Comanche (“Lords of the Plains”) Animism

For reasons not entirely clear, I’ve long delayed delving into Comanche ethnohistory. This is unfortunate. For a long time I have mistakenly assumed that the Comanche probably weren’t much different from their Plains buffalo hunting counterparts. After deep forays into the Lakota, Cheyenne, Crow, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Blackfoot records, I had formed the general impression that – despite all sorts of interesting variation – there was something that could be called “Plains culture.” As the southernmost Plains tribe, I assumed that the Comanche would fit the general pattern. They don’t.

To get a general bearing on Comanche history, I started with a popular book about which I had serious reservations. While reading it did not amount to a mistake, I’m not sure what the Pulitzer committee was thinking when it nominated S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches as a non-fiction finalist in 2011. Gwynne, a Texas journalist, is a nice writer and tells a jaunty story. When Gwynne sticks to basics like setting, chronology, character, and event, he does fine. But when he veers off into interpretation and context (which is fairly often), things go seriously awry. I understand Gwynne is neither a professional historian nor anthropologist (which in some ways is a benefit when writing a popular book), but still.

The problems range from the simply irritating (Gwynne constantly asserts the unprovable point that the Comanche were the largest and most powerful tribe in America) to the egregiously irritating (he regularly refers to the Comanche as “Stone Age barbarians, primitives, and savages”). The first problem isn’t that bad — it strikes me as typically Texan. The second problem is bad — it signals Gwynne’s lack of familiarity with culture history and ethnography. It is unfortunate that Empire of the Summer Moon is probably the only book that most people will ever read about the Comanche, and equally unfortunate that a popular history hasn’t already been written by someone better qualified. Gwynne saw a story vacuum and filled it. Shame on the professionals.

A consistent theme in Gwynne’s book, one which struck me as dubious, is that traditional Comanche society was exceedingly “simple” and unstructured. Initially, I thought this was simply an extension of Gwynne’s naive and normative cultural evolutionism. But when Gwynne later commented that Comanche religion was similarly simple and unadorned, I understood he was contrasting the Comanche with other Plains tribes, all of whom had some version of the Sun Dance complex. The Comanche had no such complex and held only a single Sun Dance (in 1874), which was occasioned by stress and a desire to try something that might save them from cultural destruction. Other than this one-off event, the Comanche were not known to have had a large or regular ceremonial complex. Their rituals were small-scale, irregular, and individualist.

If all of this is true (and it appears to be at least partially correct), it poses some interesting problems for those evolutionary theorists who claim that religion is the cohesive glue that binds groups into larger and more cooperative groups. When confronted with animist-shamanist societies that tend strongly toward individualist ideas, beliefs, and rites, such theorists usually point to the Sun Dance and similar ceremonial complexes as supporting evidence. The Comanche, certainly one of the largest and most dominant Plains tribes, lacked these group oriented ideas and rituals.

So if shared “religion” wasn’t key to Comanche identity and didn’t bind them together, what did? My guess is the Comanche, who may have numbered 25,000 at their apogee in the 1850s, were bonded as a distinct ethnic group mostly by shared language and extended kinship. They remind me a bit of the Turkana in east Africa, another nomadic group which lacks the kind of elaborated animism that might be expected of such a large and successful group (there are an estimated 300,000 Turkana, who like the Comanche are subdivided into many smaller units). Whatever it was, the Comanche belie the notion that large-scale, regular, and formal ritual is required for group success.

There can be little doubt that the Comanche were successful. After splitting from an ancestral Shoshonean group near the mountains of Wyoming and Idaho, they slowly migrated south beginning in the 1600s. This map shows later movements from Colorado into Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico:

As the map indicates with respect to the Apaches, migrations were not simply matters of picking up and moving. They were contested by other tribes. These were difficult and dangerous undertakings. Despite this, the Comanche eventually held sway over a vast territory that contained huge numbers of buffalo and other game:

As should be apparent, this was an impressive achievement for an ethnic group that supposedly lacked cultural and ritual sophistication. Given my doubts about this characterization I’ve moved on to more reputable accounts, beginning with the classic Comanche ethnohistory by Wallace and Hoebel. I also picked up Gerald Betty’s Comanche Society: Before the Reservation, a book which (judging by the blurb) disrupts standard Comanche histories and offers alternative explanations:

Once called the Lords of the Plains, the Comanches were long portrayed as loose bands of marauding raiders who capitalized on the Spanish introduction of horses to raise their people out of primitive poverty through bison hunting and fierce warfare. More recent studies of the Comanches have focused on adaptation and persistence in Comanche lifestyles and on Comanche political organization and language-based alliances.

In Comanche Society: Before the Reservation, Gerald Betty develops an exciting and sophisticated perspective on the driving force of Comanche life: kinship. Betty details the kinship patterns that underlay all social organization and social behavior among the Comanches and uses the insights gained to explain the way Comanches lived and the way they interacted with the Europeans who recorded their encounters.

Rather than a narrative history of the Comanches, this account presents analyses of the formation of clans and the way they functioned across wide areas to produce cooperation and alliances; of hierarchy based in family and generational relationships; and of ancestor worship and related religious ceremonies as the basis for social solidarity. The author then considers a number of aspects of Comanche life—pastoralism, migration and nomadism, economics and trade, warfare and violence—and how these developed along kinship lines.

