Written by Tana Guerra
American Indians have fascinated me since I was a child. Their lives, so different
from mine, seemed much more special than my own. I had no idea that they once lived on
the ground where my house now stood. I would pretend to be an Indian in my backyard,
their old haunting grounds, whooping and hollering movie-style. I also didn’t know that my
idea of Indians was just that, Hollywoodized. Almost everything I knew about Indians was
from television, my young friends, or schoolbooks that did not depict them in their true
As I grew into an adolescent, and then an adult, my view of Indians changed. They
were no longer only fictional characters to be mimicked during outdoor play. Indians
were real people who practiced peace, loved nature, and were cruelly victimized by white
settlers. I became angry at the thought of their land being taken from them and turned into
the dream of greedy warmongers. I still had only part of the picture.
It isn’t until I read S.C. Gwynne’s book, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker
and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian tribe in American History,
that I experienced a solid understanding of American Indians—or at least the Comanches —
and their various tribes. Gwynne paints a picture that is more realistic than any other book
or article I have read in the past. I have always read more about the Comanches’ spiritual
rituals, love and association with animals, and their plight as the perceived scourge of
America. Gwynne taught me that the Comanche way of life always included violent tribal
warfare. They fought with other tribes to gain control of land, animals, and women. Most
Comanche tribes were brutal, torturous, and unmerciful. There were a few non-nomadic
tribes that meant harm to no one, but in general, Comanches wanted power. They took that
power by raiding the lands and homes of other tribes, including their own. Violent raiding
is one of the reasons they became the most powerful tribe in American history.
I also learned that several other of my ideas about Indians were false. In the
Comanche culture there were no Indian chiefs—no central power from whom Indians
gained their wisdom or rights. Each tribe was left to handle life as each saw fit. Until
Quanah Parker became an adult following in the white man’s ways, the idea of a Comanche
chief was almost non-existent. The Comanches did not practice a Sun Dance, nor were
their maidens fair-skinned with long flowing locks, beautiful faces, or calm demeanors.
The women were as brutal as the men when it came to showing others who was in control.
Many tribes were disease ridden and lice infested because there were no sanitary practices
to follow. Overall, I learned that the Indian way of life was a hard life. Their lives were
scattered with trials and tribulations I will never fully understand. Especially the life of
Cynthia Ann Parker, the famous white woman who was kidnapped from her family and
assimilated into the Comanche culture. She and her son, Quanah Parker, are the main focus
of Gwynne’s book. The story of Cynthia Ann and Quanah almost reads like a Hollywood
movie. The events that took place seem too horrid to be real, yet they are. Cynthia Ann
married a Comanche man named Peta Nokona and had 3 children, Quanah being one of
them. Quanah moved on to become the greatest Comanche chief in history.
The more I read, the more insight I gained. Gwynne debunked many myths for me
and replaced them with real insight into the Comanche culture. They were not always the
peaceful people many like to imagine. I no longer pity them as a helpless, victimized people.
I now see them as great warriors, able to defend themselves for many years against the
white mans’ attacks. They were built for perseverance. It took white settlers centuries to
almost completely wipe them off the face of the earth. Other raiders and conquistadors
before the white settlers could not defeat the Indians even with their massive forces.
Whatever your belief about Comanches, Gwynne’s book is helpful in taking a true look at
their lives. He is unabashed in his retelling of the Comanches. Many parts of the book are
ugly and hard to read. Many parts I wish were not true. Yet, so much of history is ugly and
brutal that what I read did not surprise me at all.
Overall, this book is an interesting read. The title is somewhat misleading, as I
learned more about the Comanche tribe as a whole opposed to learning more about
Quanah Parker, but I am glad that a modern author has finally given readers a brutally
honest look at the Comanche tribe and their role in American history.