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Christophe Giudicelli

Pekka Hämäläinen, L’empire comanche, Toulouse, Anacharsis, 2012, 608 p. ; El imperio comanche, Madrid, Editorial Península, 2013, 728 p.


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1This short commentary intends to throw out a few ideas that came out following the Comanche historic trail as it appears in Pekka Hämäläinen’s presentation in its many awards 2009 essay, now translated into french and spanish.

2Of course, the following remarks will probably be biased by our own early Hispanic American ethno historical concerns, but it should not be seen as a handicap, more as some kind of properly speaking outsider’s point of view, which is sometimes useful.

3So first of all, it, we’ll try to point out what, in our opinion, Pekka Hämäläinen’s strong methodological commitment, really brings about, especially what he calls his shift in scale and focus in order to open a clearer view to the governing macroscale dynamics. It is undeniable that with this book Pekka Hämäläinen, much in line with the “New Indian History”, makes a valuable contribution to the debate, as he strongly underlines two main historical and ethno historical weaknesses : on the one hand the myopic effects of microscale analysis, which makes it practically impossible to embrace the entire dimension of a such a phenomenon as the Comanche expansion, and, on the other hand, the blind spot of national (or monoimperial) focus, which can only catch glimpses of small bursts of Indian agency, at its very edges, and never understands the central place reached by (American) Indians alliances who precisely succeeded in inserting themselves in a complex multipolar political, military and commercial game between all three European rival empires engaged in the region.

4Nevertheless, there are of course some points which didn’t utterly convince us, or left us a little bit sceptical –namely the very empire thing– but it probably comes from our own microscale deformation.


5The main feeling I had while reading this book is that of vertigo, caused by several factors. One of them is obviously the enormity of the spaces considered in the work, from the upper Arkansas river up to central Mexico Bajío. The other known cause of vertigo on the human body is speed. And the incredible rapidity of Comanche raiders and traders to strongly settle down a paradoxically moving supremacy on the Southern Plains in a few decades is properly speaking vertiginous. The epics of conquest one can follow in Comanche empire is really fascinating, and Pekka Hämäläinen’s writing skills turn this fairly complex geopolitical maelström into a pleasant and quite accessible saga. Even though it was probably not meant to be the principal interest of the book (and it is not actually), we ought to acknowledge the efficiency of the author’s striking expressions, which always strongly buttress his thesis

6To make it short, the reader attended, mesmerised, the rise and fall of what is convincingly presented in the book as an indigenous imperialism, with a mixed sensation of vertigo and jealousy. Jealousy because in our own pieces of investigation we never found such a perfect story, with

7-a beginning (here the small Numunu band’s humble apparition in northern New Mexico at the very dawn of 18th century)

8-a gripping and rich core (the blitzkrieg-like conquest, its victories and revolutions, the comanchenization of the South Plains, the huge trading empire and multiethnic incorporations it implied, the continental geopolitical movements, etc. )

9-a dramatic ending (the collapse caused by the United States’ military policy against native people in the 1870’s).

  • 1 Guillaume Boccara, Los Vencedores: Los Mapuche en la Epoca Colonial. San Pedro de Atacama/Santiago, (...)

10The closest case in Hispanic American history is probably to be found in the great Mapuche increasing cultural and political influence in Argentinian pampa and Patagonia between late 17th century and the same 1870’s. There are indeed parallels to draw with the reche-mapuche ethnogenesis studied by Guillaume Boccara1, and there are also evident comparisons to be made between the respective collapse of both Calfucurá’s and Comanche confederations.

11To make it short, the two points are to be particularly stressed in Pekka Hämäläinen’s essay. The first one has to do with his almost panoramic analytical choice. The second one seems lighter in a way, and not as methodologically significant, but it does have a heavy consequence in apprehending this kind of history : the insistence on violence and raw force as the basic vector of comanche expansion.

