The Comanche people are a Native American group located primarily in Oklahoma, Texas, and California today. The Comanche people are federally recognized as the Comanche Nation, headquartered in Lawton, Oklahoma. They became renowned masters of horsemanship and war and thrived on the abundance of buffalo until well after their first encounter with European settlers. Strong and individualistic people that appreciated power based on prowess. They were moved to reservations in the 1860s following outbreaks of smallpox and cholera. The loss of the buffalo which were essential to their nomadic lifestyle effectively ended the traditional way of life of the Comanche. However, their determined character in the face of difficulties led them to continue a life of violence against the whites until the superior weaponry and larger forces of the United States forced them to surrender.
Quanah Parker, a fearless Comanche leader, founded the Native American Church Movement after reportedly seeing a vision of Jesus Christ when given peyote by a Ute medicine man to cure the infections of his wounds following a battle with Federal Troops. During the peyote experience, Parker claimed he heard the voice of Jesus Christ, who then appeared to him and told him that, in order to atone for his many killings and misdeeds, he must forsake a life of violence and conflict and take the peyote religion to the Indian Peoples. His efforts to do so, while rejected by the European Christians, were successful in bringing a form of Christianity to many.
The Comanche have survived their struggles, adapting to a new lifestyle without the buffalo, yet maintaining a number of the traditions. Successful in business now as they were in horsemanship, they can be admired for their achievements in the face of adversity. Their place in world society, though, depends as much on their strengths as on their willingness to harmonize with others.
The Comanche are a Native American ethnic group whose range (the Comancheria) consisted of present-day Eastern New Mexico, Southern Colorado, Southern Kansas, all of Oklahoma, and most of Northern and Southern Texas. There might once have been as many as 20,000 Comanches. Today, the Comanche Nation consists of approximately 17,000 members, with around 7,000 residing in the tribal jurisdictional area around Lawton, Oklahoma,1 and the remainder concentrated in Texas, California, and New Mexico. The Comanche speak an Uto-Aztecan language, sometimes classified as a Shoshone dialect.
The Comanches were originally part of the Eastern Shoshone, who lived about 3,000 B.C.E. to about 500 B.C.E. on Arizona's Gita River. This group were called the "Sevier People" and were agricultural as well as hunter-gatherers.2
The Comanches emerged as a distinct group shortly before 1700, when they broke off from the Shoshone people living along the upper Platte River in Wyoming. This coincided with their acquisition of the horse, which allowed them greater mobility in their search for better hunting grounds.
Their original migration took them to southern plains, from where they moved southward into a sweep of territory extending from the Arkansas River to central Texas. During that time, their population increased dramatically due to the abundance of buffalo, an influx of Shoshone migrants, and the adoption of significant numbers of women and children taken captive from rival groups. Nevertheless, the Comanches never formed a single cohesive tribal unit but were divided into almost a dozen autonomous groups. These groups shared the same language and culture but may have fought among themselves just as often as they cooperated.Did you know?The horse was a key element in the emergence of a distinctive Comanche culture
The horse was a key element in the emergence of a distinctive Comanche culture, and there have been suggestions that it was the search for additional sources of horses among the Mexican settlers to the south (rather than the search for new herds of buffalo) that first led the Comanches to break off from the Shoshone. The Comanches may have been the first group of Plains natives to fully incorporate the horse into their culture, and to have introduced the animal to the other Plains peoples. By the mid-nineteenth century, they were supplying horses to French and American traders and settlers, and later to migrants passing through their territory on their way to the Californian Gold Rush. Many of these horses were stolen, and the Comanches earned a reputation as formidable horse and later cattle thieves. Their victims included Spanish and American settlers, as well as the other Plains tribes, often leading to war. They were formidable opponents who developed strategies for fighting on horseback with traditional weapons. Warfare was a major part of Comanche life. The dreaded Comanche raids into Mexico, going as far south as Central America, traditionally took place during the full moon, when the Comanche could see to ride at night.
