For the past few weeks, I’ve been reading S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Southern Moon, a bestseller that traces the history of the Comanches, particularly Quanah Parker. It’s a great read, with lots of detailed information and well-rounded research (well, except for some glaring geographical mistakes).
What I admire about Gwynne is that he doesn’t pull any punches. In academia, not many historians are willing to admit to the atrocities and terror perpetrated by the Comanches against white, black, and Mexican settlers; academics tend to portray the attacks as stemming from an aggressor/defender kind of relationship, with the Old World invading the New World. And of course, when one gets down to brass tacks, that’s exactly from where the animosity generated. Still, Gwynne does not shy away from noting the unprovoked brutality of the Comanches (and other Southern Plains tribes), and provides gruesome details of what happened to people taken captive as well as the fates of the hapless soldiers and warriors on the losing side.
This is where I find the history of Native Americans in the Red River Valley very sketchy. Tribes like the Caddos, Tonkawas, Wichitas, Kiowas, and Comanches all engaged in a very brutal warrior culture that included some severe tortures. European accounts explain how tribes roasted and/ or buried their enemy warriors alive, raped and mutilated women, and, in some instances, cannibalized their conquests. Of course, the Europeans could be just as horrendous – one just has to cite the inquisition and the entire institution of slavery for evidence, and that doesn’t even begin to recount the European inclination for gruesome public executions. Throughout the years, though, historians have tried to minimize the more “uncomfortable” aspects of Native American cultures. Many historians have painted them as “noble” or “innocent,” negating very integral parts of their society. This, of course, does Native American groups a grave disservice, as it treats them as pure victims. Instead, Indians were formidable adversaries of the whites, blacks, and Mexican settlers: pretty much every major American conflict until the Spanish-American War at least partially focused on the hostile interactions between non-Indians and Indians.
That’s what I really like about Empire of the Summer Moon: Gwynne treats the Southern Plains tribes as real adversaries, not simple roadblocks to progress. His ability to be frank and non-flinching is a refreshing way to view the American West.