Dustin Tahmahkera (Comanche) is the Wick Cary Chair of Native American Cultural Studies in the Department of Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Tribal Television: Viewing Native People in Sitcoms. His newest book, Cinematic Comanches (Nebraska, 2022), was published this month.
The Comanche Empire Strikes Back
I come from a long line of people recognized nowadays as having constructed an empire, a historic superpower spanning northern Mexico, the southwestern United States, and the southern Great Plains. For centuries generations of Comanches have marked their presence as warriors and peacekeepers, traders and raiders, caretakers and captive takers, a proud and humble people who acquired horses from the Spanish and built a vast network that migrated through borderlands of unstable jurisdictions of Indigenous and colonial powers. Backed by our captive taking and captivating history on multitribal and multinational lands, Comanches strikingly prompt reconfiguration, if not marginalization, of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands binary. Before the lands were called the “United States” in 1776 or “Mexico” in 1810, Comanches and other Native nations already staked their jurisdiction and called them—as an old joke in Indian Country goes—ours. No disrespect to our sometimes-relatives, sometimes-enemies Lipan Apaches, Tonkawas, Kickapoos, and other Tejas border-crossed Indigenes, but our Comanche ancestors were borderlands people before the borderlands was cool.
In the sixteenth century, Comanche oral tradition says, a group broke away from the Shoshones in the Great Basin region of presentday Wyoming. Explanations for what caused the split continue to circulate among Comanches and Shoshones. Some say the separation was over a dispute. Some say a disease or food shortage. “There is a story,” one old source states, “that a dispute arose over division of the game killed.” A Comanche elder told me that, in anticipating the split, three runners went east in search of a new home for the group internally known as Nʉmʉnʉ, soon-to-be externally named “Comanche.” One runner made it all the way to present-day southwestern Oklahoma, where the Comanche Nation Tribal Complex is now sited and from where we continue to host our Shoshone relatives when they visit.
Stories of who the Utes called Kumantsi or Komantcia (translated as “different” or “enemy”), subsequently Spanishized into Cumanche and Comanche, have spread from Durango, Mexico, to Durango, Colorado, the Yucatán to Kansas, across and beyond the 240,000 square miles of what Spaniards dubbed the Comanchería, a borderlands space apparently so dominated by us in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that others named it after us. (Even those who traded with us then in New Mexico were called Comancheros.) A standard map of the Comanchería highlights parts of what became Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kansas, yet the traditional territory and travels of Comanches extend much farther.
A map by Jimmy Arterberry, former Comanche Nation tribal administrator and also Tribal Historic Preservation officer, outlines the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’ Greater Comanchería, “whose effective sphere of influence,” Finnish scholar Pekka Hämäläinen concurs, “extended far to the south and west of its southern plains core area.” In collaboration with Stephen Lee, the Comanche Nation director of realty, Arterberry’s map highlights traditional territories of Comanches, including Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and northern Mexico. Like Américo Paredes’s conceptualization of Greater Mexico as “all the areas inhabited by people of Mexican culture,” the Greater Comanchería covers the cultural inhabitations and influences of Comanches. From days as a borderlands superpower extending in all directions to recent scholarship on Comanches shaping the historical formations of Chicana/o, mestizo/a, and genízaro identities to our resurgence in the cultural imaginaries of literature, cinema, and television, Comanches—and ideas of Comanches—carry generations of memories and association with territorial and representational might.
However, the story in scholarship, literature, film, and elsewhere in what I frame as the media borderlands often ends abruptly in the mid-1870s with the so-called fall of Comanches, marked by my relative (and Cinematic Comanches co-star) Quanah Parker, with his eventual decision in 1875 to lead the last Comanche holdouts to the Indian outpost of Fort Sill in present-day Lawton, Oklahoma. If generations up to then formed what Hämäläinen calls the “Comanche empire,” then today’s Comanches are descendants of an empire people. But we go unrecognized as such by those who leave their representations of us in the distant past or, just as problematically, view us as remnants of a once powerful people, as if we are more of Comanche heritage than we are Comanches, or Nʉmʉnʉ.
In response I contend the narratives need to expand immensely to critically and creatively recognize Comanches as a much deeper storied people. Contrary to popular opinion, the Comanche empire (and “real” Comanche people) did not end in 1875. The term “empire” descends from imperare (to command) in Old French from imperium (a command) in Latin. Mediated sites, historically and today, represent networked extensions of the Comanche empire. The media borderlands story that I share shows Comanches continuing to stake claims in representation and to command others to take notice of our rich cultural history in media. In the ever-expanding media borderlands of celluloid, digital, and other mediated territories, this story seeks narrative expansion by arguing for recognition of Comanche reality and fluidity.
To signify “Comanche” through vast borderlands, not restrictive borders, I call precisely for recognition of Comanches representing in the media borderlands an intertwined genealogy of our people: cinematic Comanches. “Cinematic” means “relating to motion pictures” and “having qualities characteristic of motion pictures.” As filmic visuality, cinematic comes from cinema (i.e., movies and movie production), which derives from the Greek word kinema, or movement. My use of “cinematic” similarly refers to real and reel Comanches’ moves and relations in film and filmic characteristics, contexts, and conversations. Within a Comanche history of migrations and movements off-screen and on, cinematic Comanches are a performative people in motion (and motion pictures) in the media borderlands. Featuring an eclectic cast and crew, cinematic Comanches include filmmakers, actors (filmic and social), viewers, critics, consultants, Comanche characters (both the culturally grounded and culturally unfounded), and others representing off-screen and on-screen confluences. Like the media borderlands in and out of which they represent, interconnected real-to-reel Comanches are liminal subjects blurring lines between truth and fiction since the advent of filmmaking.