by Naomi Calnitsky
In revisiting approaches to Native American agency, suffering, aggression and violence, Ned Blackhawk’s Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West and Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire have provided readers and historians with new critical windows into the long Amerindian past, one inflected by a succession of transformative encounters with outsiders. Early encroachments of Spaniards, the arrival of the independent nation of Mexico in the early nineteenth century and its expansion northwards, and ultimately, the Westward advancement of American colonists, traders, surveyors, ranchers and state actors here collide with and reorder the fates of diverse groups of Amerindians, who form the subjects and, at times, the protagonists of both studies. What remains critical and timely about Hämäläinen’s unique interpretive approach in The Comanche Empire is the author’s emphasis upon the imperial nature and orientation of the Comanche state, as well as his capacity to underscore the powerful role played by Comanche history when superimposed against American Westward expansionism and state formation. This narrative culminates in the ultimate weakening of Comancheria following the onset of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in the mid-nineteenth century. While Hämäläinen’s attribution of the term imperial to a non-European ethnic group appears at first unconventional, through the successive chapters, all of which draw upon meticulous archival work, the expansive nature of what is termed the Comanche empire becomes increasingly apparent. Despite his evidence in support of his Native-based empire thesis—a well-developed slaving economy, an extractive and expansionist order—Hämäläinen makes liberal use of the term empire without necessarily unpacking it vis-à-vis broader discussions or understandings of empire from a world systems or global history perspective, and refers to Comancheria as an imperial formation without taking his argument for a Comanche “empire” to any plausible or convincing conclusion. Further to this, there is no sustained effort to provide parallels with or comparative discussions of other “potential” native imperial formations (the Iroquois, Lakota, Powhatans and Osages) in any deeper sense. As Joshua Piker’s review of the book convincingly notes, “I cannot help but wonder, though, if ‘empire’ has partially obscured a messier, and more recognizably native, Comanche politics. Piker, importantly, unpacks various thematic threads of the book with attention to the author’s proposed overarching theme of empire, and its unique usage throughout the narrative.
A reading of both works is significant now because of the enduring relevance of both works to current discussions surrounding colonial culture and state formation more broadly, as well as their implications for indigenous sovereignty movements with their attendant links to broader struggles over natural resources. The question of survival is centrally apparent in both works.
Indeed, evidence of the Comanches’ aggressive status in early colonial New Mexico often comes to the surface in early colonial Spanish sources and documents. This dynamic was recently emphasized by Joseph P. Sánchez in his study of Spanish colonial mapmaking in the region; here, a late eighteenth century account from Franciscan priest Francisco Silvestre Vélez de Escalante mirrors the trends described by Hämäläinen’s borderlands study, when in 1776 Escalante conducted a joint expedition through Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico with friar Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and recalled fearing the Comanches who “attacked them from the north-northwest through the gap of La Sierra Blanca.” Additionally central to Hämäläinen’s argument is the fact of Comanche incursions into Mexico, at times as deep and far reaching as Central Mexico, for the purposes of gathering slaves and enriching livestock holdings, which, in the context of Comanche development, proved critical in terms of the equestrian tribe’s transition from an earlier and formative dependence upon the buffalo toward a subsistence existence based primarily upon the control of livestock. Thus, while Comanche Empire at first appears to be a borderlands study rooted in ethnohistory, it has the ability to offer unique insights into environmental history as well. Hämäläinen positions Comanche actors as trading, slaving and raiding agents, at times excessively dominant over their southern neighbors in Mexico through the first decades of the nineteenth century.
A reading of both works is significant now (nine and eleven years after their respective publications), I would suggest, because of the enduring relevance of both works to current discussions surrounding colonial culture and state formation more broadly, as well as their implications for indigenous sovereignty movements with their attendant links to broader struggles over natural resources. The question of survival is centrally apparent in both works. Hämäläinen’s chapter, “Hunger,” denotes the ways in which Comanches had “traded products of the hunt for products of the farm for generations and had grown utterly dependent on the arrangement” and had perhaps “misread the ecological warning signs” (p. 297). The bison population’s dwindling and ultimate collapse would spell catastrophe, and the basic need to feed themselves alongside a dissolution of commercial exchange networks would lead to a disintegration of the Comanches’ powerful trading empire by the late 1850s. Similarly, in Blackhawk’s pointed and political narrative (inflected by a broad archive that draws importantly from David Weber’s book Barbaros, a study of Spanish narratives concerned with Amerindian savagery), the Native peoples of the Great Basin, primarily the Ute, Paiute and Shoshone, are first subjected to the rude violence of Spaniards, and then engage as reluctant collaborators with American imperial agents. While Blackhawk’s Violence proscribes indigenous agency to a lesser extent than does Hämäläinen, the two works deal with histories of violence, domination and compromise as shaped by differing circumstantial environmental and social geographies that were nevertheless bound by similar colonizing forces and questions. Hämäläinen, a Finnish-born historian, now Rhodes Professor of American History at the University of Oxford, and Blackhawk, a member of the Western Shoshone tribe, and Professor of History and American Studies at Yale, take uniquely different approaches to writing revisionist historiography of native peoples of the American West and Southwestern borderlands, yet their studies may be read in concert for the exceptional windows they give into the dramatic intercultural history of the American West and Southwest and the sequential series of colonial encounters that run seamlessly through both works.
Native American cultural endurance and pride continue to sit uncomfortably while important questions remain for the practice and writing of history, when Blackhawk critically and conclusively asks, “Is there adequate space within the wellspring of American history to begin discussing the pain of America’s indigenous peoples?”
