|Book Review: Empire of the Summer Moon
||[Nov. 13th, 2012|01:45 am]
History is a lot like xkcd: I expected it to be sad, I expected it to be wonderful, but I never expected it to be so big.
As a child, history comes so neatly packaged. First there was Egypt and Babylon. Then there was Greece. Then Rome. Then some Middle Ages and also the Rise of Islam. Then Columbus and Magellan. Then the Colonial Period, the Revolution, some stuff happens, the Civil War, World Wars One and Two, the Cold War, The Struggle For Civil Rights, and the present. China might have been involved at some point too.
And it's all so interesting that you don't realize until later that none of it makes sense. How come Egypt was like the only game in town for a thousand years and then suddenly stopped being relevant? The Goths sacked Rome? Who the heck were the Goths, where did they come from before sacking Rome, and what happened to them afterwards? How exactly did a prophet from a tiny desert city manage to conquer like six big empires in half a century? Where was the entire rest of the vast and fertile American continent when the Aztecs and the Incas were building their civilizations? Did Russia just suddenly appear one day out of the aether?
The first time I got to read a better class of history book was Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe. I got it as a kid, probably figuring that as a cartoon it would be a light-hearted and funny treatment of history along the same lines as the ones I'd already read. I was absolutely wrong. Not only did it address all the background factors my school books had glossed over as "for economic reasons" or "because of internal struggle", but it expanded the scale by an order of magnitude.
Phoenicia. Armenia. Lombardy. Almoravids. The Kara-Khitan Khanate and the Black and White Sheep Turkmen. The Ghana Empire and Songhai. The Safavids, Vijayanagara. People and places I'd never heard of who were a big deal in their time.
And not only that. The Yellow Turban Rebellion killed more people than Vietnam; the White Lotus Rebellion killed as many people as World War One. The largest city in the world between the fall of Rome and the Industrial Revolution was Angkor, capital of the Khmer Empire in Cambodia. Ten percent of the Roman population was Jewish, and after the Diaspora the Jews revolted and massacred hundreds of thousands of Romans before being brought under control. There are giant pyramids in Missouri constructed by a Native American tribe no white man ever met who built cities larger than the great European capitals of the time. The Prime Minister of France asked to join Great Britain in the 1950s, but the British rejected his offer; Syria and Egypt did merge in the 1950s but broke apart a few years later.
And so on in that vein. The point is, I have grown used to unexpected history.
Still, I was surprised to learn that there had been an Native American empire larger in size than the Aztecs who soundly defeated the conquistadors, fought off the US Army for thirty years, and stayed independent until the 1870s right in the middle of the United States, and that I had never heard of them before.
Empire of the Summer Moon was a book about the Comanche Indians. They were not very advanced by "civilized" standards. They didn't build cities, farm crops, centralize government, or have any form of writing. The book argues, hard as it is to believe, that they didn't really even have any art or even a religion. They just rode around on horses hunting buffalo and starting wars. But they were really, really good at it. By the 1800s they had defeated virtually every other Indian tribe in the central United States and extended into modern Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Kansas, with their territory bordered by a ring of "vassal" tribes paying them tribute and functioning as a single economic unit.
In the 1600s and 1700s, the Spanish tried to expand northward from Mexico. They lost some horses, the horses started running wild over the Great Plains, the Comanches captured them and learned horsemanship, and then became so good at it that they actually pushed the Spanish back until finally the Spanish government gave up and promised them lucrative peace terms to leave them alone.
When Mexico took over from Spain and tried to colonize Texas, the Comanches beat them so soundly that they decided to get some "help" by inviting Anglo-Americans to come in and colonize, leading to the Texas revolt, the Mexican War, and so on. Through the first thirty years or so of American Texas, American control only extended through the eastern half of the state, with the western half being totally Comanche and almost totally unexplored. The border was so feared that places like Fort Worth, Texas were originally a line of actual forts intended to protect the Texans from Comanche raids.
