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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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 “How Opa-locka got its name”

The star of empire

I’ve found some evidence of how the Anglo-Irish cleric George Berkeley’s verse, “Westward the course of empire takes its way,” became a “star of empire” on the cover of George Bancroft’s History of the United States. The connecting link seems to be John Quincy Adams, with an assist from Massachusetts poet Sarah Wentworth Morton.

George Berkeley (1685-1753) — the minister, mathematician, philosopher, Rhode Island planter, and namesake of Berkeley, California — was what we’d call a fan of Britain’s American colonies. So the last four lines of his “Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America” were frequently quoted on this side of the Atlantic — especially the first:

Westward the course of empire takes its way;
The first four Acts already past,
A fifth shall close the Drama with the day;
Time’s noblest offspring is the last.

Continue reading “The star of empire”

Yearning for the next civil war

He was stuck with the duty and he would fight. And he had no doubt he would die and that would be a good thing.

He looked around the battlefield that had been his home, and carefully raised himself out of the recliner. It wouldn’t do to fall and break a hip now. Company was coming, and he had to be ready to greet them. He hoped it would be today.

— From Absolved, a novel by Mike Vanderboegh

Combat veterans bear deep scars of memory. At the same time, they often feel nostalgia for their time of service. This is fitting. Nostalgia always mixes love with pain.

What should we call a similar yearning for a war to come? For a future civil war between Americans?

Some of my neighbors think such a war is inevitable. They may attend tea party rallies, or they may not; if they do, they indignantly deny that they were lured there by media celebrities like Glenn Beck.

They’ll tell you they’ve known for a long time that America has lost its way, and the halls of power are controlled by a conspiracy against freedom. Those who don’t surrender their firearms, control of their property, and their rights to the mega-state will be hunted down, one by one. Neighbor will betray neighbor in a dark, cruel, deceitful America ruled by brutal thugs. We’re already more than halfway there.

This belief isn’t really susceptible to argument. Continue reading “Yearning for the next civil war”

Iraq and the American Revolution

Liberty BellNow British forces are ending combat operations in Iraq. I always thought it was remarkable to see U.S. troops in Iraq serving alongside British units, some of whose service histories must go back to the struggle against American revolutionaries in the 1770s and 1780s. The two armies have fought together several times since 1917, of course, but the current conflict in Iraq is, to me, the most reminiscent of that first one between British redcoats and American rebels.

At that time Britain was acknowledged to be wealthiest, most technologically advanced nation in what we now call the “West,” and its people enjoyed the highest known degree of liberty. British colonists in America agreed: From 1756 to 1763 patriotic Americans had fought side-by-side with British troops to defeat the despised French and Indians and expand the British Empire. When London sought to recover some of the costs of that war by raising taxes and tightening administrative control over the colonies, the reaction from the colonists — boycotts, demonstrations, petitions, and open defiance of the laws — seemed utterly excessive. The colonists also objected to King George’s measures to protect his American Indian subjects from encroachments by white settlers. They accused the king of trying to enslave them, while they themselves held Africans in bondage. What could be more absurd? Clearly Britain was justified in sending troops to control these American insurgents — who were aided by terrorist radicals from Spain, Prussia, Bavaria, Italy, Poland — and especially France.

There was no 9/11 attack to confuse the British public with. But there was the threat of the French, Britain’s habitual enemies just across the Channel. Once the American rebels allied themselves with the hated French, the morality of the war seemed plain to many in Britain. The disciplined British soldiers who shipped out to suppress the American rebellion were told that they were vindicating not just their national interest but the cause of liberty. Washington, the principal insurgent leader, was getting help from foreign jihadists who would overthrow the legitimate governments of Europe if they got their way. Soldiers must fight in America in order that Britons could sleep safely at home. Continue reading “Iraq and the American Revolution”

A brief history of waterboarding

American soldiers torture a Philippine captive as European despots look on with delight (<cite>Life</cite> magazine cover, 1902).
American soldiers torture a Philippine captive as European despots look on with delight (Life magazine cover, 1902).

“Waterboarding” is the latest name for a form of water torture going back to the Middle Ages in Europe, but condemned as illegal and immoral since the 1700s. Banned from Europe, water torture persisted in other parts of the world, including some European colonies, until the mid-20th century.

In the United States, water torture first appears as a means to terrorize slaves. It persists into the 20th century as a routine punishment for African American convict laborers in the Deep South. Most notoriously, it was used by U.S. soldiers on Philippine captives during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902). After that war, the technique shows up sporadically in some domestic police departments as a way to force detainees to confess to a crime.1

The “water cure”: Here’s a description by 1st Lt. Grover Flint, 35th U.S. Infantry, of a typical field interrogation in the occupied Philippines:

A man is thrown down on his back and three or four men sit or stand on his arms and legs and hold him down, and either a gun barrel or a rifle barrel or a carbine barrel or a stick … is simply thrust into his jaws … as a gag. In the case of very old men I have seen their teeth fall out — I mean when it was done a little roughly. He is simply held down, and then water is poured onto his face, down his throat and nose …, and that is kept up until the man gives some sign of giving in or becomes unconscious.… A man suffers tremendously; there is no doubt about that. His suffering must be like that of a man who is drowning, but who can not drown.2

Soldiers and officers called this technique “the water cure,” after a type of alternative health care, popular in the 1800s, in which applying cold water to the body was considered therapeutic. By using this term to name an excruciating torture, the soldiers were making what ethicist Jonathan Glover calls a “cold joke” — a humorless witticism that distances the torturer from his own action by making nonsense of the victim’s suffering.

As far as I know, no one has yet uncovered the origin of the term “waterboarding.” But if it was coined by the men who practice it today, it probably also originates in a cold joke — possibly an attempt to call the torture an “extreme sport,” by analogy with snowboarding, sandboarding, dirtboarding, etc. [Update: Why we call it waterboarding] Continue reading “A brief history of waterboarding”