Saturday, October 8, 2011

Whiteness and the Enduring Mythology of the American Frontier

Popular historical nonfiction can be a great thing. It can enrich our understanding of the past and bring its events and characters alive in a way textbooks typically do not. Usually such books are written by professional scholars, and we have good reason to trust the soundness of the research and the relative impartiality of the approach. If the writer is an amateur, however, the situation is not so straightforward. History, like any academic field, is complex, and entails an understanding of prevailing methodologies and a deep familiarity with consensus knowledge. If a writer is not a professional historian, and particularly if she or he engages in original research[i], readers need to be highly circumspect.

It would be helpful if, in these circumstances, readers could rely on book reviews to alert them to potential problems. Unfortunately, literary critics are typically no better equipped than the general public to assess the scholarly merits of historical research. A case in point is the failure of the entire literary world to recognize the problems with Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne. I found this book deeply troubling, and perhaps the most troubling aspect of it is the warm reception it has received from the literary establishment. This is not to excuse Mr. Gwynne for his mistakes and blind spots, but he is only one person, and no book is the product of a solitary individual. This book was edited and released by a major publisher, reviewed widely, and ultimately nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Yet, I am not aware of a single professional reviewer [ii] who voiced concern about the book’s ultimately Eurocentric take on “how the west was won.” The real lesson here concerns how easily the dominant (white supremacist) culture reverts to its old colonizer mindset.

Besides entertaining and informing, Empire of the Summer Moon is an attempt to bring balance to our understanding of frontier history. Beginning with the reference to “Empire” in the title, this retelling of events seems designed to counter the notion that Indigenous Americans were simply passive and innocent victims of the territorial ambitions and racist policies of the U.S. government. And indeed Gwynne's description of the four decade conflict between settlers and Comanches on the Texas frontier offers ample support for a more nuanced perspective. Far from simple victims of U.S. aggression, the Comanches were formidable military opponents. Unfortunately, while Gwynne’s portrait does remind us of the tenacity and resourcefulness of Native American resistance, it is far less successful in reminding us of their humanity.

Let me begin with a brief overview of the book and what I take to be its main themes. The book traces the history of the Comanche nation from its beginnings as a simple hunter-gatherer society in the high country of present day Wyoming, to its military dominance of the southern plains, culminating in its protracted war with, and final defeat by, a rapidly expanding U.S. empire. Woven through this narrative are the fates of two key characters, Cynthia Ann Parker and her half-Comanche son Quanah. Cynthia Ann was the daughter of white settlers, kidnapped from their farm on the Texas frontier during a Comanche raid in 1836. She adapted completely to Comanche life and, with her Comanche husband Peta Nocona, bore several children, including Quanah. She was eventually captured by the U.S. cavalry and, along with her young daughter, forcibly returned to her white family. Quanah, who was 12 at the time of his mother’s capture, remained with his Comanche band, eventually becoming a notorious war chief. He continued to lead raids on the frontier and hunt buffalo on the plains as long as that way of life remained viable. After finally surrendering to the U.S. Cavalry in 1875, at the age of 28, Quanah began to make his way, quite “successfully,” in the white man’s world (i.e. earning money and accumulating property), while keeping one foot planted on the reservation and encouraging his fellow Comanches to follow his lead.  

Old Fashioned Indian-Hating

Indian-hating has a long and rich pedigree in Anglo-American thought [iii]. I use the phrase to refer specifically to the ambivalence at the heart of Anglo-America’s attitudes toward North America’s indigenous people. First, of course, there is the stock racist stereotype of Indians as possessing a unique capacity for violence purportedly absent among the more “civilized” English and other Europeans. This attitude is epitomized in the Declaration of Independence, with its reference to “merciless Indian savages.”[iv] Second, there is the Romantic notion of the Indian as a paradigm of independence and dignity. This view, exemplified by Rousseau’s “Noble Savage,” is generally recognized as a product of European anxieties and aspirations. In the figure of the Noble Savage, the European projects the natural vitality and independence he fears he may have traded for the stability and comfort of civilization. I include both contempt and flattery under the label “Indian-hating” because both attitudes dehumanize the real, flesh and blood people behind the projections. Both attitudes are on display in this book.   