These raids were probably the most disturbing part of the book. On the one hand, okay, the white people were trying to steal the Comanches' land and they had every right to be angry. On the other hand, the way the Comanches expressed that anger was to occasionally ride in, find a white village or farm or homestead, surround it, and then spend hours or days torturing everyone they found there in the most horrific possible ways before killing the men and enslaving the women and children. Sometimes people were scalped alive. The women would usually be gang-raped dozens of times, and then enslaved, carried off to Comanche territory, and gang-raped some more. Children were forced to watch as their parents were raped and tortured and killed, or vice versa.
Their favorite pastime was to find a remote farm somewhere, ride in dressed in full war gear, communicate some version of "Oh, hi, I know what this looks like but actually we're just stopping by, mind giving us a bite to eat?", enjoying a lavish feast put on by extremely nervous settlers, and then saying "Very good, in exchange for this feast we give you a five minute head start", then giving them five minutes to run away before riding them down and torture-killing the entire family in the manner described earlier.
On the other hand, the Comanches fit the classic pattern of hunter-gatherer civilizations of simultaneously being really mean to people outside the tribe while showing deep and heartfelt kindness to everyone within. We know this because sometimes if there were very young children, and the Comanches were feeling a bit low on headcount, they would capture the children and adopt them as full Comanches (after torture-killing the parents, of course) and some of these children would later grow up to write English-language books about their experience. But this practice definitely led to some awkward situations, and the book centers around one of them: the last great chief of the Comanches, Quanah, was half-white, the son of a Comanche chief and a Texan woman who had been captured when she was nine years old.
So there was a bit of traffic back and forth between America and Comancheria in the 19th century. White people being captured and raised by Comanches. The captives being recaptured years later and taken back into normal white society. Indians being defeated and settled on reservations and taught to adopt white lifestyles. And throughout the book's description of these events, there was one constant:
All of the white people who joined Indian tribes loved it and refused to go back to white civilization. All the Indians who joined white civilization hated it and did everything they could to go back to their previous tribal lives.
There was much to like about tribal life. The men had no jobs except to occasionally hunt some buffalo and if they felt courageous to go to war. The women did have jobs like cooking and preparing buffalo, but they still seemed to be getting off easy compared to the white pioneer women or, for that matter, women today. The whole culture was nomadic, basically riding horses wherever they wanted through the vast open plains without any property or buildings or walls. And everyone was amazingly good at what they did; the Comanche men were probably the best archers and horsemen in the history of history, and even women and children had wilderness survival and tracking skills that put even the best white frontiersmen to shame. It sounds like a life of leisure, strong traditions, excellence, and enjoyment of nature, and it doesn't surprise me that people liked it better than the awful white frontier life of backbreaking farming and endless religious sermons.
And the phenomenon of whites preferring the Indian lifestyle wasn't just limited to the Comanches of the 19th century. A paper by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture (I wonder if they're related to Steve) notes that:
"By the close of the colonial period, very few if any Indians had been transformed into civilized Englishmen. Most of the Indians who were educated by the English - some contemporaries thought all of them - returned to Indian society at the first opportunity to resume their Indian identities. Ont he other hand, large numbers of Englishmen had chosen to become Indians - by running away from colonial society to join Indian society, by not trying to escape after being captured, or by electing to remain with their Indian captors when treaties of peace periodically afforded them the opportunity to return home."
It then goes on to quote no less a figure than Benjamin Franklin, who had independently noticed the same phenomenon:
"When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language, and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. But when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoner young by the Indians, and lived a while with them, tho' ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them."
Now I know that idealizing the "noble savage" is a well-known and obvious failure mode. But I was struck by this and by the descriptions of white-Comanche interactions in the book. Whites who met Comanches would almost universally rave about how imposing and noble and healthy and self-collected and alive they seemed; there aren't too many records of what the Comanches thought of white people, but the few there are suggest they basically viewed us as pathetic and stunted and defective.
