LOCATION: United States (Oklahoma; Texas)
POPULATION: over 19,000 (including those who indicate Comanche and another racial category in the 2000 census)
LANGUAGE: English; Comanche
RELIGION: Native American Church
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 2: Native North Americans
Originally, the Comanches were part of the Shoshone tribe, who lived in the mountains of what is now northern Wyoming and Montana. Late in the 17th century, they broke into two bands, and those who would later be known as the Comanches moved south. In the Southern Plains, they met the Utes, who introduced them to Spanish traders. In this context, the Comanches assumed a new name, either "Koh-Mahts" or "Kwuma-ci," rather than their original "Nerm." The precise meaning of the Ute names are uncertain, but linguists think they mean "one who fights us all the time." The Spanish transformed the Ute words into "Comanche."
Once the Comanches had settled into their new home in the Southern Plains, they divided into five major groupings: the Penatekas, who lived the farthest south; the Nokohi of the east; the Kotsoteka of the north, and the Yamparika to their north; and the Quahadi of the west. The main enemies of the Comanches were the Pawnees, Osages, Arapaho, and Apaches. Although the five Comanche bands were independent of one another, they often came together to fight a common enemy (as was the case with many battles against the Apaches, who sought to gain land, horses, and captives).
There were two main European forces that interacted with the Comanches in the 18th century: the French and the Spanish. The French had purely economic interests in the land. They wanted a strong trading post and a steady source of income from the New World for the king. They had neither religious nor social interests in the area and were, therefore, able to maintain healthy relations with the Comanches. The French traded guns, ammunition, and metal goods such as knives and pots. When the French were defeated by the British in the French and Indian War of 1763, however, many French traders left the continent, and the Comanches lost valuable trading partners.
The Spanish, on the other hand, had very different goals. They were eager to convert the Comanches to Catholicism and desperately wanted Comanche land for the mineral wealth it possessed. Angered by the Spanish desire for dominance, the Comanches often raided Spanish pueblos in New Mexico and Texas. The Spanish had brought smallpox to the New World, however, and many Comanches died in a smallpox epidemic in 1780-1781. The tribe was greatly weakened, and they could no longer fight the Spanish. A few of the bands met with the Spanish governor of New Mexico, De Anza, and in 1786 they agreed to peace terms that promised trade and rest to both parties. Due to the autonomy of the different Comanche bands, the southernmost people continued raiding the Spanish pueblos in Texas, believing the treaty did not apply to them since they had not participated in the negotiations. The unstable treaty was maintained until Texas won its independence in 1836.
The Comanches and European American settlers suffered continuous conflict throughout the 19th century. The worst fighting occurred in Texas, where the Comanches had the largest land holdings, referred to as Comancheria. In the late 1830s, the Nation of Texas formed a special division of soldiers called the Texas Rangers. They were given the job of fighting the Comanches in Comancheria and keeping them out of the settlers' way.
In 1840 leaders of twelve Comanche bands went to the council house in San Antonio to try to reach an agreement with the Texas lawmakers, an agreement that would bring hostilities to an end. At this meeting, the Texans demanded that the Comanches return all European American captives. Because each Comanche band was autonomous, however, it was impossible for the Comanches to make this promise. Acting impulsively, the Texans took the Comanches hostage to better their bargaining position. The Comanches tried to escape, and all twelve of the leaders were killed in what has become the Council House Massacre—one of the most dramatic episodes in the Comanches' struggle to maintain their land. When Texas became a U.S. state in 1845, the Comanches' hostility turned toward the U.S. government. They resisted reservation life until the spring of 1875, when the government declared that any Comanche not living in so-called "Indian Territory" (present-day Oklahoma) would be shot on sight. This finally brought the Comanches to their knees, and they reluctantly became the last Native American tribe to submit to life on a reservation.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
When the Comanches arrived on the Southern Plains at the start of the 18th century, they had to fight the Apache (their most challenging enemy) to obtain land. Comancheria, as the Spanish called the vast territory the Comanches ruled, incorporated over 24,000 square miles stretching from southeast Colorado to southwest Kansas, and from eastern New Mexico to central Oklahoma and Texas. The climate is mild, and the buffalo were plentiful throughout the year. With buffalo as a staple, the Comanches became a nomadic hunting people who followed the herds and settled along streams for water.
