Brilliant, but not the whole story: Empire of the Summer Moon – Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches by S.C. Gwynne

PortraiThis book is a fascinating look at the rise and fall of the Commanche nation. Its intensely exciting and sympathetic to Native Americans in general and the Commanche in particular. However it is also intensely violent, taking a clear sighted, almost forensic, look at the practices of Commanche war-making, particularly their routine use of rape and torture.

(Speaking as a Celt myself) the author draws a not unreasonable comparison of Comanche warfare to Celtic warfare of a bygone era to undermine any racist presumptions about the origins of warriors cruelty. He also notes the intensely political purpose behind Comanche terrorism on settlers and buffalo hunters, and that Texan warfare was itself brutal and racist. However while he spends time describing Comanche violence in some detail, he frequently skates across comparable white violence – explicitly avoiding a deep discussion of the Sand Creek massacre for example.

The author appears to like and admire Quanah, particularly the Quanah of later years who struggled to lead his people in peace after years of violence. Quanah described himself as having been a “bad man” but in later life he appears to have become a warm and generous one with little animosity to whites. However the author’s real hero in this book seems to be the enigmatic Col MacKenzie, Quanah’s nemesis, rather than Quanah himself. One should be grateful to the author for bringing this fascinating man and his role in the violence of the era to greater public attention: for all his crankiness he stands in a much more positive light that the strange, and more infamous, figure of Custer.

For those interested in Hollywood history the author notes how the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, Quanah’s mother, was the inspiration for arguably John Ford’s greatest Western, The Searchers. However he doesn’t mention that MacKenzie seems to have been Ford’s model for Lt Col Kirby Yorke in Rio Grande, another one of John Wayne’s classic roles: the climax of that film – the Colonel leading his troopers into Mexico to attack the Apache on Sheridan’s orders – is something that the author mentions MacKenzie actually did when not fighting the Comanche.

It is a book that can comfortably sit alongside Dee Brown’s classic “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee” and which complements it, providing greater detail to some aspects of that book and a deeper understanding of the politics and attitudes of white America to Native Americans in the course of their conquest.

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