On one hand, Gwynne claims that the Comanche male enjoyed a “peculiarly American sort of freedom.” Although he may believe he is offering a neutral report on the absence of “onerous social institutions” in Comanche society, his tone evokes a familiar stereotype. And when he writes, without a trace of irony, that “the Comanche male was … gloriously, astoundingly free,” or remarks that “much was made of the noble and free life of the American Savage,” he signals no awareness that he is rehearsing timeworn racist mythology. I realize that Gwynne is setting up a contrast with the hard life of Comanche women, especially captive women like Rachel Plummer, but literary license is not a license to add insult to historic injury. Incidentally, we should not overlook how frequently the hard life of women in peripheral societies has been used as a rationale for colonial domination.   

The main qualities for which Gwynne flatters the Comanches is their horsemanship and military prowess. Citing the admiration of a contemporary observer who described the Comanches as “the finest light cavalry in the world,” Gwynne declares that they were “geniuses at anything to do with horses.” After describing the Comanches’ talent for handling, training, and even stealing horses, he describes the “sheer military superiority” their expertise gave them over their first European opponents. In recounting the clumsy efforts of the Spanish to push into Comanche territory, Gwynne asserts that, in carrying out the San Saba Massacre, the Comanches lured the Spanish Empire into “its greatest military defeat in the New World.” I support giving the Comanches their due, but given all the battles the Spanish fought in the Americas, it seems a stretch to call the loss of 52 men the “worst [defeat] inflicted on the Spanish in the New World.” In the Battle of Ayacucho, by contrast, the Spanish suffered 2500 casualties and lost control of the South America. 

Along with flattering Comanches for their independence, nobility, and proficiency as warriors, the book indulges plenty of negative stereotypes, which, to make matters worse, are often directed at "Indians" in general. For example, Gwynne declares that “American Indians were warlike by nature, and they were warlike for centuries before Columbus stumbled upon them.” The frequency and intensity of warfare before and after Europeans arrived is not even relevant. Even if it could be shown that every Native American group fought frequent wars with its neighbors, which is doubtful, “American Indians were warlike by nature” is not a claim about history; it is a claim about racial essence.

Moreover, besides being a fallacy, treating “Indian” as a racial category can result in oddly counterintuitive reasoning. For example, Gwynne states at one point that the Lipan Apaches, “could always be counted on to betray their old tormentors [the Comanches], to sniff them out and go running to the [white] authorities.” Huh? By what logic is the forming of an alliance against a long-established enemy judged a betrayal? The only way this bizarre reasoning makes any sense is if you’re expecting actual material enmity to be superceded by racial solidarity. 

By the way, the phrase “running to the authorities” conveys a contempt that pervades the book’s treatment of the Apaches and Tonkawas. Unlike the Comanches, who are at least admired for their warriorhood, the Apaches and Tonkawas are largely portrayed as weak and pitiable. It is probably no coincidence that these were the very people on whose expertise the militias were forced to depend in their pursuit of the Comanches. Militiamen may have felt the need to compensate for their own dependence by reassuring themselves of their racial superiority. Since Gwynne apparently recognizes the racism of his sources, noting one leader’s assessment of Indians as subhuman, it is unclear why he either echoes their sentiments, as he does with the above, or simply allows their mocking remarks to stand without comment. One example of the latter is where he quotes a militia captain from one difficult expedition reporting with undisguised disdain that “some of the horses froze to death … and the Indians, loath to see so much good meat go to waste, ate the flesh.” Passages like these, which are peppered throughout the book, left me feeling like I was expected to share the Indian-haters’ view of their native allies as lesser beings. 

Meanwhile, while the Comanches are not treated with the outright derision directed at Apaches and Tonkawas, neither are they represented as possessing the intellectual capacity of white people. Gwynne writes, for example, that “the Comanches had a limited vocabulary to describe most things – a trait common to primitive peoples.” He is primarily setting up a contrast with their horse-related vocabulary, but the result is that he reinforces a myth colonizer societies have long used to justify their dominance.[v] Elsewhere, in discussing how polygamy and women captives provided the labor to support the Comanches’ trade in Buffalo hides, he states that “these changes were perhaps more instinctive than deliberate.” Since the author presents no evidence to support this contention, it strikes me as a rather gratuitous denial of Comanche agency.