Territory was always important to the Comanches. They were a communal people, and when they were forced onto individual land plots by the General Allotment Act of 1887, they chose their property according to the old patterns of the Comancheria. The four remaining bands settled more or less where they had in the old days. The Penteka went to the south, the Quahadi lived in the west, the Nokomi went east, and the Yamparika took the northernmost property. The Comanche population is nearly 20,000. Only 50% live in their old home-lands of Oklahoma and Texas.
The Comanche language belongs to the Uto-Aztecan family of Native North American languages. Because many of the Plains people spoke different languages, they developed a form of sign language to communicate with those from different tribes. In this sign language, the Comanches were often referred to by making a side-to-side, snake-like motion in the air with the finger moving backwards. The snake referred to the Shoshone, the Comanche's ancestors; Shoshone means "snake people." In this way, the Comanches were always connected to their ancestral heritage. While efforts are being made to preserve this sign language, not many Comanches understand it any more. The few who still understand are those born before 1926. Those born after 1926 were educated in Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) schools where indigenous and traditional languages were suppressed.
Today a federal grant is making possible a preschool total language immersion program for 3–4-year-olds in order to ensure the survival of the Comanche language. In addition, a Comanche Language Preservation Committee has been formed. In spite of the rather large number of Comanche tribal members, there are no more than 40 people who can still carry on a conversation in Comanche. The boarding school experience is the direct cause of the demise of the Comanche language.
During World War II, Comanche Code-Talkers, an elite group of 17 young men fluent in the Comanche language, received special communications training from the United States army. They were employed to send critical messages in a special code that confused the enemy.
According to Comanche myth, the Comanches were created by the Great Spirit after it had destroyed another people in a great flood. The former people displeased the Great Spirit, and a fresh start was needed.
Several stories are told concerning the tribe's emigration south, in which they left the Shoshone people. The first states that two bands were camping together and two boys, one from each band, were playing. One boy accidentally kicked the other in the stomach, and he eventually died. His band was irate and would have attacked the other if an elder had not intervened. He told both groups that they were one people and should not fight amongst themselves. Both bands agreed but also understood that they could no longer live together. Thus, the Shoshone stayed in the north and the other, who later became the Comanches, moved south.
The second story also starts with a camping party. Men from both bands went on a hunting expedition. A bear was killed with two arrows, one shot by a man in one band, and one from the bow of a man in the other band. Unable to decide who had shot the fatal arrow, the quarreling bands decided to go their separate ways.
Other legends exist regarding the Comanches' migration. One story tells how the Comanches split from the more peaceful Shoshone and traveled down the "Snake River" to continue their warlike, political, and opinionated way of life. Other sources of the snake image may be rooted in legends about the Comanche settling in an area inhabited by many snakes, and how they were considered to be "as dangerous as snakes."
Compared to the other Plains Indian tribes, the Comanches held few ceremonies. The night before the men went into battle or on a raid, the War Dance was performed. The Comanches believed that to dance the War Dance during the day would bring bad luck to their side.
Unlike all other Plains tribes, the Comanches do not perform the Sun Dance. In 1874, however, a radical Comanche preacher, Ishatai, claimed to have communicated with the Great Spirit. He told the Comanches that the Great Spirit wanted them to perform the Sun Dance and that if they did, they would win the Spirit's favor and drive away the European Americans forever. With assistance from the neighboring Kiowas, the Comanches performed the Sun Dance in 1874. Afterwards, they set out with Kiowa and Cheyenne warriors to attack a European American trading post at Adobe Walls in the Texas panhandle. Although the Native North Americans greatly outnumbered the European Americans, their bows, arrows, and lances were hardly a match for the guns and rifles of the European American settlers. The Comanches lost the battle—and lost their faith in the Sun Dance, which was never performed again.
