By The Rev. Connie Yost
On a recent trip to Oklahoma and Arkansas, I got to indulge my passion for travel to 1) places I haven't been before; 2) national parks; and 3) Indian museums, art galleries and crafts stores. Killing time at the Portland airport, I stopped at Powells to browse the sale table and a book immediately jumped out at me, Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne. On the cover was a picture of a handsome Indian and it read, Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History.
That caught my attention, as I was going to Indian Country where the Comanche live to this day. It's a fascinating book but I quickly realized it wasn't bedtime reading. The Comanche were a nomadic warrior people, and the book sparred none of the gory details of their battles with other Indians (mostly Navajo, Apache and Tonkawa), white settlers, soldiers, and buffalo hunters. The basic storyline is the Comanche were expert warriors and horsemen who lived and rode on the Great Plains, and because of these skills were able to resist first the Spanish, then the French, then white settlement on their lands until the late 19th century. The American West did not open up until the end of a forty year war with the Comanche.
Apparently school children in Texas learn about Quanah Parker, but he was news to me. His mother, Cynthia Ann Parker was a white child who was captured by Comanches when she was nine years old. Apparently given good treatment, unlike some of the Comanche captives, she grew up to marry the chief of their band. She had three children, one of whom was Quanah. When Quanah was 12, Cynthia Ann was captured yet again, but this time by white soldiers, who took her and her youngest child, Prairie Flower, to Fort Cooper. Cynthia Ann never returned to her Indian life, but she also never assimilated back to white culture. Prairie Flower died at age four and Cynthia Ann followed a few years later. Quanah grew up to be a full warrior at age 15. A few years later his proven bravery made him one of a very select few who would lead the tribe into battle in their waning days of freedom. Realizing the hopelessness of their situation, Quanah and his band of 407 Comanches, finally surrendered at Fort Sill in 1875. He was 27 years old.
What's amazing to me is how Quanah immediately adapted to life on the reservation. He willingly wore wool suits and Stetson hats and did his best with English. He insisted on only two things, that he never cut his hair which he kept in long braids, and that he be allowed to keep all eight of his wives (though several of them left him when times got bad). I certainly would not have blamed him had he become embittered or died of a broken heart. Perhaps Quanah had an innate ability to live in the moment and accept reality. Perhaps it was because he was young and half-white that he was able to look squarely at the future and accept that the way to power was now through the white man.
Quanah became a wealthy cattleman living in a mansion with numerous family members and others that he took in. But he never forgot his responsibilities as chief of his people. He was singularly focused on making life on the reservation as good as it could be. He gained respect as a statesman and shrewd negotiator. He had power and influence. Teddy Roosevelt dined at his home. He revived the peyote religion which eventually became the Native American Church. He was renowned for his gregarious and generous nature, adopting many Indian and white orphans, and feeding and housing anyone who came to him in need. Because of his remarkable generosity, he died a poor man, but he was mourned by over 2,000 people, white and Indian, who sang "Nearer My God to Thee" as his casket was lowered into the ground next to his mother, Cynthia Ann.
His is a remarkable story of someone who never spoke of the past yet some would say redeemed his own past. In hard times for his people, he looked steadily ahead, clear-eyed and with optimism, towards a better future.
May it be so.
Copyright 2013 Constance B. Yost. All rights reserved