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Bone of Conciliation

A ceremony of healing in Comanche country

by Henry Chappell

Published in the September/October 2008 issue of Orion magazine



Painting: Juanita Pahdopony

ON AN OVERCAST SEPTEMBER AFTERNOON, 133 years after a way of life ended at Tule Canyon in the Texas Panhandle, a small delegation from Texas Tech University met with Comanche elders and representatives from Comanche Nation College at the Medicine Park Ceremonial Grounds near Lawton, Oklahoma. After half a century of sustained violence between the Comanche and encroaching Anglo-Texans, and the American triumphalism, rationalization, and indifference that followed and continue today, the two groups hoped to simply acknowledge what happened between their ancestors and ask each other for help in finding a way forward.

The time for apology has long passed. The men guilty of planning and executing the ethnic cleansing of the Southern Plains are many generations gone. Though their descendants still enjoy the economic benefits of their ruthlessness, apologies seem hollow without amends, and what amends can be made for the near destruction of a culture?

Students wearing jeans and boots, and Comanche elders in more traditional dress, mixed easily with faculty and administrators wearing suits, ties, and cowboy hats. A cool breeze carried a hint of rain. The cedar-studded foothills of the Wichita Mountains rose to the west.

On a table behind the lectern, along with gifts of blankets and small statues of war ponies, sat eight vessels—four pots and four pitchers—made of Tule Canyon clay and bones of the animal that transformed a peregrine Shoshone band from mountain dwellers to Comanche, Lords of the Plains.

ON SEPTEMBER 27, 1874, Tonkawa scouts, under the command of Colonel Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, peered into a giant crevice in the High Plains that would come to be known as Palo Duro Canyon. Below them, Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne lodges lined the canyon floor for miles; hundreds of horses grazed the curing grass.

Mackenzie’s Fourth Cavalry struck the next morning at dawn, stampeding the Indians’ remuda. The surprised warriors put up fierce resistance while their women and children escaped.

Mackenzie’s force killed only three warriors but he now had over eleven hundred horses and mules, hundreds of lodges, and the Indians’ winter food cache. Rather than pursue, the ever-pragmatic Mackenzie drove the horses and mules twenty miles south into Tule Canyon. There, he allowed his scouts to select a few horses; the rest were driven up a long draw and shot by cavalrymen.

The Southern Plains’ finest horsemen were now afoot without food or shelter.

The Buffalo Soldiers of the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry harried the scattered bands throughout the fall, winter, and spring, skirmishing, burning lodges and food caches. But the Comanche held out, hunting on foot, eating grubs and rodents.

Finally, in the spring and summer of 1875, the Comanche chiefs gathered their starving people and surrendered at Fort Sill, in Indian Territory.

TO A LARGE EXTENT, the Texas mythos of violence and audacity, and the perceived swagger that so often infuriates the rest of the world, stems from the fierceness of Comanche resistance to white settlement. Hell, you wanna talk about rough? We had Comanches.

Young Texans are taught to revere their frontier ancestors for what they overcame, built, and subdued through violence, doggedness, resourcefulness, and a less celebrated quality, prolifigacy.

After exterminating the coastal Karankawas in less than three decades, and displacing the Caddo, Tonkawa, Lipan, and Wichita, Anglo-Texans encountered along the eastern edge of the Great Plains warriors whose ancestors had thwarted Spanish imperial designs in Texas for more than a century.

By 1823, when Stephen F. Austin founded the first Anglo colony in the Mexican state of Coahuila and Texas, Comanchería extended from the Arkansas River in Kansas Territory, south to the Balcones Escarpment just north of San Antonio, Texas, and from present-day Fort Worth, west to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The Comanche were secure as few other Native Americans had ever been. Innumerable bison provided an unending source of food, clothing, and shelter. The province of New Mexico held a ready supply of horses for the taking. Comanche horse herds swelled to tens of thousands and traders out of New Mexico—Comancheros—were eager to trade guns, ammunition, knives, and needles for buffalo hides.

Comanche raiders struck deep into Mexico with virtual impunity. Pursued, they simply evaporated on the arid plains.

And for some fifty years after the founding of Austin’s colony, the Comanche barrier held Anglo-Texan expansion in check as surely as any mountain range. A summer of concerted raiding could drive the settlement line back as far as one hundred miles—a state of affairs previously unknown, terrifying, and galling to a burgeoning population quite sure of its place in the world and its favor in the eyes of God.