After being forced onto the reservation, many Comanches began practicing peyotism. In 1918 Comanches helped form the Native American Church, which combines ideas of Christianity with the sacramental use of peyote.
The Comanches were unique among the Plains peoples, as they did not hold annual gatherings or assemblies. In fact, the Comanches rarely congregated. Sometimes they hunted or fought together, but almost never did they gather for a formal inter-tribal meeting.
Today the Comanches hold an annual Comanche Home-coming in Walters, Oklahoma, during the third week in July. People from many different tribes come together for this huge powwow that celebrates the similarities of Native North American cultures. The Comanche Nation Fair is held yearly at Old Craterville Park, Ft. Sill, Oklahoma on the last weekend in September.
RITES OF PASSAGE
For the early years of a child's life, he or she is called a variety of nicknames. Later a formal name is given in a public ceremony. This new name is most often based on an important experience in the child's life.
The Comanches had an elaborate system of social etiquette. For example, hospitality was sacred, and all invited guests were treated with the utmost respect. This is why the Comanches took such great offense when they were invited to talks with the U.S. government and were later mocked or hurt. Equally important was the prohibition on stealing from friends and allies; to do so would bring severe punishment—although strangers were fair game. Lying was once an important taboo; to call someone a liar, or e-shop, was the worst imaginable insult.
Each person belonged to a family hunting band; each band varied in size. Comanche social structure was quite loose, and people changed hunting bands as needed or desired. If a band leader made a decision that was unpopular, people either started a new band or organized a change in leadership. There was no central ruling government, which allowed each band full autonomy.
Within each band there were band councils comprised of adult males. Decisions had to be unanimous, which caused many divisions because Comanches would rather leave than create conflict. A band chief ran each council meeting as long as he retained the support and cooperation of the others. A respected elder acted as a peace chief and brought wisdom and fairness to the mix. Before each battle, raid, or hunt, a war chief was elected. This war chief held power only until the task was completed.
Unlike other Plains tribes, the Comanches were not organized into military societies. While they often joined together for battles, they always returned to their smaller, independent bands when the fighting was over. During the hunt, each man did his own killing, and there was rarely a limit placed on the number of buffaloes taken. This was due to the abundance of buffalo on the Southern Plains throughout the year.
Because they were a migratory hunting tribe, the Comanches lived in portable tipis. Tipis were made by stretching many buffalo hides sewn together across a cone-shaped frame of four wooden poles tied together at the top. The Comanches, as well as the Blackfeet and Shoshone, used a four-pole tipi construction; most Plains tribes in the same area used a three-pole construction, even today. The Comanches had very little furniture in their tipis. Large piles of buffalo-skin robes served as beds, seats, and tables. The opening of the tipi always faced the rising sun in the east.
During the summer months, the Comanches often slept outside in wooden framework shelters with flat roofs covered with leaves and branches. The shelters had no sides and thus allowed a breeze to circulate while offering shade during the daytime.
In traditional Comanche society, all children were highly valued, but boys were preferred. When they reached courtship age, boys and girls had to follow very strict courting rules. They were forbidden to show interest in each other while in camp, but they frequently arranged secret meetings outside of camp. When a boy decided that he wanted to marry a certain girl, he would give the girl's family a horse as a way to show that he would be able to provide for her. If his proposal was accepted, he would leave his tipi and live with his new wife in her family's tipi. Polygamy was common. Very often, the second and third wives would be sisters of the first wife. It was felt that sisters would get along with each other better and would be less likely to quarrel. The first wife was always considered the boss, however. To avoid conflicts and disharmony, men never spoke directly to their mothers-in-law.
Today Comanches wear Western-style clothing for everyday purposes. Traditional clothing is still worn for ceremonials, however.
