Book review: Empire of the Summer Moon

Comanche warrior "Ako" and horse, 1892. (Wikimedia Commons)

Comanche warrior “Ako” and horse, 1892. (Wikimedia Commons)

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, New York: Scribner, ©2010. ISBN 978–1416591061

As a student of American Indian history (in the Southeast), I have been asked more than once whether I’ve read this popular book. I’m no expert on the Comanches and only have a general acquaintance with the Great Plains nations. But I do have an in-depth understanding of how challenging it is to write the history of a people whose records were kept by their conquerors. Knowing how much better Indian histories have become in recent years, I came to Empire of the Summer Moon with high hopes. But my first scout through the pages, including a long camp in the bibliography, showed me a history as dead and barren as Ezekiel’s plain of dry bones. Reading the book is like having the ghosts of cavalrymen and settlers rise up to harangue us about the bloody deeds of “wild Indians,” while Indian ghosts remain quiet in their unmarked graves.

This old-fashioned western history pits civilized white people against savage redmen in a bloody contest for control of land. The contest is a racial one and the outcome is inevitable. Because race explains so much, the book dwells with fascination on the “white squaw” Cynthia Ann Parker and her “mixed-blood” son, Quanah. The Comanches as a whole are treated, not as a nation with a history and culture, but as a body of fierce, “primitive” horseback warriors with women and children stowed back at camp under tepees. Because they are so primitive, the Comanches have no history: the way they lived in the 1800s is assumed to be the way they had always lived, and the only way they ever could live.

A good counterpoint to this book would be Comanche author Paul Chaat Smith’s funny and insightful Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong. It’s too bad Sam Gwynne didn’t have a chance to read it before he embarked on Empire of the Summer Moon. Maybe it would have made a difference. Continue reading

Book reviews from LibraryThing

Over the last few years most of my writing online has been on the LibraryThing website, a social niche for book people. LibraryThing’s main product is an easy way to catalog book collections with as much or as little detail as you like. On the social side, it provides book-related local information (on the web or in a free phone app), discussion forums worth taking part in, volunteer research projects such as Legacy Libraries (e.g., Thomas Jefferson’s and Valeria Novodvorskaya’s), and an outlet for frivolous pastimes (such as book haiku). The site also scouts early reviews of pending books. Reviews contributed by users can also be used (at each reviewer’s discretion) in the local catalogs of public libraries that use LibraryThings software in lieu of more expensive alternatives.

LT encourages users to repost their reviews elsewhere, so I’ve decided to do that. One advantage of doing this is that it allows for comments and conversation a little more readily than the LT site does.

Where does the name Waxahatchee come from?

Locator map, Waxahatchee Creek (Map data ©2014 by Google)

Locator map, Waxahatchee Creek (Map data ©2014 by Google)

Waxahatchee is a Brooklyn-based music project headed by Katie Crutchfield.

The music press tell us that Waxahatchee is the name of a creek in Alabama. In January 2011 Crutchfield “was living at her parents’ house on Waxahatchee Creek, nursing the bruises of a few bad relationships and wondering what to do with her adulthood.” A severe snowstorm, unusual for Alabama, confined her to the house, and she started writing music: “song after song about loneliness, ambivalence and relationships failing to last or fulfill.” 1

Now there are two albums, American Weekend and Cerulean Salt. She’s playing tonight at Bottletree Café here in Birmingham. So this seems like a perfect time for me to geek out about exactly where the name Waxahatchee comes from, and what it meant.

The name contains a mystery.

Indian names

If you’re one of those people who’s satisfied to hear that Waxahatchee is “an Indian word,” you can stop reading. Go sit under your nylon-stringed dream catcher. If you care to know which Indians, what language they spoke, and so on, then read on. Continue reading

Answer: Hate the South

A man with a cane beats a prostrate man who holds a quill pen in his right hand and a scroll in his left. The caption reads, Southern chivalry. Arguments versus clubs.

Southerners. You see how they are. (Lithograph by John L. Magee, 1856.)

This Friday marks the first anniversary of one of the meanest pieces of writing I’ve seen from a liberal pen. It is Sara Robinson’s piece for Alternet (picked up by Salon) on “conservative Southern values” as an existential threat to our republic.