Another way the book implies that the Comanches do not quite measure up to Anglo-European standards concerns their worldview, though the author seems somewhat conflicted in this regard. On the one hand, he describes them as “primitive,” “low barbarians,” who are “immersed in an elemental world that never quite left the Stone Age – a world of ceaseless toil, hunger, constant war, and early death.” From this description, it sounds like the Comanches needed civilization to remedy their hopeless backwardness. On the other hand, the Comanches’ world was one of “pure magic … an intensely alive place where nature and divinity became one.” And the story he tells about Cynthia Ann Parker’s refusal to accept “civilization” also contradicts his more Hobbesian depiction of Comanche life. Rather than reflecting on this inconsistency, however, Gwynne ends up falling back on an archetype of prelapsarian innocence, sometimes writing about Comanche society as if it was an exotic relic uncorrupted by modernity. He describes how it was being “polluted by the white invaders,” noting that one deserted Comanche camp “was littered with … white men’s goods, evidence of the deep cultural contamination” (italic mine). This view of Comanche culture as either pure or polluted reflects the aspect of colonizer mentality that assesses the value of a culture based on its authenticity and integrity, on its being unsullied by colonial influences. This represents yet another way of erasing the agency of colonized people.  

Whiteness: the View from Somewhere

The issues I have been discussing are only symptoms of a more fundamental problem, which is a direct consequence of the author’s methodology. The most persistent weakness in this book is the ease with which it slips into the perspective of the frontiersman. Despite being written in the 21st century, little of the book, it seems to me, would ruffle the sensibilities of a 19th century pioneer. Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but the explanation for this seems straightforward. Gwynne spells it out in his Bibliographical Note: “as I hope will be apparent to the reader, much of this book was constructed using a large number of firsthand accounts from the era.” Original research of this kind is best handled by professionals who are trained to take into account the biases and limitations of their sources. This is precisely what Gwynne seems to miss. He treats his culturally bound, ideologically motivated informants, virtually all of whom represented the Anglo point of view, as if they were impartial witnesses. At the same time, by giving us such a vivid window into the mind of the 19th century settler, Gwynne has actually done us a valuable service. His book offers us a chance to observe the cosmology of whiteness at one of its key formative moments.  

Nowhere is the author’s over-reliance on the settler perspective more evident that in the way he celebrates the character of settlers and “Indian fighters.” The vanguard of western expansion, he tells us, “was not federal troops, but simple farmers imbued with a fierce Calvinist work ethic, steely optimism, and a cold-eyed aggressiveness that made them refuse to yield even in the face of extreme danger.” These were “the sort of righteous, hard-nosed, up-country folk who lived in dirt-floored, mud-chinked cabins, played ancient tunes on the fiddle, took their Kentucky rifles with them into the fields, and dragged the rest of American civilization westward along with them. … They, more than columns of dusty bluecoats, are what conquered the Indians.” Why so? Because the Texans were “tougher, meaner, almost impossible to discourage, willing to take absurd risks to secure themselves a plot of dirt, and temperamentally well-suited to the remorseless destruction of native tribes.” Wow! Those people sound like genocidal sociopaths to me, but the author’s tone conveys an unmistakable note of admiration for their grit and determination. The Comanches must have also had grit and determination, but we are never invited to consider it.

Meanwhile, it wasn’t the “hapless” farmers who did the real dirty work of killing Indians. It was the Texas Rangers, who, according to Gwynne, were “young, reckless, single men with a taste for wide open spaces, danger, and raw adventure … They were sharp-eyed, audacious, and fearless twenty-four-year-olds with little sense of their own mortality and a distinct taste for combat. … They were highly motivated to track Indians and kill them and happily did it without pay or reward. Comanches, of course, had never seen anything like this breed of men.” It is difficult to imagine this sort of glorified language being used to describe anyone whose objective was to murder as many white people as possible. Indeed, when it comes to Comanche exploits, Gwynne finds it “impossible” to read about them, “without making moral judgments.”

