Empire of the Summer Moon – S.C. Gwynne

No matter where you are in the US, you are standing on Native American land.

I love books that take a long-held assumption of mine and show me how wrong I was. I mean, we are living in a complicated world, so a lot of what we think we know is actually a reduction of the truth. A simplification of facts, done so because we never spent much time figuring out what truly happened.

And this week’s book is the best example for this.

I picked it up because it was recommended by a podcast called ‘Tides of History’. I highly recommend it – the host, Patrick Wyman, talks about the Rise of Modern Europe. He recently had a ‘Book Club’ Episode, where he talked about books that he liked. And this was one of them. I’m glad I followed his advice – I probably wouldn’t have picked it up without it, and what a story I would have missed!

Okay, so here’s the facts. This book is about the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most powerful Indian tribe in American history.

And I thought I knew everything about it! Here’s what I thought happened: Comanches were one tribe of many, doing their thing on the plains, then the White Settlers arrive, and boom, everything goes bust, blankets laced with cholera, epidemics, suffering, Trail of Tears, lives in Reservations.

Well. Not really. I mean, all of the above happened, but it was much, much more complicated than that. For starters, for a considerate period of time, the Comanches actually held back the Frontier. For a couple of decades, the frontier moved back east, due to the relentless war that the Comanches were raging against White Settlers.

At the height of their power, the Comanches held a territory of 200 million acres. If your brain, like mine, doesn’t know what that means: This is about 1.5 times the size of France. And the peak of their power wasn’t before the settlers arrived, it was after!

But the size of their empire wasn’t the truly terrifying thing – it was their striking distance. European settlers simply could not comprehend the distances the average Comanche could travel.

Their striking range was four hundred miles. That means that a Spanish settler in San Antonio was in grave and immediate danger from a Comanche brave sitting before a fire in the equivalent of modern-day Oklahoma City.

Image result for comanches
The fact that there’s actual pictures always gets me. This didn’t happen very long ago, all things considered.

Comanches were the best cavalry in the world, and they rode fast and hard and long. They would appear out of nowhere, strike, steal, plunder, rape and kill, and then disappear into the nothingness of the plain.

One of the best aspects of this book is when the author tries to make the reader understand how the life of a Comanche would have looked like. They didn’t leave any written record behind – in fact, they were an illiterate tribe. They prided themselves in keeping a distance to White Settlers, using Mexicans as go-between them and the Whites. There is simply not a lot of source material, but what there is, paints a fascinating picture.

The entire life of the tribe was focused on war. The Comanches were a nomadic tribe without a dominant, unifying religion, or even a single God. There was no ultimate good or evil – just actions and consequences. No past, no future – just the present. Enemies were enemies, and there was no quarter given. Surrender was not an option – Comanches, and a lot of other tribes for that matter, fought to their last breath on their battlefields.

There was, simply put, an astonishing difference in moral systems between the Comanches and the European Settlers. Which is not really a surprise, if you consider the relative progress of civilization in different parts of the world. Agriculture in Europe started around 6,500 BC – but in the Americas, it wasn’t discovered until 2,500 BC, fully four thousand years later. This was an enormous gap.

(Side note – if you want to know more about this topic, please read “Guns Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond, one of the best books I have ever read.)

Basically, the Americas, isolated and without the benefit of the horse or the ox, could never close this gap. They were three to four millennia behind the Europeans. And this is for the tribes that had settled – the Comanches were non-agrarian Plains Indians and thus even further back in time.

Think about it. Europeans had guns and insurance companies and stock market crashes. The Comanches fought with arrows. And yet, they still managed to put up a fight.

By 1750, the Comanches had carved out a militarily and diplomatically unified nation from the Spanish conquistadores. Their nation had precise boundaries that were patrolled and ruthlessly enforced. The way they succeeded was by using extreme violence and terrorizing the settlers in their territory until they fled.

The book, thankfully, doesn’t re-tell the horrors in blood lust – which the author easily could have done, not least to increase sales. But instead, he shows us the devastation the Comanches left behind. Comanches weren’t the ‘Noble Savages’ that Europeans – and people on the East Coast – often make Native Americans out to be.