12Regarding the former, we do think, in spite of the doubts we still have on the microscale level, Pekka Hämäläinen’s claiming for a larger focus in order to reveal the interaction between what he calls larger aggregates (say : the French, the Spanish, the Apaches, the Osages, the Anglo-American and, of course, the Comanches) actually achieves his goal : he brings to the fore the full dimension of Indian agency. He decidedly reconstructs an indigenous imperialism, placing it on the same level as its Euro-American neighbours east, west and South. By doing this, he intends to break with the long-lived traditional history which generally presents Indian wars as epiphenomena in European empires’ building teleology, and calls for indigenous expansions to not be considered any longer as mere symptoms of European colonial entities provisional weakness. The striking image of Comanches collecting tribute (in unreturned gifts) in New Mexico, Texas, Chihuahua and Coahuila the author brings about quite obsesively in his book is a good illustration of this slight copernician revolution.

13When one looks north from the Spanish empire’s and then Mexican point of view, one cannot be aware of that. Seen from the heart of Nueva Vizcaya, Durango, Parral, Saltillo or Chihuahua, for instance, the Comanches are no more than a late avatar of the many barbarian bands whose invasions Spanish authorities have been denouncing since the last quarter of 17th century, and it is really hard to see differences between them and their predecessors, Tobosos, Salinaeros and Cabezas, Jumanos and Apaches – who by the way were haunting the same colonial nightmare zones, especially the never dominated Bolsón de Mapimí, since the very beginning of the Conquest, in the middle of the 16th century. Chapter 5 of Comanche Empire eventually offers the invaders’ point of view, adducing clear geopolitical explanations, and following the raiding trails into Mexico from the inside. This vision was really lacking among northern mexican studies.

14In other words, Pekka Hämäläinen’s comanche centred global reconstruction does achieve a certain efficiency, for it highlights the Native groups autonomous movements and gives them back an active role in their own history and in the region common history. Moreover, this obstination in observing the Southern Plains History from the Comanche action place sheds light on the complexity of the various frictions between imperialisms. And it does so by uncovering the Indian central geopolitical role even in the supposedly well known French-Spanish, French-English, Spanish-English and finally Mexican-American rivalries in that extremely contested part of the continent, what the author accurately called the gravitational power of comanchería (p. 238).

  • 2 There is also a french translation for Richard White’s Middle Ground : Le Middle Ground. Indiens, e (...)

15The second point which should be emphasised is the omnipresence of violence, coercion and exploitation in this narrative. It appears to us as being much more than a mere affectation or aesthetical choice. This insistence on mutilated, beheaded or scalped corpses with empty sockets that were left behind on the Comanche road to expansion and slave trading massive practice is more than just a detail. It must be seen as an analytical inflexion point in recent ethnohistory. I might be wrong, but it looks like a calling to balance the perhaps too irenic pictures on encounters the métissage or even middle ground 2 models have drawn in the last two decades.

16Let’s make it clear there are apparently no special attack or rejection of these studies, for the whole work clearly acknowledges what it owes to these models. The fact is they basically tended to focus on interactions, exchanges or cross-cultural and socio-political innovations, leaving aside and blurring violence. Maybe because this violence characterised the classical front against front frontier (and conquista) history, the good old times of conquistadores or cow-boys against Indians tellings stories. No doubt this historiographical turn was necessary to break with the classical turnerian frontier perspective which acostumed to present Comanches and other native groups as barriers on the road to progress and civilisation, and generally presented indigenous violence as a primitive instinctive and nearly animal behaviour.

17Our opinion is that Pekka Hämäläinen’s focusing on the consciously violent means Comanches used to install their power and to expand their influence leads him to grasp the very core of their political logics. And what makes this specific interest on violence especially coherent here is his thesis on Comanche expansionist cultural logics which, according to him, was linked to a stubborn refuse to change, scarcely compatible with the middle ground perspective.

18In a way, one could say Pekka Hämäläinen forces his way between two hegemonic traditions :

19-The nation-state or empire centred history, which simply has no place in its very teleology for this kind of reconstructions, because its main issue is to unfold the development and vicissitudes of the US, Spanish Empire, Mexico or New France.

20-The middle-ground studies and all such works essentially focused on interrelations and aiming to reveal the vast unconquered –unconquered by Europeans that is– hinterlands as zones of cultural interpenetrations an dialogs.

II- Objections

21After so many compliments, let us now express a few doubts that remain after reading the book (which is good because it’s a calling to write another 500 pages to complement this one…). They’re basically bound to the strong commitment to the play on scale we already said to be terribly efficient.