Though the Comanche fought invaders and competing tribes in Kansas and what would become Oklahoma, and ranchers and soldiers in New Mexico, they waged their bloodiest war with the Texans, who pursued and retaliated with murderous determination.

The Comanche and their Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, and Kiowa-Apache allies were skirmishers and long-distance raiders. The Texans, and, later, the U.S. Army, were campaigners. They waged war not so much out of revenge or punishment as to wear down, break, and expel.

In 1845, per Texas’s annexation agreement with the United States, all “unoccupied” land became the property of the state. The Comanche were not citizens of Texas, the reasoning went, and therefore they were trespassers and should be expelled forthwith.

TEXAS TECH UNIVERSITY sits on a portion of the South Plains known as the Llano Estacado, a region of shortgrass prairie and canyons cut by the Double Mountain and Salt forks of the Brazos River—part of the ancestral homeland of the Quahada Comanche.

Beginning in 2003, faculty and administrators associated with the university’s Honors College and Southwest Collection (a library of important manuscripts, photographs, and art relating to the Southwest) began searching for ways to form a relationship with the Comanche Nation. There had been little prior relations or formal acknowledgment of the region’s history.

Andy Wilkinson, a Lubbock musician, playwright, and resident artist at the university, introduced Barry Lopez, Texas Tech’s Distinguished Visiting Scholar, to Juanita Pahdopony, a Comanche artist and professor at Comanche Nation College; her husband, Harry Mithlo; and other Comanche elders. In the following months, the group began to visualize a ceremony to acknowledge the injustice suffered by the Comanche people, the violence inflicted by both cultures, and the bond of shared humanity.

From the beginning, ceremony seemed important. “It’s typical in the mainstream world to want to bank everything on a speech or pronouncement of some sort,” Barry told me. “Speeches are important, but action and ceremony are what people remember. And in any cooperative enterprise, there must be a common goal and acknowledgment of what has happened.”

Comanche Nation College was founded in 1997 to prepare students to participate fully in today’s culture while maintaining a Comanche worldview. True to the traditional Comanche spirit of communalism and responsibility, the college stresses the importance of mentorship and duty to community.

Over the following three years, Comanche Nation College and Texas Tech worked out a memorandum of agreement, a formal statement of hope that the two schools will exchange faculty and share library resources; that Texas Tech students and faculty will benefit from the Comanche Way of Knowing; that upon successfully completing two years of study at Comanche Nation College, students will find a welcoming, supportive environment at Texas Tech; that tribal elders will work with students in the Honors College to establish a cultural context for each species of plant collected on traditional Comanche lands and now housed in the university’s herbarium; that musicians, historians, and other scholars from both institutions will work together on an ethnomusicology project designed to record and collect modern and traditional Comanche music for archiving at Comanche Nation Museum and the Southwest Collection; that Comanche Nation members will work with and advise curators at the University’s Ranching Heritage Center and Southwest Collection; and that Comanche elders and scholars will participate in university discussions and planning on matters of natural resources and culture—discussions to which they’ve heretofore been uninvited.

In his address at the ceremony, Dr. Jim Brink, Texas Tech’s senior vice-provost, articulated the mutual benefit in the relationship: “Texas Tech is a young university, founded in 1923. With this partnership, we are acknowledging the valuable collaboration we can achieve with a centuries-old culture in West Texas.”

IN TULE CANYON, on a bitter-cold, gray February morning, Barry Lopez took a small tobacco pouch from his daypack and distributed pinches to Richard Rowland, Andy Wilkinson, Andy’s student Crystal Maeker, and me, and encouraged us to silently lift our prayers. The personal nature of the moment seemed fitting, for the Comanche recognized no overarching cosmology. Rather, they simply acknowledged the mystery of life, offered their hopes and fears to individual protective spirits, and allowed others the same privilege.

In an instant, the stiff wind scattered my pinch of tobacco over the sage, snakeweed, and prickly pear.

We had come to collect Tule Canyon clay out of which Barry’s friend Richard Rowland, an artist from Oregon, would fashion ceremonial pots and pitchers to serve as gifts to the Comanche Nation, symbols of shared humanity, reminders of our common origin.

After we bagged the clay from the base of a steep, eroded hill and carried it back to the car, Richard and Barry searched for other pieces of the canyon, things Richard would later tell me that he wanted to put “way up inside the vessels.”

Andy and Crystal took sketch pads from their packs and sat on clumps of bunchgrass, shivering, as they drew patches of Mackenzie’s killing field and the far hillside.

