Reading List 2020 (March) — Empire of the Summer Moon
1. What is Empire of the Summer Moon?
In March, I read Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne. Empire of the Summer Moon is a biography of the Comanche Tribe. It pieces the Tribe’s pre-Columbus origins through the lens of oral tradition and anthropological research. Then, the book transitions to written records from European, Mexican, Texan, American, and U.S. Army sources. During that time frame, it seeks to anchor the recitation of facts, casting historical figures such as Peta Nocona, Cynthia Ann Parker, Col. Ranald Mackenzie, and Quanah Parker, as points of reference in the long and storied history of the Comanche Tribe. It speaks to the many triumphs, conquest, and general freedom enjoyed by the Comanche Tribe. Also, the book discusses the sheer brutality of life on the southern plains. Finally, it needles its way through the demise of the free roaming Comanche, the Tribe’s transition to reservation life, and the historical stamp the Tribe placed throughout its old home territory of Comancheria.
2. Why did I read this book?
I have always been interested in Native American history. I took several courses in my undergraduate studies. Also, in law school, I took several courses in Indian Law and volunteered to assist Indians in estate planning through the Jodi Marquette American Indian Wills Clinic offered through the Oklahoma City University School of Law. Then, after law school, while working for Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, I was able to build a bridge with the Cheyenne–Arapaho Tribe. There, we held monthly legal clinics at the tribal meal site in Clinton, OK, where we would discuss various topics effecting tribal members, as well as perform free estate planning for tribal people.
Beyond my general interest in this Nation’s American Indian history, I have a strong affinity for western Oklahoma. As the name of this blog suggests, both myself and my wife grew up on a hill overlooking the Salt Fork of the Red River. I have been blessed to be able to explore the many canyons, creeks, rivers, and grasslands around my hometown. Through it all, I have grown to admire the simple beauty of the waving fields of grass, the shiny glean of caprock canyons, and the solace felt along a slowly winding creek. I find bliss in a summer shower, a nightly breeze, and the crisp, clean air. This area is home. We owe it to ourselves to know about our home. And, what better way to learn then read about the former tenants of this land, the Comanche Tribe?
Finally, as stated previously, the American Indian plight best demonstrates the Infinite Game. The Native Americans Tribes eventually lost to U.S. expansion. But, that lost was a grinding, brutal campaign that lasted hundreds of years. Many of the Tribes nestled in the interior of the U.S. continent survived hundreds of years, defeating far superior opponents time and time again. Only through attrition by disease, innovations in firearm technology, and restless forays into the heart of Indian Country did the Tribes finally yield. In many cases, it wasn’t through military defeat. Rather, Tribes were hungry, deprived of key resources, and simply tired of fighting. I believe Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce best summarized this reality in his surrender speech:
Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our Chiefs are killed…The old men are all dead…It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food…Hear me, my Chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.Chief Joseph Surrenders, The History Place, (last visited August 15, 2020)
3. Themes I gleaned from this book.
This book is brutal. It goes into great and sickening detail of the atrocities committed on both sides. It is replete with morbid acts of dehumanization. It is raw, unapologizing in its depiction of plains life. In short, it gave you a greater appreciation of all people that came before. We have grown accustomed to living comfortably. Each day, on the southern plains not so long ago, a persons very life was wagered each day. Safety was not guaranteed. Also, no government existed. Each family was responsible for its members. It took unimaginable courage simply to go outside, let alone to be distracted with the labors to provide the basic necessities of life such as food or water.
Also, Custer has been immortalized as this great Indian Fighter. Yet, Custer only fought in two battles. The first battle has been criticized as a massacre. The second battle was a massacre–his own. Yet, we herald him as the archtype plains soldier, wearing his buckskins as he mowed down Indians with his Winchester. But, other officers, lost in the annals of time, was brutally more effective. They were effective not through body county but sheer determination and will. (This dichotomy will be discussed in greater detail when discussing my June reading selection). Knowing the fight you are in is more important than how you fight. You must be willing to adjust your tactics to your enemy. You cannot be static in your approach. Experience is more than “been there, done that, bought that T-shirt.” Rather, experience is realizing that a T-shirt won’t keep you warm in the middle of a Canadian Winter.
4. My next reading adventure?
This book opened a few avenues for me. First, I wanted to read more about the flora and fauna of this region. I wanted to continue to be acquainted with my home. So, a story of an American icon, rising from the deserts of the American Southwest to conquer a continent may be a fascinating read. Or, maybe I should read about a true Indian fighter that not only tamed the southern plains, but also cleaned up Custer’s mess in the north, and, whose presence, made Indians shake in their saddles.