June 30, 2008

"Comanche Heritage" in Comanche Moon

The "Comanche Heritage" featurette on the Comanche Moon DVD tells us what the producers did to make the mini-series authentic. Here's a summary:

  • The costume designs were an expression of Comanche culture, according to Bill Voelker, who narrates part of the featurette.

  • As noted before, Comanche Moon used real eagle feathers, not dyed turkey feathers. The Comanche tribe loaned them every day and took them back every night.

    (In explaining the importance of the feathers, actor Val Kilmer began his remarks with, "It might not sound like much...." Indeed.)

  • The Indians' hair had traditional Comanche scalplocks or third braids.

  • At least one character wore a traditional breastplate. But the featurette also noted that the Comanches didn't like a lot of ornamentation.

  • The actors painted their own horses with designs.

  • The English was translated into traditional Comanche.

  • And...that's about it.

    So the Indians in Comanche Moon looked and sounded like real Comanches. That's nice, but it's only the tip of the cultural iceberg. It isn't or shouldn't be a substitute for real culture.

    I believe Buffalo Hump (Wes Studi) goes on a "vision quest" to hatch his revenge plot. I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing that's not the usual purpose of a vision quest. Other than that, Comanche Moon shows zero evidence of the Comanches' cultural beliefs and practices. It's as if Jonathan Joss's statement on Comanches is true: the people were nothing but murderous savages.

    The reality

    Here are a few postings that explain what Comanche Moon may have missed and why:

    The Religion of the ComancheThe typical Comanche was a great individualist and it is very likely that the religious views and dependencies of the Comanche varied greatly from group to group and even within the same family group.

    The Nermenuh were also very secretive about their beliefs and believed that the efficacy of their "medicine" or powers derived from some natural force might well be eliminated or dimmed if discussed with or viewed by another. The Comanche did not have a coherent religion. They believed that many things in their surroundings had "powers" or "forces" that they might share in if they could just learn how to persuade the Sun, the Moon, the Buffalo or some other natural force to share a portion of their power. A totem or symbol of this power was then placed in their "Medicine pouch" around their neck and shared with nobody. But they did not believe that the sun was a god, nor the buffalo, nor the wolf. They were just creatures with power that they shared with certain human individuals when properly approached.
    ComancheComanche religion stressed visionary experiences, which an individual deliberately sought out in isolated situations of privation. Animal spirits were believed to favor particular individuals and to render aid to them; protective spirits were also believed to dwell in rocks and thunder.The Comanches as aboriginal skepticsMany anthropological accounts have portrayed the Comanches as skeptics with little interest in religion. This stereotype is due to aspects of Comanche religion which were overlooked in the early accounts. The Comanches do not conform to the typical big ritual pattern for Plains cultures, as they have retained Basin and Shoshonean cultural traits including an individualistic approach to religion. In addition, Comanches disapprove of public displays of spirituality.The Comanches as Aboriginal Skeptics

    More Comanche culture

    The summary above covers only the religious aspects of Comanche culture. Here are other aspects of Comanche culture that Comanche Moon omitted--presumably to make the Indians seem more savage.

    ComancheThe Comanches maintained an ambiguous relationship with the Europeans and later settlers attempting to colonize their territory. They were valued as trading partners, but they were also feared for their raids.

    At one point, Sam Houston, president of the newly created Republic of Texas, almost succeeded in reaching a peace treaty with the Comanches, but his efforts were thwarted when the Texas legislature refused to create an official boundary between Texas and the Comancheria.

    Comanche groups did not have a single acknowledged leader. Instead, a small number of generally recognized leaders acted as counsel and advisors to the group as a whole. These included the "peace chief," the members of the council, and the "war chief."

    Sometimes a man named his child, but mostly the father asked a medicine man (or another man of distinction) to do so. He did this in hope of his child living a long and productive life. During the public naming ceremony, the medicine man lit his pipe and offered smoke to the heavens, earth, and each of the four directions.

    The Comanche looked upon their children as their most precious gift. Children were rarely punished. Sometimes, though, an older sister or other relative was called upon to discipline a child, or the parents arranged for a boogey man to scare the child. Occasionally, old people donned sheets and frightened disobedient boys and girls. Children were also told about Big Cannibal Owl (Pia Mupitsi) who, they were told, lived in a cave on the south side of the Wichita Mountains and ate bad children at night.

    When he was ready to become a warrior, at about age fifteen or sixteen, a young man first "made his medicine" by going on a vision quest (a rite of passage). Following this quest, his father gave the young man a good horse to ride into battle and another mount for the trail. If he had proved himself as a warrior, a Give Away Dance might be held in his honor.

    Boys might boldly risk their lives as hunters and warriors, but, when it came to girls, boys were very bashful. A boy might visit a person gifted in love medicine, who was believed to be able to charm the young woman into accepting him.

    Old men who no longer went on the war path had a special tipi called the Smoke Lodge, where they gathered each day. A man typically joined when he became more interested in the past than the future.

    Like other Plains Indians, the Comanche were very hospitable people. They prepared meals whenever a visitor arrived in camp, which led to the belief that the Comanches ate at all hours of the day or night. Before calling a public event, the chief took a morsel of food, held it to the sky, and then buried it as a peace offering to the Great Spirit. Many families offered thanks as they sat down to eat their meals in their tipis.
    So the Comanches traded as well as raided. They had peace chiefs as well as war chiefs and negotiated treaties. They were hospitable to visitors and loved their children.

    You won't learn any of this from Comanche Moon. What you will learn is largely negative. As I wrote in Comanche Moon:  Rangers, Tramps, and Thieves:Other than speaking Comanche, these Indians show no evidence of culture. They have no religion, no beliefs, no ceremonies. They live to steal horses, capture women, and kill white men. Scull apparently describes them accurately when he calls them "those torturing fiends."


    Anonymous said...

    You really need stop talking about us and hijacking our narrative if all you're going to do is purposely quote out of context, Jonathan Joss's statement about Comanches. Just because he doesn't fit into your vision of what and how Comanches should represent ourselves does not mean you continue to use his quote out of context to further your agenda and issues.

    I'm all for fighting against stereotypes but when a white man is assuming he knows the proper narrative over a Comanche or Numunu (not "Nermenuh" as you have written) well you are getting into borderline David Yeagley territory.

    I'm not sure why and how anglos decided that they knew us best but it's really got to stop. I mean it's pretty ridiculous in 2008.

    Rob said...

    I didn't quote Jonathan Joss's statement about Comanches in this posting. You need to stop talking about irrelevant topics and start talking about what I actually wrote.

    When I did quote Joss, I quoted him exactly. Unless you've seen the "Comanche Heritage" featurette on the Comanche Moon DVD, you don't have a clue what the context was. Again, stop wasting our time and start addressing the subject at hand.

    The quote about the "Nermenuh" came from the AsylumNation.com website. I presume "Nermenuh" is an alternate spelling of "Numunu." If you don't like it, take it up with the author of that site.

    If you have something to say about the "Comanche Heritage" featurette, go ahead and say it. If you think I've misrepresented the featurette, go ahead and prove it. But spare us the worthless attacks on my character.

    I couldn't care less about what you think I "need to do." Your choice is to discuss the featurette or get out of my blog. I've posted more than 4,500 entries on Native subjects here, and I'm not quitting because one person doesn't like them.