Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Empire of the Summer Moon

When I was growing up Westerns were popular tv fare. Of course, there was Bonanza and Gunsmoke. Wyatt Earp and Kit Carson were heroes in our younger days. The Indians were "redskins" or savages and were always causing trouble for the white settlers who were just trying to make a new life out on the western frontier. There was Tonto, of course, who was the best sidekick a white man could have. But he was an exception to the general rule of Indian - White Man relationships. "The only good injun is a dead one" was the code of the west, we learned. Like so many things - as you grow up - this was a little more than a fairy tale compared to the way things really were. S.C. Gwynne's book Empire of the Summer Moon sets the record straight. You won't watch a Western the same way again. In fact, it would hard to watch one that was attempting to deal honestly with the facts. Gwynn is a journalist and he presents the facts as unbiased as he can. His book is about the last of the Indian Wars on the Texas frontier in the 1800's. In his broad retelling of this story he weaves a smaller tale about the white woman, Cynthia Parker, who was captured by the Comanches and eventually became the wife of a Comanche chief. One of their sons, Quanah, was the last great Comanche chief. It was a brutal war. The Comanche's life was centered on Buffalo hunting and warfare. They were the best horsemen on the plains. As the Plains became smaller and smaller, and as the Buffalo were hunted to near extinction they found themselves herded onto reservations. The Great White Father had decided they would become farmers and he allocated every man some land to live on. With no Buffalo to hunt, with really nothing to do, the proud Comanche languished. More than most, Quanah could see the future of Indian - White relations. He reluctantly let go of some of the traditional Indian ways and adapted to the white man's view of the Indian's future. He made himself indispensable as a mediator, scout, and businessman in the brisk sale of cattle. Eventually, he built a ten room home on the prairie where he could entertain Indians and Whites together. It seemed hopeful. But there were not many Quanahs - most of the Indians were homeless, jobless, and dependent on the guarantees of the US government. And those were not worth the paper they were printed on. Soon the brisker trade between Indians and Whites was in alcohol traded for the meager skins the Indians were still able to produce. Meanwhile, Cynthia had been recaptured by US government soldiers and "saved" from her tragic life as an Indian squaw. Even though she protested loudly that she only wanted to go back (she had seen these same soldiers kill her husband) to the Comanche way of life. She became so miserable and hard to control people figured her life as an Indian had made her crazy. She was moved farther and farther East away from her land and her adopted people. Her son, Quanah, met President Teddy Roosevelt once. He visited Washington and advised the government on Indian matters. But, like his mother, no one really trusted that an Indian knew what he (or she) was talking about.