Monday, November 17, 2014

The Comanche Empire

Post #8 (Week 10)

Book Forum: Pekka Hamalainen’s The Comanche Empire, History and Theory 52 (February 2013), 49-90.

The February 2013 issue of History and Theory features a forum of five historians and Pekka Hamalainen discussing his book looking back from four years after its publication. As is typical of book reviewers, the historians here praise the groundbreaking nature of The Comanche Empire, particularly its going beyond the scholarship of the last few decades that has restored agency to Native Americans to conceive of a Native nation that in many respects acted as an empire. Of course, several historians address the definition of empire, and the extent to which the term can be applied to a mobile, loosely hierarchical society, but on the whole they find Hamalainen’s work opening up new possibilities for further research.

Josh Reid, of UMass-Boston, sees gaps opening in Hamalainen’s account because by “not explicitly framing the narrative of the Comanche empire within notions of sovereignty, Hamalainen leaves open opportunities for other scholars of the Comanche and of Native North America” (55). Reid suggests that scholars “need to incorporate this people’s ways of knowing and remembering the past, a strategy Hamalainen did not explore” (59). In essence, Reid is wondering about the notion of empire as the term applies to the Comanches (or other Native groups by extension) particularly in terms of how the Comanches conceived of themselves. Empire, perhaps, is defined by the empirists?

Columbia University historian Karl Jacoby raises a somewhat similar question though from a different vantage point. He uses the terms emic (insider) and etic (outsider) to question to what extent Native “sources, chronologies, and epistemologies” should be aligned with “concepts developed for other peoples and places” (60). Though he fears creating a subfield of Native history that stands alone from all other histories, he feels that Hamalainen’s reliance on non-Native language and epistemology “risks draining the project of recapturing Native history of much of its meaning” (63). Alas, restoring agency on non-Native terms may close off a deeper understanding of Native self-perception.

Perhaps most provocatively, John Tutino (Georgetown University) foregrounds the global context of Comancheria, both in its outward effects on non-Native societies and on the effects of far flung empires on Comanche trading and empire. He begins with “an early silver-driven globalization” dating to the 1550s and a second silver boom in the eighteenth century. New Spain’s weaknesses that allowed an opening for Comanche expansion stemmed significantly from fluctuations in the global marketplace for silver (which included China among other powers). Thinking contingently, Tutino wonders whether the Spanish project in North America might have been more successful if Comanches had not blocked access to the rich mineral finds of Colorado by Americans in the later nineteenth century.

Rachel St. John, of New York University, returns to matters of sovereignty and control, and suggests that Hamalainen’s “contrast…between the Comanches and European empires at times seems overdrawn” (78). More pointedly, she argues that Spanish officials were aware that lines on a map showing the extent of Spain’s New World empire were largely fictions rather than realistic borders of Spain’s control. She concludes that what “the Spanish needed from their northern frontier in North American was not absolute territorial dominion, but rather trade, slaves, and a buffer against competing European claims” (80). Sounds a bit like the Comanches themselves, no?

Amid the responses and rebuttals to the historians above, Hamalainen offers a newish way of conceiving of the Comanche empire – “as a kinetic empire (italics in original), a power regime that revolved around a set of mobile activities: long-distance raiding, seasonal expansions, transnational diplomatic missions, semi-permanent trade fairs, recurring political assemblies, and control over shifting economic nodes” (85). Whether kinetic empire is anything more than a rehashing of the argument in The Comanche Empire is perhaps a question for historians on the borderlands to debate in future issues.

1 comment:

  1. First of all, thank you for discussing this forum--a really valuable piece that adds to the understanding. I especially like that John Tutino participated with the global context--his work is really, perhaps unintentionally, redefining borderlands history by connecting it with northern Mexico.

    Also, I like how you used the phrase "restored agency," rather than granting agency. Indeed, the historian can only demonstrate someone's agency, or attribute agency, but the historian isn't giving agency to their subjects. I like the word choice there--great post!