The Comanche (pronounced cuh-MAN-chee ) called themselves Numinu or Nemene (the word has various spellings), meaning “people.” Their name may have come from the Ute word for the tribe, Koh-Mahts, which means “those who are against us” or “those who want to fight us.” The Spanish called them Camino Ancho, meaning “wide trail.” They later altered the spelling to “Komantcia” and the Americans changed it to Comanche. Many other tribes had names for the Comanche. For example, the Kiowa called them Bodalk Inago or “snake men” and the Arapaho gave them the name Catha (“having many horses”).
Before Europeans arrived the Comanche and Shoshone lived along the upper Platte River in eastern Wyoming. Later they roamed the southern Great Plains, including parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Mexico. In the early twenty-first century descendants of the Comanche share reservation lands with the Kiowa and Apache tribes. The reservation is located 87 miles (140 kilometers) southwest of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in Lawton.
There were about twenty thousand Comanche at the height of their power in the early 1800s. The population declined to 1,500 in 1900 as a result of wars and diseases. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 11,267 people identified themselves as Comanche (170 identified themselves more specifically as Oklahoma Comanche). In 2000 the census reported 10,518 Comanche residing in the United States and a total of 21,852 people who had some Comanche heritage. Of that number, 6,643 resided in Oklahoma (3,947 of them lived on the reservation).
Origins and group affiliations
The Comanche were a branch of the Shoshone tribe until the 1600s. The Comanche then separated from the Shoshone and migrated south from Wyoming and Montana along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. They took over land occupied by other tribes including the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Crow, and Apache. They also fought the Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, but eventually made peace with these tribes.
Often referred to as the “Lords of the Southern Plains,” the powerful Comanche tribe once controlled a vast expanse of territory known by the Spanish term Comanchería (“land of the Comanche”). Loosely organized into wandering groups of highly skilled horsemen and warriors, the Comanche fought with nearly every Plains tribe at one time or another. They also took on the Spanish, the American settlers, the Texas Rangers, and the U.S. military in a fierce defense of their lands. Comanche resistance is largely responsible for slowing the settlement of the American West during the nineteenth century. They were cunning fighters who learned how their enemies thought, and they added to their population base by adopting captured prisoners into the tribe.
Horses transform lifestyle
The Comanche separated from their relatives, the Shoshone (see entry), in the late 1600s. They migrated south from the mountains of Wyoming and Montana onto the Great Plains. Sometime before 1705 they acquired horses from their Ute (see entry) neighbors, who had gotten the animals from the Spanish in Mexico. Horses transformed the lifestyle of these wanderers, who had always hunted on foot. The Comanche became the first Plains people to make extensive use of horses, and by 1750 their men, women, and children were excellent riders. Hunting became easier, and over the next century the tribe amassed a larger herd of horses than any other Native American group.
Comanche warriors sometimes owned as many as 250 horses, and the most prominent members of the tribe might have as many as 1,000. Some horses were taken by conducting raids on neighboring tribes or on white settlements, but the Comanche were also one of the few groups who knew how to breed and train horses. Their mounts responded to verbal commands, and Comanche warriors could lean over their horses’ necks and fire arrows from beneath the animals’ chins while at a full gallop.
Having horses allowed the Comanche to control a large expanse of territory. Between 1750 and 1875 Comanche groups spread across central and western Texas, eastern New Mexico, southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, and western Oklahoma. This 24,000-square-mile (62,160-square-kilometer) area became known as the Comanchería.
1705: The Comanche acquire horses from the Ute; within the next fifty years they become excellent horsemen and maintain the largest herds of any tribe.
1834: The first official contact occurs between the U.S. government and representatives of the Comanche people.
1838: Thirty-five Comanche are killed when the Texas Rangers attempt to seize a group that had come to conduct a peaceful negotiation.
1867–69: Treaty of Medicine Lodge is signed. Most Comanche give up their lands and move to the reservation.
1874–75: The Comanche make their last stand; Quanah Parker and his followers are the last Comanches to surrender and be placed on a reservation.
1939–45: Comanche Code Talkers help the World War II effort.
1967: The Comanche adopt a tribal constitution.
2003: The first official Comanche dictionary is published, compiled entirely by the Comanche people.
Occupied by trade, raids, and war
The Comanchería was situated between territory claimed by Spain in the Southwest and by France in Louisiana. The Comanche developed trading relationships with both the Spanish and the French, but they had better relations with the French. The Comanche traded prisoners of war to the Spanish to be used as slaves; they traded buffalo hides with the French. In return they got horses from the Spanish and guns from the French, and thus acquired even more power. They jealously guarded their territory against Spanish expansion and trespassing by other tribes.
In the early 1800s events happening in faraway places had a far-reaching effect on the Comanche. With the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 France sold a huge tract of land to the United States, extending from the Mississippi River in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west and from the Gulf of Mexico in the south to what is now Canada in the north. The lands the United States gained in this agreement doubled its size. But these lands were already inhabited by Native people.
With this vast new area now in its control, the U.S. government made room for American expansion by forcing eastern Native American tribes to move west of the Mississippi River. There the relocated tribes competed with the Comanche on the Great Plains for a share of the buffalo herds. Next American settlers pressed toward the borders of the Comanchería. In 1821 Mexico gained control of present-day Texas from Spain, and Mexican settlers moved into Texas and took over more Comanche lands.
The Comanche resented this intrusion into their territory and fought the newcomers, sometimes killing white hunters and traders and taking white captives. After 1830 U.S. government officials tried to meet with the Comanche to discuss the possibility of moving eastern tribes onto parts of the Comanchería. But the Comanche were a loosely organized people, and at first no spokesmen could be found. When representatives of the tribe finally met with U.S. delegates in 1834, little was accomplished.
Problems in Texas
In 1835 the Texas Revolution freed Texas from Mexican rule. American settlers moved onto isolated ranches and farms in Texas with their cattle and their new breeds of larger horses. They were easy targets for Comanche raids, and the Texas Rangers (a police group) had frequent skirmishes with the tribe. The conflicts came to a head in San Antonio in 1838 when Texas Rangers tried to capture Comanche leaders who had come to conduct a peaceful negotiation. Thirty-five Comanche were killed, and many others were wounded.
Over the next three decades Texas became part of the United States, and gold was discovered in California. More settlers poured into Texas, and gold miners galloped across the Comanchería, spreading diseases and disrupting the migrations of the buffalo herds. Weakened now by diseases and hunger, the Comanche fought on. They had a brief period of relief when the United States was distracted by the Civil War (1861–65; a war between the Union [the North], who were opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [the South], who were in favor of slavery). After that war the U.S. government devoted its attention to ending the violence on the Great Plains.
Divisions of the Comanche Tribe
The Comanche tribe was composed of about eight to twelve independent divisions that generally cooperated with each other, but at other times turned antagonistic. Divisions were also further broken down into individual bands. At one time there may have been as many as thirty-five bands, but by the nineteenth century there were five major bands—the Penatuka, Yaparuka, Noyuka, Kwaharu and Kuhtsutuuka.