I remember when I was younger reading one of Ayn Rand's philosophy essay books. And she was talking about New Age return-to-nature aesthetic, and she commented on how ironic it was to see people who could build skyscrapers and fly to the moon venerating people who squatted in the mud and lived in squalid huts as their superiors. I remember being profoundly impressed by it at the time and considering it deep wisdom.
But now I think about it further and I realize that civilizations aren't people. We are not "people who can build skyscrapers and fly to the moon" - even if someone is the rare engineer who designs skyscrapers for a living, she might not have the slighest idea how to actually go about pouring concrete. And people who have actually met these cultures that live in huts in the mud have almost universally - because this isn't nearly the first time I've heard this - had an incredible respect for them as human beings even as they're disgusted by the primitiveness of their civilization.
And at the same time, I'm continuing to plod through my book review of Last Superstition and this Aristotelian idea of creatures living in accordance with their nature and creatures acting in unnatural ways and ending up morally defective. Feser keeps returning to his example of a defective squirrel that eats only toothpaste and doesn't want scurry around for acorns with the rest of them, and this has a suitably pathetic feel to it to be valuable.
I don't believe that there's some kind of objective, ontologically basic reality to this sort of "goodness by living properly in accordance with your nature", but it's hard not to notice that at least in some contigent, non-fundamental way, a squirrel that lived entirely off of toothpaste is pretty pathetic and not operating off of proper squirrel design specs.
And whenever these virtue ethicists try to think about the nature of humans, they come up with some kind of boring, exactly-what-they-were-doing-already idea of "Well, be a Christian and definitely don't have gay sex, and you should be fine." But Empire of the Summer Moon certainly made it sound - and I realize authors can be pretty good at pushing their viewpoint, but this didn't look deliberate and it was amply supported by quotes from the time - it certainly made it sound like the god-fearing non-gay-sex-having Texans were the toothpaste-eating squirrels and the Comanches were the ones who were dignified and wild and free and living "the good life" in the most Aristotelian sense of the term.
I have long wondered whether civilization was a mistake. If it was, it is not an easy mistake to avoid. The stubborn persistence of the Comanches aside, once civilized people with technology and professional armies start competing with less civilized people, the results are always going to be lopsided in civilization's favor. We might be at the bottom of a prisoner's dilemma, the descendants of people who defected from a happy equilibrium of hunting and gathering in order to gain a slight numerical and military advantage over their foes, only to end up with everyone large, well-armed, and miserable.
This is another reason I've always found some modern political philosophies so barren. There's no such thing as society and everyone has free choice over what kind of lifestyle they want? Tell that to the descendants of the Comanches. One of the most heartbreaking stories in the book follows a Comanche band after they'd been on the reservation a while. They protest they want to leave the reservation and go back to traditional life, and eventually the government relaxes and says to try it. They leave the reservation, and...nothing. Their sacred sites have all been bought by cattle ranchers. The wide open plains the once roamed are now dotted with barbed wire and villages. The buffalo they once hunted are now almost extinct. They slink back onto the reservation in despair and stay there until they die.
One of my hopes for the future is that someone figures out how to combine the aspects of hunter-gatherer life that seem so important for proper human development with some of the advances we've had since then, like medicine and technology and science and not torture-killing people and having some idea what's going on. Barring something unexpected like the Change, I admit this is probably going to have to wait for post-singularity. Right now there's no way out of civilization but through it.
But getting back to the book. The Comanches resisted the white settlers effectively for about thirty years, mostly because of their greater knowledge of and adaptedness to the Plains environment. It didn't hurt that until about the Civil War, the Comanches' bows-and-arrows were actually better technology than the settlers' guns, since the latter were really difficult to reload and by the time a settler had finished he was usually already shot through with arrows. It got so bad that during the Civil War, the frontier actually was pushed back hundreds of miles and white people had to evacuate several hundred miles worth of Texas. After the Civil War, the US government had lots of soldiers it didn't really know what to do with and decided to turn them on the Comanche "problem".
