Tag Archives: american indian

“Empire of the Summer Moon” by S. C. Gwynne


Pretty interesting history of the Comanche during the Texas-Indian wars, and also a sort-of biography of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah.  Cynthia was kidnapped in a raid on her family’s frontier fort when she was 9 years old.  The Comanche sometimes adopted white children “into the tribe” and this is what happened with her.  She became a Comanche and eventually married a chief.  Nearly 25 years later, she was “rescued” (and her husband killed) by whites and reunited with family members.  She was regarded as a little crazy because she kept trying to escape back to the Comanche!  Kind of sad as it is pretty obvious that she wasn’t going to fit in / didn’t want to fit in, and never did.

Cynthia’s “rescue” happened when Quanah was 12.  He escaped, but never saw her again.  He became a mighty war chief, organizing all sorts of raids himself against the hated Texans.  Eventually, the warring came to an end for two main reasons: the slaughter and subsequent scarcity of the buffalo made survival very difficult, and the persistent efforts of the US Army in the 1870s under Mackenzie.  On the reservation, Quanah adapted to the white man’s life as completely as his mother did to the Comanche.  He became a skilled negotiator and businessman, chiefly through managing access to Comanche land by cattle ranchers.  (Some of these activities sound similar to mob “protection rackets” where a large group of Indians would approach ranchers and say how much of a shame it would be if all their cattle went missing, but they would help protect them … for a small fee.)  The Comanche looked to him for leadership, and he was known for generosity in feeding all comers and helping them out in his Star House.

Some other things I learned / thought were interesting:

  • The Comanche are described as having a very simple and war-like culture.  The were a stone age band of buffalo hunters and master horsemen who brutally attacked and tortured other Indians.  The author explains that because Plains Indians were 4000 years late to agriculture compared to the West, they were that much further behind in the “tech tree” (to frame it in a Civ-like manner).  They were very violent and didn’t have a set of familiar morals and so a lot of the things they thought nothing about seemed really horrible to the settlers (and to us today).  Like choking a 7-week old infant, then tying rope around his neck and having a horse drag him through prickly cactus.  Or bringing a 15 year old white girl prisoner, with visible scars of her torture (cut off/burned nose) on a San Antonio trading/peace negotiation trip.  They had no idea that such a sight would outrage the Texans.
  • The Spanish and later Mexicans were plagued by the Comanche just as the Americans later were.  Comancheria is a big reason why Mexico never really extended north beyond Texas.  It didn’t help the Spanish that the neighboring Apache, themselves persecuted by the Comanche, tried to put the Spanish in situations where they would be in the path of the warring Comanche, and not the Apaches.  eg. The San Saba massacre – they persuaded the Spanish to set up a mission in “Apache homeland” but actually it was in Comancheria.
  • James W. Parker, Cynthia’s uncle – shady, yet fascinating character.
  • Backwards Indian policy: many tribes noticed that in treaties (which were silly since they never really understood them, and which no band’s chief could ever make binding over any other band), they often got lots of food and other gifts.  But, if they did nothing, they were ignored (at best.)  So they raided intensely in the summer, then signed a treaty in the fall to get food for winter.  Meanwhile, the “good” Indians who did not raid got nothing.  Those on reservations were even denied their annuity payments, since they went to compensate the settlers who had been raided.  There was every incentive for the Indians to reject reservations and just raid settlers.
  • Just a few years after joining the reservation, Quanah and others got permission to go out on a last buffalo hunt in 1878.  It’s not known if they planned it to be a regular event or not; it turned out to be the first and last because there weren’t any more buffalo!  The Comanche were astounded to not find any buffalo for 100 miles, in areas where previously they had never been out of sight of a buffalo.  There were even cattle ranchers in sacred Palo Duro Canyon.  (The canyon and the Caprock Escarpment sound like some interesting geography – would like to see someday.)

“Native American Testimony” by Peter Nabokov


A very excellent collection of (primarily) oral histories from American Indians, from 1492 – present.  Overall, there’s understandably quite a bit of anger and bitterness at the white man destroying the Indian way of life and taking their lands, whether through broken treaties, wars, forced resettlement to reservations, Allotment, or Termination.


George Gillette of the Hidatsa tribe, at the signing away of ancestral lands to be submerged by a new reservoir. This picture really hits me in the feels.

I feel like I have a better appreciation of the whole difficulty of US Indian policy.  Injustices have occurred which Indians demand be rectified, but the ultimate solution where all whites leave the continent is not going to happen.  We’re in this together, like it or not.  Therefore US policy has generally been designed to facilitate the Indian’s integration into white society.  (At least that’s the intention — part of the problem here is that policies were malformed or not suited to generalization across all tribes and types of Indian in the country.)  But then there’s the frequent Indian response that they don’t want to be integrated into white society.  They want their continent back (won’t happen) or at least they want to be left alone.  But they really don’t want to be left totally alone … poverty is no fun.  So they grudgingly accept the white man’s support, but they don’t like it.

