Death by Analogy: Custer, Quanah and the Celts

The June 13, 2010 NYTimes Book Review caught my eye because it has a picture from a “ledger book” drawings, and a review of two books with a subject from the American West. Could have knocked me over with a feather—and on the cover of the NYTimes Book Review!

They are The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, by Nathaniel Philbrick, and Empire of the Summer Moon, Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History.
Full disclosure: I haven’t read these books, but I became curious about how these histories are rediscovered and repackaged for current audiences, more particularly, how the authors and reviewers present these new packages to the reading public.

USA Today (4/30/2010) reviewed The Last Stand as “a definitive history” of the event.

The author in his USA Today interview states that “no one can tell the definite story.”

Snarky historian says: Ok, is it or isn’t it? History is by definition not definitive. That’s why we re-write textbooks and crank out dissertations.

Philbrick admits he had succumbed to what he calls ‘a wonderfully seductive myth,’ and states that “for historians in search of a perfect character,” Custer is your man. Philbrick states that he wanted to tell a story ‘in a way that was sympathetic to everyone,’ and his reexamination of the evidence led him to conclude ‘[no one can tell definite story,]…[Y]ou just have to take in all the evidence and go with it.’

Snarky historian says: Ok, where are we going with it? Why be a fence-sitter and be sympathetic to everyone? Every story needs a villain! (Ok, found it—see below)

Last, but not least, Philbrick muses & the review comments, “It was ‘the last stand’ for the Lakotas, too,’” in “referring to the government’s often brutal efforts to round up Native Americans and remove them from their land after Custer’s defeat.”

Snarky historian says: Ah, a villain. That damn government—who are these awful guys?

They were western farmers, cattlemen, ranchers, and miners who wanted to clear the land of those, as someone put it, “found cumbering the land.” They were those humanitarian do-gooders who wanted the Indians settled on reservations, Christianized and turned into farmers as a more humane, and dare one say Christian, way of dealing—besides extermination—with nomadic, hunting tribes caught in the middle of an expanding, industrialized nation. They were kind of sort of like – us.

Philbrick’s website states that the story of the Little Bighorn military disaster “continues to haunt collective imagination,” and Philbrick refers to his experiences as a “book that gave me a whole new perspective on what it is to be an American.”

Snarky historian asks: Does the demise of Custer and a portion of the 7th cavalry really continue to haunt American imagination? One could argue that America’s collective imagination is pretty much not haunted by anything.

And what does studying Indian wars contribute to our understanding of what it is to be an American?

Full disclosure: Years ago (ehm, very many years ago), my friend and I drove to the Custer battlefield. The place was empty except for us, students of Western history. We walked the ground, aware of the vastness of the place, and the wind.
Neither of us are experts on military tactics and frankly we were not interested in who-came-from-where-or-didn’t. But we were both struck by one glaringly obvious thing: you couldn’t see what was over the top of the next hill.

What we concluded was that Custer was essentially trying to pass a car on an uphill. I have no idea if that was a correct impression and again, I don’t care. But I know one thing: Custer underestimated his opposition.

And I do remember that my friend and I went back to our car and drove back to civilization, feeling very, very sad.

Those who are not familiar with the aftermath of Little Big Horn may benefit from reading C. Frank Turner Across the Medicine Line (1973), and subsequent studies of these events from the American and the Canadian Wests.
PS: The Lakotas’ last stand was at Wounded Knee, when the 7th was finally triumphant.

Let’s turn to the Comanches. Below is a portion of S. C. Gwynne’s interview about Empire of the Summer Moon.

On rewriting history to leave out Native American atrocities

“There was even an attempt at one point to deny that Indians were warlike. Comanches were incredibly warlike. They swept everyone off the Southern plains. They nearly exterminated the Apaches. And you know, if you look at the Comanches and you look back in history at Goths and Vikings or Mongols or Celts — old Celts are actually a very good parallel. In a lot of ways, I think we’re looking back at earlier versions of ourselves. We — being white European — did all of those things. Not only that but torture was institutionalized during things like the Counter-Reformation and the Spanish Inquisition and the Russian Revolution.”

On how male Comanches became warriors

“The Comanches were kind of like the Spartans. Because of their incredible military mastery, which derived from the horse — they were the prototype horse tribe, the tribe that could do more with the horse than any other tribe could. Because of that, it was a military community and their old way of life was supplanted by the new way of life which mainly had to do with war. So they pretty much hunted buffalo … and started war. And they were amazingly stripped down in that they didn’t have social organization or religious organization. They didn’t weave baskets. They had a very stripped-down culture. So within that culture the boys learned to hunt and ride at a very early age and they would become a warrior in their midteens.”

Snarky historian says: Whoa–what are we trying to say here?

Gwynne seems to assert that the Comanches didn’t have social organization (that may come as a surprise to the Comanches, but I digress). But then the argument seems to be that the Comanches had created an empire. Empires usually involve a social organization …but again I digress.)

The reviewer, Bruce Barcott, makes the following point in his review of Empire of the Summer Moon:

”’s not just a biography. It’s a forceful argument about the place of Native American tribes in geopolitical history. The word ‘nation’ is sometimes used today to refer to a specific tribe, and it can be confusing to non-Indians. Does it mean a belonging, like Red Sox nation? Or state power, like Germany? The Comanche of the 1800s were truly a nation more like Germany. And you crossed them at your peril.”

Snarky historian says: Ok, what are we trying to say here? That the Comanches didn’t have social organization, but that they were an empire, and they were a nation even though they were actually a state power—like Germany?

Why Germany? Those who know the history of German statehood may be puzzled by that comparison. Germany wasn’t unified as a “state” as we understand it today until l870, and was known as an empire from 1871 to 1918. Then it became the Weimar Republic….but I digress.

Historical analogies are difficult to make, especially if one is not terribly familiar with either subject matter. It’s quite a feat to refer to the Spartans, the Vandals, Goths, Mongols, Celts, Comanches, the Counter-Reformation, the Spanish Inquisition, and Germany all in one sweep.

The question is, does the reader understand all of these references? Does the author understand them? Were the Comanches “kind of like the Spartans?” In many ways, they were kind of like not, weren’t they?

And what about those basket weavers? The Comanches (and other plains tribes) are kind of like a boy’s fantasy, aren’t they? They are warriors on horseback, with guns, and bows, and lances. And they steal women, even white women. Not like those basket weaving Indians.

So, we ask, what does studying Indian wars contribute to our understanding of what it is to be an American? What does writing about them contribute to our understanding of our understanding of them?

But do not despair: pick up the magnificent Ride the Wind by Lucia St. Clair Robson which details the story of Cynthia Ann Parker and the Comanches.

So what’s next—Geronimo’s skull?

About Hana Samek Norton

I am a historian who writes 'history with a story' in off-duty hours.
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