One area where the book excelled was in describing the "treaties" the US government would sign with the Indians. I'd always known that the US government had a shameful record of constantly breaking these treaties whenever it saw the least advantage of doing so. I hadn't been aware that the Indians did pretty much the same thing. The treaties were pretty much a farce on both sides: usually the Indian "chief" who signed them was just some local war leader with a really big eagle-feather headdress whom the clueless whites assumed must be "in charge" of the Indian tribe because obviously every group of people must have a centralized government with exactly one person at the head.
The treaties worked out pretty well for both sides, in a sense. The white politicians would trumpet the achievement of solving the constant struggle with the Indians. The "chief" would go back to his village with a lot of manufactured goods the Americans had given him as bribes/"rewards" for being such a good negotiating partner. It was a win-win situation, unless you actually cared about peace or a just an equitable outcome, in which case it was a disaster.
The book admitted it wasn't always clear which was the chicken and which was the egg here. Did the Comanches ignore the treaties because they knew that the whites would break them anyway? It pointed out that they did stick pretty exactly to the letter of their peace treaty with the Spanish for several centuries. But overall it seemed like a classic case of politics going stupid on both sides.
And about politics...I don't know what the Bureau of Indian Affairs is like today, but back in the days when there were actual not-on-reservation Indians, it was the archetype of every corrupt and villainous group of scheming bureaucrats you've ever heard about. Their modus operandi was to find some Indians who were in a conflict with the US, promise them lots of gifts and food if they would give up their land and move to a reservation, laugh hysterically when the Indians agreed, and then pocket the money the government gave them to buy gifts and food and let the Indians starve to death. At one point it got so bad that the government decided to fire all the Indian Affairs people and replace them with Quakers, on the grounds that Quakers seemed trustworthy, but the Quakers had no idea what was going on and were totally pacifist which just made the whole situation worse.
And the Bureau of Indian Affairs was an equal opportunity thing-screwer-upper. Not only were they horribly unfair to the Indians, but they caused the deaths of a lot of white settlers as well. Part of the government treaty with the Indians said that the government wouldn't send the army onto Indian reservations and kill Indians there, because obviously that defeated the whole point of an Indian reservation. This was probably a good policy with peaceful friendly Indians like the Creek, but when the Comanche heard about it, several Comanche bands "surrendered" and agreed to go on reservations, then used them as a base for their raids, assuming (correctly!) that once they reached their reservation the army couldn't do anything about it. This went on for like a decade with dozens of white people being killed in these raids, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs just sort of said "Sheesh, we got them to go on reservations and you guys are still complaining? We're just going to sit here and do nothing."
So the history of white-Comanche relations was basically one long tragedy in which both sides competed to see who could be a bigger piece of crap to the other, with the whites eventually winning (we usually do in these kinds of things).
But the highlight, and the only part that wasn't totally depressing, was the story of Quanah, the half-white last chief of the Comanches. He tried to organize the Comanches into a glorious last stand, and he did pretty well for himself, but when it became obvious it wasn't working he surrendered and went to the reservation with his tribe. And even though the entire rest of his nation basically got confused and depressed and fell apart, Quanah had this bizarre philosophy of "better make the best of a bad situation", learned how to play American politics, made himself rich, and then spent the rest of his life doing awesome stuff like founding the peyote movement among Native Americans, traveling the country, going hunting with President Roosevelt, and last but definitely not least, marrying seven wives.
Overall I liked this book. It made a not-very-good decision to meander back and forth around history instead of going in an easy-to-follow straight line, but I forgive it. It was sort of romantic, alternately sensationalizing the Comanches as murderous psychopaths and idealizing them as noble and free, but sometimes the world really is romantic, and you don't get extra points for trying to make it sound boring. And it shed light on a part of history that was apparently pretty important for the American West and about which I had previously been entirely unaware.