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Boneheaded Errors Ruin NYT Bestseller About Comanche Leader

Peter d'Errico
8/19/14

I started to read S.C. Gwynne's book, Empire of the Summer Moon, about Quanah Parker and the U.S. war against the Comanche, but I don't know if I'll finish it.

It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a New York Times bestseller. The cover blurbs say, "transcendent," "mesmerizing," "glorious," "riveting." Sounds like a no-brainer to read it. Unfortunately, there's a fair amount of no-brainer content in the first chapters, starting on page one, where the story about to be told is described as "the final destruction of the last of the hostile tribes…."

We've heard that before, numerous times. If the "hostiles" are the Indians, the attacking whites are telling the story. Page one concludes with a reference to "savage massacres" by Chivington and Custer, so maybe the book isn't going to be one-sided. But there's nothing "transcendent" about that.

But page two opens with a statement that "in those days [Chivington and Custer ] there was no real attempt to destroy the tribes on a larger scale." That is a flat-out wrong assertion.

The historical record of attempted outright destruction of the indigenous peoples starts with the earliest invaders: John Mason, commander of colonial forces, attacked the Pequot in 1636 so viciously as to effectively eliminate them as a nation. In his history of the events, he praises "God" for helping "to cut off the Remembrance of [the Pequot] from the Earth."

Lord Jeffrey Amherst, of smallpox blanket infamy, in 1763, wrote that he wanted "Measures to be taken as would Bring about the Total Extirpation of [the] Indian Nations"; measures that would "put a most Effectual Stop to their very Being."

Page two also deploys the stereotypical adjectives so familiar to readers of white histories. The "bluecoats" about to enter Comanche lands are described as "at the edge of the known universe," a "trackless and featureless" place. The fact that this description concludes with the statement "white men became lost and disoriented" does not undo the stereotype; in fact, it reaffirms that the landscape itself, like its indigenous inhabitants, is presented from an invader's perspective.

Page three opens with a reference to the "homelands" of the Comanche, but goes on to describe this homeland as the "western frontier…an open and bleeding wound, a smoking ruin littered with corpses and charred chimneys…where anarchy and torture killings had replaced the rule of law, where Indians…raided at will."

Does it make any difference that the page also refers to Indian reservations as places of "abject subjugation and starvation"? Not really, because this is followed by a reference to the "razor edge of civilization," where "Indian marauders are "depopulat[ing]" the colonial invaders. Are the Indians ruining their own homeland? Or is it the invaders who are marauders?

The problem with this book, so far, is not that it doesn't mention white violence and "savagery." In fact, it describes American civilization as a phenomenon of "harquebuses and blunderbusses and muskets and…lethal repeating weapons and…endless stocks of eager, land-greedy settlers…elegant moral double standards and…complete disregard for native interests."

The problem, at least so far as the introductory chapters go, is that the author doesn't use his critical stance on the invaders to see through the stereotypes. His critique does not immunize him from the invader culture. Again and again, his knowledge that the whites are an "invading civilization," populated by "grim, violent, opportunistic men" whose slaughter of the buffalo became "the greatest mass destruction of warm-blooded animals in human history," does not prevent him from making such statements as that the whites were in "a truly anarchic place ruled entirely by Indians." He repeatedly refers to the Comanche as "primitive."

A key concept in his presentation is that the "American empire" was at war with the "Comanche empire." Yet he also admits that the Comanche "were content with what they had won," while the "Anglo-Americans, children of Manifest Destiny, were not." He also acknowledges that the Comanche "empire" was "not an empire in the traditional sense," and that it "was not based solely on military supremacy." Are these not such deeply significant differences that they undermine the notion of two empires?

I took a break from the book on page 27, where he refers to Texas as the place where "human settlement first arrived at the edges of the Great Plains" and encountered "Indians [who] were primitive nomads and superb riders." Do we have to debate whether the Indians, however "primitive," were "humans"?! Or do we have to parse his words so carefully to see that he may be using "human settlement" in a technical way, to mean those who build certain kinds of buildings and put up fences? If that's the case, we're still looking at a book that is confused and confusing, certainly not (yet) "transcendent," "mesmerizing," "glorious," or "riveting."

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970. Taught Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. Consulting attorney on indigenous issues

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Nishnabi's picture
Yes, I agree with your critique. Well done. I'm not a historian, but I much prefer Pekka Hämäläinen's The Comanche Empire
Nishnabi
hesutu's picture
Thanks for this review. I also got this book a while back, thinking from the reviews that it was at least a neutral telling of events. But I balked at the things you mention. However, to be fair I should say that this sort of thing is exceptionally common in the vast majority of (or even close to all of) books involving our histories as told by western trained academics and writers. Even authors who consider themselves to be enlightened, sympathetic, or impartial can't break out of their myopia and the life long immersion into the indoctrination of their culture's propaganda regarding what happened and why.
hesutu
hesutu's picture
I should clarify a bit more. I did like this book and don't regret buying or reading it, and consider it better than many others. But, I did feel all the bias mentioned and more, and am glad to see that others caught those bits as well. Reading something by a native author is a different experience, there just isn't these assumptions about things that are entrenched in the white worldview, such as claims or assumptions of 'primitive'. A work can still be valuable. Almost all older sources are drenched in implicit racism and superiority language and just reek of colonialist mentality. Most of these sources even have explicit racism stated outright! And all of them are well intentioned by their authors. Despite this, often these have valuable information and perspectives. As an extreme example, consider The Oregon Trail which was discussed here a while back. This is the memoir of a rich entitled brat trooping around the frontier looking down at the Lakota dog soup his starving hosts offered him. I wanted to strangle the guy and his party reading it. But it was extremely valuable to read it as it is a first person account of both conditions at a critical time, and also of the psychotic and delusional mind state of the author, and others from his culture.
hesutu