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

Book coverAs 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.

I mentioned coming to this book with high hopes. One reason is that I was misled by the word “Empire” in the title. Probably every historian of indigenous Americans has heard of The Comanche Empire, published two years before Empire of the Summer Moon. (The book is high on my wish list. I only know it from reviews.) The author, born in Finland and teaching in California, has the unmarketable name Pekka Hämäläinen. His choice to write about a “Comanche empire” was deliberately provocative, because historians of American Indians (and in Canada, First Nations) have learned how unhelpful it is to interpret native societies as “kingdoms” or “empires,” the way our colonial ancestors used to do. Native political institutions do not resemble those of Europe. Nevertheless, Hämäläinen convinced doubters with his well sourced and culturally sensitive case for the Comancheria (the Comanche polity) as a uniquely expansive territorial state, a kind of empire without an emperor. Decentralized and governed by consensus, the Comancheria nevertheless held most of the power in the region and maintained a busy trading economy. The book won the Bancroft Prize and many other awards. It also made clear that the Comanche polity was unique, using violence and diplomacy in ways that no other tribal nation did.

The Comanche Empire was never a bestseller, though. So when I heard of Empire of the Summer Moon, coming along two years later, I figured it was a more accessible recap of Hämäläinen’s Comanche Empire, combined with a biography of Quanah Parker. After all, this is how expert findings make their way into public consciousness, in the sciences no less than in history. A good writer penetrates the thicket of expertise and picks the fruit so non-experts can enjoy it.

So imagine my surprise: Sam Gwynne’s book makes no mention of Hämäläinen’s Comanche Empire, or of any other recent historical research about the Comanches. Gwynne’s idea of a Comanche “empire” — he does use the word often — is implicitly based on Old World concepts rather than on native ones. Instead of Hämäläinen’s book, he draws on works that are on average more than half a century old, such as The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains, from 1952, and a Parker family genealogy called Frontier Blood, which Gwynne cites with enthusiasm. Besides these, his taste runs to cavalry memoirs and old books about Texas. Gwynne’s list of sources brims over with titles like Our Wild Indians, Three Years among the Comanches, and The Boy Captives, plus a single ethnographic report on “the Nauni or Comanches of Texas” from 1853.

Gwynne has a defense: In the note at the head of his bibliography he points out that he mostly relied on “firsthand accounts from the era,” because “the most valuable resources are always the unfiltered ones” (243). That’s true to an extent, but a more experienced researcher would have understood that every source, firsthand or not, calls for detached analysis — and the only way to achieve this is to first be aware of one’s own filters. Sadly, Gwynne simply soaks up the biases and world-view of 19th-century soldiers and settlers. His descriptions of the Comanches are dated, drawing on concepts from the crude racial science of a century ago. Here and there (e.g. the superficial comparison of Quanah Parker with Geronimo, 314–15), there are broad hints that all the admirable qualities in the book’s “mixed-blood” hero are ascribable to his white ancestry. I’m not calling Gwynne a racist, but I am pointing out a serious flaw in his research. By basing his history on “unfiltered” accounts from an era of scientific racism, Gwynne also reproduces their authors’ prejudices and assumptions. He seems to like it that way.

Gwynne’s forceful writing style is what seems to have carried the book to success, along with his choice of blood-curdling anecdotes. His fast-moving tales of terror and bloodshed involve larger-than-life characters on a grand stage straight out of historical legend. A century ago this book would have been called “manly” — a high compliment at the time. Like a “real man,” Gwynne makes up his mind about the truth and forges ahead resolutely, leaving lesser men to wait upon the facts. Most readers will be carried along by the momentum of the passionately expressed story. Besides, who wants to be so insensitive as to challenge eyewitness accounts of torture, rape, and murder?

Historians counsel against imposing moral judgments on past events, as if they had happened here and now. But Gwynne isn’t having it: “It is impossible,” he writes, to avoid “making moral judgments about the Comanches.” He continues:

The torture-killing of a defenseless seven-week-old infant, by committee decision no less, is an act of almost demonic immorality by any modern standard. The systematic gang rape of women captives seems to border on criminal perversion, if not some very advanced form of evil. (43)

Don’t sugarcoat it, Mr. Gwynne. From this point — and on the authority of “the vast majority of Anglo-European settlers in the West” and their abhorrence of Comanche “thugs and killers” — Gwynne proceeds to

  1. psychoanalyze the Comanches as sadistic boys, then
  2. equate their violence with that of all Indians, across the continent.

The shift is subtle, so the reader has to be alert to catch it.

First, the psychoanlysis:

Not only did they [Comanches] inflict horrific suffering, but from all evidence they enjoyed it. This was perhaps the worst part, and certainly the most frightening part. Making people scream in pain was interesting and rewarding for them, just as it is interesting and rewarding for young boys in modern-day America to torture frogs or pull the legs off grasshoppers. Boys presumably grow out of that; for Indians, it was an important part of their adult culture and one they accepted without challenge. (43; emphasis in original)

Did you catch that shift, from Comanches to “Indians,” at the end of the passage? It’s a bold move, claiming to see into the psyche of, not just every Comanche male — that would be bold enough — but every Indian male. And where is the “evidence” that Gwynne uses to reach this conclusion? It comes from the memoir of Herman Lehmann, a German-American captive who grew to manhood as an Apache, then migrated to the Comanches as a trained warrior. Gwynne quotes Lehmann’s account of the aftermath of a Comanche attack on a Tonkawa band. Because the Tonkawas practiced ritual cannibalism, Lehmann says, the Comanches retaliated by mutilating and burning the bodies of every wounded Tonkawa warrior, ignoring their pleas for mercy. On this basis Sam Gwynne concludes that sadistic cruelty “was an important part of [Indians’] adult culture and one they accepted without challenge.”

