Friday, June 24, 2011

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

My father knew more about Native American culture and history than anyone I've known and he gave me a deep appreciation for the history of this nation's native culture.  In my younger days, my dad took the family on a few journeys tracing the history of various tribes.  He had a particular fascination with the tribes of the Plains.  He became deeply involved in the classic Native American book, "Black Elk Speaks."  As a voracious reader, I've read many books on the history of America's tribes. 

Several years ago, I read T. R. Fehrenbach's "The Comanches: The Destruction of a People" and got hit in the head by the brutal trials of the Comanche tribe; and the American military that would ultimately hunt them down.

That book and the more recent "Empire of the Summer Moon" are superb looks at the past with no revisionist history involved.  One of the dangers of Native American history in recent decades has been the false portrait that they were angelic lovers of the land and that's where many writers started with them and ended up leaving them that way.  Yes, they were lovers of the land, but history is much more than that. 

The average American of the 18th and 19th centuries wanted to move westward and they wanted the land for that movement. In order to get that land, they needed to have the Indians out. There were some sensitive souls, but most didn't give the proverbial rat's ass about Indians. The government played into the desires of its citizens and once the Civil War ended, the emphasis was put back on the "relocation plans."  Of course, they were lying and the way things ended up proved to be one of the two most appalling aspects of our country's long and often wonderful history.  Slavery and the treatment of the native tribes.  These are two of the greatest sins of America. By the way, I love my country, but we certainly have to fess up to our flaws as well. Look around now.  America has become a modern day Sodom and Gomorah.   

The most significant aspect of the strength of the tribes was the horse, which was brought over by the Spanish via the Mexican border.  The horse changed the tribes of the Plains. The Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, Crow and mostly the Comanche had life altering balance shifts with the introduction of the horse. The single most significant tribe from the period of 1700 through 1875 was the Comanche tribe. They were also the most violent of all of the American tribes (even though the Tonkawa tribe practiced cannibalism).  They committed torture killings, gang rapes and painful mutilations. They weren't taking prisoners for the sake of it.  They were going to decimate every inch of your body. They ripped through the lower section of the American plains like hell's demons.   

This is not to say that the American army didn't commit their share of atrocities since they did.  S. C. Gwyne explains the pain inflicted on both sides. 

General George Armstrong Custer became the most famous of the American Indian hunters, but Colonel Ranald Slidell MacKenzie in many ways was far more infamous on the Plains. MacKenzie was a Civil War hero, but he found his life niche tracking down the Comanches. He eventually would literally go insane, but today he is largely forgotten.

The book seques from the overall Comanche history to a study of the Parker family.  In 1836, an eight year old Cynthia Ann Parker was captured by the Comanches after a brutal assault on the fort she lived in with her family. Her relatives would spend the next 20 plus years searching for her. By the time she was captured she was so deeply embedded in Comanche culture that she didn't want to be part of the white culture she was born into.  Of course, all she knew at this point was her life on the plains. A rough life, but it was her known life. She had children with an important chief in the tribe. That relationship would provide the last historical notation for the Comanches.  Her son, Quanah Parker would become the last of the Comanche chiefs.  His reign would be short, but the Comanches would become the most dominant and influential tribe in American history. When it was all over, Quanah Parker and his fellow Comanches would be the last free Indians as they entered Fort Sill in Indian Territory in Oklahoma with a white flag. Quanah Parker would remain the tribe's leader until his death in 1911. He acclimated more easily into the white man's culture than any other tribe member in all of Native American history. 

One of America's most gifted filmmakers, John Ford created one of the finest films in American history with "The Searchers."  The film is loosely based on the Parker family's situation.  

Shortly before Quanah Parker died he spoke before a large crowd and these were among the last words he ever spoke.  "I used to be a bad man, but now I am a citizen of the United States. I pay taxes same as  you.  We are the same people now." 

This is a superbly crafted book.  It is breathtaking in its scope and the historical truth on all sides is mesmerizing as history and as art.  "Empire of the Summer Moon" is beautifully told.  It is written with the deliberate pace of a novel. It's a non-stop interesting narrative and you will read it quickly.  Even if you know a great deal about this time period you will be enthralled with the vivid portraits of the characters long lost to history. 

This is a fascinating read.  Highly recommended for all readers.

Copyright 2011 Read On Read Now

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