Even when the author ascribes ostensibly negative attributes, such as “mean” and “remorseless,” to Indian fighters his tone betrays a certain admiration, especially compared to his descriptions of “Indians” as “hostile” and “savage.”[vi] Moreover, when it comes to the genocidal actions of the Texans, Gwynne seems mostly impressed by their optimism. The only Comanche to whom Gwynne attributes optimism is Quanah, who also happens to have been half white. Of course, with the advantage of hindsight, it is obvious that the white settlers had more reason to be optimistic about the future than the Comanches. Given the demographics of white settlement, the spread of European diseases, and the distribution of technology and power in the 19th century, the ultimate outcome of the “Indian Wars” was perhaps predictable. Political/economic predictability, however, is not at all the same thing as racial destiny. 

Yet, the extent to which Gwynne blurs the distinction between the predictable and the predestined comes uncomfortably close to nostalgia for Manifest Destiny. Consider, for example, how the book frames “getting rid of the Comanches” as a perfectly natural and reasonable goal for the Anglos. Gwynne condemns the federal government’s “incompetence, stupidity and willful political blindness” for their failure to mount a “concerted effort to pursue the [Comanches] into their dark heartland, to destroy them.” Meanwhile, the violence of ongoing Comanche raiding, according to Gwynne, eventually “exhausted the last of the white man’s patience, and ruined forever the arguments of the peace advocates and pro-Indian humanitarians.” After one particularly brutal season of raiding, “whatever sympathy the horse tribes may once have inspired was gone.” For Gwynne, apparently, it was not that the Texans were simply facing resistance from a people who refused to accept the theft of their land and the obliteration of their culture; rather, the Texans were patiently and foolishly trying to negotiate with “irremediably hostile Indians.” Notice, also, how the references to the “patience” and “sympathy” of the colonizers imply that it was the Comanches who were ultimately to blame for their fate.

Finally, Gwynne seems to take on the colonizer perspective when framing the larger meaning of the frontier. Particularly revealing is his description of Comanche territory as “undiscovered,” “untouched,” and “the edge of the known universe.” The implication is obvious and familiar – that only the gaze of the white man constitutes discovery, and that only white man’s knowledge counts as knowledge. In addition, Gwynne refers repeatedly to the “advance of western civilization,” which the Comanches were “holding up.” He writes, for example, that, in the 1860s, “the frontier rolled  backward … canceling two decades of western progress.” Again, one could get the impression that the spread of Anglo-European culture on this continent was preordained.

A Systemic Failure

Needless to say, I found this book deeply disturbing. But let me reiterate that, though my criticisms are directed at the author, the most troubling aspect of this book is how it has been received. I understand how difficult it is, as a solitary writer, to be aware of one’s blind spots. But this book must have been read by dozens of intelligent, educated, and literate people on its journey from draft manuscript to Pulitzer Prize finalist. Did no one along the way notice its limitations? How is that possible? Was there no one among the editors, critics, and Pulitzer committee members who could provide a Native American perspective, or at least recognize its utter absence? Was there no one with expertise in scholarly practice who could call attention to the problems of methodology and voice? In my view, responsibility for this book reaches well beyond S. C. Gwynne. This book is one more product of a system that continues to rely almost exclusively on the voices and perspectives of white people (mostly straight white men), while remaining all but unaccountable to the rest of society.

There is something those of us who are white can do to disrupt this process. We can notice when non-dominant voices and perspectives have not been included in conversations where they have a stake, and simply speak up. I don’t believe most people want to produce one-sided histories or to make decisions based on partial perspectives. But most of us have been badly mis-educated and we need to help each other.

[i] For the uninitiated, original research is research that relies on materials from the historical period in question, such as diaries, letters, newspaper accounts, and official documents. While these are the richest sources of historical knowledge, they are also potentially the most misleading, particularly if the researcher lacks a deep understanding of the larger historical context.
[ii] There are a few user reviews on that do recognize this problem. 
[iii] Melville coined the phrase “The Metaphysics of Indian-hating” in his last novel The Confidence Man.
[iv]He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
[v] On Native American vocabulary, see Bright, W. (1994). "Native North American Languages" in D. Champagne (Ed.), Native America : portrait of the peoples (pp. 397-439). Detroit: Visible Ink Press. 
[vi] While it is true that Gwynne uses the word “savage” in describing behaviors on all sides, he only uses the word as a noun for indigenous people.