The Shoshone usually named their groups after foods; some Comanche followed this custom. Most of the other divisions had names related to where they lived.
- Hanitaibo … “Corn People”
- Hois … “Timber People”
- Kotsoteka … “Buffalo Eaters”
- Kwahada … “Antelope Eaters”
- Parkeenaum … “Water People”
- Nokoni … “People Who Return” or “They Travel Around”
- Pehnahterkuh … “Wasps”
- Penateka … “Honey Eaters”
- Sata Teichas … “Dog Eaters”
- Tahneemuh … “Liver Eaters”
- Tenawa … “Those Who Stay Downstream”
- Widyunuu … “Awl People”
- Yamparika …“Root Eaters”
The Buffalo War
After the Civil War the Comanche had to contend with the Texas Rangers and the full force of the U.S. military, sometimes under the command of the famous Wild West hero Christopher “Kit” Carson. Then, in the 1870s, professional hunters armed with high-powered rifles began to kill off the remaining buffalo herds for use in eastern industries. One such hunter could kill hundreds of buffalo in a day.
In 1874 a band of Comanche under the leadership of Chief Quanah Parker (c. 1852–1911) tried to stop this tragic slaughter by attacking a group of buffalo hunters. Though the hunters used their rifles to turn back the Comanche and their allies, this event sparked the Buffalo War (1874; also known as Red River Uprising). After U.S. troops killed hundreds of horses and burned Comanche food and tepees, most of the tribe surrendered.
Quanah Parker and his followers held out until June 1875. When the government placed Parker and his people on a reservation in Oklahoma, nearly two centuries of Comanche domination of the Southern Plains ended.
On the reservation
The U.S. government wanted to turn the Comanche into farmers and tried to force the people to accept American ways and values. The Comanche had to depend on the Bureau of Indian Affairs for food, clothing, and shelter. Since their move to the reservation, the Comanche have endured hunger, poverty, and legal and illegal takeovers of their land. Though destitution and discrimination remain alive, the Comanche proudly struggle to retain their traditions.
The Comanche did not believe in a creator god. Instead they thought they had originated from animals, perhaps wolves. Religion for them involved learning to please the supernatural powers who lived in rocks and animals. They believed that by placating these spirits they would receive what they needed to survive. Once a person discovered what the powers wanted and provided it, he or she could face the future without fear.
The practice of religion was a private matter, and men established a personal relationship with the supernatural through a vision quest (see “Customs”). The Comanche were one of the few tribes of the Great Plains that did not practice the Sun Dance. In fact, there were few group ceremonies of any kind, and there was no special class of religious leaders.
The Comanche believed that the spirits of the dead lived through eternity in a land where everyone was young and had plenty of game and fast horses. Almost everyone who died gained an afterlife. The exceptions included warriors scalped in battle. The Comanche scalped their enemies to prevent them from enjoying life after death, and they fought fiercely over a fallen comrade to prevent his scalp from being taken.
Unable to adjust to reservation life, many Comanche took solace in the Peyote (pronounced pay-OH-tee ) Religion, which brought people together for singing, praying, and taking peyote, a drug derived from cactus that causes mild hallucinations. In 1918 the popularity of the Peyote Religion led to the founding of the Native American Church, which combined Native and Christian practices. Today some members of the Comanche tribe still belong to the Native American Church, while others have converted to Christianity.
The Comanche spoke a Shoshonean dialect (variety) of the Uto-Aztecan language family that was similar to Ute and Paiute (see entry). The language was frequently used during trade because many people on the Plains understood it. On the other hand, because the Japanese could not understand it, the language was used in World War II (1939–45; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan). Seventeen young Comanche men served the U.S. Army as Code Talkers, relaying secret messages in their native language.
In 1989 the tribe began a language preservation project. Forty elders taped stories and tribal history in Comanche. They also organized language classes. By the following year studies showed that 854 people could speak the language; most of them were older members of the tribe. In spite of these efforts, by 1993 only about 250 elderly members of the tribe still spoke the language. Many Comanche elders were reluctant to teach the language to outsiders. They believe that to know Comanche is to have power over the tribe.
Concerned their language would die out, some members of the tribe formed the Comanche Language and Cultural Preservation Committee to revitalize it. Their plans included teaching all ages to write, speak, and understand Comanche. In 1994 Dr. Alice Anderton, a language specialist, created an alphabet and a spelling system.
Since then several books, dictionaries, and other teaching materials have been printed, and the committee has secured grants to produce language materials such as tapes and DVDs as well as to teach additional classes. Intensive language training is offered to families through the Master-Apprentice Team Project. Families commit to speaking only Comanche as they work with a skilled speaker for twenty hours a week for five months.
- ap … “father”
- haa … “yes”
- haa marúawe … “Hi!”
- haamee … “thank you”
- kee … “no”
- kuutsuu … “buffalo”
- paa … “water”
- pia … “mother”
- tsaatu, untse? … “Fine, and you?”
- unha hakai nuusuka? … “How are you?”
- unha hakai nahniaka? … “What’s your name?”
- ura … “thank you”
Comanche tribal government was a democratic process, with organized bands, led by Band Chiefs, coming together as needed to discuss important issues. The Comanche lived in many separate groups and had no need for elected leaders except during wartime; after a war was over, the war leader’s authority ended. Decisions were reached after everyone who wished to speak had his say. Every adult male in the group had to agree with the decision; those who could not agree with the majority left and joined another group. Women had no say in decision-making and could not attend meetings unless invited.
The Comanche adopted a tribal constitution in 1967. The tribe is governed by the Comanche Tribal General Council and the Comanche Business Committee. The tribe elects a chairperson, vice chairperson, secretary-treasurer, and three council members; the officers also hold the same positions on the business committee. Members serve three-year staggered terms. Other officials include four members of the business committee and a tribal administrator. All members of the tribe age 18 or older are part of the tribal council and meet annually.
The Comanche economy changed in the eighteenth century. Before that it had been based on gathering and hunting buffalo on foot, a difficult and dangerous undertaking. After 1700 the economy expanded to include horses, mules, and slaves. The Comanche traded these along with buffalo robes to the Spanish for horses and to the French for guns and luxury items. What they could not get through trading, the Comanche took through raiding.
After moving to the reservation the Comanche struggled to support themselves by farming (although most of the land was not suitable for agriculture), raising cattle, and by working for white farmers and ranchers. In modern times they continue these activities, and also earn money by leasing mineral and cattle-grazing rights to their lands. Small businesses such as a bingo hall, a snack bar, and a smoke shop operate on the reservation. The tribe owns four casinos, which generate almost 85 percent of the tribal budget. This revenue funds education and many social service programs.
Some Comanche have upheld the tribe’s warrior traditions by serving in the American armed forces during wartime, and military service remains a popular career option for young Comanche men and women. Many Comanche also work off the reservation in the oil fields of Oklahoma and Texas or in skilled occupations in urban areas.
Families consisted of a husband, wife, children, and close relatives. Because Comanche life was so hard and many children died young, all children were cherished, even children taken in raids, who were often adopted into the tribe.