At the end of Violence, Blackhawk laments the uncomfortable place in which the “field of Indian history operates” vis-à-vis the broader field of American history; in his own experiences as an active participant in the Anglo-American academy, Blackhawk suggests that the “square pegs of Indian experiences so rarely fit the circular holes of received knowledge that the experiment can appear at times futile” (p.293). Still, he positions his own scholarship as fitting into a “central battleground in a larger struggle, a contest for reconciliation, if not for coexistence and redemption” (p. 293) Native American cultural endurance and pride, for the author, continue to sit uncomfortably amidst “much harder and imposed conditions” while important questions remain for the practice and writing of history, when the author critically and conclusively asks, “Is there adequate space within the wellspring of American history to begin discussing the pain of America’s indigenous peoples?” (p. 293). In making use of an impressive range of archival documents, Violence has provoked a rethinking of the field of Indian history, in concert with his earlier scholarly interventions into the historiography of the American West and the field of American history more broadly. Blackhawk’s reading of the Domínguez and Escalante expedition, for instance, often operates against the grain of the journals they left behind. Noting how Domínguez and Escalante had “visions of empire centered upon Utes and Paiutes as servants to crown and cross,” Blackhawk suggests that the missionaries offered Amerindian groups they encountered “beneficent visions and promises of colonization,” yet their journals were “no doubt” embellished to “convince imperial officials of their achievements” (p.98-9). These and other departures from readings of the colonial archive that privilege Euro-American narratives unquestioningly as offering historical truths thus firmly situate Blackhawk as a revisionist historian with the project of re-orienting the institutional academic gaze.
Both works force historians to come to terms with new questions, and provoke new parameters for conversations about how the environmental, social and political histories of Amerindians might and can be written. In its incorporation of the key themes of subsistence, masculinity, labor, power and geography into its investigative aims, Comanche Empire provokes new and insightful readings of early modern American imperialisms by inserting Comanche power and identity into the equation, effectively tipping the balance away from master-narrative approaches of Indian removal or erasure that risk underestimating Amerindian agency. In suggesting that in 1846, Americans not only clashed with the “Mexican nation,” but also, “plunged into an old, complex, and still evolving history of indigenous imperialism” (p.359), Hämäläinen charts out new territory for a revisionist historiography of cross-cultural encounter.
Blackhawk’s work, by contrast, introduces a more haunting account of Spanish violence. Violence over the Land provides a canvas for the study of European violence in the New World by unearthing moments of conflict as they were imbued with an invasive psychology of colonization; it refers, for instance, to the Spanish practice of using and publicly displaying Amerindian body parts to instill fear and secure power at Santa Fe. Hämäläinen’s focus on Comanche patterns of internal organization, diet, and outward expansionism additionally complicates Native American history while spurring a rethinking of eighteenth and nineteenth century networks of continental or inland slavery that sat outside the boundaries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the Chesapeke and the American South. While it is by no means the first work to do so, Comanche Empire provides an important addition to the historiography of slavery and captivity on the continent, developed in part by historians such as Christina Snyder, Alan Gallay, and Claudio Saunt, in pointing to the centrality of slaving systems to Amerindian social history from the early modern colonial period and well into the early nineteenth century.
In present-day battles over land, water, and resources, as seen in recent struggles in North Dakota against the imposition of a pipeline under lake Oahe, we might draw insights from events of the deeper past, marked as they were by violence, dispossession, and transformation without viewing future acts of dispossession as a fait accompli.
In reorienting southwestern American history with fresh views of Native social formation and agency, Comanche Empire can be read alongside Violence for consideration of the ways in which events taking place in the borderlands were co-created. The forging of alliances, emergence of commerce, exaction of tributes, and realities of slaving combined with colonial facts-on-the-ground that would repave the trajectory and progress of Amerindian lives in the face of multiple and competing Euro-American advancements. In present-day battles over land, water, and resources, as seen in recent struggles in North Dakota against the imposition of a pipeline under lake Oahe, we might draw insights from events of the deeper past, marked as they were by violence, dispossession, and transformation without viewing future acts of dispossession as a fait accompli. Rather, we might locate Amerindian resistance within a broader historical timeline that offers space for new interpretations that refuse to see colonial processes as operating through simplistic binaries or foregone conclusions.
Naomi Calnitsky is an independent scholar, researcher and oral historian, with a focus on histories of migration and colonialism in North America and the Western Pacific. Her forthcoming book, Seasonal Lives: Twenty-First Century Approaches (University of Nevada Press) comparatively explores the stories of farm worker migrations in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States from the mid-nineteenth century through to the present day.
 Joshua Piker, The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hämäläinen (Review), The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 67 No. 2 (April 2010): 381.
 Ibid., 382.
 Rudolpho Anaya, Francisco A. Lomelí and Enrique R. Lamadrid, eds., Aztlán: Essays on the Chicano Homeland (Revised and Expanded Edition). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2017.
 See Ned Blackhawk, “Look How Far We’ve Come: How American Indian History Changed the Study of American History in the 1990s,” Organization of American Historians’ Magazine of History Vol. 19 No. 6 (November 2005): 8-14.
 For works on indigenous North American slavery see Christina Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country: The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012; Alan Gallay, ed. Indian Slavery in Colonial America, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009; and Claudio Saunt, “The Paradox of Freedom: Tribal Sovereignty and Emancipation during the Reconstruction of Indian Territory,” Journal of Southern History Vol. 70 No. 1 (Feb. 2004): 63-94. Saunt’s work, for instance, complicates understandings of the “meaning of freedom” in the nineteenth-century American South. For account of the expansion of Indian slavery into New France, see Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
* * *
We here at The Activist History Review are always working to expand and develop our mission, vision, and goals for the future. These efforts sometimes necessitate a budget slightly larger than our own pockets. If you have enjoyed reading the content we host here on the site, please consider donating to our cause.