Native Americans Lost the Indian Wars

Stogie left a nice compliment yesterday, suggesting that my “posts lately are substance on steroids!” I’m flattered. It’s kinda funny, though, since all I’m really doing sometimes is just putting down what’s on my mind instead of posting what others have written.

Anyway, I was thinking of that “steroids” remark just now while reading the New York Times. Turns out there’s an interesting book review in the Sunday paper on General George Custer and the “Last Stand” at Little Big Horn. See, “Books About the Indian Wars.” The piece is by Bruce Barcott, and he reviews Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and S. C. Gwynne’s, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. The first section of Barcott’s review covers familiar territory — that Custer’s Last Stand was a blunderous, even ignoble, military defeat, yet American myth-making has romanticized the defeat in popular culture.

The more interesting passage is found in the discussion of Gwynne’s book on the Comanches. I’m especially fascinated by the indenfication of the Comanche tribe as a “superpower”:

Gwynne opens with the May 1836 Comanche raid on the Parker homestead. The Parkers were a clan of Illinois pioneers working 16,100 acres near present-day Dallas. In 1836 they represented the leading edge of white westward expansion into Comanche territory, which the tribe didn’t like one bit. They expressed their displeasure by killing the Parker men (though a few escaped) and taking two women and three children captive.

The term “Indian raid” glosses over the atrocities. Men and babies were killed as a matter of course. Mutilation, rape and torture were common. The lucky died quickly. “This was the actual, and often quite grim, reality of the frontier,” Gwynne writes. “This treatment was not reserved for whites or Mexicans; it was practiced just as energetically on rival Indian tribes.”

The Comanche weren’t merely one of many tribes steamrolled by Manifest Destiny. They were a Native American superpower, a thesis put forth in Pekka Hamalainen’s Bancroft Prize-winning study, “The Comanche Empire,” oddly not cited here. Gwynne presents the Great Plains wars of the mid-19th century as the clash of three empires: the United States, Mexico and the Comanche nation, which controlled most of modern-day Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma.

“They held sway over some 20 different tribes who had been either conquered, driven off or reduced to vassal status,” Gwynne writes. “Such imperial dominance was no accident of geography. It was the product of over 150 years of deliberate, sustained combat against a series of enemies over a singular piece of land that contained the country’s largest buffalo herds.” At the height of their power in the late 1830s, the Comanche contemplated a full-scale invasion of Texas and Mexico.

What interests me is how the Comanche tribe is described as acting as a nation-state in terms of classic balance-of-power politics and maximization of rational self-interest. There’s little in the discussion to indicate a helpless victimhood among the Camanches, and therefore the larger continental diaspora of Native American tribes. This fact is in diametrical opposition to the claims of contemporary radical left organizations that claim indigenous peoples are victims of genocide. As I covered in my recent reporting from Phoenix, the Mexica Movement is a fringe indigenous-people’s group calling for the expulsion of European Americans from all of North and South America. The Mexica Movement combines victims’ grievance claims with a vicious ideology of indigenous supremacy. They’re a hateful bunch.

Yet historical analysis and theoretical exposition debunk the claims of an American Indian holocaust. There was no genocide, just simply defeat in warfare. (An interesting aside here, although not the key point in my discussion, is Guenter Lewy’s, “Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?” And see the letters to the editor in response, “American Indians.” See also, “No Genocide on the Plains.”) I look it this in terms of state survival in the interstate system. And that’s why Barcott’s discussion is interesting, in as much as the Comanche’s themselves, as a great warrior nation, acted much like we’d describe today as “great powers.” But note further: In 1994, scholar Neta Crawford published “A Security Regime Among Democracies: Cooperation Among Iroquois Nations.” The emphasis in the paper is on how the rival Iroquois tribal units were able to escape the conflict-inducing anarchy of their international system to create a security regime of mutual cooperation. What’s important for my argument is the understanding of Native Americans tribes as sovereign units responsible for their own security and survival. Thus, in contrast to popular mythologies of peaceful existence and organic close-to-the-land wholesomeness, in functional terms Native Americans operated in precisely the same way as did the so-called European colonial oppressor states. As Professor Crawford argues:

Are the units comparable? Yes, if one makes a distinction between the forms of “states” and the functions of “government.” The forms of Native American and European states certainly were different from each other, but their governments performed similar functions-functions that normally are associated with states: there were within Iroquois nations decision-making structures and ways to provide collective goods; there were elected and appointed representatives as well as hereditary leadership. Further similarities exist in the area of international relations: the nations of North America used diplomatic envoys, recognized the “sovereignty” of other nations, and negotiated binding treaties. Finally, Iroquois governments had a monopoly on the use of force, although the egalitarian structure of the state meant that force could only be deployed after consensus was reached by all adult members of the nation. The Iroquois League nations of, for example, 1500 were different from European nations in that they were in general smaller, less urban, less industrialized, and more democratic than European states of the same period. But, just as the ideal of the “state” does not quite correspond to the Iroquois nations, it also does not correspond to all European-type states. In fact, there is wide variation among the states that comprised the European international system (for example in terms of provision of collective goods, the criteria for political leadership, and the degree of democracy), both in comparison with one another and over time. So, although the units of analysis are not identical, if one understands states as institutional arrangements–performing certain “governing” functions–that vary along several dimensions and change over time, then one can compare the international relations of Native North America with international relations in Europe.

The Native American tribes were not victims of genocidal European conquerors. They were ruthless warriors in their own right who ultimately failed to defend their sovereignty and national integrity on the North American continent. As Barcott notes in his conclusion, “The Comanche of the 1800s were truly a nation more like Germany. And you crossed them at your peril.” Unfortunately, history lessons like this aren’t the kind students are getting in their ethnic studies courses at the university.

Cross-posted from American Power.

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