22Though the empire perspective is very useful to point out the geopolitical achievements of a the collective actor called Comanche, it might also risk to homogenising a not-so-much centralised entity, as Pekka’s own local studies tend to demonstrate. In a word, It is not sure that what appears much like a somehow culturally entangled chain of societies can be assimilated to a politically centralised empire. If on the one hand one feels at ease with the Comanche imperialism demonstration and with the description of the asymmetric way of incorporating allies in a vast comanchenized confederation, on the other hand, the empire qualification seems less convincing, in spite of its obvious provocative and immediate evocative power. Is really the same logics at work, for instance, in the respective negotiations with New Mexico’s authorities and New France’s agents over the same period, or should local factors be considered as being more determining ? Is there really a centralised political strategy in indigenous diplomacy, for example in the building of local confederations (with Pawnees and Kiowas north and east, to contain Osages, Arapahoes and Cheyenne pretensions AND with Wichitas and Hasinais to chase Apaches from the southern plains north of Río Grande) ?

23Our perplexity comes from a methodological and almost cartesian doubt which has us suggesting that the macroscale vision may cover and rationalise a posteriori more local determinant logics. In other words the risk would be that trying to avoid what we called the myopic effect of microscale analysis, one could be affected by a sort of long-sightedness which would blur or even erase local factors. But this doubt might as well come from our own deformation : as we always tried to deconstruct the symbolic homogenising effect of spanish colonial discourse on large unconquered blocks of population (the Tepehuana, the Tarahumara, the Pimería, the Apachería), we might be too reluctant to admit thoroughly there was actually a self governed comanchería. The author’s statements on a different kind of empire blending centralizing impulses with local pluralism (348) certainly bring a more complex frame of a looser political structure, closer to a confederacy than to an even metaphorical empire.

24This leads us to our last –humble– objection, regarding the cultural necessity we perceived in some explanations for the success of Comanche rule in the southern plains, at the expense of other groups. Namely their successful displacement of Apache bands to northern Mexico in the mid 18th century, analysed as a consequence of the two groups’ divergent evolutionary trajectories and the resulting differences in their attitude towards innovation and cultural change (p. 66). According to this interpretation, the Apaches would have lost their regional supremacy because of their acceptance of a farming complex, whereas the Comanches’ victory would rest upon their equestrian shift and their more nomadic way of life (they would have reached the critical threshold of mounted nomadism by the 1730’s, p. 38). Now, what we know about Apaches in northern Mexico at that time and long before may invite to a more balanced standpoint. What may be true among Jicarillas and Lipans in those years, for local, political or topographical reasons may not prevail in other regions with different ecosystems and other relations of forces with indigenous and european neighbours. We personally wouldn’t insist that much on this kind of cultural internal factors, and beware of their almost mechanical effects on the general perspective.

  • 3 Pekka Hämäläinen, L’empire comanche, Toulouse, Anacharsis, 2012, 608 p. ; El imperio comanche, Madr (...)

25Of course, these objections intend to convince the reader of this short commentary the book deserves to be read and thoroughly discussed, and the fact it has just been translated into french and spanish3 should make it easier, as it will insert the book and its strong thesis in a wider range than the sole northen american and english speaking reduced audience.

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1 Guillaume Boccara, Los Vencedores: Los Mapuche en la Epoca Colonial. San Pedro de Atacama/Santiago, Línea Editorial IIAM-UCN/Universidad de Chile, Chile.

2 There is also a french translation for Richard White’s Middle Ground : Le Middle Ground. Indiens, empires et républiques dans la région des Grands Lacs, 1650-1815, Toulouse, Anacharsis, 2009

3 Pekka Hämäläinen, L’empire comanche, Toulouse, Anacharsis, 2012, 608 p. ; El imperio comanche, Madrid, Editorial Península, 2013, 728 p.

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Christophe Giudicelli, « Pekka Hämäläinen, L’empire comanche, Toulouse, Anacharsis, 2012, 608 p. ; El imperio comanche, Madrid, Editorial Península, 2013, 728 p. », Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Comptes rendus et essais historiographiques, mis en ligne le 10 juin 2013, consulté le 18 octobre 2019. URL :

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