Traditionally, the Comanches made nearly all their clothing from deer and buffalo skins. Because of the warm climate in which they lived, Comanche boys went naked until they were 8–10 years old, when they would start to wear a breechcloth. A breechcloth is a piece of animal hide passed between the legs then draped over a belt around the waist to hang down in front and back. Girls wore only a breechcloth until they were about 12 years old, when they would begin to wear women's clothing. Women's clothing emphasized modesty. Comanche women wore loose fitting deerskin dresses with long sleeves. They decorated the dresses with fringe, beads, and small pieces of metal (after contact with Europeans, when metal began to be received in trade). Women also wore beaded moccasins made of buffalo skin. All Comanches used shampoo and soap made from yucca plant root.
Comanche men wore a breechcloth made of deerskin. In the summer, they went naked from the waist up. In the winter, they wore warm buffalo-skin robes and high leather boots that covered their legs. Men had pierced ears and long hair worn in two braids, decorated with strips of fur, leather, and feathers. Before battle, men painted their faces black. At other times, they would paint their faces in various colors and designs, none of which had any particular significance. Women often painted yellow or red lines around their eyes. They also painted the insides of their ears red and decorated their cheeks with orange or red triangles or circles. This was simply considered stylish and had no other deep significance.
After the United States forced the Comanches to relocate to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma, the government provided them with clothing made of cheap materials in a one-size-fits-all design that was usually too large to fit anyone. Children were not provided with any clothing at all. The women would cut the government clothing down to size for the adults, then use the leftover fabric for children's clothes.
The acquisition of horses (introduced to North America by the Spanish) in the 17th century made buffalo hunting much easier for the Comanches. With more meat available, the Comanches became a healthier, and eventually more numerous, tribe. They ate all edible parts of the buffalo, plus deer, antelope, and black bear meat. When other meat was extremely scarce, they were be forced to eat their horses to survive (dog and human meat were strictly forbidden).
Boiled meat called söp is made by boiling chunks of lean meat in water until tender. A staple food for the Comanches and other Plains tribes was pemmican. Traditionally made from buffalo meat mixed with berries and nuts, "glued" together with boiled buffalo fat, pemmican was extremely healthy and would last for years when stored in leather pouches called parfleches.
Modern Pemmican (pie filling)
1 quart apple cider
2 cups seedless raisins
1 cup dried currants
3 apples, peeled, cored,and chopped
1 cup chopped suet
2 pounds ground venison2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon allspice
Put the cider, raisins, currants, apples, and suet in a large saucepan. Cover and let simmer over low heat for two hours. Stir in the remaining ingredients, and let simmer uncovered for another two hours, stirring occasionally. Use as pie or pastry filling. Makes 2 quarts.
[Adapted from Kimball and Anderson, The Art of American Indian Cooking (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co.), 1965, p. 121.]
At the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) schools in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Comanche children were taught European American ways and values. At both boarding schools and day schools on the reservation, boys were taught vocational skills such as bookkeeping, while girls were taught how to iron, set a table, and address party invitations. Both boys and girls were taught to play croquet and baseball.
In 1935, when the U.S. Congress passed the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act, new schools funded by the U.S. government but run by Native North Americans were opened, replacing the BIA schools. But Native-run schools were short-lived. They were closed after World War II (1941–1945) when the U.S. government reduced its spending. Today there are a few Comanche schools in operation, but the majority of Comanche children attend public schools in Walters and Lawton, Oklahoma. There are several highly educated Comanche who teach at major research universities in the United States. In 2002 Comanche Nation College was established by Tribal Charter. The goal of the newly formed college is to provide educational opportunities for members of the Comanche Nation as well as other neighboring tribes with an American Indian focus, which stresses the maintenance of language and culture in the modern world.
In the past, "sweats" were a form of purification or cleansing, but they were not considered a ritual religious ceremony.
