Saturday, June 12, 2010

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 Comanches, 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.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Any argument can be won if you present only the information that backs up your side. There are parts of this story that as an apparently spiritually bankrupt person you can not observe. I am sorry for that. Has any Native culture eaten so many fish that none of the fish reach maturity? Or defecated in the same water they would drink and so must clean it? Or killed millions of other men simply because they have a different religion? The list goes on and on. When you deny the spirit an existence, then all manner of monsters are set loose. Are you man enough to confront your own spirit, and can you call yourself worthy of brotherhood with all other things made by the Creator? The alternative is a meaningless existence at the end of which you die cold, alone, and in the dark. And that is the real product of the man with the white lab coat and the atom smasher.

Donald Douglas said...

Anon: Why do you post anonymously? Afraid? I make no moral judgements at this essay. All I show is that Native Americans acted like nation-states in the international system. Too bad for their own self-preservation that they lost the the Indian Wars. And be sure to read the links at the post. The Comanches were ruthless killers, as I imagine any warrior class would be. Stop romanticizing. And get a clue.

Dennis said...

One of the funniest scenes in "Dancing with Wolves" is where the Indians look out over the prairie and see a number of buffalo skinned and left to die. It is humorous because the Indians drove whole herds over cliffs killing absolutely every buffalo. They took what they wanted and left the rest to rot. The Indians were one of the prime reasons that Bison almost became extinct. The Buffalo survives today because a number of white ranchers brought them back from the brink.
The Indians slaughtered whole tribes of other Indians. The "Last of the Mohicans" somewhat alluded to it. Take a good look at the Iroquois, et al. The Aztec lost to an inferior number of Spanish because the used the other tribes as their sacrifices in large numbers. The Incas had their problems with other tribes. The true history of Indians is filled with wholesale slaughter of other peoples. It was nothing for Indians to commit rape, the killing of every man, woman and child, etc. And what do you think they did with the captives they kept, they made slaves out of them.
As you say the list of Indian atrocities go on and on. Anon needs to stop believing that Hollywood dissembling about native Americans an read some real history.
What utter uninformed blather.
The trouble with most Leftists and some others is that they totally ignore world history in order to make Americans look like the bad guys when the opposite is true in comparison to the way other societies handled these things.
History is what it is and cannot be changed except by those who want to hide certain aspects of it. The Indians have been a great asset to this country and made it a great one. Like everyone they should be judged on their current history and the attendant facts and reasons.

Kelly said...

"Unfortunately, history lessons like this aren't the kind students are getting in their ethnic studies courses at the university."

As a current undergrad student (an older one who was probably less indoctrinated in high school than today's 19-year-olds were), I can attest to the truth of this. The Colonial America course I'm currently taking uses texts that emphasize only one perspective on the earliest Indian-European clashes. I'm not otherwise well-versed in this era, but even I can sense gaps in the information presented and conclusions that aren't accompanied by enough evidence. I'll definitely be reading more widely on the subject when I finish with the course.