The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hämäläinen


The first assignment I had in my Master’s program was in a readings seminar on the Trans Mississippi West.  I was assigned to read The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hämäläinen, write a summary/critique and lead seminar discussion.  It was my introduction to graduate life and a solid indication to me that I was in the right place. As I crossed from English Lit and Anthropology to History, I really needed to know that I had made a good choice for me, and that my approach to history informed by my anthro background would be accepted or acceptable. It is not a given, I did receive more than a few raised eyebrows from anthropologists convinced that history as a discipline was not the place for me.  They were wrong.

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I have recently begun reading Horse Nations: The Worldwide Impact of the Horse on Indigenous Societies Post -1492 by Peter Mitchell, a Professor at the School of Archaeology, University of Oxford, which is shaping up to be a wonderful read. It made me think of those first days in the history program and it has occurred to me that at the time, I didn’t post any of my work on the blog.  Now that a couple of years have gone by, I think I will occasionally post some of that work, starting with that first review and critique.  I hope that I will write a review of Horse Nations when I have finished reading it too, although November and December are always crazy months and John and I have a lot of travel on the agenda between now and Christmas…

This is the review including the footnotes.  Please do not copy my work – it is plagiarism.

Thanks for reading!

Summary and Critique of The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hämäläinen

Written by Angela H. Knipe (copyright 2012)

In The Comanche Empire, Pekka Hämäläinen presents a bold challenge to the stereotypical model of power relations in the West of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, attenuating ingrained historical narratives to re-orient conceptions of colonial struggles around a Comanche perspective. In an engaging and provocative narrative Hämäläinen attempts to justify his affirmation of the Comanche as an Empire, and “recover Comanches as full-fledged humans and undiminished historical actors underneath the distorting layers of historical memory.”[1]

Following a stirring introduction in which he lays out, in fascinating detail, the qualities of the Comanche over a period of approximately 150 years, which he believes stack up to define the Comanche as an Empire, Hämäläinen delivers a coherent and logical eight-chapter argument to support and explain his assertions.  Beginning with the Numunu exodus to the plains from the Northwest, through the Sangre de Christo Mountains, Hämäläinen outlines the versatility and acumen of a people who fundamentally transform their subsistence strategies to accommodate a shift to horseback, and thereby maximize the environmental opportunities of the grasslands.  The author describes three distinct phases of conquest that see the Comanche successfully adapt social, political, and economic strategies to sustain a prodigious demographic and geographic expansion, which peaked in the early to mid nineteenth century.  Hämäläinen describes how, despite setbacks, the Comanches in both the east and west used complicated, and surprisingly coordinated economic and military tactics of simultaneous raiding and trading to play colonial powers off against each other; subordinate and separate the peoples of New Mexico and Texas; destabilize the control of, first, New Spain, and then Mexico; and, ultimately, pave the way for a relatively uninhibited USA expansion.  The author explains how the Comanche were able to exploit “vast hinterlands of extraction, systematic incorporation of foreign ethnicities, dynamic multiculturalism, and penetrating cultural influence,” to ascend to a point of pre-eminence in the West, spending considerable energy to illuminate the Comanche’s masterful utilization of equestrianism, and pastoralism, and their unmatched economic maneuvering to capitalize on trading in goods, animals, and human (slaves) commodities[2].

Hämäläinen includes an insightful chapter on the Comanche culture, which provides details of the domestic and political organization of the Comanche from within, and he then concludes with two chapters, which describe how the Comanche power complex finally collapses, submitting to ecological disaster, brought on by severe drought; policy miscalculations, which placed economic trading opportunities above subsistence strategies; and virulent diseases, which their nomadism had mitigated for some considerable time.

Hämäläinen’s narrative concerns, in large part, the Comanches role in forestalling Spanish and Mexican expansion.  The argumentation for this is compelling; however, it seems that the Comanche centric view may also provide as narrow a viewpoint of the complexities of colonial expansion as does traditional renditions.  A more comprehensive analysis of New Spain and Mexico’s foreign and economic policies would likely reveal a combination of prominent obstacles and miscalculations, which combined to frustrate their North American objectives, although the Comanche seem to have been key among them.

Hämäläinen’s insistence on the imperial character of the Comanche is, however, not entirely persuasive.  Despite the record of imperial-like characteristics of the Comanche, which Hämäläinen presents, they fall short of the designation.  The picture of Comanche ascendancy amounts, more nearly, to what the author himself describes as “quasi-imperialistic,” when describing other “Native American polities.”[3] Empire remains at best a nom de guerre for a people displaying admittedly formidable, and seemingly irrepressible power in the field of mounted warfare, and superior skills in the manipulation of diplomatic and economic policies; however, they still lack the institutions, and ultimate centralization of governmental authority, which are vital components of an Empire. As the author admits, The Comanche “never coagulated into a rigid class society with formalized ranks,”[4] and there exists no “material or geopolitical marks”[5] of their ascendancy and expansion, as they remain to the end a very fluid society and political entity. It is precisely in this lack of rigidity, and absence of bureaucracy, where the argument fails.  The Comanche certainly subordinated and assimilated others into Comanchería, but they never fully subjugated them. That they eschewed formal borders, definitive hierarchical political structure, and the foundation of settlements was an impetus to their growth, but also a handicap to realizing an absolute empire.  It seems that the Comanche came to recognize this too late when they attempted to negotiate more permanent borders with the invading USA.

While missing his target in this respect, Hämäläinen does not hurt the more exigent purpose of his task in re-orienting perspectives to reveal Native American societies for the dynamic, complex, and influential entities they truly were, thereby restoring indigenous agency.  He successfully exposes “the colonization of the Americas…as a dialectic process that created new worlds for all involved,”[6] and undermines discourses about the Comanche, which have “abridged their role as historical actors.”[7]

Hämäläinen made the best of his primary and secondary sources, to support his theses, although there was a disappointing lack of specifically Comanche voices, which would have been especially welcome in the ethnographic chapter “Children of the Sun, ” and he certainly succeeds in demonstrating that a vital perspective of the power relations that define the West has been missing from historical representations thus far.  If I have one hesitation it is in the author’s postulation that, “only the Comanches—among the hundreds of Native American nations—managed to build an empire that eclipsed and subsumed Euro-American colonial realms.”[8]  In the Comanche-centric viewpoint, Hämäläinen touches only briefly on other Native American powers in the West, such as the Apache, Osage, Wichita, and even the Arapahoe, Cheyenne, and Blackfeet nations.  His account does little to explicate the alliances and conflicts between the Native nations, or the relationships between the other nations and the euro-colonial powers. Additionally, one is left to wonder about the significance of the Utes to the expanding Comanche power complex and their success, who, following what seems to amount to a fairly durable alliance with the Comanches, come and go in the narrative, and are only ever mentioned in passing, until the eventual breakdown of the accord between the groups.  It would be interesting to see if similar cases could be made for other Native American groups placed at the center of a historical reading.

I would be intrigued to see a reaction to the book from The Comanche Nation, or indeed other Native American nations mentioned in the book, but I have, as yet, been unable to discover any specifically Native American reviews. Regardless of the less persuasive elements of Hämäläinen’s argument, he has produced a work that is eye opening and thought provoking, as well as a highly enjoyable read.  The book should continue to stimulate refreshing scholarly debate about the complexity and ascendancy of Native American groups, and, hopefully, it will pave the way for other works that recognize and elucidate Native American agency.

[1] Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire, (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2008), 345.

[2] Ibid., 350.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid., 265.

[5] Ibid., 342.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] Ibid., 344.

[8] Ibid., 345.

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