The emergence of the Comanche around the turn of the eighteenth century and their subsequent migration southward brought them into conflict with the Apaches, who already lived in the region and had themselves begun migrating to Spanish-dominated Texas and New Mexico. In an attempt to prevent Apache incursions, the Spanish offered them help in their wars with the Comanches, but these efforts generally failed and the Apaches were finally forced out of the Southern Plains by mid-century. The Comanche by then dominated the area surrounding the Texas Panhandle, including western Oklahoma and northeastern New Mexico.
Comanche raids into Mexico were a yearly event for many decades, with the warriors seeking weapons, cattle, horses, mules, women, goods and slaves. The Comanche raids were greatly feared. The Comanche mobility on horseback made these raids unstoppable until their final defeat by the United States. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, addressed the issue of Comanche raids, and the United States promised to stop the raids, but was not able to do so for many years.
Relationship with settlersComanche braves, c. 1867-1874.
The Comanches maintained an ambiguous relationship with the Europeans and later Americans attempting to colonize their territory. They were valued as trading partners, but they were also feared for their raids. Similarly, the Comanches were at war at one time or another with virtually every other Native American group living in the Great Plains, leaving opportunities for political maneuvering by the European colonial powers and the United States. At one point, Sam Houston, president of the newly created Republic of Texas, almost succeeded in reaching a peace treaty with the Comanches, but his efforts were thwarted when the Texas legislature refused to create an official boundary between Texas and the Comancheria.
While the Comanches managed to maintain their independence and even increase their territory, by the mid-nineteenth century they faced annihilation because of a wave of epidemics introduced by white settlers. Outbreaks of smallpox (1817, 1848) and cholera (1849) took a major toll on the Comanches, whose population dropped from an estimated 20,000 in mid-century to just a few thousand by the 1870s.
Efforts to move the Comanches into reservations began in the late 1860s with the Treaty of Medicine Lodge (1867), which offered them churches, schools, and annuities in return for a vast tract of land totaling over 60,000 square miles (160,000 km²). The government promised to stop the buffalo hunters, who were decimating the great herds of the Plains, provided that the Comanches, along with the Apaches, Kiowas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos, moved to a reservation totaling less than 5,000 square miles (13,000 km²) of land. However, the government elected not to prevent the slaughtering of the herds, which provoked the Comanches under Isa-tai (White Eagle) to attack a group of hunters in the Texas Panhandle in the Second Battle of Adobe Walls (1874). The attack was a disaster for the Comanches and the army was called in to drive all the remaining Comanche in the area into the reservation. Within just ten years, the buffalo were on the verge of extinction, effectively ending the Comanche way of life as hunters. In 1875, the last free band of Comanches, led by Quahadi warrior Quanah Parker, surrendered and moved to the Fort Sill reservation in Oklahoma.
In 1892 the government negotiated the Jerome Agreement, with the Comanches, Kiowas, and Apaches, further reducing their reservation to 480,000 acres (1,940 km²) at a cost of $1.25 per acre ($308.88/km²), with an allotment of 160 acres (0.6 km²) per person per tribe to be held in trust. New allotments were made in 1906 to all children born after the Jerome Agreement, and the remaining land was opened to white settlement. With this new arrangement, the era of the Comanche reservation came to an abrupt end.Quanah Parker in business attire.
Twentieth century history
The Comanches were ill-prepared for life in a modern economic system, and many of them were defrauded of whatever remained of their land and possessions. Elected chief of the entire tribe by the United States government, Chief Quanah Parker campaigned vigorously for better deals for his people, he met with Washington politicians frequently and helped manage land for the tribe. He himself became independently wealthy as a cattleman. Quanah also campaigned for the Comanches' permission to practice the Native American Church religious rites, such as the usage of peyote which was condemned by whites.2Quanah Parker, the last major chief of the Comanche Indians.
Quanah Parker is credited as the founder of the Native American Church Movement, which started in the 1890s, and formally incorporated in 1918. Parker adopted the peyote religion after reportedly seeing a vision of Jesus Christ after suffering from a near fatal wound following a battle with Federal Troops. Peyote (Lophophora Williamsii) is reported to contain hordenine and tyramine, phenylethylamine alkaloids which act as potent natural antibiotics when taken in a combined form. Parker was given peyote by a Ute medicine man to cure the infections of his wounds. During the peyote experience, Parker claimed he heard the voice of Jesus Christ, who then appeared to him and told him that, in order to atone for his many killings and misdeeds, he must forsake a life of violence and conflict and take the peyote religion to the Indian Peoples. Parker's words and teachings comprise the core of the Native American Church Doctrine and the "Peyote Road."
