Debate Magazine

Comanche (“Lords of the Plains”) Animism

By Cris

For reasons not entirely clear, I’ve long delayed delving into Comanche ethnohistory. This is unfortunate. For a long time I have mistakenly assumed that the Comanche probably weren’t much different from their Plains buffalo hunting counterparts. After deep forays into the Lakota, Cheyenne, Crow, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Blackfoot records, I had formed the general impression that (despite all sorts of interesting variation) there was something that could be called “Plains culture.” As the southernmost Plains tribe, I assumed that the Comanche would fit the general pattern. They don’t.

To get a general bearing on Comanche history, I started with a popular book about which I had serious reservations. While reading it did not amount to a mistake, I’m not sure what the Pulitzer committee was thinking when it nominated S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches as a non-fiction finalist in 2011. Gwynne, a Texas journalist, is a nice writer and tells a jaunty story. When Gwynne sticks to basics like setting, chronology, character, and event, he does fine. But when he veers off into interpretation and context (which is fairly often), things go seriously awry. I understand Gwynne is neither a professional historian nor anthropologist (which in some ways is a benefit when writing a popular book), but still.

The problems range from the simply irritating (Gwynne constantly asserts the unprovable point that the Comanche were the largest and most powerful tribe in America) to the egregiously irritating (he regularly refers to the Comanche as “Stone Age barbarians, primitives, and savages”). The first problem isn’t that bad — it strikes me as typically Texan. The second problem is bad — it signals Gwynne’s lack of familiarity with culture history and ethnography. It is unfortunate that Empire of the Summer Moon is probably the only book that most people will ever read about the Comanche, and equally unfortunate that a popular history hasn’t already been written by someone better qualified. Gwynne saw a story vacuum and filled it. Shame on the professionals (and good for Gwynne).

A consistent theme in Gwynne’s book, one which struck me as dubious, is that traditional Comanche society was exceedingly “simple” and unstructured. Initially, I thought this was simply an extension of Gwynne’s naive (and normative) cultural evolutionism. But when Gwynne later commented that Comanche religion was similarly simple and unadorned, I understood he was contrasting the Comanche with other Plains tribes, all of whom had some version of the Sun Dance complex. The Comanche had no such complex and held only a single Sun Dance (in 1874), which was occasioned by stress and a desire to try something that might save them from cultural destruction. Other than this one-off event, the Comanche were not known to have had a large or regular ceremonial complex. Their rituals were small-scale, irregular, and individualist.

If all of this is true (and it appears to be at least partially correct), it poses some interesting problems for those evolutionary theorists who claim that religion is the cohesive glue that binds groups into larger and more cooperative groups. When confronted with animist-shamanist societies that tend strongly toward individualist ideas, beliefs, and rites, such theorists usually point to the Sun Dance and similar ceremonial complexes as supporting evidence. The Comanche, certainly one of the largest and most dominant Plains tribes, lacked these group oriented ideas and rituals.

So if shared “religion” wasn’t key to Comanche identity and didn’t bind them together, what did? My guess is the Comanche, who may have numbered 25,000 at their apogee in the 1850s, were bonded as a distinct ethnic group mostly by shared language and extended kinship. They remind me a bit of the Turkana in east Africa, another nomadic group which lacks the kind of elaborated animism that might be expected of such a large and successful group (there an estimated 300,000 Turkana). Whatever it was, the Comanche belie the notion that large-scale, regular, and formal ritual is required for group success.

There can be little doubt that the Comanche were successful. After splitting from an ancestral Shoshonean group near the mountains of Wyoming and Idaho, they slowly migrated south beginning in the 1600s. This map shows later movements from Colorado into Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico:

As the map indicates with respect to the Apaches, migrations were not simply matters of picking up and moving. They were contested by other tribes. These were difficult and dangerous undertakings. Despite this, the Comanche eventually held sway over a vast territory that contained huge numbers of buffalo and other game:

Comanche (“Lords of the Plains”) AnimismAs should be apparent, this was an impressive achievement for an ethnic group that supposedly lacked cultural and ritual sophistication. Given my doubts about this characterization I’ve moved on to more reputable accounts, beginning with the classic Comanche ethnohistory by Wallace and Hoebel. I also picked up Gerald Betty’s Comanche Society: Before the Reservation, a book which (judging by the blurb) disrupts standard Comanche histories and offers alternative explanations:

Once called the Lords of the Plains, the Comanches were long portrayed as loose bands of marauding raiders who capitalized on the Spanish introduction of horses to raise their people out of primitive poverty through bison hunting and fierce warfare. More recent studies of the Comanches have focused on adaptation and persistence in Comanche lifestyles and on Comanche political organization and language-based alliances.

In Comanche Society: Before the Reservation, Gerald Betty develops an exciting and sophisticated perspective on the driving force of Comanche life: kinship. Betty details the kinship patterns that underlay all social organization and social behavior among the Comanches and uses the insights gained to explain the way Comanches lived and the way they interacted with the Europeans who recorded their encounters.

Rather than a narrative history of the Comanches, this account presents analyses of the formation of clans and the way they functioned across wide areas to produce cooperation and alliances; of hierarchy based in family and generational relationships; and of ancestor worship and related religious ceremonies as the basis for social solidarity. The author then considers a number of aspects of Comanche life—pastoralism, migration and nomadism, economics and trade, warfare and violence—and how these developed along kinship lines.

If Betty is right, the Comanche may not in fact pose a conundrum for evolutionary theory. Stay tuned for further reports.

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