Review: Comanche Empire

by May 10, 2023Books

The Comanche EmpireThe Comanche Empire by Pekka Hämäläinen

This excellent book does what modern history is supposed to do nowadays: it gives a voice to the voiceless and the marginalized; it gives agency to the victims.

And yet you can’t always predict what will happen when you go around handing out agency to historical groups like the powerful Comanches of the 18th–19th centuries. When you give agency to people, you are compelled to acknowledge their faults and not just their strengths.

This book demonstrates that Comanches were indeed a powerful nation with a fascinatingly diffuse and structurally flexible culture who were nonetheless engaged in a constant struggle with surrounding nations, both native and European—a struggle featuring frequent stealing and regular war. The Comanches extorted gifts by the threat of violence. They were, according to the author, fiercely protective of their individual livestock but treated the Mexican farmers (in New Mexico and Texas, I believe; I’m mildly unclear on this point) like ants treat aphids: they allowed them to live and farm only enough to produce more livestock for the Comanches to take. The Comanches also owned and traded slaves, including black slaves and slaves from other Indian tribes. The Comanches had an apparently commendable willingness to let slaves be fully acculturated and to gain freedom, but they also commonly induced this acculturation through a hazing that consisted of savage public torture.

And let’s remember that “empire,” which has become a dirty word today because of the oppression and depredation it nearly always brings to at least some in its sway, is part of the title of the book. The Comanches were an empire who crushed many who were in their way. They were the empire that cleared the way for the United States to sweep into the Southwest, because they happened to fade off the scene at just the right time for the benefit of the culture I am heir to. That fading, too, is a notable feature of their story once they are given agency: according to this book, the Comanches were not living in harmony with nature but were killing buffalo at over the (approximately) 280,000 a year that they could kill without doing what they in fact did do, decimating the buffalo population. It was poor management over time that exhausted the utterly massive resource that had previously floated the Comanches to the status of empire.

I’ve focused on the negative here not because I think the Comanches are especially worthy of blame or because my own culture is especially worthy of praise. I’ve focused on the negative *because I did not expect to encounter it.* I admit I haven’t done much reading about the Native Americans. They’ve shown up mainly as extras in the other American dramas I’ve read: Cortes, the Pilgrims, the Civil War, the Great Awakening, etc. And I do not pretend to be able to render moral judgments against any other Indian tribes, nor that my own culture was anywhere near guiltless in their dealings with the Comanches. But I think I picked up from the current cultural ether the simplistic notion that all the fault—and all the power—in Indian-Anglo conflicts lay on one side. At least in the case of the Comanches in the Southwest in the 18th and 19th centuries, that wasn’t true.

By no means am I minimizing the sins of the white man against the Comanche, or other tribes. The book, toward the end, started to enumerate some of these shameful sins. I am simply doing what the author of this book did, and noticing what happens when you give people responsibility, good or ill, for their actions.

After I wrote most of the above, I read these words toward the end of the book:

Beyond illuminating colonial dynamics and Indian-white relations in a particular place, in this book I have attempted to expand our understanding of the role of indigenous peoples in the making, and unmaking, of colonial worlds. As such it is fundamentally a study of indigenous agency—its character, contours, and capacity to influence large-scale historical processes. But human agency works in two directions, for the very achievements that make societies wealthy and powerful often lead or contribute to their downfall. Accordingly, while I set out to show in this book how the interplay between the Comanches actions and external conditions made them the dominant people in the colonial Southwest, in the end it had to become an examination of how that interplay contributed to the collapse of the Comanche empire. To acknowledge that Comanches were complicit in their own demise is not to downplay the destructiveness of the United States’ political, economic, and military expansion into the Southwest after 1850, but rather to recognize the full potential of indigenous agency, its positive, negative, predictable, and unpredictable dimensions. To paraphrase one prominent historian, recognizing human fallibility in the actions of Native peoples is the basis for writing compassionate Indian history.

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