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The History of Native American Tribes. Comanche flag

Comanche flag


   Comanche Location before contact: the Comanches were part of the southern groups of Eastern Shoshoni that lived near the upper reaches of the Platte River in eastern Wyoming. Beginning in the 1740s they began crossing the Arkansas River and established themselves on margins of the Llano Estacado (or Staked Plains, so called because it was so flat and devoid of landmarks that large stakes were driven in the ground to mark the trails) which extended from western Oklahoma across the Texas Panhandle into New Mexico. The area they controlled became known as Comancheria and extended south from the Arkansas River across central Texas to the vicinity of San Antonio including the entire Edwards Plateau west to the Pecos River and then north again following the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the Arkansas.

The History of Native American Tribes. Comanche village

Comanche village

   At the time of their first separation from the Shoshoni, the Comanches probably numbered about 10,000. This increased dramatically as they migrated south and were joined later by additional groups of Eastern Shoshoni. They also added to their population by incorporating large numbers of women and children prisoners. Estimates for 1790 run as high as 20,000, but there was never an accurate count until the 1870s. Although the 1849 United States census of Indian tribes also gave this figure, it was, at best, a guess. Epidemics during the following two years had dropped this estimate to 12,000 by 1851. There were less than 8,000 Comanches in 1870. At the lowpoint in 1920, the census listed less than 1,500. Currently, 5,000 Comanches live near their tribal headquarters in Lawton, Oklahoma. Total enrollment is around 8,000. Of the three million acres promised the Comanche, Kiowa and Kiowa Apache by treaty in 1867, only 235,000 have remained in native hands. Of this, 4,400 acres are owned by the tribe itself.

The History of Native American Tribes. Comanche chief

Comanche chief

   The Comanche name is well-known, but its origin is uncertain. The most likely explanation is that it was a Spanish corruption of their Ute name, Kohmahts (those who are against us). The Siouan word Padoucah used interchangeably by the early French traders for both Comanches and Plains Apache. In later years it came to be used only for Comanches.

   The Comanche language is almost identical to Shoshoni which in turn is related to Ute and Paiute.

   Great Plains horse and buffalo culture and all this implies, especially the horse.

The History of Native American Tribes. Comanche Horsemen

Comanche Horsemen

Comanches are believed to have been the first native people on the plains to utilize the horse extensively, and as such, they were the source for other plains tribes of the horses that made the buffalo culture possible, even their enemies. Comanche herds also supplied Americans with mules for the southern cotton plantations and horses used to reach California during the 1849 gold rush.

   Comanches stole just about every horse and mule in New Mexico and northern Mexico and put a good dent in the available supply in Texas. They captured women and children from rival tribes and sold them to the Spanish in New Mexico as 'servants.' During the 1800s they expanded into stealing thousands of cattle from Texas herds to sell in New Mexico.

   Physically, Comanches were generally shorter than other plains tribes. Warriors wore their hair long, parted in the middle around the scalplock, and braided (or tied) on the sides. Women usually cut theirs short. Clothing was buckskin, but after cloth became available, they preferred blue or scarlet. Despite the stereotype seen in the movies, Comanches did not wear feathered war bonnets like the Lakota until the late 1800s. For a headdress, many preferred a war bonnet made from a buffalo scalp with horns. This also served to protect its wearer from blows to the head. Rather than ordinary moccasins, Comanche horsemen wore high riding boots extending to hip and usually colored a light blue.

The History of Native American Tribes. Comanche


   Besides language, Comanches retained other traits of the Shoshoni. Their tepees were distinctive on the southern plains for their use of four (not three) main poles, two of which outlined the entrance. The tepee was always used during winter, but in summer, Comanches frequently used temporary brush shelters reminiscent of Great Basin Shoshoni. The staple food was buffalo, but their diet also included roots, wild vegetables and fruits gathered by the women. The buffalo provided just about everything they needed: clothing, tepee covers, thread, water carriers, and tools. Some have mentioned they never ate fish or waterfowl, but Comanches say they ate them only if they happened to be hungry. However, they definitely did not eat dogs and never quite adjusted to the hospitality of their Kiowa, Cheyenne and Arapaho allies who did. When the Comanches first encountered cannibalism among the tribes in eastern Texas, their reaction was almost the same as Europeans, only Comanches had a more direct method of expressing disapproval. As a rule, they did not like or use the "firewater" offered to them by white traders.

   They were loosely organized into 8 to 12 divisions, each with several bands. Individuals often transferred between these groups. Leadership was entirely male and not hereditary. It was based on status acquired through a combination of war honors, "puha" (medicine power), generosity, and family relationships. Its most apparent characteristic was the lack of hard-and-fast rules. The power of a Comanche parabio (chief) could vary from minimal control of his own band to authority over an entire division. Division chiefs apparently were elected by a general council of band parabios, when required, at large gatherings for that purpose. There does now appear to have been any level of central authority beyond the division level. Comanches valued good-judgement over speaking skills, and their leaders frequently employed a designated speaker, or orator (tlatolero), to speak for them. It was sometimes difficult for outsiders in meetings with Comanches to determine who was the actual leader. It was also almost-impossible to make a treaty with one group of Comanches that would be observed by all.

The History of Native American Tribes. Comanche wigwam

Comanche wigwam

   Like many of their other characteristics, Comanche social organization was basic, but not simple, because of the lack of absolutes. Their large horse herds required Comanches to live in small, scattered groups. Even then it was necessary to move frequently, not just to follow the buffalo, but to insure enough grass to feed their mounts. The basic social unit was the extended family. Wives became part of their husband's family, but not always. Comanches did not have clans, but the men had several military societies which cut across band and division lines. Small medicine (puha) societies were another form of organization for both men and women. The Comanches were a warrior society, and the men dominated. Women were not allowed not speak at council, and often were not free to choose whom they would marry. Most observers have concluded their lives were hard. The men were polygamous, but an adulterous wife could be killed or have her nose cut-off.

   The dead were buried almost immediately in a shallow trench, usually on a hill near the village. The grave was then covered with rocks, and often a warrior's horse was also killed. A mourning period followed during which women relatives cried aloud as a sign of grief. As could be expected, Comanche religion was also basic. It centered around the individual acquisition of puha through a vision quest, but there was no formal ritual for this. There was a general belief in a Supreme Creator, spirits, and a life after death. Although there was little public ceremony, religion was an important part of their lives. Councils always began with a pipe smoking ceremony, with the first puff always offered to the Great Spirit. The Comanches had their own version of the sun dance, but it was performed at irregular intervals. When the Ghost Dance movement swept across the plains in 1890, the Comanches did not participate.


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