Adults were always hard at work. The primary tasks of men were hunting, making war, and fashioning their own war shields. When they were too old for this work (many were worn out or dead by the age of thirty), they made bows and arrows out of wood. Women did every other job; they aged quickly and were usually exhausted by the age of twenty-five from hunger, hard work, and the difficulty of bearing many children at a young age.
Since Comanche parents were often busy, grandparents played an important role in child-rearing. Children learned by observing and imitating adults, and they learned at a young age their most important task: making sure there was enough food to eat.
After the Comanche moved to the reservation Christian missionaries and government agents opened schools, hoping to convince Comanche children to reject their traditional culture. Comanche parents objected, and few children attended the schools. According to author Willard Rollings, Comanche children who attended Oklahoma’s public schools in the 1980s still faced the same problems. He wrote: “Local school boards show little respect for Native Americans and their culture and continue to try to convert their children to the culture of white Americans.”
Most children in the early twenty-first century attend public schools or the Riverside Indian School. The Comanche Office of Higher Education visits public schools to promote tribal education and to assist students in preparing for college. Comanche Nation College located in Lawton opened in 2002 to offer a Comanche-centered higher education experience.
The Comanche were a wandering tribe that moved when the buffalo did or when they needed new patches of grass for their horses. They required homes that could be quickly put up and taken down. Their tepees consisted of four base poles (most Plains tribes used three poles) stuck into the ground and tied together at the top to form a cone shape. Eighteen to twenty smaller poles gave support. A covering of up to seventeen buffalo hides was stretched tightly around this frame.
Sometimes tepee covers were painted with abstract designs and geometric figures. Inside the tepee the Comanche lit a fire and slept on a low platform covered with buffalo robes along the rear wall. In the summer they rolled up the hide covers to let in fresh air. In extremely hot weather they slept outdoors in brush shelters.
The search for food was constant. Buffalo was the primary food source, but the Comanche also hunted elk, bear, antelope, and deer. When game was scarce, they ate horses. Because they considered dogs and coyotes to be relatives of their ancestors, the wolves, they would not eat them, nor would they eat fish. They ate turtles steamed over the fire, but did not eat fowl unless they were starving, because they considered it food for cowards. When non-Native American ranchers began raising cattle on the Comanchería, the tribe often raided those herds and ate beef.
The Comanche did not practice agriculture, but obtained plant foods in other ways. They traded with other tribes for corn and tobacco, and they gathered wild plants such as grapes, currants, plums, mulberries, persimmons, roots, and tubers. A favorite high-energy food was pemmican, which was made of dried buffalo meat, melted fat, and various nuts and berries.
Clothing and adornment
Everyday clothing was plain and practical, but the clothing the Comanche wore to make war was colorful and elegant (see “War and hunting rituals”). Comanche men usually wore a buckskin breechcloth (a piece of material that wrapped between the legs and tucked into a belt); fringed buckskin leggings extending from the belt to the ankles; and buckskin moccasins with tough, buffalo-hide soles. Men did not usually wear shirts. Young boys commonly went naked until they reached the age of nine or ten when they donned adult attire. Men’s clothing was sometimes decorated with fringes made of deerskin, fur, or human hair, but it lacked the elaborate beadwork found among some other Plains tribes.
Comanche men grew their hair long and parted it in the middle. They often painted their scalps where the hair was parted, and wore braids (sometimes wrapped with fur or cloth) on each side of their faces. A tiny braid known as a scalplock hung over the forehead and was often decorated with cloth, beads, and a single feather. Comanche men plucked their facial and body hair, including their eyebrows. They adorned themselves with bracelets of leather and metal and earrings of shell, brass, or silver.
Comanche women wore moccasins and long, one-piece buckskin dresses with wide sleeves, flared skirts, and fringes. Young girls wore clothing from the time they could walk. Women’s special occasion clothing was ornamented with beads, fringes, and bits of metal that made sounds. The women usually cut their hair short and painted their faces and bodies in bright colors. In the winter all members of the Comanche tribe wore heavy buffalo robes and knee-high boots for warmth.
Comanche people suffered from hunger, exposure to the elements, and diseases. Children learned at an early age to endure extreme pain and discomfort without self-pity. Their doctors were hunter-warriors who had a little extra “pull” with the spirit world and demonstrated practical skills. They knew how to apply tourniquets and perform minor surgery, and they used a wide variety of herbal remedies to treat wounds and cure illnesses. They knew how to suck out the poison from snake bites and even how to fill cavities in teeth. Sometimes older women were allowed to practice medicine.
The Comanche were wanderers, always searching for food and had little time to devote to the development of the arts. They had few songs or dances, rituals or ceremonies. Comanche men did devote particular attention to the creation and decoration of their war shields (see “War and hunting rituals”).
War and hunting rituals
In preparation for a buffalo hunt the Comanche prayed to the buffalo spirit for a good catch. They usually hunted by encircling a group of buffalo with their horses and then killing as many animals as possible using lances or bows and arrows. Sometimes they stampeded a herd of buffalo over the edge of a cliff. When individuals hunted alone they disguised themselves in buffalo robes to sneak up on the herd.
When preparing for war Comanche men performed a war dance and prayed to spirits such as the eagle for strength. They painted their faces and bodies with symbols of their personal power. Warriors wore headdresses with buffalo horns and carried shields painted and decorated with feathers, bear teeth, horse tails, and human hair.
Comanche warriors traveled long distances and attacked their enemies without warning. Male enemies were usually tortured and killed because it was not practical to take them prisoner. A prisoner who displayed exceptional courage under torture was sometimes released. Warriors often returned to camp bringing women and children prisoners and dressed in items of European clothing taken from their enemies.
A young man about to embark on a vision quest (a search for spiritual guidance) climbed to the top of a hill, stopping four times along the way to smoke a tobacco pipe and pray. He remained alone on the hill for four days and nights without food or water. In the morning he prayed to the rising Sun for a vision.
A vision might be as simple as hearing the sound of a wolf call. When he received his vision the young man returned to the tribe to ask the medicine man to explain it. From the explanation he knew what materials he needed for his medicine bundle, which represented his personal power and his relationship with the supernatural.
Courtship and marriage
A young man became eligible to marry after he completed his vision quest and participated in his first war party. Most Comanche men, however, waited to marry until they had proven themselves to be skilled hunters, able to provide for a wife and children. It was common for men to marry within their group; no group wanted to lose a hunter-warrior.
The man sent his relatives to meet with the chosen woman’s family and secure their permission for the match; the woman had no say in the matter. Once these informal arrangements had been made, the man formally proposed marriage by giving the woman’s male relatives a gift of horses. If they agreed to the union, there was no formal marriage ceremony; the couple simply went together to the man’s tepee. In keeping with the Comanche belief that no woman should be left unattached, a man sometimes married his wife’s sister, too. If a wife was unfaithful, her husband was allowed to mutilate or kill her.
Children were named by a prominent member of the tribe, who usually chose a name with religious significance. If the child became ill or appeared to suffer from bad luck, the family might go through the naming ceremony again and select a different name.