While there’s a glimmer of truth to Robinson’s portrait of what she calls “Plantation America,” there are enough distortions, exaggerations, and oversimplifications to make it downright harmful. Her version of U.S. history reminds me of how New Age charlatans often use science-y language to justify their chosen conclusions. Their method: Cherry-pick facts, ignore contrary evidence, and freely associate until you like what you see. 

What does Sara Robinson see?

  • First, history is made and culture is shaped by elites. (Wrong.)
  • Second, the Northern elite is composed of earnest Puritans and the Southern elite is a crowd of slave drivers from the Caribbean.
  • Third, everything good in our elites comes from the North; everything bad from the South. (Life is always that simple.)

What are we to do about it? Robinson has nothing constructive to propose, just a litany of reasons to hate and despise the South. “Southern values” must be stopped at any cost, or else. 

This is the kind of error made by many bright but heartless and soulless progressives, including the late Gore Vidal. What this country needs, they like to suggest, is another civil war. No more ambiguity. Everyone will be forced to take sides, our side will be in the right, and their side will be in the wrong. Violent struggle will arbitrate all our disagreements for us, and no one will dispute the final result. 

Of course this is nonsense. Worse, it’s seductive nonsense because it is skillfully expressed and offers a feeling of mastery over a complicated past and present. All you have to do is accept Sara Robinson’s thesis and suddenly the motives of your political enemies become so clear! Their behavior is predetermined by their perverse culture. You won’t ever have to respect them or acknowledge their shared humanity again. 

How Opa-locka got its name

View of a white building with a dome and tower, resembling a mosque, with palms and a live oak in the foreground.

Opa-locka City Hall. The Moorish architecture has been typical of the city since its founding by aviator Glenn Curtiss in 1926. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Locator map of Opa-locka, FloridaOpa-locka is a small city in the Miami metropolitan area of south Florida.

Its unusal name is supposed to have an Indian or “Native American” origin. But there is no documentation for the name before about 1926. That’s when the aviator Glenn Curtiss founded the city, during the 1920s craze for Florida real estate.1

When Curtiss first scouted the site, he was told that its “Indian name” was “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka.” He shortened this to “Opa Locka,” which sounded vaguely “Arabic-Persian” to him. This was the era of wildly popular “Arab” movies such as The Sheik and The Thief of Bagdad. So Curtiss dressed up Opa-locka in fanciful Moorish style to match the mood of the time.

The original name of the site almost certainly comes from the Creek/Seminole language. Most likely, it was Vpelofv rakko (“up-pee-LO-fa THLA-ko”), meaning “big hummock.” A hummock (or hammock) is an area of raised land within a swamp.2 Continue reading

Viola da gamba concert: Live from Moravia

How is it that I never heard of Petr Wagner, the Czech viol player in this video? This is the best concert I’ve seen online in a very long time.

Gottfried Finger (c1660-1730) was a Moravian composer and viol player from Olomouc, in the present-day Czech Republic. He secured a gig in the court of James II of England, where his first name became “Godfrey.” Around the time that James was overthrown in the Revolution of 1688, Mr. Finger set out on his own as a composer of operas. He died in Mannheim, Germany.

For more Petr Wagner:

The Joels and their Islamic Antichrist

Heard the one about the Islamic Antichrist?

That’s the latest story seeking to grant American Christians a license to hate in the name of love. Muslims, the story goes, are willing dupes of Satan, anxiously waiting for the arrival of their messiah, called the “Mahdi.” This mighty ruler is the person identified in the Bible as the Beast and the Antichrist.

Just ask Joel Richardson. Haven’t heard of him?

Joel Richardson is a painter and lay preacher who has turned out books arguing that the Antichrist will be Muslim. Islam, therefore, is evil. He often remembers to add that all Muslims are not necessarily evil. It’s just that they follow an evil belief system that serves the Devil.

Richardson seems to think he has been chosen by God to “release new prophetic understanding concerning the end times.”1 Mostly this understanding consists of reading the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation as if they explicitly refer to Islam.

Of course, no one had heard of Islam until A.D. 622, nearly six centuries after the New Testament was finished.2 People would probably give Richardson a hard time if he claimed to find references to Coca-Cola or NASCAR in the Bible.3 How then does Richardson justify finding Islam in there?

Well, he says he did a lot of reading about Islam. Books about “Islamic eschatology.” But more important, Joel Richardson has a personal hotline to the Lord. Continue reading