Thursday, June 24, 2010

Comanche Nation: The Rise And Fall Of An 'Empire'


S.C. Gwynne by Michael Belk

Comanche Chief Quanah ParkerIn 1836, a 9-year-old pioneer girl named Cynthia Ann Parker was kidnapped during a Comanche raid in North Texas. She was strapped onto the back of a horse and taken north, back into the Plains where the powerful American Indian tribe lived.

Parker became a ward of the chief and later, a full member of the Comanches. She eventually married a highly respected Comanche chief and gave birth to three children, including Quanah — who would grow up to become the last and greatest Comanche leader.

The story of Cynthia Ann and her son, Chief Quanah Parker, is told in S.C. Gwynne's book, Empire of the Summer Moon. Gwynne traces the rise and fall of the Comanche Nation against the backdrop of the fight for control of the American Midwest.

Gwynne tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he became interested in telling the Comanche story because of their integral role in preventing — and then opening up — the American West to white settlers.

"If you go back through Comanche history, you see that they were the ones who stopped the Spanish from coming North," he explains. "Why did the French stop coming west from Louisiana? Comanches. ... Here was why the West Coast and the East Coast settled before the middle of the country. Here was why there was basically a 40-year wait before you could develop the state of Texas or before other Plain states could be developed."

Interview Highlights

On telling the story of Quanta and his mother

"I grew up in the Northeast and I moved to Texas about 16 years ago and I started hearing stories about Comanches and I really didn't know what a Comanche was. I think I had heard about Comanches in a John Wayne movie or something but I really didn't know who they were. When I started to read a little bit about them, I realized that they were just this enormous force — this enormous force of nature sitting in the middle of the North American continent who determined how the West opened."

On what the raid on the Parker fort was like

"This is what Indians did to Indians and this just happened to be Indians meeting whites. But the automatic thing in battle is that all the adult males would be killed. That was automatic. That was one of the reasons that Indians fought to the death. The white men were astonished by it but they were assumed that they would be killed. Small children were killed. Very small children were killed. A lot of the children in say, the 3-10 range were often taken as captives. The women were often raped and often killed. And all of the people in those settlements back in those years knew what a Comanche raid was — knew what a Comanche raid meant. ... And it's an interesting kind of moral question as a historian about Plains Indians or American Indians in general. You have to come to terms with this — with torture, which they practiced all across the West — and these kind of grisly practices that scared white people to death."

On rewriting history to leave out Native American atrocities

"There was even an attempt at one point to deny that Indians were warlike. Comanches were incredibly warlike. They swept everyone off the Southern plains. They nearly exterminated the Apaches. And you know, if you look at the Comanches and you look back in history at Goths and Vikings or Mongols or Celts — old Celts are actually a very good parallel. In a lot of ways, I think we're looking back at earlier versions of ourselves. We — being white European — did all of those things. Not only that but torture was institutionalized during things like the Counter-Reformation and the Spanish Inquisition and the Russian Revolution."

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