Games and festivities
The Comanche still enjoy the hand game that has provided entertainment for many generations. They also hold an annual Homecoming Powwow during the month of July near Walters, Oklahoma. Powwows are celebrations at which the main activities are traditional singing and dancing. In modern times, the singers and dancers at powwows come from many different tribes. In 1972 a group of Comanche established the Little Ponies, an organization that holds powwows and sponsors other events to help keep tribal traditions alive.
Why the Bear Waddles When He Walks: A Comanche Tale
In the beginning days, nobody knew what to do with the Sun. It would come up and shine for a long time. Then it would go away for a long time, and everything would be dark.
The daytime animals naturally wanted the Sun to shine all the time, so they could live their lives without being interrupted by the dark. The nighttime animals wanted the Sun to go away forever, so they could live the way they wanted to.
At last they all got together, to talk things over.
Old Man Coyote said, “Let’s see what we can do about that Sun. One of us ought to have it, or the other side ought to get rid of it.”
“How will we do that?” Scissor-tailed Flycatcher asked. “Nobody can tell the Sun what to do. He’s more powerful than anyone else in the world.”
“Why don’t we play hand game for it?” Bear asked. “The winning side can keep the Sun or throw it away, depending on who wins and what they want to do with it.”
So they got out the guessing bones to hide in their hands, and they got out the crow-feathered wands for the guessers to point with, and they got out the twenty pointed dogwood sticks for the umpires to keep score with. Coyote was the umpire for the day side, and nighttime umpire was Owl.
The umpires got a flat rock, like a table, and laid out their counting sticks on that. Then the two teams brought logs, and lined them up facing one another, with the umpires and their flat rock at one end between the two teams.
That was a long hand game. The day side held the bones first, and they were so quick and skillful passing them from hand to hand behind their backs and waving them in the guessers’ faces that it seemed surely they must win. Then Mole, who was guessing for the night side, caught both Scissor-tail and Hawk at the same time, and the bones went to the night side, and the day people began to guess.
Time and again the luck went back and forth, each team seeming to be about to beat the other. Time and again the luck changed, and the winning team became the losing one.
The game went on and on. Finally the Sun, waiting on the other side of the world to find out what was going to happen to him, got tired of it all.
The game was so long that Bear got tired, too. He was playing on the night side. He got cramped sitting on the log, and his legs began to ache. Bear took off his moccasins to rest his feet, and still the game went on and on.
At last the Sun was so bored that he decided to go and see for himself what was happening. He yawned and stretched and crawled out of his bed on the underneath side of the world. He started to climb up his notched log ladder to the top side, to find out what was happening.
As the Sun climbed the light grew stronger, and the night people began to be afraid. The game was still even; nobody had won. But the Sun was coming and coming, and the night animals had to run away. Bear jumped up in such a hurry that he put his right foot in his left moccasin, and his left foot in his right moccasin.
The Sun was full up now, and all the other night animals were gone. Bear went after them as fast as he could in his wrong moccasins, rocking and waddling from side to side, and shouting, “Wait for me! Wait for me!”
But nobody stopped or waited, and Bear had to go waddling along, just the way he has done ever since.
And because nobody won the game, the day and night took turns from that time on. Everybody had the same time to come out and live his life the way he wanted to as everybody else.
Marriott, Alice, and Carol K. Rachlin. “Why the Bear Waddles When He Walks.” American Indian Mythology. New York: Crowell, 1968.
Current tribal issues
Land contamination is the primary concern of the tribe in the early twenty-first century. In 1998 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) selected a thirty-acre site to clean up and develop; they intend to return the site to productive use. In 2004 the Tribal Office of Environmental Protection began installing air quality monitors on the reservation. They also monitor groundwater to be sure it is safe to drink.
Quanah Parker (c. 1852–1911) was a Comanche leader, the son of a white woman, Cynthia Parker, who had been kidnapped as a child and incorporated into the Comanche tribe. After the death of his father in 1867, Quanah Parker led the Comanche and their allies in many successful battles against U.S. troops until he was finally forced to surrender in 1875. Parker adapted quickly to reservation life, learning the ways of whites and making deals to benefit his people. He was an important symbol of Comanche courage and pride.
LaDonna Harris (1931–) is a Comanche woman who has promoted equal opportunity for Native American people on a national level. She was instrumental in the return of the Taos Blue Lake to the people of Taos Pueblo (see entry) and helpted the Menominee (see entry) regain their federal recognition. In addition to leading Americans for Indian Opportunity, Harris founded many Native American organizations including the National Indian Housing Council, Council of Energy Resource Tribes, National Tribal Environmental Council, and National Indian Business Association. She is also an advocate for world peace.
Betty, Gerald. Comanche Society: Before the Reservation. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005.
Bial, Raymond. The Comanche. New York: Benchmark Books, 2000.
Libal, Joyce. Comanche. Philadelphia, PA: Mason Crest, 2004.
Neeley, Bill. The Last Comanche Chief: The Life and Times of Quanah Parker. New York: Wiley, 1996.
Rollings, Willard H. The Comanche. New York: Chelsea House Publications, 2004.
Yeagley, David A. Bad Eagle: The Rantings of a Conservative Comanche. Cambridge: R & R Publishing, 2007.
“Comanche Language (Numinu).” Native Language of the Americas: Preserving and Promoting Indigenous American Indian Languages. (accessed on July 29, 2007).
Edward S. Curtis’s The North American Indian. (accessed on July 29, 2007).
“Native Village Elders, Leaders, Heroes Library.” Native Village. (accessed on July 29, 2007).
Sultzman, Lee. “Comanche History: Part One.” First Nations/First People Issues. (accessed on July 13, 2007).
Comanche Nation of Oklahama: “Lords of the Plains.“ (accessed on July 29, 2007).
Gordon L. Pullar, Director, Department of Alaska Native and Rural Development College of Rural and Community Development, UAF, Anchorage, Alaska
Brian Wescott (Athabaskan/Yup’ik)
Amanda Beresford McCarthy
ETHNONYMS: Numunuu or Numu (self-name), Padouca, Ietan. All these names have alternative forms.
Identification and Location. The Comanche are an American Indian ethnic group of Shoshonean stock. In their native language Comanche call themselves "Our People. " The name Comanche entered English from Spanish, derived from a Ute term signifying "other." The Siouan Padouca was applied by the French and the Americans to Comanches and Apaches in the 1700s and 1800s. Ietan, usually considered a derivative of Ute, also appears in French sources. Other names from neighboring tribes are recorded, many corresponding to the sign language designation "snake." The historical Comanches occupied the southern Great Plains grasslands across southeastern Colorado, eastern New Mexico, western Oklahoma, and western Texas. Some traveled widely beyond this range. In the year 2000 the tribal headquarters was north of Lawton, Oklahoma; tribal members lived in this vicinity and in several U.S. cities.
