Comanche Indian Tribe

Published on October 25, 2010 by John

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Comanche portraits
Comanche portraits

The tribal name Comanche, pronounced cuh-MANchee, possibly is derived from the Spanish camino ancho for “main road”, or from the UTE komon’teia or kohmaths for “one who wants to fight me”. The Comanche name is Nermurnuh (Nimenim, Ne-me-ne, Nuumu) for “true human being”. Comanche bands included the Kewatsana, Kotsai, Kwahadie, Motsai, Nokoni, Patgusa, Penateka, Pohoi, Tanima, Wasaih, and Yamparika.

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Migrations

The Uto-Aztecan language of the Comanche is similar to that of the SHOSHONE. It is thought that sometime during the 1600s the Comanche separated from the Shoshone in territory that is now Wyoming and migrated southward along the eastern face of the Rocky Mountains. Sometime in the late 1600s, they gained use of the horse, perhaps through raids or in trade with PUEBLO INDIANS, who had acquired horses from the Spanish. By 1719, the Comanche were in present-day Kansas. During the 1700s and 1800s, as horse-mounted hunters and raiders, they roamed through territory that now includes Texas, eastern New Mexico, western Oklahoma, southwestern Kansas, southeastern Colorado, and northern Mexico. Even the warlike APACHE, whose territory in New Mexico the Comanche first invaded in about 1740, could not contain them.

Lifeways

Because of their wide range, the Comanche helped spread horses through trade to more northern PLAINS INDIANS. Through much of their history, they raided white settlements and other tribes to steal horses. They also tracked wild mustangs. The Comanche became skilled horse breeders and trainers and maintained huge herds, more than any other tribe.

Both boys and girls were given their first mounts when they were only four or five years old. Boys worked hard to become skillful riders; then, as teenagers and young men, they used these skills in warfare. A Comanche rider, galloping at full speed, could lean over to use his horse as a shield while he shot arrows from under its neck. He could also rescue a fallen friend by pulling him up onto his horse while in motion.Comanche horses were so well-trained, in fact, that they responded to spoken and touch commands. Girls also became accomplished riders. When they grew up, they went antelope hunting with the men. As was the case with other tribes of the Great Plains Culture Area, horses enabled the Comanche to travel great distances in pursuit of the buffalo herds, which the Plains Indians relied on for food, clothing, bedding, and shelter. The Comanche lived in temporary villages of buffalo-hide tipis year-round, following the buffalo migrations when necessary.

Wars for the Southern Plains It is estimated that, in proportion to their numbers, the Comanche killed more non-Indians than any other tribe. The Spanish were the first Europeans to try to contend with them, but without much success. Comanche riders rode hundreds of miles to launch surprise attacks on Spanish settlements for horses, slaves, and other booty. In fact, the Comanche presence helped prevent the Spanish from extensively developing the Texas region. During the 1700s, the Spanish managed to establish and maintain only a few missions there, such as the one at San Antonio in 1718.

In about 1790, the Comanche allied themselves with the KIOWA, another tribe of the southern plains, who had settled directly to the north of them. In about 1840, they also united in a loose confederacy with the southern branches of the CHEYENNE and ARAPAHO, who also lived to their north. In 1821, Mexico achieved independence from Spain, and part of the territory falling under Mexican rule was Texas. In the following years, more and more Mexican American and Anglo-American settlers arrived in Texas. Many died at the hands of the Comanche. The Comanche also attacked travelers heading to New Mexico from Missouri on the Santa Fe Trail. Comanche warriors even attacked soldiers who dared to enter their territory. For example, in 1829, a Comanche war party attacked an army wagon train that had been sent out under Major Bennett Riley to explore the Santa Fe Trail.

In 1835, the Texas Revolution against Mexican rule erupted. The next year, the famous battle of the Alamo occurred. It was during this revolution that the Texas Rangers were organized. Their principal function during the 10 years of the Texas Republic, and after the annexation of Texas by the United States in 1845, was to protect settlers from attacks by hostile Indians, in particular the Comanche. During the 1830s, the Comanche had the upper hand, defeating the Texas Rangers in several battles. In the Council House Affair of 1838, the Rangers tried to seize a tribal delegation who had come to San Antonio for negotiations concerning the release of white captives. A fight broke out and 35 Comanche were killed. Other warriors under Chief Buffalo Hump took their revenge in raids on white settlements as far south as the Gulf of Mexico.