Parker taught that the Sacred Peyote Medicine was the Sacrament given to all Peoples by the Creator, and was to be used with water when taking communion in Native American Church medicine ceremonies. The Native American Church was the first truly "American" religion based on Christianity outside of the Mormons.
Parker's most famous teaching regarding the Spirituality of the Native American Church:
- The White Man goes into his church and talks about Jesus. The Indian goes into his tipi and talks with Jesus.
During World War II, many Comanches left the traditional tribal lands in Oklahoma in search of financial opportunities in the cities of California and the Southwest.
Social orderUwat - Comanche, 1930.
Comanche groups did not have a single acknowledged leader. Instead, a small number of generally recognized leaders acted as counsel and advisers to the group as a whole. These included the peace chief, the members of the council, and the war chief.
The peace chief was usually an older individual, who could bring his experience to the task of advising. There was no formal instatement to the position, it being one of general consensus. The primary leaders were "medicine men."3
The council made decisions about where the band should hunt, whether they should war against their enemies, and whether to ally themselves with other bands. Any member could speak at council meetings, but the older men usually did most of the talking.
In times of war, the band selected a war chief. To be chosen for this position, a man had to prove he was a brave fighter. He also had to have the respect of all the other warriors in the band. While the band was at war, the war chief was in charge, and all the warriors had to obey him. After the conflict was over, however, the war chief's authority ended.
The Comanche men did most of the hunting and always fought the wars. They learned how to ride horses when they were young and they were eager to prove themselves in battle. On the plains, Comanche women carried out the demanding tasks of cooking, skinning animals, setting up camp, and transporting household goods.
The Comanche people had a strong belief in the personal power of individuals rather than spirits:
The security system of the individual in Comanche is constructed on rather simple lines. It consists of perfecting one's resources for dealing with the outer world, and since the tasks that confront the ego are of a limited nature and can be achieved, there is a minimum of appeal to deity, except that of the concept of medicine or power.3
Comanche (Numu tekwapu) is a Uto-Aztecan language spoken by the Comanche people. It is closely related to the language of the Shoshone, from which the Comanche diverged around 1700. Although efforts are now being made to ensure its survival, most speakers of the language are elderly, and less than one percent of the Comanches can speak the language. In the late 1800s, Comanche children were placed in boarding schools where they were discouraged from speaking their native language, and even severely punished for doing so. The second generation then grew up speaking English, because of the belief that it was better for them not to know Comanche.
During World War II, a group of seventeen young men referred to as "The Comanche Code Talkers" were trained and used by the U.S. Army to send messages conveying sensitive information that could not be deciphered by the enemy.
If a woman started labor while the band was in camp, she was moved to a tipi, or a brush lodge if it was summer, and one or more of the older women assisted as midwives. If a woman went into labor while the band was on the move, she simply paused along the trail, gave birth to her child, and after a few hours caught up with the group again. Men were not allowed inside the tipi during or immediately after the delivery.
First, the midwives softened the earthen floor of the tipi and dug two holes. One of the holes was for heating water and the other for the afterbirth. One or two stakes were driven into the ground near the expectant mother's bedding for her to grip during the pain of labor.
After the birth, the midwives hung the umbilical cord on a hackberry tree. If the umbilical cord was not disturbed before it rotted it was believed that the baby would live a long and prosperous life.
The newborn was swaddled and remained with its mother in the tipi for a few days. The baby was then placed in a cradleboard, and the mother went back to work. She could easily carry the cradleboard on her back, or prop it against a tree where the baby could watch her while she collected seeds or roots.A Comanche mother with child in cradleboard, Edward S. Curtis, 1927
Cradleboards consisted of a flat board attached to which was a basket made from rawhide straps, or a leather sheath that laced up the front. With soft, dry moss as a diaper, the young one was safely tucked into the leather pocket. During cold weather, the baby was wrapped in blankets, and then placed in the cradleboard. The baby remained in the cradleboard for about ten months, then it was allowed to crawl around.
