August 19, 2013

Empire of the Summer Moon's accuracy

Did The Lone Ranger movie ignore the atrocities committed by Comanche Indians? Yes, according to an article in the UK's sensationalist Daily Mail.

These claims seem to be based on the acclaimed Empire of the Summer Moon, so let's examine this book.

People have raved about Empire of the Summer Moon since it came out in 2011. Among other honors, it was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.

Here's how Amazon describes it:In the tradition of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a stunningly vivid historical account of the forty-year battle between Comanche Indians and white settlers for control of the American West, centering on Quanah, the greatest Comanche chief of them all.

S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon spans two astonishing stories. The first traces the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most powerful Indian tribe in American history. The second entails one of the most remarkable narratives ever to come out of the Old West: the epic saga of the pioneer woman Cynthia Ann Parker and her mixed-blood son Quanah, who became the last and greatest chief of the Comanches.

Although readers may be more familiar with the tribal names Apache and Sioux, it was in fact the legendary fighting ability of the Comanches that determined just how and when the American West opened up. Comanche boys became adept bareback riders by age six; full Comanche braves were considered the best horsemen who ever rode. They were so masterful at war and so skillful with their arrows and lances that they stopped the northern drive of colonial Spain from Mexico and halted the French expansion westward from Louisiana. White settlers arriving in Texas from the eastern United States were surprised to find the frontier being rolled backward by Comanches incensed by the invasion of their tribal lands. So effective were the Comanches that they forced the creation of the Texas Rangers and account for the advent of the new weapon specifically designed to fight them: the six-gun.

The war with the Comanches lasted four decades, in effect holding up the development of the new American nation. Gwynne’s exhilarating account delivers a sweeping narrative that encompasses Spanish colonialism, the Civil War, the destruction of the buffalo herds, and the arrival of the railroads—a historical feast for anyone interested in how the United States came into being.

Against this backdrop Gwynne presents the compelling drama of Cynthia Ann Parker, a lovely nine-year-old girl with cornflower-blue eyes who was kidnapped by Comanches from the far Texas frontier in 1836. She grew to love her captors and became infamous as the "White Squaw" who refused to return until her tragic capture by Texas Rangers in 1860. More famous still was her son Quanah, a warrior who was never defeated and whose guerrilla wars in the Texas Panhandle made him a legend.

S. C. Gwynne’s account of these events is meticulously researched, intellectually provocative, and, above all, thrillingly told. Empire of the Summer Moon announces him as a major new writer of American history.
Although this blurb probably came from the publisher, many of the reviews were just as glowing. For instance:

"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

"Demonic state of mind"

What about Empire of the Summer Moon's take on Comanche atrocities? One review claims the book is pro-Indian:

Empire of the Summer Moon-A Book Review

By Melanie MagdalenaGwynne attempts to retell the Comanche story objectively but shows off his liberal perspective. Gwynne constantly explains different actions committed by the Comanches: how Comanches acted and why they did so and their cultural values. Gwynne also emphasizes that Americans did not want to accept the Plains Indians for who they were and insisted upon killing them all even though the Indians were there first. Gwynne is pro-Indian from the start of the story to the end.

Gwynne confronts the question of moral judgment. He acknowledges they were governed by a sort of demonic state of mind: gang raping of women captives, the scalping of enemies, and other “horrors” the white population was completely against. He also acknowledges that the white people were who invaded the Plains Indians native territory. “The Comanches and Kiowas were to share a 2.9-million-acre reservation […] it was but a tiny fraction of Comancheria, which at its peak held nearly 200 million acres” (230). Whites were convinced that everyone should want to be part of American culture, live in confined spaces, and believe in the concept of private property. The Plains Indians only wanted to roam free and hunt buffalo, plus kill off the other Indians since they had always been enemies. If the white population had not invaded the Plains because of Manifest Destiny, the Indians would have been very happy living in only that area.

Gwynne uses Empire of the Summer Moon to explain his thesis that morality is subjective to culture. For the Comanche and other Plains Indians, scalping and gang raping was perfectly normal: “There was the shrieking panic of the Indian attack, the uncomprehending horror
of the moment her mother, Lucy, set her on the warrior’s horse, her father’s own bloody death, the astonishing sight of her cousin and aunt being raped and abused” (37). This is, possibly, what was going through Cynthia Ann’s mind when she was captured. For the white men, killing off natives on land they want was perfectly normal. He attempts to find a balance and concludes causing death is not acceptable regardless of customs.
Saying the Comanche were "governed by a sort of demonic state of mind" doesn't sound pro-Indian to me. It sounds more like the typical "savage" stereotype we've seen a million times.