Demography. Prereservation population estimates by Spanish and American observers are questionable and vary between 6,000 and 20,000. The population declined markedly under the American advance, reaching 1,382 in 1884 and 1,171 in 1910, after which the population rebounded. In 2000 the tribe counted about 11,000 members.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Comanche language is in the Numic branch of the Uto-Aztecan family in the Aztec-Tanoan phylum. Comanche and Shoshone are similar enough to be considered dialects of the same language; among Comanche bands there is dialectal variation. Supplemented with sign language, Comanche was a regional trade medium in the 1800s. Spanish and English loan words reveal a Comanche interest in trade and technology. Comanche speakers served as U.S. Army Signal Corps "code-talkers" in Europe during World War II. About eight hundred fluent speakers, mostly elderly, remained in 2000. In 1989 the tribe mounted vigorous language preservation efforts.
History and Cultural Relations
The first historical reference to the Comanches appears in a Spanish source from 1706. The Comanche earlier separated from the Wyoming Shoshones and spent several generations adapting to the plains, initially as pedestrian hunters. In approximately 1650 they acquired horses from Spaniards and Indians around Santa Fe and quickly developed a classic horse culture. Through the 1700s they alternately fought and allied with the Spanish while displacing the Apaches. Moving southward and eastward ahead of enemies and in search of horses and trade, Comanches entered Texas by 1743. During that era they also made contact with French traders from the east and then with Anglo-American horse dealers and established friendly relations with Caddo and Wichita farmers on the Red River drainage. Competitors included Kiowas and Cheyennes who followed from the north and Pawnees and Osages to the east. Hostilities with the Kiowas and Cheyennes ended by 1840 in a lasting alliance against encroaching Anglo-Americans and supplanted eastern Indians. Comanches increased their raiding in Texas and Mexico after 1840 to obtain livestock and captives for trade. Those raids also stalled Anglo expansion. In 1855 a small reservation was made in Texas for the southernmost Comanches, but settlers drove out the inhabitants in 1859. U.S. military control of the Comanche homeland was not secured until after the Civil War. The 1865 Treaty of the Little Arkansas bound Comanche signatories to a reservation that included much of the Texas panhandle. The Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty of 1867 involved more Comanche leaders and superseded the previous agreement, providing instead for a joint Kiowa-Comanche-(Kiowa) Apache (KCA) reservation in south-western Oklahoma. Resistance continued, notably in the illfated 1874 attack on the Adobe Walls trading post in the Texas panhandle. Many Comanches avoided the reservation until they were forced to move there by a concerted army campaign in 1874—1875. Under the Dawes Act, from 1901 to 1906 the KCA Reservation was allotted to the Indians in severalty and the "surplus" was opened to white settlement. Gradual if incomplete incorporation into the Euro-American economy and culture followed in the twentieth century. In 1969 Comanches formed a sovereign tribal government, the Comanche Nation, separate from the KCA coalition.
The nomadic Comanches did not maintain settlements before the reservation era. They frequented campsites in the Texas panhandle and central hill country, southwestern Oklahoma, and elsewhere. Reservations were established in Throckmorton County, Texas, from 1855 to 1859 and over present Comanche County, Oklahoma, and adjacent areas from 1868 to 1906. Oklahoma Comanche town centers include Apache, Fletcher, Cyril, Lawton, Cache, Indiahoma, Geronimo, Faxon, and Walters. Dwellings were hide, and later canvas, tipis. By 1890 canvas wall tents were prevalent, and after about 1920 wood frame houses were the norm.
Subsistence. Plains life was predicated on the great bison herds. Buffalo provided muscle and organ meat; leather for rawhide, tanned robes, and tipi covers; and bone and horn for implements. Buffalo were stalked or driven en masse, on foot or horseback, and killed with a bow and arrow or a lance thrust underhand. Seasonal movements and congregations of the buffalo determined the location and size of camps. Another determinant was forage for the large horse herds that enabled hunting and raiding and provided trade stock. Individuals amassed herds numbering in the hundreds. Mustangs were captured and broken, using ingenious methods; domesticated animals were taken from other Indians and Euro-American settlers. Comanches made rope from horsehair and ate horse flesh, particularly in times of scarcity and on raids. Thus, although Comanches were technically hunter-gatherers, they resembled pastoralists. Other animals important in the diet included elk, deer, pronghorn, and small mammals. Comanches disdained fowl, fish, and reptiles but ate whatever necessary, except that canines were taboo in deference to the mythological Coyote. They thought beef inferior but came to depend on it as a buffalo substitute. Before the reservation era Comanches did no cultivating and depended on trade for corn, beans, and squash. A wide range of wild fruits, nuts, and tubers supplemented the diet. During the reservation period the hunter-gatherer lifestyle faded. Indian travel was inhibited, game was exterminated by encroaching whites, and dependence grew on government-provided rations such as flour and beef on the hoof. Those rations were meager, and hunger was rampant through the 1880s. Cultivation of vegetables in household gardens and cattle raising became common in the 1890s to supplement rations. These practices, however, were largely forsaken after allotment, as the area market economy grew; after about 1920 store-bought foods purchased with cash from tribal distributions, leases, or wage work were the core of Comanche subsistence. By 2000 few Comanches pursued any of the earlier practices.
Commercial Activities, Gift exchange, barter, and redistribution were traditional modes of transaction. In the period 1885-1901 reservation leaders leased grazing to Texas cattlemen for "grass money. " Agriculture was begun on the reservations as a civilizing measure, but cultural attitudes that disfavored sedentarism, environmental conditions, and lack of capital hindered its direct adoption. Comanches instead often leased their lands or hired out to white farmers, practices that continued in the 1990s. Oil and gas production has yielded royalties for some landowners, notably around 1980. Urban migration for blue- and white-collar work began during World War II and continued under federal relocation programs. Bingo became an important source of tribal revenue after 1983.
Industrial Arts. Comanches have excelled in fashioning clothing and containers from rawhide and buckskin. This craftwork remained a component of some household economies in the 1990s. Wood crafting was involved in bow, arrow, and saddle making. Basketry and pottery were not practiced.
Trade. Comanches inherited a prehistoric trade network when they occupied the Southern Plains. Continuing the established pattern, they brought hides and meat to Puebloan and Caddoan villages in exchange for corn and pumpkins. By 1800 Comanches were major distributors of horses northward to other tribes and also had begun moving stock eastward to supply settlers. After 1786 New Mexican borderers carted meal, trinkets, and hardware onto the plains to trade for Indian horses, hides, and meat. These "Comancheros" later supplied guns and whiskey, receiving contraband cattle and human captives in return. French and Anglo-American traders established posts. Trade was disrupted after the Civil War as Comanches were driven to the reservation and the buffalo were exterminated.
Division of Labor. Women collected plants and small animals and took the primary role in child care. They were mainly responsible for butchering and cooking, processing hides, and fabricating tipi covers, clothing, and containers. Women owned and erected the lodges and organized the transportation of households. Men pursued large game, managed horse herds, and conducted raiding and trading expeditions. They crafted tipi poles, weapons, and tack. Cooperation and overlap were not unusual. Children, adolescents, and elderly people aided in household work and tended livestock. Captives were made to herd horses and repair equipment and were taken on raids, contributing to their acculturation. In 2000 many traditional labor patterns continued in modern form, as women were expected to cook and keep house, men worked outdoors, and grandmothers cared for children. After allotment, however, adults and older children of both sexes all might provide household income as opportunities allowed.