I wonder if there might be some value in examining societies like the Amish – here’s another culture that has found harmony and success living a traditional lifestyle within the modern world.  They are white of course, and also lack a sense of historical systematic victimhood … maybe letting go of the victim status is the key for Indians moving forward?

The final chapter or so touches on the rise of the Indian casinos… while I tend to believe it is somewhat shameful that they have stooped so low to participate in such a business, I also find it delightfully apropos that Indians have finally found a way to profit from the white man’s greed.


“1493” by Charles C. Mann


(Another audio book read by Mr. Navy.)

This is a book about the beginnings of globalization – the Columbian Exchange – and the “Homogenocene” (biological diversity moving towards uniformity, thanks to mankind).  Mann jumps from one fascinating “case study” to the next, showing just how intertwined the world really is — and has been for a long time.  Here’s just a sampling.


The English tobacco “craze” saved Jamestown. The colonists were struggling, as many early colonies did, due to a poor location and a lack of local agricultural knowledge and other effective survival techniques. The local Indians should have been a good source of helpful expertise in these matters, but the English seemed set on antagonizing them at every turn. (“Antagonize” is probably too weak of a word … there were a surprising number of brutal atrocities, on both sides.) Anyway, John Rolfe came in and introduced tobacco, which was an almost immediate monetary success.  The colonists didn’t really change their ways, but they did figure out how to grow the new cash crop in large quantities, and thus were able to buy food and other necessities with the proceeds.

The English planted tobacco just like they did other crops in Europe – in large, monoculture fields. This was at odds with traditional Indian agriculture, which mixed different crops in a more natural arrangement (this survives today as milpas). The English were so unfamilar with the technique that they saw Indian “fields” as wilderness to be cleared and planted over with tobacco, which they did much to the anger of the Indians.  Also, pre-contact America had no large livestock and so no real tradition of building fences, which also led the English to consider the land as unclaimed. (This kind of all worked out in a way when a large proportion of the Indian population died of European diseases, which did actually leave the land open in a tragic fashion.  See 1491.)


Potosi in Bolivia was the New World’s first boom town. Think the Wild West at 14,000 feet in the Andes. Spain became fabulously wealthy from all the galleon bullion, but massive inflation and a series of ambitious foreign wars, funded by the new found wealth, brought their own problems. A large chunk of silver also made it’s way west over the Pacific to Manila (thanks Legazpi) and then into China. The Pacific galleon trade connected Spainard silver to Fujianese porcelain and silk via Mexico City and Manila, two of the world’s first multicultural melting pots. The same factors which wrecked havoc on the Spanish economy also affected China and brought down the Ming.

Potatoes and Maize

Potatoes (sweet and “Idaho”) are from the Andes, maize (corn) from Mexico. Both had a huge impact on population growth in Europe and China. Seriously, huge: something like a third of the population in the years following these new crops introduction could have owed it’s existence to them. The Europeans and Chinese grew them both in vast monocultures, like tobacco, and were thus vulnerable to plant diseases. Per Malthus, the hungry population expanded to use up available resources, and was soon once again teetering on the brink. Events like the Irish Potato Famine likely killed off the “extra” population that had been made possible due to the potato’s introduction in the first place.

Fun fact: apparently you can live off nothing but potatoes and milk with no ill effects. It’s a complete diet, and those who have tried it long term expressed no desire for change.


I didn’t realize how critical natural rubber still is to the world economy. Like tobacco, potatoes, and maize, there are vast monocultures of rubber trees in Amazonia and also SE Asia … apparently there is a rubber tree disease in Brazil that is going to be really bad news once it finally makes the hop to Asia.


Malaria and other tropical diseases were big reasons why slavery became such an institution — adult Africans from malarial areas had more resistance, both from genetic immunity and also from childhood exposure. It became more cost effective to import an “expensive” African, even with the moral and practical troubles that slavery entailed, vs several rounds of European indentured servants who kept dying off.


Runaway slaves established countless “maroon” villages hidden in Amazonian jungles. This happened everywhere there were slaves – for instance Florida had “black Seminoles.” Africans mixed with Indians and were really the first Old World-New World contact in many cases, but we will likely never know that true history.


The world has always been in flux, ever changing. The world is not static; “that’s how it always has been!” is “imagined history.”

Mann is excellent at teasing out fascinating connections and stories from this very interesting time in history.  I highly recommend both 1491 and 1493.

“Junipero Serra” by Steven W. Hackel


Junipero Serra, a native Mallorcan, had a comfortable existence as a religious teacher and scholar at the Llullian University in Palma. In his mid-thirties, around the mid-1700’s, he felt the call and volunteered for service in New Spain. He spent the rest of his life in Mexico, and later what would become California. Just from that, you know we’re talking about someone with courage, faith, and determination. An adventurer into the unknown.

One thing that Serra and other Franciscans reveled in was personal physical suffering, since it helped them become one with Christ. Self-flagellation, tight bands embedded with spikes around arms and legs, hitting one’s chest with a rock, and wearing shirts made from hair (because they were itchy, I guess?) were all part of the game. Serra also suffered a leg injury early in his time in Mexico for which he refused treatment — the pain and inconvenience it caused him throughout the remainder of his life were great pluses in his mind.