By now, Gwynne has piled up several such gruesome accounts of Comanche ferocity, most of them involving white victims. As noted, he has also replaced the qualifier “Comanche” with the broader term “Indian.” And now he will set out to define Indian atrocities as different in kind from the atrocities carried out by European whites, such as the torture of heretics or enemies of the state. You see, white torturers and child stealers are never seen as honorable, Gwynne tells us. Indians who do such things, well, they are honored, but we moderns are just too sentimental to see it. If only we knew all the facts about Crazy Horse, the Oglala Sioux hero, we probably wouldn’t admire him so much. But because of our willful ignorance, “he is free to be the hero we want him to be” (44).

This is a weak argument at best, and when examined on its own, rather than bookended by sensational tales of rape, torture, and murder, it falls to pieces. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, let me lay out a quick rebuttal: First, it is obviously untrue that Europeans or white Americans never gave honor to torturers or child stealers. Any history of U.S.-Indian relations, to say nothing of chattel slavery, would provide copious counter-evidence. Second, it is obviously untrue that Indian societies lacked a moral compass when it came to inflicting pain and terror, as Gwynne proceeds to claim.

Native practices of torturing captured warriors to death, or of initially terrifying and humiliating captives whom they intended to adopt, were of course appalling to Europeans in the New World. Indians, meanwhile, were appalled by the European mode of warfare, especially the slaughter of human beings, including noncombatants, and the destruction of crops, animals, and food stores. It’s ironic that an “Indian massacre,” to most American history buffs, signifies a massacre by Indians of as few as two white people in an isolated homestead, rather than a massacre of Indians by white troops or gangs, which often aimed at entire Indian settlements and exacted a much greater death toll. The two cultures had developed very distinct forms of warfare, and the Indian form, which emphasized stealth and surprise of vulnerable enemies, happened to be more conservative of human life. (Rather than face this fact, Gwynne airily dismisses it without discussion.) Only in the Western world has the slaughter of enemies been framed as a means to achieve lasting peace. North American Indians, with the possible exception of the expansive Comanche “empire,” continued to regard slaughter, even in battle, as an atrocity. And even the Comanches (as even Gwynne concedes) never adopted U.S. and Mexican methods of systematic door-to-door killing.

So Gwynne’s argument for the special depravity of Indians seems to have failed, at least when it comes to killing. But we were also talking about rape.

In Western civilization, rape has been an unfortunate but inevitable fact of war. In a perverse corollary of “boys will be boys,” we expect men at war to waylay and rape women; the best we think we can hope for is that it won’t happen too often. (It was not until 1992, after the discovery of “rape camps” used during the Bosnian War, that the West first began treating wartime rape as a crime, not just a tactic.)

Among American Indians, however, Comanche warriors were, to the best of our knowledge, the only ones who ever raped female captives. Of course, it’s always difficult to prove a negative, but in the vast, largely sensationalized literature of Indian captivities, it’s hard to miss how seldom captives imply, even in the indirect language of strict propriety, that they were ever in danger of sexual violence. Hard to miss — yet not only does Gwynne miss it, he deliberately misleads his readers into thinking that “rape or abuse, including maiming” of women had been commonplace among most Indian tribes. This is simply false. Even the Comanches’ Indian enemies, who may have been subjected to Comanche rape attacks since the mid–1700s, did not retaliate in kind or adopt the practice themselves.

Please note that I am not making some simplistic claim for Indian virtue and Western vice. The differences are cultural; in North American societies, men believed that sexual contact with women could temporarily diminish their prowess as hunters or warriors, while in Western tradition, men still speak of sexual “conquest” as related to the other kind. The Comanches were unique in breaking with the North American tradition and using rape as a weapon. But to find out how, when, and why they did it, you’ll have to read someone besides Gwynne, who isn’t even curious about it. He’d rather mislead you into thinking that Comanche rapes in the 1800s were typical of all American Indian tribes, in all times and places.

Beyond recounting pathos and bloodshed, Gwynne doesn’t seem particularly curious about the Comanches — especially the women and children, who are only interesting when they interact with white captives. In his manly way, Gwynne makes sweeping statements that are easily proved false — for instance, that the Comanches never farmed or lived in villages; that they could not “understand” ideas of wealth and private property; that Quanah Parker was their “last chief”; and that the Comanches — indeed, all the Indians — have “fad[ed] into America,” whatever that means. His claim that the Comanches were “the most powerful Indian tribe in American history” is too vague to be debated meaningfully. But hey, it’s a great line for moving merchandise.

At this point a sympathetic reader of this book might object that I’ve portrayed Summer Moon as nothing but an attack on the Comanche Indians, when in fact it gives plenty of attention to the misdeeds and treachery of whites. This is true enough: Any reader seeking a guilt-free history of the American West would be disappointed in Summer Moon. But I don’t believe a history should be judged according to whether it makes readers feel guilty, or sad, or proud. Historians have a duty to the past, to represent it as faithfully as they can, while keeping their egos and biases out of the way as much as possible. Empire of the Summer Moon is all ego and bias.

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