The Colonel chose his spot well. He was that kind of officer. Smart, efficient, not one to let sentiment, empathy, or sense of irony interfere with duty.

A few days before the Fourth Cavalry’s attack, José Tafoya, a captured Comanchero, divulged the location of the Comanche camp in Palo Duro Canyon after Mackenzie had him stripped and tied spread-eagle on a wagon wheel and left in the sun—a perfectly effective means of locating a people long accused of cruelty toward white captives.

A long, grassy draw, gently rising. It was easy to imagine troopers—or perhaps Tonkawa scouts—driving the horses out of the box canyon, pushing them at a lope toward cavalrymen strung out along the hill overlooking the killing field. They’d have let the first horses reach the head of the draw before taking careful aim. You’d want to drop them quick and clean so that oncoming horses wouldn’t be spooked by the sound and scent of terror.

Over eleven hundred horses and mules, slaughtered under the High Plains sun. They would have filled the entire draw.

I noticed Barry and Richard kneeling, studying something on the ground near the mouth of the draw. An hour or so later, they returned to the car with whitetail deer antlers, a perfectly intact bobcat skull, and fragments of horse bone. Wherever they’d found these gifts, they had left a pinch of tobacco in gratitude.

HARRY MITHLO IS TALL, quiet, and self-effacing. When Bill Tydemen, director of Texas Tech’s Southwest Collection, introduced us in Lawton, he mentioned my novel about the early days of the Texas Rangers.

Harry sighed and shook his head. “Oh man. Those guys, those rangers. I hope you gave us a fair shake.” Harry’s father was Chiricahua Apache; his mother was Peneteka Comanche.

“Like a lot of people of their generation, my parents believed in education,” he said. “They always told me that to make your way in this world, you have to know something. You have to have an education. So I took their advice.”

Harry, a Vietnam veteran, served in both the Navy and Army. “I was about to start adjutant general school at Fort Benjamin Harris when a major told me that I didn’t belong in this man’s army, that I needed to get out and do something for the people. So I got out.”

Like so many Comanche men of his generation, he’s active in the Comanche Indian Veteran’s Association (CIVA). One might assume that given the United States government’s past treatment of native people, the Comanche willingness to serve in the armed forces is simply a continuation of the warrior tradition.

“Nobody seems to understand that we serve in the military because we want to defend our home ground,” he said. “This is our home. We’ve always fought for it and we always will. We don’t want anybody marching in here and taking over. That already happened once.”

I asked him: Given all that has happened, is true conciliation possible?

“In a way, the only full reconciliation would be to let us reclaim our homeland in Texas,” he said. “My father once told me that if you consider the millions of acres of grazing land taken from the Comanche, and all of the oil and gas and minerals under it, then the government could give a million dollars to every Comanche child born from now on, and then maybe justice would eventually be served.”

He offered this opinion matter-of-factly, with no anger or belligerence in his voice, a man simply stating an opinion that could be supported with simple arithmetic. An assertion that would seem preposterous to many Americans.

He added, “But realistically, what we want now is for people to understand who we are and to fully respect the sovereignty of the Comanche Nation, a nation within a nation.”

Harry’s wife, Juanita Pahdopony, grew up listening to her parents conversing in Comanche, an act of resistance in the face of three generations of forced Christianization and assimilation. At Fort Sill Indian school, her father was forbidden, under threat of punishment, to speak his native language. Yet the language persisted in Comanche homes, and persists today, though precariously.

Juanita is a descendant of Quahada Comanche chief Quanah, later known as Quanah Parker in recognition of his white mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, taken captive at Parker’s Fort in 1835. Her great-great-grandmother, on the distaff, was Quanah’s first wife, Weckeah. The Quahada, or Antelope band, lived on the High Plains of northwest Texas and eastern New Mexico. Her father was of the Peneteka (Honey Eater) band, the largest of the Comanche bands and the first to clash with the Texans. As a little girl, she often heard her elders praying for future generations, descendants they would never know. She believes that Comanche Nation College is one answer to those prayers.

Her sense of the possibility of conciliation? “Yes! It’s entirely possible, and it’s happening. In recognizing the sovereignty of the Comanche Nation and Comanche Nation College, Texas Tech is taking that first step. The university is willing to stand by us and recognize our strengths and beauty and power and help us become the first tribal college in Oklahoma. We don’t want to threaten or compete with other institutions. We just want a place at the table.”