Land Tenure. Land use was corporate until the KCA Reservation was opened to white settlement, after which time each Comanche was given provisional ownership of 160 acres in severalty. These parcels often were sold to non-Indians or fragmented through inheritance and sometimes recombined.
Kin Groups and Descent. Comanches reckon descent bilaterally and do not recognize clans. Kin ties generally reach horizontally though two marriage relationships from ego. Flexibility in the extension of terms allows the construction of networks involving consanguines, affines, and fictive kin, formerly including captives.
Kinship Terminology. The kinship system is a bifurcate merging type but does not distinguish between cross cousins and parallel cousins. Ego extends the spouse term to his or her spouse's unmarried siblings, foreshadowing plural marriage, the levirate, and the sororate. Formulations such as mother's brother with father's sister's husband reflect the possibility of interfamilial exchange marriage. Siblings are distinguished as older or younger. Terms cover relatives three generations above ego and three below; reciprocal terms are used beyond one generation. Address terms are employed creatively to negotiate social distance.
Marriage. Polygyny was the idealized form, with monogamy a realistic option. Polygynous households promised greater security for all their members and testified to the man's abilities as provider. Sisters were said to make the best cowives. A favorite wife, often the first or oldest, supervised the others. Both the levirate and the sororate were present to perpetuate family structure and interfamily ties. The custom of addressing unmarried siblings of spouses as spouses was sometimes the basis for a man's sharing sexual access to his wife with his younger brother, a practice that has been called "anticipatory levirate." Thus, polyandry has been reported. Courters met outside of camp or crawled between tents at night. Older relatives might serve as go-betweens. Comanche marriages have been characterized as alliances between fraternal cores. Relationships thus required sanction from the woman's brothers, something that was desirable even in cases of elopement. Arrangements were confirmed by the giving of horses by the man to the woman's male guardians and were sustained with bride service. Marriages were publicized through cohabitation and only rarely with a ceremony such as a blessing from a shaman. Postmarital residence was normally neolocal, though it could be virilocal in interband marriages. Marriages between individuals with any recognized degree of genetic relationship were prohibited. Plural marriage ceased in the early 1900s, and the predominant pattern became serial monogamy. Christian or civil wedding ceremonies occurred frequently in the twentieth century. Divorce was pursued in cases of abuse or adultery. Men ended their involvement with a verbal proclamation. They also had latitude for physical coercion, including mutilation of the wife's nose for adultery. Women divorced by seeking protection with their brothers or a prospective alternative spouse who might fight or pay compensation to the prior husband.
Domestic Unit. With the basic family consisting of a man and one or more wives, plus their dependents (parents, children, captives), households included one tipi or more set up adjacently. The male occupied one lodge with the favorite wife and their offspring, with secondary wives and their off-spring living next door. Boys had their own lodges after puberty to avoid their sisters and establish independent identities. Such multiple-dwelling households could be compounded bilaterally. Twentieth-century households in permanent dwellings replicated prior patterns to some extent.
Inheritance. Apart from the custom of redistributing any property not left with the decedent's corpse, rules for inheritance were indefinite until about 1900, when land ownership necessitated recognition of U.S. inheritance laws.
Socialization. Children were valued and indulged and were subject to little corporal punishment. Supervision was light and fell mostly to the oldest sister. Experimentation and individualism were encouraged, although children rehearsed adult tasks in standardized play and were taught by their grandparents. A male or female child could be deemed the favorite by its parents and distinguished with gifts and privileges. At puberty boys began avoiding their sisters, and both sexes were expected to primp and strive for chances at adult distinction. Adulthood came for boys with sufficient raiding experience—the qualification for marriage—and for girls with marriage and childbearing.
Social Organization. Five age grades defined the life course, equivalent to baby, child, adolescent, adult, and elder. The ideal adults were dependable providers and honorable. Status in old age depended on adult achievements and the extent of one's kin support. Horse wealth prompted a distinction between rich and poor families. Individuals and nuclear and extended families affiliated at will in bands, with the size of the unit varying according to current conditions. Men's military societies fostered some cross-kin solidarity. Reservation authorities discouraged band formation, but after allotment smaller kin-based residence groups became important organizing features. In 2000 some general continuities were obvious. Class distinctions based on factors such as wealth, educational level, and commitment to traditional values were recognized, as were roles associated with age grades, and sodalities continued to promote interfamilial cooperation.
Political Organization. Comanches never constituted a single political unit in prereservation times. Bands combined into larger autonomous units that scholars have termed divisions. Divisions sometimes achieved tribal functions and degrees of integration. Three divisions are known in the 1700s: Jupe (Timber People), Kotseteka (Buffalo Eaters), and Yamparika (Root Eaters). In the 1800s there were six: Kotseteka and Yamparika plus Kwahadi (Antelope), Nokoni (Wanderers), Penateka (Honey Eaters, Wasps), and Tenewa (Downstream People). Band leadership was a matter of charisma, and leaders could be changed; a pattern of inherited authority was at best incipient. Prominent males met in council to forge a consensus. Division leaders were band heads who could marshal and reward wider collective activity in the face of shifting external circumstances. On the reservation prior political methods initially applied as leaders mediated the distribution of annuities and rations to band subunits, but these leaders were co-opted or bypassed by Indian agents. After allotment an elected joint Kiowa—Comanche—Apache business committee represented local interests before the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Corporate political activity was discouraged by agency superintendents to further assimilation, but eventually the KCA committee assumed the profile of a tribal government such as those promoted under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Support for a discrete Comanche political organization grew in the 1960s. The resultant modern Comanche Nation consists of an elected business committee (tribal council) with legislative and executive functions and a supporting staff. This body regulates tribal membership, administers federal programs, and pursues tribal land claims and economic development.
Social Control. Internal conflicts were mediated through communal pressure invoked by leaders. The kin of a wrong-doer might handle punishment and restoration. Alternatively, cases of sorcery, wife absconding, adultery, and homicide were pursued by the aggrieved parties and the supporters they could muster, who would demand damages. Penalties included fines and corporal or capital punishment, administered in accordance with precedents drawn from collective memory. Communal pressure was sufficient to curb blood feuding. Military societies sometimes assumed police power during marches and hunts, but not to the degree characteristic of other Plains Indian groups.
