance was local, at the band or rancheria level. Big decisions involved grand councils and broad participation. The Comanches became strategic thinkers and military titans. They became, in short, an imperial power. Their neighbors, Indian and white, had to pay tribute to them, or else suffer the consequences.
The Comanches dominated the central and southern plains for a century and a half. When their empire fell, it was not just because the Americans were mighty. It was because the Comanches had over-developed their horse economy to a point where the land could not sustain it.
There are lots of interesting details in Hamalainen’s book. For instance, he argues that the upper Arkansas River, the center of Comancheria, was the economic and cultural capital of the plains. The most important and intriguing thing about the work, though, is that the author makes the Comanches, as people of the plains, the main actors in their own story. They are not always likable, but they assert themselves, rather than just awaiting their fate. And that is how we all, as people of the plains, might learn from their example.