RICHARD ROWLAND, ceramicist and teacher, lives and works in Astoria, Oregon, near the mouth of the Columbia River. He fires his clay vessels in an Anagama Dragon Kiln, a wood-burning tunnel kiln he and two other potters built from bricks of old fishery boilers salvaged along the Columbia at low tide.

Mostly, he feeds the kiln wood gathered from the beaches, woods, and old construction sites. To fire the Tule Canyon vessels, he used beaver sticks that he and Barry gathered near their homes, and mesquite from the Llano Estacado, gathered by students from Texas Tech’s Honors College. “Years ago, we decided that the beaver represents community,” Richard said. “Beavers work cooperatively and create entire ecosystems.”

He apprenticed with the red Tule Canyon clay for nearly two years before his kiln yielded vessels that moved him. For the final firing, he lined the floor of his kiln with caliche, the caprock of the High Plains. He placed inside the vessels bits of antler and bone from Tule canyon, and scattered other pieces of bone, antler, and beaver wood about the floor of the kiln.

As the clay heated, the bone and antler were absorbed into the bottoms of the vessels and the walls were bathed in particles of burning bone, so that Tule Canyon was drawn “way up inside.” The coastal wind went into the vessels as well, a gift from the artist’s homeland, for wind—not bellows—nourishes the kiln fire.

Andy Wilkinson and Harry Mithlo traveled to Oregon to attend the final firing and help feed the kiln with beaver sticks Harry had gathered along Cache Creek, in Oklahoma. When Harry stepped into Richard’s studio for the first time, a pitcher caught his eye—a prototype from an earlier firing. “That looks like Tule Canyon,” he said.

THE PROCESSION CIRCLED the parade ground: Comanche veterans bearing the American flag, the POW/MIA flag, and the flags of the Comanche Nation, the State of Oklahoma, and the branches of military service; behind them, Wallace Coffey, chairman of Comanche Nation, and Dr. Kim Winkelman, president of Comanche Nation College, and other elders; then Comanche war widows, bright red blankets bearing the names and ranks of their husbands about their shoulders; student leaders from Comanche Nation College, and representatives from Texas Tech, all performing (or trying to perform) a traditional Comanche war dance to the drumming and singing of members of the Sovo family, two generations of Comanche musicians.

The veterans halted before the singers. After introductory remarks and exchanges of gifts, Barry Lopez asked for permission to tell the story of the Army’s attack on the Comanche camp at Palo Duro Canyon, and the slaughter of horses and mules at Tule Canyon. Chairman Coffey granted permission, and, at last, standing together, we simply recounted and acknowledged the United States Army’s brutality toward the Comanche, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, and Southern Cheyenne over two days in September 1874.

The killing of some eleven hundred horses and mules at Tule Canyon epitomizes a singular ruthlessness, an absolute willingness to destroy a people. Colonel Mackenzie knew that the act would cause horrible suffering among children and the elderly; indeed suffering may have been the point, given that General William Tecumseh Sherman was his commanding officer.

After the war against the Comanche in Texas, Mackenzie burnished his reputation as one of the most promising officers in the U.S. Army by leading a decisive campaign against the Northern Cheyenne in the Black Hills War. He was promoted to Brigadier General in 1882. In December 1883, shortly before he was to be married, he fell ill and was diagnosed as suffering from “paralysis of the insane,” most likely some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. He died in 1889 at age forty-nine.

In his address at the ceremony in Lawton, Texas Tech University president John Whitmore began by saying, “I am not in a position to present a defense for what happened to the Comanche people during and after the period of western expansion, but as an educated man, I can recognize injustice and speak to it.”

AT EACH OF THE CARDINAL POINTS around the ceremonial ground, a Comanche veteran holding one of the clay pots stood with a Texas Tech representative holding a clay pitcher full of water taken from the Ogallala Aquifer, the wellspring of the High Plains. At Coffey’s nod, the Sovos began singing the Adobe Walls Song in their native tongue. Water from the pitchers was poured into the pots. Then the veterans slowly poured the water on the ground.

Fossil water drawn from the High Plains and held in vessels of ancient clay and bone fashioned by an artist from near the mouth of the Columbia River, passed from one member of the human family to another. The Sovos played their drum and sang. The prairie wind bent the streams of water as they returned to the earth.

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Henry Chappell is the author of four books, including the novels The Callings and Blood Kin. He lives in Plano, Texas.

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