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?”

Return of the Vann Seminar

Emory University’s Vann Seminar in Pre-Modern European History is starting up again this week for the fall. I’ve attended several past seminars and have always found stimulating conversations in a relaxed atmosphere. (Possibly the Emory students in attendance feel less relaxed than outsiders like me.) Each seminar is devoted to a draft paper by a […]

Creek War symposium live online

From the Auburn University press people: The College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University invites the public to dialogue with scholars from around the nation during a two-day symposium on the Creek War and the War of 1812 [dead link] on May 22-23, 2009 at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art in Auburn. […]

Y ahora estoy traduciéndolo….

I’ve been to the Auburn University library and back to capture legible images of manuscripts from the office of the Spanish commandant of Pensacola, Province of West Florida, composed around July 1813. One moment of discovery last week was pure bliss: a letter from the commandant describing in detail the visit by a Creek Indian […]