Another review isn't impressed with Empire of the Summer Moon's sources:

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History

By Ed BakerEmpire of the Summer Moon is really two books: an awkwardly romanticized account of the Anglo and Native branches of the Parker family tree, grafted onto some even more wispy strands of Comanche social history.

Even if you take the spotty and secondhand historical sources (sometimes culled from yellowed and racist early 20th century books with titles like History of the Manifest Destiny) as gospel fact, Gwynne gives insufficient reason to conclude that the Comanche tribe formed an empire.
Empire = "dime store novel"

Finally, another Amazon review is worth quoting:

As sensational as a dime store novel and just as accurate..., July 7, 2011

By SAMisterioAnyone looking for balanced, well researched portrait of 18th century life on the southern plains should pass on this one. If you're looking for grandiose fiction in the best traditions of the dime store novel, then look no further. Mr. Gwynne is clearly not one to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

What immediately struck me about this book and even made me chuckle out loud several times throughout was Mr. Gwynne's grandiose claims on behalf of the Comanche and his excessive use of superlatives. The book is overflowing with words like "the most," "the greatest," etc. with little or no historical fact to back them up. "The most influential tribe in American history" might be a stretch when even your average American college history major couldn't name a single Comanche war chief (while your average 5th grader can tell you who Sitting Bull and Squanto were). The San Saba massacre was the greatest military setback the Spaniards suffered in the New World!? With 8 Spanish lives lost, Mr. Gwynne, San Saba is barely a footnote in the long history of royal New World thrashings the Spanish received at the hands of various enemies. The list of over-inflated claims and historical inaccuracies goes on and on. One can hardly go more than a few pages without some insignificant Comanche raid reputedly changing the course of human history.

I am by no means trying to diminish the role the Comanches played in the history of the west. The Comanches were truly one of history's great raider cultures and their martial prowess spoke for itself. However, martial prowess alone does not an empire make. In fact the concept of 'empire' in the Anglo-American sense was completely alien to the Plains Indian. By painting the Comanche nation as something that it was not, Mr. Gwynne does a great disservice to the rich Plains Indian culture and the true story of the Comanches.

This brings me to my final point in critiquing this laughable piece of "non-fiction." Mr. Gwynne graphically portrays the atrocities committed by the Comanches which is not a problem in and of itself. Most modern historians have moved away from the portrayal of Native Americans as barbarous heathens. They have also rejected the apologist myth of the noble savage in favor of a more culturally and historically relativistic view of Native Americans that includes unflattering accounts of the extreme brutality of Native American warfare. Mr. Gwynne, however, takes a much more outmoded approach when describing Comanche violence. Mr. Gwynne asserts that Native Americans were caught in a kind of cultural developmental time warp as a result of their late migration across the Bering Strait. Mr. Gwynne claims that Native Americans lacked the morally civilizing benefits of Christ, Martin Luther, etc. As a result, Mr. Gwynne paints a picture of a backward, morally bereft, ultra-violent society with virtually no culturally redeeming qualities other than military proficiency. At best Mr. Gwynne's views on the Comanches are uninformed, outdated, and culturally biased. At worst...well, let's just give Mr. Gwynne the benefit of the doubt and assume his simplistic approach to Native American culture in this melodramatic and wildly inaccurate tale is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader. For my part, I'll stick to Sergio Leone for a fantasy version of the old west.
I'm not sure anyone except an expert could judge Empire of the Summer Moon even after reading it. Fortunately, my point isn't to reach a conclusion about the book, but to question it.

In other words, we shouldn't accept the book itself or the glowing praise it's received as proof of the Comanches' alleged atrocities. How many reports of atrocities came from white men trying to paint the Indians as ruthless killers? How many came from neutral sources with no vested interest in winning the Indian wars?

How many people did the Comanches really kill...thousands? How does that compare to the 620,000 Americans killed during the Civil War? Would it be fair to say white men were and are a hundred or a thousand times more "demonic" based on their respective death tolls?

Questions such as these need asking. I'm not sure the book asked them, and the Daily Mail didn't ask them in its "savage Indian" screed. So I'm asking them here.

For more on the Comanche, see Shawnee Professor Justifies Tonto's Stereotypes and Radio Marathon for Comanche Codetalkers.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

As an enrolled Comanche and a direct descendent of Quanah Parker I feel compelled to point out that not only is "Empire of the Summer Moon" anti-Native in its bias it is also factually incorrect in its most basic depictions of Comanche life. He couldn't even be bothered to correctly describe the butchering of a buffalo. It's small wonder the book is inaccurate in terms of Comanche culture, the writer did not cite a single Comanche source. Yes, the picture of arrogance, the writer didn't feel the need to use a single Comanche source when writing a book about Comanches.