If Betty is right, the Comanche may not in fact pose a conundrum for evolutionary theory. Stay tuned for further reports.

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4 thoughts on “Comanche (“Lords of the Plains”) Animism

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    Great post and spot on – lacking timely research and documentation, much of human culture is being lost to history. Just one quibble with a minor point you were making.
    I suspect you are missing their point with ‘larger groups’. While larger groups can provide an advantage, not all groups are created equal. Consider a distinction between say loose cooperation and strong. A state is a stable political unit with strong cooperation among group members or citizens. An alliance would represent a potentially much larger group of temporary or quasi-permanent cooperation of a looser sort.
    There are well over a billion English speakers, most allied to some degree, which provides an advantage for global commerce. The strongest cooperation is, however within each state. The US president cannot, for example, conscript Canadian citizens into his army, but does occasionally cooperated with the Canadian military on particular campaigns.
    Another example close to your heart are the Turkana. They represent an estimated community of 300,000 individuals sharing common language and customs. Economically they are pastoral cattle herders, but politically they have little stability or solidarity. The stable political ‘unit’ is the family. They live typically for several months in a fenced family compound situated in a group of three to five compounds. When the grass in the area gets eaten down, the families pack up and move to a new location within a new group of families. The multi family groups provide the support and protection of a larger group but these are temporary alliances and a much weaker bond than political unity. They do not form cities or even villages.
    When anthropologists or sociologists refer to religion enabling larger groups, they are referring to groups with strong cooperation or stable political unity. The sort that allows villages, cities or states to develop. Neither the Comanche nor the Turkana have this level of cooperation. They have no organized religion and their stable cooperative groups are quite small relative to cultures which have organized religion. Alliances are useful, but political unity provides significantly more advantage.

  2. Cris Post author

    Thanks. I don’t think I am missing their point with respect to larger groups. In point of fact, many scholars implicitly suggest or explicitly assert that the “origins” and adaptiveness of what we today call “religion” is to be explained by functional qualities which enable larger groups. When we are talking about post-Neolithic agricultural societies “religion” undoubtedly has this effect. This isn’t much in dispute. The problem is that many of these scholars do not limit this function to post-Neolithic societies or agricultural groups.

    My interest in the Comanche and Turkana is different. I’m interested in the “origins” and alleged adaptiveness of “religion” in pre-Neolithic societies and for non-agricultural societies that are better Paleolithic proxies. To test the idea that “religion” evolved because it is adaptive and led to larger groups, we can’t just point to post-Neolithic societies. If this assertion is true or constitutes some sort of evolutionary axiom, it should hold in different kinds of societies. The Comanche and Turkana are of interest precisely because they are large-scale cooperative groups, among the most successful of groups in their respective settings, yet they lacked or lack more systematic and organized kinds of “religion” that supposedly are necessary for larger groups.

    In other words, we should be comparing the Comanche to other Native American tribes, and the Turkana to their neighboring groups. The Comanche, of course, were one of the most successful of all Native American tribes, yet they lacked the larger-scale ritual of other tribes (against whom they competed). The Turkana were and are one of the most successful ethnic groups in east Africa, yet they too lack more organized “religion” and ritual of neighboring groups (against whom they compete). Both of these groups controlled huge swaths of land and successfully took and held that land from neighboring groups. In many cases, these neighboring groups possessed the kind of larger-scale ritual and systematic “religion” which supposedly is essential for holding larger groups together and making them successful.

    What this tells me is that “religion” didn’t originally evolve (during the Paleolithic) because it enabled larger and more cohesive groups. If the Comanche and Turkana can be so large and successful without it, then something else can and does drive larger group size in non-agricultural and Paleolithic settings. “Religion,” in other words, is not the key to everything at all times and in all places.

    On a side but related note, I just learned that in the late 1700s the Comanche would regularly muster 500-1000 warriors for attacks on the Pueblos. These are huge numbers for the time periods in question and are really remarkable for a nomadic ethnic group that most often moved about over an enormous area in foraging band size units. These attacks were devastating for the Pueblos. The Pueblos of course had been large-scale village type societies at least since the Chaco era, beginning about 1000 AD. The Pueblos, aside from being organized village units with large numbers of people, also had far more systematic and organized kinds of religion. This is an interesting counterpoint to the idea that settling down, engaging in food production, and developing religion is the best, only, or most adaptive way to group-level success.

  3. Gerald Betty

    You are indeed right to suspect that Comanche behavior does not pose a conundrum to evolutionary theory. Our ability to understand Comanche behavior and history has been seriously undermined by the widespread belief that the case of the Comanches presents an anomalous example discrediting the application of evolution to an understanding of human behavior. My book sought to address that issue, but it mostly has been a lone and isolated voice in the wilderness. Also, you should check out anthropologists Lyle Steadman (my mentor at Arizona State) and Craig Palmer’s (another student of Steadman’s at ASU) book The Supernatural and Natural Selection: Religion and Evolutionary Success. I think you will find their argument interesting if not compelling.

  4. Cris Post author

    Hi Gerald! I must confess to not having yet read your book. This is a shame and I will remedy it in the near future.

    Over the summer I did read Pekka’s “Comanche Empire” and absolutely loved it. Your book should be a perfect complement. After I’ve read it, I’ll revisit all these issues in the blog.

    I am familiar with Steadman and Palmer’s work; it’s interesting that Steadman mentored you. Do his ideas make an appearance in your book?

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