Both girls and boys were welcomed into the band, but boys were favored. If the baby was a boy, one of the midwives informed the father or grandfather, "It's your close friend." Families might paint a flap on the tipi to tell the rest of the tribe that they had been strengthened with another warrior.
Sometimes a man named his child, but mostly the father asked a medicine man (or another man of distinction) to do so. He did this in hope of his child living a long and productive life. During the public naming ceremony, the medicine man lit his pipe and offered smoke to the heavens, earth, and each of the four directions. He prayed that the child would remain happy and healthy. He then lifted the child to symbolize its growing up and announced the child's name four times. He held the child a little higher each time he said the name. It was believed that the child's name foretold its future; even a weak or sick child could grow up to be a great warrior, hunter, and raider if given a name suggesting courage and strength.
Boys were often named after their grandfather, uncle, or other relative. Girls were usually named after one of their father's relatives, but the name was selected by the mother. As children grew up they also acquired nicknames.
Raising childrenA nineteenth century comanche child.
The Comanche looked upon their children as their most precious gift. Children were rarely punished. Sometimes, though, an older sister or other relative was called upon to discipline a child, or the parents arranged for a boogey man to scare the child. Occasionally, old people donned sheets and frightened disobedient boys and girls. Children were also told about Big Cannibal Owl (Pia Mupitsi) who, they were told, lived in a cave on the south side of the Wichita Mountains and ate bad children at night.
Children learned from example, by observing and listening to their parents and others in the band. As soon as she was old enough to walk, a girl followed her mother about the camp playing at the daily tasks of cooking and making clothing. She was also very close to her mother's sisters, who were called not aunt but pia, meaning mother. She was given a little deerskin doll, which she took with her everywhere. She learned to make all the clothing for the doll.
A boy identified not only with his father but with his father's family, as well as with the bravest warriors in the band. He learned to ride a horse before he could walk. By the time he was four or five he was expected to be able to skillfully handle a horse. When he was five or six, he was given a small bow and arrows. He was often taught to ride and shoot by his grandfather since his father and other men were on raids and hunts. His grandfather also taught him about his own boyhood and the history and legends of the Comanche.
As he grew older, he joined the other boys to hunt birds. He eventually ranged farther from camp looking for better game to kill. Encouraged to be skillful hunters, boys learned the signs of the prairie as they learned to patiently and quietly stalk game. They became more self-reliant, yet, by playing together as a group, also formed the strong bonds and cooperative spirit that they would need when they hunted and raided.Comanches of West Texas in war regalia, c. 1830.
Coming of age
Boys were highly respected because they would become warriors and might die young in battle. As he approached manhood, a boy went on his first buffalo hunt. If he made a kill, his father honored him with a feast. Only after he had proven himself on a buffalo hunt was a young man allowed to go on a war path.
When he was ready to become a warrior, at about age fifteen or sixteen, a young man first "made his medicine" by going on a vision quest (a rite of passage). Following this quest, his father gave the young man a good horse to ride into battle and another mount for the trail. If he had proved himself as a warrior, a Give Away Dance might be held in his honor. As drummers faced east, he and other young men danced. His parents, along with his other relatives and the people in the band, threw presents at his feet - especially blankets and horses symbolized by sticks. Anyone might snatch one of the gifts for themselves, although those with many possessions refrained; they did not want to appear greedy. People often gave away all their belongings during these dances, providing for others in the band but leaving themselves with nothing.
Girls learned to gather berries, nuts, and roots. They carried water and collected wood, and when about 12 years old learned to cook meals, make tipis, sew clothing, and perform other tasks essential to becoming a wife and mother. They were then considered ready to be married.
Boys might boldly risk their lives as hunters and warriors, but, when it came to girls, boys were very bashful. A boy might visit a person gifted in love medicine, who was believed to be able to charm the young woman into accepting him. During courtship, the girl often approached the boy. Boys mostly stayed in their tipis, so it was up to the girl to go to the tipi. A boy, however, might approach a girl as she went for wood or water. Since they were not allowed to see each other, they met in secret.
