10. Was the Comancheria an Empire?
November 15, 2014
Pekka Hamalainen's The Comanche Empire (2008) contends that between 1700 and the early 1800s the Comanches conquered an expansive section of southwestern America to create the Comancheria empire that rivaled the imperialistic efforts of Europeans.
The concept of an all-powerful empire among Native Americans seems unique, something I've not previously considered. American history seldom endows minority groups with such superlatives: Hamalainen obviously intends to start a new discussion about the power and influence of the Comanches. There is little question that they reinvented themselves to meet the needs of their evolving world as they moved south across the plains. They became expert equestrians and bison hunters. They developed outstanding economic and political skills that interplayed and vied with Europeans who had a far more extensive history of international machinations. The Comanches incorporated outsiders into their families and tribe, often through slavery, to bolster their numbers and strength. Their warrior spirit and grasp of conflict, conquest and alliances were par excellence. Eighteenth-century Comanches were a vibrant, dominant, intimidating, hierarchical, resourceful and violent people. But was their Comancheria an empire, an example of reverse colonialism?
It is tempting to permit a sense of presentism when recalling our country's deplorable historical treatment of Indians. True, most Americans no longer accept good-cowboys-besting-bad-wild-Indians scenarios as the basis for relationships between the two cultures. But neither have we established a firm footing or a meeting of the minds as to who Indians were (are) or how they fit into the American landscape; the ongoing debate over the name of Washington's football team pinpoints this quite succinctly. New cultural approaches encourage greater open-mindedness in the search for and acknowledgment of greater agency in Native American cultures. But has Hamalainen gone too far in an effort to accomplish this? By elevating the Comancheria to the echelon of empire, he detracts from the reality of an industrious people who redeveloped their culture, suffered losses and enjoyed successes, and left an imprint on their times. Raising the Comancheria to empire status inevitably leads to an overemphasis on their denouement: the Comanche's dramatic fall from grace when Euro-Americans overran the West, the end of the bison economy, and the crumbling of the foundations of their indigenous "empire."
Reading The Comanche Empire, I preferred to focus more on Comanche accomplishments and errors than on Caesarian or Hitlerian ideologies of grand empire. The haphazard sprawl of the Comancheria across the Southwest, for instance, did not include definitive, defendable borders of empire -- nor did the tribe appear to need them. By absorbing people of other cultures to increase their numbers, the Comanches evolved into an "ethnic melting pot" rather than retaining distinct Comanche traits (360). They participated in the destruction of their environment; the environment destroyed them. They were diplomats and fearsome warriors who "reshape[d] their economic strategies and social traditions" (348).
The Comanches were a complex tribal group with a complex history, worthy of Hamalainen's in-depth study. He centralizes their nation in American history, awarding them with the recognition they deserve. However, the description of Comanches as deliberate empire builders, a tribe vastly superior to other indigenous people, somehow seems aggrandizing and unnecessary, detracting from Comanche heritage.