During the 1840s, the Rangers fared somewhat bet-ter in their encounters with the Comanche because John Coffee Hays, a strict disciplinarian, was in charge, and new guns, Walker Colt six-shooters, were used. The Battle of Bandera Pass in 1841 proved a standoff. Yet the Comanche lost few men in battle. White diseases, especially a cholera epidemic in 1849–50, carried by travelers heading westward during  the California gold rush, exacted a much heavier toll on the Comanche.

From 1849 to 1852, after Texas had become part of the United States, federal troops moved in to build a chain of seven forts from the Red River to the Rio Grande to help police the frontier. In 1853, officials in Kansas negotiated the Fort Atkinson Treaty with southern plains tribes to protect the Santa Fe Trail. Yet many Comanche bands kept up their raids.In 1854, the federal government placed some Comanche and Kiowa on one of two reservations on the Brazos River. The Indians, however, did not take to the sedentary lifestyle forced upon them. In 1859, the Brazos River reservations were abandoned.

A new offensive was launched in 1858 by both Texas Rangers and army regulars, who engaged the Comanche north of the Red River in the Indian Territory and in Kansas. The Texas Rangers fought the Comanche in the Battle of Antelope Hills. Then the army’s Wichita Expedition fought the Battle of Rush Springs against Buffalo Hump’s band and next the Battle of Crooked Creek. Despite some losses in these battles, the powerful Comanche and Kiowa would continue their resistance to non-Indian settlement on the southern plains for almost 20 more years.

During the Civil War years, from 1861 to 1865, when federal troops went east to fight against the Confederacy, the Comanche took advantage of the situation to step up their campaign of raiding. The Confederates even supplied the Comanche with guns, trying to encourage their support against Union soldiers. The only offensive against the Comanche during this period was by troops under Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson, who had previously fought Apache and NAVAJO in New Mexico. In 1864, Carson’s men fought the Comanche at the first Battle of Adobe Walls on the Staked Plain of the Texas Panhandle, driving them off with howitzer cannon and burning their winter supply of food. During the post–Civil War years, the army launched new campaigns to pacify the southern plains.

One of these was the Sheridan Campaign. Most of the action was against Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho, but General Philip Henry Sheridan’s southern column fought Comanche and KIOWA at the Battle of Soldier Spring on Christmas Day in 1868. The soldiers drove the Indians away, burned their tipis, and destroyed their food supplies. By the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867, a new reservation had been established for the Comanche and Kiowa in the southern part of the Indian Territory between the Washita and Red Rivers. But both peoples refused to be confined on reservations. They had been nomadic hunters and raiders for generations and resisted giving up their traditional way of life.

Yet time was running out for them. The 1870s saw the last uprising of the Comanche and Kiowa. It also saw the end of the great buffalo herds. During this last period of bitter fighting, a great Comanche chief, Quanah Parker, would become famous.

Quanah Parker was of mixed ancestry; his white mother, Cynthia Parker, had been kidnapped in 1836 as a nine-year-old by CADDO Indians, who then traded her to the Comanche. As a teenager, she had been taken as the wife of the Comanche chief Peta Nocona of the Nocona band. She had become a dedicated Comanche, preferring their way of life to that of her blood relatives.

Quanah, the son of Cynthia and Peta, also grew up favoring the Comanche way of life. As a young boy, he proved himself by his horsemanship, bravery, and leadership. He reportedly came to hate whites, who were responsible for destroying his family. First, his father died from a wound inflicted by whites. Then his mother was captured by soldiers and returned to the white world. She died soon afterward, never having adjusted to the separation from her adopted people. Next, Quanah’s brother died of a white disease. On his own now, Quanah joined the powerful Kwahadie band of Comanche who lived in the Texas Panhandle. In 1867, only 15 years old, he became one of their chiefs.

The final phase of the combined Comanche and Kiowa wars began in 1871 with Kiowa attacks on travel-ers along the Butterfield Southern Route (or Southern Overland Trail), leading from St. Louis through the Southwest to California. In retaliation, General William Tecumseh Sherman sent the Fourth Cavalry under Colonel Ranald Mackenzie into Kiowa and Comanche country. They swept through the reservation, then invaded the Staked Plain of the Texas Panhandle.It was here the army first became aware of Quanah Parker. The fearless young leader personally led two charges against the cavalry. In the first, he and his warriors rode right through the army camp at Rock Station, stampeding and capturing many of their horses. In the second, he led a rout of a scouting party. The teenager personally killed and scalped a soldier.