Conflict. A war ethos pervaded Comanche culture, defining male roles and shaping female roles. Martial training began in boyhood. Combat was waged for territory, trade access, livestock, and revenge. Small-party raids were conducted continually, and large campaigns periodically, all organized by individuals seeking honor. Early Comanches fought in formation with hide armor and long shields. With the introduction of firearms and more horses, combat became individualized, stylized, and even paradoxical. Scalps were taken as trophies and torture and battlefield atrocities were employed to humiliate the enemy, yet great prestige was gained by simply touching a live opponent in defiance. Attackers sought to minimize their casualties above all, but self-sacrifice was celebrated and death in battle was considered the greatest honor.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Traditional belief posits a creator deity termed "Big Father" and associated with the sun. This being is largely disinterested in human affairs, and supernatural agency is more a matter for spirits that manifest themselves to humans as animals, miniature people, or ghosts. The spirits impart supernatural power, equated with the life force, which can be manipulated and transferred by humans for their own welfare. Cosmogony is transmitted in tales featuring the trickster Coyote. Christian missionaries began to work among the Comanche in 1881. Many Comanches affiliate with Methodist, Dutch Reformed, and other denominations, practicing these religions exclusively or syncretically.
Religious Practitioners, Specialists in the manipulation of power cure and advise fellow tribe members. These shamans are called "power possessors" in Comanche and "medicine men or women" in English. Their vocation comes in a series of involuntary dreams or sought visions and is legitimated by success in curing. Women can take this role only after menopause. Christian clergy, including some of Comanche extraction, have played an influential role in community life since reservation times.
Ceremonies. The vision quest conducted by individuals in isolation is the scene of active power acquisition. Ritual then centers on the transmission of power between individuals, including doctoring. Communal ceremonies are less characteristic and are best understood as elaborations of shamanic process. Individuals who share power from one spirit benefactor dance together to acknowledge their affiliation. A group curing ceremony harnessing beaver power was staged in some bands until the 1930s. Sun dances were held at least occasionally until 1878. Comanche developed and taught peyotism, which has been practiced intertribally since the 1870s. From 1900 on Christian services have steadily supplemented traditional practices; these services often include native-language hymns and Indian symbolism. In the twentieth century powwows, often deemed "secular" dance events, became major venues for sacred activity.
Arts. Visual art involved pictography and the decoration of leather goods with painted geometric designs and intricate beadwork. Since the mid-1800s Comanches have participated in the development of engraved nickel silver "peyote" jewelry and have led in the growth of powwow dancing and singing traditions. Bead work and feather work displayed on dance regalia were major artistic media in 2000. In the twentieth century some Comanches pursued sculpture, South--western-style silversmithing, and fine art painting.
Medicine. The English word "medicine" evokes two Comanche terms, one referring to therapeutic substance and the other to spiritual power, indicating a connection between physical and metaphysical treatment. The Comanche pharmacy contains numerous plant and animal materials, including prickly ash, sneezeweed, milkweed, peyote, and lard. Cedar and sage are used as ceremonial fumigants. Ocher paint is applied to the body for protection. To cure witch-craft, shamans suck on the patient's afflicted body part to extract a harmful object that has been magically injected. After about 1900 scientific medicine was used conjointly or alternatively.
Death and Afterlife. Mortality rates were formerly high owing to the hardships of nomadism, warfare, smallpox, and cholera. Infanticide, suicide, euthanasia, and suttee have been reported. Those surviving to old age were left alone as they became infirm. Burial was in a crevice (ideally on a hill west of the death place) and less commonly in a tree or scaffold. Women mutilated themselves in mourning. Concepts of the afterlife as reward or punishment are not central in traditional theology; some notions of paradise as a pleasant campground were promulgated. Since reservation times Christian ideas and funerary practices have been adopted.
For the original article on the Comanche, see Volume 1, North America.
Foster, Morris W. (1991). Being Comanche. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Jones, David E. (1972). Sanapia: Comanche Medicine Woman. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Kavanaugh, Thomas W. (1996). Comanche Political History. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Wallace, Ernest, and E. Adamson Hoebel (1952). The Comanche: Lords of the South Phins. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
DANIEL J. GELO
ETHNONYMS: Nimenim, Numinu, Numu, Padouca, Snake Indians, Tête Pelée
In historical times, the Comanche were a nomadic bison-hunting tribe dominating the southern and Southwestern Great Plains and famous for their war exploits against the Mexican and U.S. armies, the state of Texas, and other tribes. They spoke a Central Numic language closely related to those spoken by the Eastern Shoshone, Northern Shoshone, and Western Shoshone. They apparently separated from other Shoshonean groups in Wyoming in the seventeenth century, moving to the plains area of southeastern Wyoming and Eastern Colorado, and later spreading into western Oklahoma, Texas, eastern New Mexico, and northern Mexico, as far south as Zacatecas and Durango. In the late eighteenth Century they were allied with the Kiowa and have remained close to them to the present day. During the first half of the nineteenth century there was continual strife with Mexicans, Texans, and the U.S. Army. In 1867 the Medicine Lodge Treaty with the United States was signed and the Comanche, along with the Kiowa and Kiowa-Apache moved to a reservation (now a federal trust area) in southwest Oklahoma, where they remain today. The tribe's present constitution and bylaws were approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1966, being represented as a tribe on the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Intertribal Business Committee. Of a total of about nine thousand Comanche noted in the 1980 census, about thirty-six hundred lived in the trust area.
Before being placed on the reservation, the Comanche in historical times were nomadic bison hunters organized into numerous bands, of which five were always prominent—the Quahadi (Kwahadi), the Penateka (Penande), the Nokoni (Detsanayuka), the Yamparika, and the Kotsoteka. The bands were nearly autonomous and interconnections were very loose. Bison were the subsistence mainstay from the time the Comanche moved onto the plains. After the horse was acquired, they usually staged communal hunts under the Direction of a hunt leader. Bison were shot with bows and arrows (later with rifles), stabbed with lances, or sometimes driven over a cliff. Men did the hunting and women the butchering. Other game hunted included elk, deer, black bear, antelope, and, at times, wild horses. In times of Necessity, their own horses would supply the food. Numerous wild plants were collected by the women, and agricultural Products could be traded for with other tribes. Today they are mainly agriculturalists. The bison-hide-covered tipi was the basic dwelling, with wooden frame bungalows and houses replacing them in modern times.
Descent was bilateral with no descent groups being Present. Kinship terminology for cousins was Hawaiian in type. Marriage was usually endogamous within the band Community with uxorilocal postmarital residence. The husband was obliged to provide food for his wife's parents. Polygyny, often sororal, was practiced to a high degree, with the levirate also being present. Children were cherished, although abnormal babies were abandoned, as very often were one or both of a set of twins. Grandparents, especially grandmothers, played a central role in the rearing of children.
As noted above, the political structure was loosely organized, but each band had an elected nonhereditary chief. The most famous of these was Quanah Parker (1845-1911) who led the Comanche on the reservation from the 1870s until his death. Comanche religious practice was very individualistic, with emphasis being laid on the male vision quest. The quest gave power to individuals but entailed restrictive practices and taboos. There were no priests and few group ceremonies. The Comanche believed in a creator spirit and its counterpart, an evil spirit, and accepted the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon as deities. The religion was animistic with natural objects and animal spirits (except for dogs and horses) having various powers. Medicine men served as intermediaries and helpers with the spirits and also served practically as curers. The Comanche had few ceremonies, but had developed or practiced the Beaver Ceremony and the Eagle Dance. Unlike most of the other Plains tribes, they never accepted the Sun Dance.
