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. Continue reading “Book review: Empire of the Summer Moon”

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Where does the name Waxahatchee come from?

Katie Crutchfield strums a guitar beside Waxahatchee Creek in this still from the music video of “Coast to Coast.”
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 “Where does the name Waxahatchee come from?”

The Injuns are coming (again)

Attention Conservation Notice: This post is about Alabama politics and the use of American Indian imagery to score political points.

Spotted this billboard the other day in East Lake, Birmingham.

The three men on the right are Alabama Governor Bob Riley, John Tyson (current head of the Governor’s Task Force on Illegal Gambling) and David Barber (the first head of the task force). An Indian war bonnet adorns the space above the three mug shots. Continue reading “The Injuns are coming (again)”

How Mother Earth immigrated to America

Mother Earth is a woman who needs no introduction.

In the Old World, she’s been written up and talked about for a long, long time. Her stock was probably lowest around the sixteenth century, but since then she has come roaring back. Now pagans, poets, and environmentalists sing her praises, and everyone else has heard of her. (She has her own holiday, although people aren’t clear about which day it should be observed on.)

As best I can tell, though, she never visited the New World until after the Old World colonized it. She’s an immigrant. Continue reading “How Mother Earth immigrated to America”

Creek language treasures

Creek beaded pouch, early 1800s, from the Ulster Museum collection.
The Creek Language Archive just gets better and better. The website recently added Creek Texts by Mary R. Haas and James H. Hill, a trove of transcribed manuscripts in the Creek language on a variety of interesting subjects.

…este nak kērrvlket hvsoss-elecv sehokēpofv tat,
nake kērrulke ensukcv fvcfvkē omet sehok’t omvtēt omēs.

…and when gitlalgi (“knowers”) were in the southeast,
it was as if their pockets were full [of knowledge].

That’s from “Belief about the ihosá” [PDF]. Creek Indians gave the name ihosá to the being that causes people to get confused and lose their way in the woods. But for those who know, the ihosá can also give power.

The “pockets” mentioned in the text would have resembled the beaded pouch shown in the picture. These were usually attached to a broad, decorated shoulder strap. In fact, the colors in this pouch are subdued compared to most I’ve seen. I guess old-time Creek hunters would not have gone for Mossy Oak gear. (This pouch is further described here, although it’s wise to be skeptical about the specific provenance, i.e., “made for Tuskina, Chief of the Creek Indians, by his daughter”.) Continue reading “Creek language treasures”

Indian talk: The Long Man

One of the Indian phrases we white folks like to throw around now and again is the name “Long Man” or “Long Person” for a river. We tend to do this with the idea that Indians had some “primitive” idea of the river as a god of some kind. The fact is, the name and idea of a “Long Man” only occurred in some Indian cultures, in specific contexts.

Cherokee Indians do have a name for the conscious spirit of a river or stream, whose voice is said to speak in the waterfalls and rapids. Such a spirit is called ᏴᏫ ᎬᎾᎯᏔ (yvwi gvnahita), a long man or long person. In a 1900 report, ethnographer James Mooney referred to this being as a “river god,” but that seems to be a lazy and inaccurate comparison. I’ve found no evidence that Cherokees worshipped or sacrificed to these beings. Rather, they believed (and I suppose still believe) that a river has a consciousness, the wisdom of great age, and a capacity to teach lessons to receptive humans. Continue reading “Indian talk: The Long Man”

Cajuns? No, Choctaws.

Long time ago wasn’t no folks on them sand flats.… Them Cajans sprung up right out’n the ground. Some say they come from animals—coons and foxes and suchlike—but that ain’t right. Just sprung up out’n the ground.
— Carl Carmer, Stars Fell on Alabama (1934)

Detail from an 1850 painting by Phillip Romer of a Choctaw woman in Mobile, Alabama.

I just discovered that Jackie Matte’s article on the Choctaw Indians of southwest Alabama has been published online, with her permission, by the Access Genealogy website.

The article is “Extinction by Reclassification: The MOWA Choctaws of South Alabama and Their Struggle for Federal Recognition.” The site presents the article attractively and in a paginated style reminiscent of the original printed article.* All of the footnotes are reproduced faithfully.

Matte was president of the Alabama Historical Association in 2006. At the annual meeting in Fairhope she gave a memorable address on the subject of the MOWA Choctaws and their fruitless quest for federal recognition as an authentic Indian tribe. (In 1979 the Alabama Choctaws coined the name “MOWA” from the names of the two counties they inhabit, Mobile and Washington.)

Because their identity as Indians was politically and commercially inconvenient, they were long ago labeled “Cajans” (sic). Continue reading “Cajuns? No, Choctaws.”