Comanche work has changed dramatically since the days before the European invasion. When they were masters of the Comancheria, boys learned to ride horses and hunt at a very early age, and girls were taught to cook and tan hides. While men made weapons and hunted, women prepared the food, tanned hides, and made tipis and clothes. When forced to relocate to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), the Comanches had to learn to farm. After the General Allotment Act of 1887 divided their lands into parcels too small to farm successfully, many Comanches found jobs off-reservation, working as herders or farmers for European Americans. These jobs usually paid very low wages.
Many Comanches lost their already marginal jobs during the Depression of the 1930s and fell into even deeper poverty. In 1935, as part of the New Deal, Congress passed the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act, which allowed Native North Americans to form business-development groups. The Comanches helped reestablish the Comanche, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache Business Council that had been disbanded in 1887 after the General Allotment Act. In 1966, however, the Comanches broke away and formed their own Comanche Business Council. The Comanche Business Council has since organized the operation of a meat-packing plant as well as a leather-tanning factory on Comanche lands in Oklahoma. Many Comanche men and women still must find work off-reservation, however. A number of young Comanches enlist in the U.S. Armed Services, the modern expression of their traditional warrior identity.
The Comanches traditionally played a sport called shinny that was very similar to modern-day lacrosse . They also played a sport similar to soccer.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Traditionally, Comanche elders would tell stories around campfires at night to provide entertainment as well as education for the children.
Today Comanches enjoy the same forms of recreation as other Americans. A traditional pastime at tribal powwows is the hand-game, a gambling game for teams in which sticks are hidden in the hands of some team members and the opposing team must guess who the stick holders are.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Comanche crafts represented everyday life with toy versions of real people and objects, much like "playing house"—dolls in cradleboards, miniature tipis, and so on.
In their art, Comanches used certain symbols to represent healing and medicine; for example, a buffalo design on a shield would represent the strength of the buffalo.
The Comanches suffer a great deal from racial discrimination in Oklahoma. A recent study showed that more Comanches are arrested than European Americans for similar offenses and that more force is used while arresting Comanches than while arresting European Americans.
The Comanche, as opposed to almost every other North American Indian tribe, do not recognize third or fourth genders. In other words, there are no berdaches in Comanche society. The cultural construction of gender in Comanche culture includes only males and females.
In prereservation Comanche society, that was considerable competition among men for wives. Polygyny was practiced throughout Comanceria. Men would often attempt to seduce the wives of other men and then run off to live separately. Comanche men did not punish the men who stole their wives with harsh brutality or death. Instead, they demanded some sort of recompense or payment.
The highest honor that could be bestowed on a Comanche woman was to be gifted with an otterskin cap. A woman would have to accumulate many good deeds in her lifetime to be bestowed with this honor. Most Comanche women do not receive such an honor until they are fifty or sixty years old. After receiving the otterskin cap, the woman would add her eagle plume that she received during puberty to the back of the cap.
One of the most well-known contemporary Comanche women is LaDonna Harris (b. 1931). A tireless champion of equal rights for peoples of all nationalities and ethnicities, Harris was one of the founding members of "The Group" that fought to desegregate the city of Lawton, Oklahoma in the 1960s. She also fought for Comanche separation from the Kiowa and Apache peoples during the late 1950s and 1960s. The Comanche separation secured independent status for the Comanche.
Alter, Judy. The Comanches. New York: Franklin Watts, 1994.
Betty, Gerald. Comanche Society: Before the Reservation. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2002.
Foster, Morris W. Being Comanche: A Social History of an American Indian Community. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991.
Janda, Sarah Eppler. Beloved Women: The Political Lives of La-Donna Harris and Wilma Mankiller. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2007.
Kimball, Yeffe, and Jean Anderson. The Art of American Indian Cooking. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1965.
Lodge, Sally. The Comanche. Vero Beach, Florida: Rourke Publications, 1992.
Mooney, Martin J. The Comanche Indians. New York: Chelsea House, 1993.
Reddy, Marlita A., ed. Statistical Record of Native North Americans, 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.
Rollins, Willard H. The Comanche. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.
—revised by J. Williams