There is so much Romanticism happening – the Noble Indians, mowed down by European weapons, even though they only wanted to keep their ancient way of life intact. Well, yes, but we should also remember that Comanches acted with utmost brutality.

(If you want, think about the worst a human can do to another one, and you have your answer.)

It is to the credit of this book that the author doesn’t try to justify the actions of one side or the other. He simply explains that the battle for the Plains was fought with utmost brutality on both sides.

The Comanches attacked, razed a settlement to the ground, and the United States Army retaliated in due course. It was a war that is often forgotten, but for a good hundred years, the entire area that is today’s border to Mexico was a battleground.

There were so many Comanche raids made by moonlight that in Texas a full, bright spring or summer moon is still known as a Comanche Moon.

In a way, this war reminded me of another conflict that is happening right now. A native people fighting White Settlers, who have not only technological superiority, but also the backing of a world power. The conflict is about land, and who owns it, and, increasingly, water rights. Got it? I’m talking, of course, of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

However, there were two factors that guaranteed the defeat of the Comanches. The one was their technological gap. Though incredibly skilled at getting their hands on the latest gun model, and excellent shooters, they were, invariably, one step behind the Whites. They simply couldn’t keep up with the speed of innovation.

Image result for jack hays
Jack Hays – the greatest Texas Ranger, the one that Comanches feared the most.

The other factor was demographics. There weren’t a lot of Comanches to start with – at their height, they probably numbered around somewhere in the low mid-ten thousands. The Whites, of course, were millions.

Add to this that between 1836 and 1840 alone, one Comanche tribe was thought to have lost a quarter of all their fighting men. They simply didn’t have the strength in numbers that the European Settlers did, and no skill in fighting a war can make up for the lack of men fighting it.

But it took two more catastrophes induced by the Whites to bring the Comanches to their knees – one done involuntarily, and one done on purpose.

The first one was, of course, diseases that the Whites were immune to, but the Indians weren’t. This happened all over the Americas, but the numbers are always heartbreaking. It is believed that half of the Comanches died during a cholera epidemic of 1849. This isn’t just disintegration, it’s disappearance of a culture.

The other death knell was the deliberate extinction of the buffalo. As a nomadic tribe, the survival of the Comanches relied directly on this animal. They used everything, and their culture was interwoven with it. They followed the buffalo in its yearly migration.

The Whites saw this for an opportunity of bringing their enemy to their knees. Thus, in the 1870s, the pursuit of the buffalo became less like hunting and more like extermination. In 1873, a hunter named Tom Nixon killed 3,200 buffalo in 35 days. It was the continuation of warfare by other means, and it makes me sick to my stomach.

Image result for buffalo hunter
The Indians understood that buffalo hunters, rather than the federal soldiers, were destroying their way of life on the plains.

It wasn’t as if the Comanches had an alternative to fighting, if we are being honest – the thought of settling them in a reservation, to force them to give up their way of live as nomads and turn them into farmers, was ridiculous to say the least.

Add to that the fact that the government agency in charge of Indians was notoriously corrupt and inept – if the Natives received rations (and that was a big if, because goods were being siphoned off by the entire hierarchy), they were moldy, insufficient, and foods that the Natives weren’t used to.

It was, simply put, a mixture of federal incompetence, stupidity, and willful political blindness by Washington.

This entire topic reads like a book of shame on the United States of America – and we haven’t even mentioned the notorious treaties yet. The outcome of nearly every treaty was the same: white civilization advanced, aboriginal civilization was destroyed, subsumed, pushed out. The government made claims it could never enforce and never intended to enforce, and Indians died.

Manifest Destiny, as a notion and as a blueprint for an expanding empire, meant that the land, all of it, belonged to the white man. There was simply no alternative: Can you imagine the US Government sending troops to shoot down God-fearing settlers who simply wanted a piece of the American dream?

In this way, this book shows the worst of the US: the deliberate extermination of Native American culture. I don’t know if the word ‘genocide’ is too big to describe this – but I don’t think it is, to be honest. It is a shameful chapter in the history of the United States and people should know about this.

So please, read this book.

And next week – hey, you might have been thinking ‘we haven’t had a Vietnam War book in a while, I sure hope that means she’s over this’ – well, no. We’re going back.

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