Today, back in (hideously windy) Albuquerque, I’ll wrap up the Spring Break road trip series that started here. Last Friday, Isabella, Velma and I left Albuquerque in search of the Comanche; we headed to Texas where we explored their former homeland, Palo Duro Canyon; made it to Nebraska, where we spent three days with our great-grandmother; and drove back via Wyoming & Colorado. Our drive through the southern plains was an exploration of a landscape that had interested me since reading about the Comanche in Empire of the Summer Moon.
As far as I know, the Comanche have been located on a reservation in Oklahoma since they were forced there, along with so many of the Plains and eastern tribes, in the mid 1800s. While I would have liked to visit the nation, it was also interesting to see a small piece of the Great Plains, once home to millions of buffalo, antelope, deer and other game, and thousands of Natives—the largest continuous ecosystem in the world prior to the Dust Bowl. While I grew up loving the open space and big skies of the West and Southwest, I think what surprises me the most about this area, and this time in history, is how recently the dramatic changes occurred. Less than 150 years ago, the warrior-hunter Comanche were still the most powerful tribe in American history, dominating the richest buffalo plains and every other tribe within hundreds of miles. They didn’t even enter recorded history until 1780, and their traditional lifestyle was over just 100 years later.
Neither the Americans nor the Indians they confronted along that raw frontier had the remotest idea of the other’s geographical size or military power. Both, as it turned out, had for the past two centuries been busily engaged in the bloody conquest and near-extermination of Native American tribes. Both had succeeded in hugely expanding the lands under their control. The difference was the Comanches were content with what they had won. The Anglo-Americans, children of Manifest Destiny, were not.
The discovery of agriculture, which took place in Asia and the Middle East, roughly simultaneously, around 6,500 BC, allowed the transition from nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies to the higher civilizations that followed. But in the Americas, farming was not discovered until 2,500 BC, fully four thousand years later and well after advanced cultures had already sprung up in Egypt and Mesopotamia… Once the Indians figured out how to plant seeds and cultivate crops, civilizations in North and South America progressed at roughly the same pace as they had in the Old World… But the Americas, isolated and in any case without the benefit of the horse or ox, could never close the time gap. They were three to four millennia behind the Europeans and Asians, and the arrival of Columbus in 1492 guaranteed that they would never catch up. The nonagrarian Plains Indians, of course, were even further behind.
Thus the fateful clash between settlers from the culture of Aristotle, St. Paul, Da Vinci, Luther, and Newton and aboriginal horseman from the buffalo plains happened as though in a time warp–as though the former were looking backwards thousands of years at premoral, pre-Christian, low-barbarian versions of themselves. The Celtic peoples, ancestors of huge numbers of immigrants to America in the nineteenth century, offer a rough parallel.
The excerpts included in these posts are just a small sampling from SC Gwynne’s excellent book, and they don’t begin to tell the whole story. Along with military and technological histories of the time, Gwynne also tells the amazing story of Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanche and the son of Cynthia Anne Parker, a white settler who was kidnapped by the tribe when she was nine years old. It was Quanah Parker who once led his entire village, consisting of “large numbers of women and children and old men, many tons of equipment and provisions and supplies, along with a remuda of three thousand horses and mules, an unspecified number of cattle, and dogs” on a 40-mile cat-and-mouse escape from Captain Raynald Mackenzie and several hundred soldiers. He was born on the buffalo plains but died a rancher in Oklahoma. So, if you are at all interested in the history of the American West, or just good historical novels, you should read this book.
I’ll end here, with a few “best of” pictures from the rest of our trip, starting with Best/Creepiest High School Mascot, the Brush Beet Diggers (Brush, Colorado).
Best Dessert was the pie Isabella and Jessie made. Jessie once owned a cafe and got there at 3:00 every morning to start baking eighteen pies and many loaves of bread. Every day. She is an amazing woman, still living independently, always planning for the future. And did I tell you she’s got 20/20 vision? At the age of 95??!
Best Daughter was of course Isabella, who was such a pleasure to travel with. She did not complain of boredom or being without Facebook and email for a week, or about the dodgy hotel in Limon, Colorado. (Not bad for a girl who recently declared that the only items she still needs to complete her bedroom decor are a three-panel dressing mirror and a Tempur-Pedic fainting couch.) The change of habit, environment, and perspective afforded by travel helped me to appreciate her for the kind, caring, growing-up girl that she is. My dance moves and maracas were not used once, much to the relief of Isabella and I’m sure every resident of Scottsbluff, Nebraska (without even knowing it).
It was a joy to lapse for a few days into Jessie’s life stage–that of a human being rather than a human doing–an absence of activity that allowed us to take pleasure in each other’s company, stories, and presence, with no agenda beyond that.