Sunday, October 29, 2017

Comanche Empire, A Book Review

As if to belie the fact that this is a history book, the cover features a modern studio photograph. 
Comanche Empire, A Book Review
First Nation Recognized As Colonial Power
By Dakota Wind

Hämäläinen, Pekka. The Comanche Empire. New Haven, CT; Yale University Press. 2008. $40.00 (hardcover; out of print). 512 pages + viii. Introduction, abbreviations, notes, bibliography, index, illustrations, maps.

Taking a page from the late Vine Deloria, Jr. (Standing Rock), and what he said regarding native peoples making a cameo in American western history – of making a dramatic entrance and then fading away into the manifest destiny of colonial expansion, Hämäläinen makes the Comanche nation the focus of his work, which includes an inter-tribal narrative from the perspective of the Comanche people, and a narrative of the Comanche as seen from other first nations and the colonial empires.

The Comanche nation rises from quiet encounters with the Spanish at the turn of 1700 to a powerful dominate power of the American Southwest (the Spanish North?), a fiercely protected territory called by the colonial empires, Comancheria. The Spanish, Mexicans, Texans, and Americans at one point all sought aid from the Comanche on their terms, or fought long, desperate, costly campaigns against them.

The agent of change, that which made the Comanche nation, is the horse. The Comanche broke off from their relatives, the Shoshone, because of a dispute over game, but also to escape an epidemic, and to acquire the horse. Then they invaded the plains. Before the horse, the main agent of change was primarily reactionary to a changing environment (drought, the Little Ice Age). The last major agent of change was the gun.

Hämäläinen regularly describes the movements and advances of the Comanche as invasions, but how else to describe an expanding nation than an invasion? The Comanche turned west into Ute territory, but rather than invade and displace, they learned how to survive and adapt. Clearly their agenda didn’t mean the subjugation of other first nations. At that time.

Much of the premise of Comanche Empire is establishing Comancheria as a nation, recognized by Spain and the Mexico. As a nation, Comancheria did as the colonial empires did: expand or invade, displace indigenous, appropriate the landscape through military example, and absorb pacifist nations in a melting pot. In fact, because of Comancheria’s manifest destiny, because of deliberate Comanche planning, the region stabilized. They reached out to old enemies, even as natives were displaced from their homelands back east during the Indian Removal Act.

Mexico and the United States used Comancheria as a middle ground to trade. Mexico invited Americans into the region, but instead of trading with the Mexicans, they brought their trade to the Comanche. Americans moved in and discovered they wanted, needed, the landscape for its resources, resources that they didn’t see before, and after their war with Mexico, Texans turned an imperial eye to the landscape.

Comancheria was a real first nation State. Comanche Empire includes maps of this real State. Because Hämäläinen focuses on the development, invasion, expansion, and economy of this State, his work, by necessity, concludes with the collapse and deconstruction of Comancheria. In this, Hämäläinen does not carry through with a study of the Comanche Nation as a federally recognized domestic dependent nation headquartered in Lawton, OK.

There are other books out there that touch on the Comanche after the reservation era. One almost hopes that Hämäläinen decides to write a history of the Comanche that does just that. Comanche Nation. The Comanche were forced onto reservations in New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Chihuahua, Mexico. It was the only way for the United States and Mexico to deal with a powerful first nation. I’d buy that book too.

In the meantime, get yourself a copy of Comanche Empire. This is an investment for American Western historyphiles.

Dakota Wind is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He is currently a university student working on a degree in History with a focus on American Indian and Western History. He maintains the history website The First Scout.