Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Comanche

The other book I'm reading right now is Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. It is fascinating and compulsive reading. I thought I knew a great deal about the Plains Indians. I knew less than I thought, and about the Comanches I knew almost nothing. The war against them lasted far longer than any of the other Indian wars. Although the Spanish and then the Mexicans had been in almost continuous war with the Comanche, Americans were largely ignorant of them until invited to settle in Texas partly, the author suggests, because Mexico wanted a buffer against that tribe. An early encounter involved massacre, kidnapping, and torture of members of the newly settled Parker family. In Chapter 4, "High Lonesome," the author does some anthropology explaining why the conflict between Euro-Americans and American Indians may have been irrepressible. From that chapter:
It is impossible to read Rachel Plummer's memoir without making moral judgments about the Comanches. The torture-killing of a defenseless seven-week-old infant, by committee decision no less, is an act of almost demonic immorality by any modern standard. The systematic gang rape of women captives seems to border on criminal perversion, if not some very advanced form of evil. The vast majority of Anglo-European settlers in the American West would have agreed with those assessments. To them, Comanches were thugs and killers, devoid of ordinary decency, sympathy, or mercy. Not only did they inflict horrific suffering, but from all evidence they enjoyed it. This was perhaps the worst part, and certainly the most frightening part. Making people scream in pain was interesting and rewarding for them, just as it is interesting and rewarding for young boys in modern-day America to torture frogs or pull the legs off grasshoppers. Boys presumably grow out of that; for Indians, it was an important part of their adult culture and one they accepted without challenge. ....

This sort of cruelty is a problem in any narrative about American Indians, because Americans like to think of their native aboriginals as in some ways heroic or noble. Indians were, in fact, heroic and noble in many ways, especially in defense. of their families. Yet in the moral universe of the West...a person who tortures or rapes another person or who steals another person's child and then sells him cannot possibly be seen that way. ....

Thus some chroniclers ignore the brutal side of Indian life altogether; others, particularly historians who suggest that before white men arrived Indian-to-Indian warfare was a relatively bloodless affair involving a minimum of bloodshed, deny it altogether. But certain facts are inescapable: American Indians were warlike by nature, and they were warlike for centuries before Columbus stumbled upon them. They fought over hunting grounds, to be sure, but they also made a good deal of brutal and bloody war that was completely unnecessary. The Comanches' relentless and never-ending pursuit of the hapless Tonkawas was a good example of this, as was their harassment of Apaches long after they had been driven from the buffalo grounds.


Such behavior was common to all Indians in the Americas. The more civilized agrarian tribes of the east, in fact, were far more adept at devising lengthy and agonizing tortures than the Comanches or other plains tribes. The difference lay in the Plains Indians' treatment of female captives and victims. .... Some tribes, including the giant Iroquois federation, had never treated women captives that way. Women could be killed, and scalped. But not gang-raped. What happened to the Parker captives could only have happened west of the Mississippi. ....

Most important, the Indians themselves saw absolutely nothing wrong with these acts. For westering settlers, the great majority of whom believed in the idea of absolute good and evil, and thus of universal standards of moral behavior, this was nearly impossible to understand. ....

Enemies...were enemies, and the rules for dealing with them had come down through a thousand years. A Comanche brave who captured a live Ute would torture him to death without question. It was what everyone had always done, what the Sioux did to the Assiniboine, what the Crow did to the Blackfeet. A Comanche captured by a Ute would expect to receive exactly the same treatment (thus making him weirdly consistent with the idea of the Golden Rule), which was why Indians always fought to their last breath on battlefields, to the astonishment of Europeans and Americans. There were no exceptions. Of course, the same Indians also believed, quite as deeply, in blood vengeance. The life of the warrior tortured to death would be paid for with another torture-killing if possible, preferably even more hideous than the first. This, too, was seen as fair play by all Indians in the Americas.

What explains such a radical difference in the moral systems of the Comanches and the whites they confronted? Part of it has to do with the relative progress of civilizations in the Americas compared to the rest of the world. The discovery of agriculture, which took place in Asia and the Middle East, roughly simultaneously, around 6,500 BC, allowed the transition from nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies to the higher civilizations that followed. But in the Americas, farming was not discovered until 2,500 BC, fully four thousand years later and well after advanced cultures had already sprung up in Egypt and Mesopotamia. This was an enormous gap. Once the Indians figured out how to plant seeds and cultivate crops, civilizations in North and South America progressed at roughly the same pace as they had in the Old World. Cities were built. Highly organized social structures evolved. Pyramids were designed. Empires were assembled, of which the Aztecs and Incas were the last. (As in the Old World, nomadism and hunter-gatherer cultures persisted alongside the higher civilizations.) But the Americas, isolated and in any case without the benefit of the horse or the ox, could never close the time gap. They were three to four millennia behind the Europeans and Asians, and the arrival of Columbus in 1492 guaranteed that they would never catch up. The nonagrarian Plains Indians, of course, were even further behind.

Thus the fateful clash between settlers from the culture of Aristotle, St. Paul, Da Vinci, Luther, and. Newton and aboriginal horsemen from the buffalo plains happened as though in a time warp—as though the former were looking backward thousands of years at pre-moral, pre-Christian, low-barbarian versions of themselves. The Celtic peoples, ancestors of huge numbers of immigrants to America in the nineteenth century, offer a rough parallel. Celts of the fifth century BC were described by Herodotus as "fierce warriors who fought with seeming disregard for their own lives." Like Comanches they were savage, filthy, wore their hair long, and had a hideous keening battle cry. They were superb horsemen, inordinately fond of alcohol, and did terrible things to their enemies and captives that included decapitation, a practice that horrified the civilized Greeks and Romans. The old Celts, forebears of the Scots-Irish who formed the vanguard of America's western migrations, would have had no "moral" problem with the Comanche practice of torture. ....