Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hamalainen

This week I'm returning once again to a stack of history books which I picked up when a colleague of mine was moving and needed to get rid of a ton of books. (Books can get downright heavy, man!) Anyway, among the tomes I selected for my self-improvement was The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hamalainen. (And sorry in advance for not getting all the proper accent marks. I unfortunately do not know how to do that.) As I have only a very vague knowledge of Native American history, learning history from a Euro-centric point of view, I figured this would be a very good text to help expand my knowledge of American history as well as the Southwest. (Plus, another one of my work colleagues has some Comanche ancestry so she recommended this book to me as well.)

Hamalainen begins with the very noble goal of revising our understanding of history, especially in the American Southwest, which has often been depicted as a region between the borders of two large colonial empires, first France and Spain, and later the United States and Mexico. If the Comanches are mentioned at all, it is usually in passing and as a reference to their savagery and violence. Hamalainen attempts to tell the Comanche story from their own perspective, although even he admits that this is a challenging task. Traditional historical methods rely largely on written documents for source material, something many indigenous cultures across the globe did not leave behind, resulting in the Euro-centric view of much of history. Hamalanien does utilize numerous documents, but has also delved into oral histories, anthropological research, and a variety of other stories to create a more complete and accurate picture, however Hamalanien admits that not even his treatment is complete and future analysis may prove more accurate.

However the main objective, which Hamalainen readily achieves, is the depiction of Comanches as actors in their own right within the American Southwest rather than passive reactors to the actions of European imperial and colonial powers. Hamalanien successfully explains how Comanches were able to play a grand diplomatic game with other major powers for their own benefit, as well as engage in trading and warfare depending upon their own needs and larger political objectives. Really my only quibble is Hamalanien's decision to call this Comanche organization an empire. While definitely grand in scope and behaving economically and militarily as an empire, the Comanches never had the strong, centralized government apparatus that is the hallmark of empires across the globe and history. Yes, the Comanches included many ethnic groups within their fold, and yes they were able to utilize military and economic power to their benefit in negotiations with other polities, but at the end of the day there was no central unification.

Hamalainen does go into great detail about the political structure of the Comanches and while there were large tribe-level and even nation-level meetings, Comanche social structure tended to be more a confederation of many smaller groups. To me, it's sort of like saying that the Vikings had an empire. Strictly speaking, no they did not. Yes, they were able to launch successful raids throughout much of Europe, and they had great economic, military, and even political influence throughout many parts of Europe, but there was no single centralized "Viking" government. At most the Vikings were a loose confederation, but more likely it was a larger Northern European culture with shared values. The Comanches certainly seem to be more tightly-knit than the Vikings, but I'd say they're a successful confederation rather than an out and out empire. Ultimately, of course, this is an argument over semantics, but that's what keeps historians going.

Overall I rather liked this book. Although I may not gain any immediate benefit by expanding my knowledge about the Comanches in the American Southwest, I'm sure there are plenty of people who will find this a useful resource. Plus, I am always in favor of expanding knowledge, especially in areas that may have been largely neglected beforehand.

- Kalpar

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