When he wished to marry, a boy offered a gift. The gift was usually one or more horses for the girl's father or guardian. He might also agree to work as a hunter or trader for the family, to convince the girl's family that he would be able to provide for her. Usually a young man asked an uncle or friend to make the offer for him. This messenger brought horses and other goods, spoke briefly with the parents, and left. To avoid embarrassment he did not immediately receive an answer. If the proposal was turned down, the horses were simply released and driven back to the suitor's herd; if accepted, the horses were taken into the father's herd, thereby announcing the engagement. Sometimes a marriage was arranged with an older man of wealth, but girls resisted such unions, often eloping with the young men they truly loved.
Old men who no longer went on the war path had a special tipi called the Smoke Lodge, where they gathered each day. A man typically joined when he became more interested in the past than the future. Boys and women were not allowed inside, and new members underwent an initiation.
A very old and ill person was left behind, or abandoned by everyone other than close family. This was not because they lacked sympathy, but because they were afraid that evil spirits were invading his body. As death approached, the old person gave away his belongings. He made his last medicine, then found a quiet place to lie down and waited to die. After he died, the Comanches immediately buried his body. His knees were folded, bound in this position with a rope, and then bathed. The face was painted red, and the eyes sealed with clay.
The deceased was attired in the finest available clothing, and then laid upon a blanket. Loved ones took a final look at the deceased, and then the body was wrapped in another blanket and tied with buffalo-hide rope. Placed in a sitting position on a horse, the body was taken to the burial place, which was usually a cave, a deep ravine, or a crevice high among the rocks.
The body was placed in a sitting position, or on its side, in a hole, or on the ground, around stacked rocks and wooden poles. In the late 1800s, some Comanches, especially those living along the Red River, built tree or scaffold burial structures like those used by the Cheyenne and other Plains Indians. The Comanche did not fear death, but death worried them, and they often broke camp after a burial to get away from the place of death.
There was little mourning for the old people who died, but intense mourning for a young man who died.
When they lived with the Shoshone, the Comanche mainly used dog-drawn travois for transportation. Later they acquired horses from other tribes and from the Spaniards. As horses are faster, easier to control and able to carry more, this helped with hunting and warfare, and made moving camp easier. Being herbivores, horses were also easier to feed than dogs, since meat was a valuable resource.
The Comanche were, initially at least, hunter-gatherers. When they lived in the Rocky Mountains during their migration to the Great Plains, both men and women shared the responsibility of gathering and providing food. When the Comanche reached the plains, hunting came to predominate. Hunting was considered a male activity, and was a principal source of prestige.
For meat, the Comanche ate buffalo, elk, black bears, pronghorn antelope, and deer. When game was scarce the men hunted wild mustangs, sometimes eating their own ponies. In later years the Comanche raided Texas ranches and stole longhorn cattle. They did not eat fish or fowl, unless starving, when they would eat virtually any creature they could catch, including armadillos, skunks, rats, lizards, frogs, and grasshoppers.
Buffalo meat and other game was prepared and cooked by the women. The women also gathered wild fruits, seeds, nuts, berries, roots, and tubers - including plums, grapes, juniper berries, persimmons, mulberries, acorns, pecans, wild onions, radishes, and the fruit of the prickly pear cactus. The Comanche also acquired maize, dried pumpkin, and tobacco through trade and raids.
Most meats were roasted over a fire or boiled. To boil fresh or dried meat and vegetables, women dug a pit in the ground, which they lined with animal skins or buffalo stomach and filled with water to make a kind of cooking pot. They placed heated stones in the water until it boiled and had cooked their stew. After they came into contact with the Spanish, the Comanche traded for copper pots and iron kettles, which made cooking easier.
Women used berries and nuts, as well as honey and tallow, to flavor buffalo meat. They stored the tallow, or fat, in intestine casings or rawhide pouches called parfleches. They especially liked to make a sweet mush of buffalo marrow mixed with crushed mesquite beans.