Cash, Joseph H., and Gerald W. Wolff (1976). The Comanche People. Phoenix, Ariz.: Indian Tribal Series.
Hoebel, E. Adamson (1940). The Political Organization and Law-ways of the Comanche Indians. American Anthropological Association, Memoir 54. Menasha, Wis.
Wallace, Ernest, and E. Adamson Hoebel (1952). The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
COMANCHE. Indians were the dominant military and economic power on the Southern Plains for the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries. They controlled the flow of goods, particularly horses and horse gear, from Spanish New Mexico to the Plains.
Based on linguistic evidence, speakers of Eastern Shoshone (including the Comanches and the Wind River Shoshone of Wyoming) probably diverged from other Shoshone speakers about a.d. 1500. This provides a date for their movement onto the northwestern Plains. While some turned north, confronting the Algonkian speaking Blackfeet, who ultimately pushed them back (so that they became the Wind River Shoshone), others turned south in about 1700. The latter confronted Ute, who named them komanci (my adversary), or Southern Ute, who called them kumanchi (other, or stranger). The "tribal" category "Comanche" did not comprise a single political entity. Rather, there were multiple political organizations in time and space, derived from a common cultural model but based on differing political and domestic economic resources.
Perhaps the best way to understand the Comanche social and political structure is to start at the bottom. While nuclear families might, for whatever reason, choose to live separately for a while, the normal Comanche residential pattern consisted of groups of related extended families. Those families formed the local, or residential, band. The bands were focused around a core extended family, whose leader was the group's chief. Whereas the local residential band was structured on kin-ship, the widest Comanche social structure—the division—was of local group, or bands, linked into political networks; in historic times in New Mexico, and apparently briefly in Texas, the divisional principal chief was "elected" from amongst the constituent local band chiefs.
Four economic bases can be identified: hunting, warfare and raids, trade, and, in the pre-reservation period of Euro-American interaction, political gifts. Items produced in any one of these areas could be translated into others: for instance, items produced in hunting (such as products of the buffalo), raiding (material booty as well as captives), and the political gifts from Euro-Americans were all translated into trade items with others.
There is no way to know the pre-contact Comanche population. Early reports ranged upwards to 20,000, but none of those making these early reports had accurate personal knowledge of the Comanches as a whole. Again, while certainly there were devastating epidemics, there are no unambiguous contemporary accounts. The earliest "census" was in 1879, counting 1,479 persons. The low point occurred in 1904, with just 1,399 Comanches reported. In 1999, the Comanche tribe reported a total population of approximately 10,000.
The Comanches were one of the typical Plains tribes. They shared the pattern of horse-mounted buffalo hunting, the tipi and travois, and religion focusing on personal spiritual power.
A number of Comanche leaders became prominent in inter-tribal, and international affairs. As remembered by a dozen Comanche consultants in 1933, the greatest of pre-reservation leaders was the Yamparika Ten Bears. He participated in a number of treaty councils between 1853 and 1868 and traveled to Washington twice. After Ten Bears, historically the most important Comanche leader was Quanah Parker, the son of a captive white woman from Texas and a Comanche man. In the later reservation period Quanah was the Comanche "principal" chief. While Quanah was important in shaping internal Comanche events, he was also important as a proselytizer of the new peyote, or Native American Church.
Relations with the Spaniards of New Mexico and Texas for most of the eighteenth century alternated between hostility and periods of peaceful trading. In 1785 in Texas and 1786 in New Mexico, strong leaders arranged relatively permanent peace treaties, which lasted until the collapse of the Spanish Empire in 1821. Mexico attempted to continue the policies of Spain with treaties in 1823 and 1826, but the new government did not have the resources to maintain either major trade or political gifts. Meanwhile, the United States was trying to lure the Comanches from their Spanish alliances by providing gifts to Comanche visitors at Natchitoches, Louisiana. With the opening of the Santa Fe Trail, parts of which went right through Comanche territory, American policy became one of trying to keep the Comanches away from the trail, by treaty if possible, by military force if not.
Treaties or other agreements between the United States and the Comanches were signed in 1835, 1846, 1853, 1861, 1865, and 1867. Several treaties were negotiated with the Confederate States in 1861. But as with the Spanish and Mexican treaties, all of these agreements involved only a portion of the Comanches. The last treaty—Medicine Lodge Creek, signed in 1867—created a reservation in southwestern Indian Territory, but it was not until 1875 that all Comanches were forced to live there permanently. The reservation was allotted and dissolved in 1901. A few Comanche are alleged to have participated in the Ghost Dance of 1890, but apparently there is no direct evidence for it. At the same time, a number of Comanches became active participants in the new Native American Church.
By the twentieth century, many Comanches had become active participants in the general economy. While many original reservation allotments remain in Indian hands, relatively few Indians actually work their land; most is leased to non-Indians.
A number of Comanches served in the armed forces in World War I. In 1939, a group of Comanches fluent in their native language was recruited to act as Code Talkers. They served in Europe, landing at Normandy on D Day.
Foster, Morris W. Being Comanche: A Social History of an American Indian Community. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991.
Kavanagh, Thomas W. Comanche Political History: An Ethnohistorical Perspective, 1706–1875. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
See alsoTribes: Great Plains .
Comanche (kəmăn´chē), Native North Americans belonging to the Shoshonean group of the Uto-Aztecan branch of the Aztec-Tanoan linguistic stock (see Native American languages). They originated from a Basin-type culture and eventually adopted a Plains culture. They separated from the Shoshone and migrated southward in the late 1600s, appearing in New Mexico around 1705. In the late 18th cent. and early 19th cent. their range included SE Colorado, SW Kansas, W Oklahoma, and N Texas. The Comanche were excellent horsemen and inveterate raiders, often pushing far S into Mexico. They were extremely warlike and effectively prevented white settlers from passing safely through their territory for more than a century. They are said to have killed more whites in proportion to their own numbers than any other Native American group. They were associated with the Kiowa, the Cheyenne, and the Arapaho in a loose confederacy. The Comanche, however, considered themselves superior to their associates, and their language served as the trade language for the area. The sun dance, a common feature in the Plains culture area, was not an important part of Comanche culture; they probably introduced the peyote ritual to the Plains tribes. Never a large group despite their wide range, their numbers were greatly reduced by warfare and disease. In 1990 there were about 11,500 Comanche in the United States.
See E. Wallace and E. A. Hoebel, Comanches, The Lords of the South Plains (1952); J. E. Harston, Comanche Land (1963); A. C. Greene, The Last Captive (1972); T. R. Fehrenbach, Comanches: The Destruction of a People (1974); P. Hamalainen, The Comanche Empire (2009); S. C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon (2010).
Co·man·che / kəˈmanchē/ • n. (pl. same or -ches ) 1. a member of an American Indian people of the southwestern U.S. The Comanche were among the first to acquire horses (from the Spanish) and resisted white settlers fiercely. 2. the Uto-Aztecan language of this people. • adj. of or relating to this people or their language.