Some Franciscans at the time believed the prophecies of a Spanish nun who “bilocated” periodically to California and proclaimed that the natives would fall to their knees and become converted merely upon seeing a Franciscan. Turns out this was not the case, but it was a worthy carrot for Serra and others to pursue.

As missions were established (starting with San Diego in 1769, shortly followed by Serra’s HQ of San Carlos, near Monterrey the following year), Serra struggled more and more with the local Spanish authorities for control of the converts and the mission economy. Some in the government wanted the missionaries to solely concern themselves with preparing Sunday services, but Franciscans saw their role as much more overarching and paternalistic than that.

The modus operandi seemed to be to entice the natives with free food and gifts, teaching and baptizing when they could. Once a convert, each Indian was expected to take up Spanish-style agriculture and live at the mission, and follow all Catholic strictures. Whipping was the standard penalty for desertion or disobedience.  According to Hackel, corporal punishment, common in Europe, was unknown among the California tribes.  Some modern-day critics have called the arrangements more concentration camp than religious center, but ya always gotta judge to the local/temporal standards…

One thing that dovetailed into recent reading of 1491 was the remark that the natives were punished for burning the landscape.  As we know from that other book however, this was a key component of native subsistence agriculture, which they were now punished for practicing.

In Serra’s time, native convert populations at missions slowly grew. Success (a utopia of Catholic natives?) seemed to be at hand … but shortly after Serra’s death, the missions were repeatedly struck by disease. California’s native population went from about 300,000 in 1769 to 50,000 during the Gold Rush, less than 100 years later.

“1491” by Charles C. Mann



An interesting look at what the Americas were like before European contact, somewhat revised from traditional views by recent archaeological theories.

The main “new revelation” is that Europeans hardly got to know America before it was almost unrecognizably changed. Some of the very early explorers (such as Orellana) mention countless numbers of American settlements and cities, but only a few short decades later there was almost nothing left. When the bulk of European colonists arrived, the Americas seemed like a virgin land of plenty – sparsely populated by only a few “miserable” bands of “savages.” They assumed that it had always been that way. Mann calls this “Holmberg’s Mistake” after Allan Holmberg, who described primitive populations in the Amazon in the 1940’s. Because the natives (in the Amazon and in the Americas as a whole) seemed entrenched in the Stone Age when Europeans really began studying them, Holmberg and other researchers assumed that they probably had never left it in the first place. But, evidence seems to suggest that American populations were as large and sophisticated (or more so) than European ones, but then were devastated by a calamity which wiped out 95%+ of the population in a short time and destroyed most American “civilization.”

The reason was a massive die-off from so-called zoonotic diseases (influenza, smallpox, etc) for which Americans had no immunity. The epidemics started right away; if some poor Spanish sailor wasn’t suffering from some virulent disease on Columbus’s first voyage (pop. about 90) then surely there was someone on his second (pop. about 1500). And they kept on coming. The American civilizations were more connected than one may think; even without direct European involvement, disease spread and wiped the land clean before Europeans even got there, in some cases. For example, one reason why the mighty Inca empire were such pushovers to Pizarro’s handful of soldiers was that they had been suffering through a smallpox epidemic followed by resultant political instability and civil war.

A question arises as to why wasn’t the disease transmittal a two-way path? There may be a handful of examples where it was (maybe syphillis) but generally it was European->American. The reason could be due to the availability of large stock animals and customs — Europeans and Asians living in close contact with cows, pigs, and sheep sometimes got their diseases; Americans didn’t really have any large animal analogues, except maybe llamas.

The second “revelation” was how extensively the Americans had modified their environment. Mann cites evidence of the Amazon as a giant garden, and North America being shaped by deliberate and extensive use of fire to clear old forest and encourage new growth and animal activity (for good hunting). When the Americans were killed off by disease, the stewards were gone and ecological release ensued – millions-strong herd of bison and flocks of passenger pigeons were but a few results.

Although one can hardly fault Europeans for transmitting disease to Americans (though maybe you can fault them for follow-on “hit ’em while they’re down” subjugation…), Mann still highlights the great tragedy to humankind when it lost so much knowledge and culture. One reason why we don’t know much about pre-Columbian America in the first place is because so few survivors were left to tell the tale. There was lots of just different stuff which surely would have inspired new thinking and inventions. How about the Inca knot “language”? Or, just how did Mesoamericans domesticate maize?  Mann brings up the great advances brought about by European-Asian connections; imagine what it would have been like to add a vibrant, healthy America into the mix as well.

A final thought regarding the Book of Mormon . . . a preponderance of archaeological and genetic evidence  does seems to refute a “recent” Israelite origin of Americans in favor of a trans-Bering Asian origin 20,000+ years ago.  But I think that both views can co-exist, if you think of the Lehites as a small group alongside a larger pre-existing population (which were all eventually lumped into “Lamanites”).  Fairmormon has some good info.