The Comanches sometimes ate raw meat, especially raw liver flavored with gall. They also drank the milk from the slashed udders of buffalo, deer, and elk. Among their delicacies was the curdled milk from the stomachs of suckling buffalo calves, and they also enjoyed buffalo tripe, or stomachs.
Comanche people generally had a light meal in the morning and a large evening meal. During the day they ate whenever they were hungry, or when it was convenient. Like other Plains Indians, the Comanche were very hospitable people. They prepared meals whenever a visitor arrived in camp, which led to the belief that the Comanches ate at all hours of the day or night. Before calling a public event, the chief took a morsel of food, held it to the sky, and then buried it as a peace offering to the Great Spirit. Many, but not all, families offered thanks as they sat down to eat their meals in their tipis.
Comanche children ate pemmican, but this was primarily a tasty, high-energy food reserved for war parties. Carried in a parfleche pouch, pemmican was eaten only when the men did not have time to hunt. Similarly, in camp, people ate pemmican only when other food was scarce. Traders ate pemmican sliced and dipped in honey, which they called Indian bread.
HabitationComanche camp, c. 1870.
Much of the area inhabited by the Comanches was flat and dry, with the exception of major rivers like the Cimarron River, the Pecos River, the Brazos River, and the Red River. The water of these rivers was often too dirty to drink, so the Comanches usually lived along the smaller, clear streams which flowed into them. These streams supported trees which the Comanche used to build shelters.
The Comanche sheathed their tipis with a covering made of buffalo hides sewn together. To prepare the buffalo hides, women first spread them on the ground, then scraped away the fat and flesh with blades made from bones or antlers, and left them in the sun. When the hides were dry, they scraped off the thick hair, and then soaked them in water. After several days, they vigorously rubbed in a mixture of animal fat, brains, and liver to soften the hides. The hides were made even more supple by further rinsing and working back and forth over a rawhide thong. Finally, they were smoked over a fire, which gave the hides a light tan color.
To finish the tipi covering, women laid the tanned hides side by side and stitched them together. As many as twenty-two hides could be used, but fourteen was the average. When finished, the hide covering was tied to a pole and raised, wrapped around the cone-shaped frame, and pinned together with pencil-sized wooden skewers. Two wing-shaped flaps at the top of the tipi were turned back to make an opening, which could be adjusted to keep out moisture and held pockets of insulating air. With a fire pit in the center of the earthen floor, the tipis stayed warm in the winter. In the summer, the bottom edges of the tipis could be rolled up to let cool breezes in. Cooking was done outside during the hot weather.
Tipis were very practical homes for itinerant people. Women, working together, could quickly set them up or take them down. An entire Comanche band could be packed and chasing a buffalo herd within about fifteen minutes.
Comanche clothing was simple and easy to wear. Men wore a leather belt with a breechclout - a long piece of buckskin that was brought up between the legs and looped over and under the belt at the front and back. Loose-fitting deerskin leggings were worn down to the moccasins, and tied to the belt. The moccasins had soles made from thick, tough buffalo hide with soft deerskin uppers.Comanche warrior in winter dress, with a fur hat and buckskin jacket. About 1870. Photographer: William S. Soule.
The Comanche men wore nothing on the upper body except in the winter, when they wore warm, heavy robes made from buffalo hides (or occasionally, bear, wolf, or coyote skins) with knee-length buffalo-hide boots. Young boys usually went without clothes except in cold weather. When they reached the age of eight or nine they began to wear the clothing of a Comanche adult.
In the nineteenth century, woven cloth replaced the buckskin breechclouts, and the men began wearing loose-fitting buckskin shirts. They decorated their shirts, leggings and moccasins with fringes made of deer-skin, animal fur, and human hair. They also decorated their shirts and leggings with patterns and shapes formed with beads and scraps of material.
Comanche women wore long deerskin dresses. The dresses had a flared skirt and wide, long sleeves, and were trimmed with buckskin fringes along the sleeves and hem. Beads and pieces of metal were attached in geometric patterns. Comanche women wore buckskin moccasins with buffalo soles. In the winter they, too, wore warm buffalo robes and tall, fur-lined buffalo-hide boots.
Unlike the boys, young girls did not go naked. As soon as they were abl