Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Review: "Empire of the Summer Moon"

Subtitled: "Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History."*

I'll start off by saying that I'm not familiar enough with the history of the American Indians to judge this book by its relative merits.  It may well be the worst history of the Indians ever published.  Ignorance is bliss, sometimes.

Nevertheless, I quite liked it. 

I picked up this book in Denver International Airport.  One of the things I like about flying is picking books out of the airport book stores.  I'll confess, I'm pretty cloistered from popular culture.  I mostly ignore it, and the notion of following the NYT bestseller list to find things to read fills me with ennui.

But the book stores at airports present you with the creme de la creme of pop culture, as it were.  And there's always something really good.

The Comanche are an interesting intersection of the two primary topics of this blog: barefoot running, and the paleo diet.  Barefoot running because the Comanche rose to prominence by abandoning it, and adopting the horse wholesale, and mastering bareback riding.  The paleo diet because the Comanche lived on buffalo, and rioted when they finally were consigned to the reservation, and were unable to get enough buffalo to live on.  Maggoty white flour:  Ick.  Who can blame them? 

From page 48:

"Buffalo was the food the Comanches loved more than any other.  They ate steaks cooked over open fires or boiled in copper kettles.  They cut the meat thin, dried it, and stored it for the winter and took it on long trips.  They ate the kidneys and the paunch.  Children would rush up to a freshly killed animal, begging for its liver and gallbladder.  They would then squirt the salty bile from the gallbladder onto the liver and eat it on the spot, warm and dripping blood.  If a slain female was giving milk, Comanches would cut into the udder bag and drink the milk mixed with warm blood.  One of the greatest delicacies was the warm curdled milk from the stomach of a suckling calf.  If warriors were on the trail and short of water, they might drink the warm blood of the buffalo straight from its veins.  Entrails were sometimes eaten, stripped of their contents by using two fingers. (If fleeing pursuers, a Comanche would ride his horse till it dropped, cut it open, removed [sic] wrap them around his neck, and take off on a fresh horse, eating their contents later.)  In the absence of buffalo, Comanches would eat whatever was at hand: dry-land terrapins, thrown live into the fire, eaten from the shell with a horned spoon; all manner of small game, even horses if they hand to though they did not, like the Apaches, prefer them.  They did not eat fish or birds unless they were starving.  They never ate the heart of the buffalo."
Some paragraph, huh?  Welcome to the Stone Age.

This is an interesting story, since it puts the lie to one of the main paleo tales, that eating dairy is a product of the agricultural revolution.  Clearly it far predates that, since the Comanches had to be introduced to agriculture at the point of a gun.  One can pretty clearly understand how some bright Maasai finally figured out, "Hey, if we don't kill the cow, but milk it and bleed it, we can eat a lot more!"

The next pertinent bit (there was a lot of interest, actually) was on page 230:
"The agent of the betrayal was the Office of Indian Affairs, one of the most corrupt, venal, and incompetent government agencies in American history."
Wow.  That's some statement.  There's pretty tough competition.  The Office of Indian Affairs was so bad that the Feds finally decided to turn the Indians over to the Quakers, since they were at least honest.  No judge whined about "establishment of religion", since back then judges actually read the Constitution.  What one realizes on reading this is that the Feds haven't treated the white man any better than they've treated the red man.  But the white man has a bigger vote, so they hide their duplicity better.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the history of the United States.  It casts a gimlet eye on the Indians, the Feds, and pretty much everything else that passes before it.

Any romantic notions that you have about the paleo age will be pretty quickly dashed as well.  I might appreciate the nutritional value of the diet, but I can't imagine how I'd get my daughters to eat raw liver seasoned with bile.  The mind reels.

But at the end it's a profoundly sad book.  No one comes off well, not the Indians, the Americans, or the Mexicans.  We're a sad lot, we humans, and often unspeakably cruel to each other.  However you nevertheless wind up respecting all of them.  I'd not want to be captured by the Comanches, but I finished the book with a profound respect for them.

Making that clear, it's an excellent work of History.

My biggest complaint about the book was that the author either did not read 1491, or did not draw a number of obvious conclusions that would have enriched this book.  Clearly one of the reasons that the Comanche, who were an inconsequential tribe for most of their history, were able to rise to prominence was because the more advanced agricultural tribes were wiped out by European diseases.  Having read 1491, the point jumped out at me, but the author never mentioned it.

*S. C. Gwynne, Scribners, 2010.