Although military expeditions against the Comanche and Kiowa had so far been unsuccessful, another activity threatened the Native way of life. Before 1870, white hunters had killed buffalo only during the winter when their furs were long. But then a new tanning process was developed that enabled furriers to make short-hair hides workable as well, leading to year-round hunting. Furthermore, by the 1870s, white hunters were armed with new kinds of guns, high-powered telescopic rifles effective at a range of 600 yards. The animals, essential to the Plains Indians economy, were now being slaughtered at a furious pace.

When the hunters entered the Staked Plain and set up camp at the abandoned trading post of Adobe Walls, where Comanche and Kiowa had fought Kit Carson’s men a decade before, Quanah Parker called a council of war. He even had his warriors hold a Sun Dance, which was not a traditional Comanche custom, so that Cheyenne and Arapaho from the neighboring reservation would participate. Preparations were made for an attack. In June 1874, Quanah Parker led his sizable force against the buffalo hunters at Adobe Walls. This was the start of the Red River War of 1874–75, sometimes also called the Buffalo War. Despite their overwhelming numbers, the allied Indians were repelled by the repeater rifles of the buffalo hunters.

In the following months, Comanche and Kiowa warriors, with some Cheyenne and Arapaho, carried out numerous raids on settlements. But then General Philip Henry Sheridan launched a massive offensive with troops out of Texas, Kansas, and New Mexico under two experienced Indian fighters, Colonels Ranald Mackenzie and Nelson Miles. They kept up pressure on the militant bands, finally dealing a crushing blow to the Indians in September at their stronghold in Palo Duro Canyon. The soldiers managed to kill most of the Indians’ horses and destroy most of their tipis.

With relentless pursuit by the soldiers, the freedom fighters, weary and half-starved, began trickling in to the army posts to surrender. The last of the Kiowa militants held out until February 1875. Quanah Parker and his Comanche warriors turned themselves in the following June.

The Peyote Road

Quanah Parker’s influence on Indian history was not over, however. He quickly adapted to the reservation life. He taught himself the ways of the Euroamericans, such as the laws governing the leasing of lands and rights of way, and he made deals with non-Indian investors for the benefit of his people.

Quanah Parker also played a major role in spreading a new religion to Native Americans of many tribes. This religion involved the use of the peyote cactus, which grows in northern Mexico, especially along the Rio Grande valley. The Indians cut off the rounded top of the plant, dried it, and made it into a “peyote button”. When eaten raw or brewed into a tea, the buttons create a heightening of the senses, a feeling of well-being, and visions. Earlier Comanche had probably helped spread the use of peyote northward when they brought back knowledge of the plant and its properties after raids in Mexico.Quanah Parker discovered what is known as the Peyote Road, or the use of peyote for religious purposes, sometime after 1890, following the collapse of the Ghost Dance Religion associated with events at Wounded Knee that involved the SIOUX (DAKOTA, LAKOTA, NAKOTA). His work and that of other peyotists, such as Big Moon of the Kiowa, led to the spread of peyote use among Indians of the plains, Southwest, prairies, and Great Lakes and the eventual founding of a church. Quanah Parker died in 1911, revered by Indians of many tribes. In 1918, the Native American Church was chartered. This organized religion incorporated certain Christian beliefs and practices with the sacramental use of peyote. Oklahoma Territory tried to ban the use of peyote in 1899 as did some states in later years, but after 1934 and the new policy of Tribal Restoration and Reorganization, no more official attempts were made at suppression. By the 1930s, about half the Indian population in the United States belonged to the church. Today, the Native American Church still plays a central role in Indian religion and the fight for Indian rights.

Contemporary Comanche The Comanche Nation as well as individual tribal members have holdings in Caddo, Comanche, Cotton, Grady, Kiowa, Tillman, and Washita Counties in Oklahoma. Tribal members earn a living in a wide range of professions. Farming and the leasing of mineral rights provide income for some. The tribe operates several gaming facilities, creating additional revenue for tribal members. Many Comanche strive to preserve traditions, including language, song, and dance. The annual Comanche Homecoming Powwow is one of the largest in the area, with tribal members scattered throughout the United States returning for the event. Tribal members sponsor other events with neighboring Kiowa and Apache.

One Comanche woman who has made a difference in the ongoing struggle for Native American rights and economic opportunity is LaDonna Harris. In 1970, she founded Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO), which operates out of Bernalillo, New Mexico, and of which she is president. In 1990, she founded INDIANnet, an organization dedicated to the establishment and development of communication systems and access to computerized information for Native Americans. In 2002, the tribe founded the Comanche Nation College in Lawton.

Source: ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NATIVE AMERICAN TRIBES by CARL WALDMAN

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