Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Comanches were the first Native people to adopt the classic horse-mounted lifestyle of the Plains. The ethnonym Comanche probably derives from the Ute word komantsia– "anyone who wants to fight me all the time." Their name for themselves is Nemene, or "Our People."

Shoshone speakers, including proto-Comanches, probably moved to the Northern Plains in the sixteenth century. In the late seventeenth century the proto-Comanches began a southward movement, and by the early eighteenth century, if not before, they were in contact with the Spaniards of New Mexico. The earliest mention of Comanches in Texas came in the 1740s. By the 1840s Comanches were regularly crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico on horse raids.

The Comanche economy can be characterized in three modes: a domestic economy of hunting and gathering, a commercial economy of trade and raid, and a political-diplomatic economy. In the domestic economy, Comanches used both individual stalking of bison and group methods. Group hunts usually occurred in late summer and fall when the animals were fat, robes were good, and there were few flies. Group hunts began with scouts locating a herd. After the scouts reported the herd's location to the chiefs, the hunters were admonished to stay together. The actual hunt was under the direction of the chief or a noted warrior. However, once the chase began, each hunter acted separately. Hunters identified their kills by arrow marks. Other men could claim a portion of the meat by counting coup on it, but the hide remained the property of the killer.

There were three general trade contexts: formal and informal trade fairs and bartering in European settlements; trading posts; and exchange with viageros or "travelers," later called comancheros. Comanches traded horses and the products of the hunt with neighboring peoples for agricultural products and, in postcontact times, European industrial products.

Political relations with other peoples probably always included gift exchanges. Political relations with European Americans developed into an economy with significant ramifications. Items in this economy included elite goods such as silver-headed canes, flags, and uniforms. They also included items that could be redistributed downward through the social structure such as foodstuffs, cloth, and metal goods.

Details of Aboriginal clothing are scanty, but it seems that summer dress was minimal. Men wore perhaps only a shirt, a breechcloth, possibly leggings, and moccasins. By the reservation period, photographs and museum collections show mid-thigh-length shirts decorated with twist fringe at the shoulder and elbow. Some side-seam leggings are represented in museum collections, although late-nineteenth- century photographs also show front-seam style, attached by thongs to the belt at the waist and tied with garters below the knee. From knee to ankle, leggings were decorated with long twist fringe. Moccasins were of the two-piece, hard-sole variety. A long triangular vamp was decorated with fringes and tin cone tinklers. The earliest examples of women's apparel are two-part dresses, consisting of a skirt suspended by straps from the shoulders and a separate poncholike blouse; some mid-nineteenth-century photographs show a separate wrap fastened with broaches. In hot weather, or when nursing or in mourning, the blouse could be removed. The later style was a single-piece dress. By the mid– to late nineteenth century, both men and women wore a cloth about the waist outside both leggings and skirt.

Comanche tipis were distinct, with a four-pole base, but with the rest of the poles set in as in a three-pole tipi. The cut of the skins forming the cover was also apparently unique.

Comanche relations with the supernatural were considered to be an individual's concern, and despite a range of variation in belief and practice, there were broad features common to Comanche religion. Religious practice centered on puha, personal power obtained from the supernatural. Power was available to both men and women, both of whom could become puhacut, or a "possessor of power."

In prereservation times, there were four levels of sociopolitical organization: simple family, extended family, local band, and division. The simple family consisted of a man, his wife or wives, and various dependents— children, parents, or parents-in-law. The basic social unit was the bilaterally extended family, or nemenakane, "people who live together in a house(hold)." Local bands were composed of one or more extended families, as well as attached simple families and individuals, and were called rancherías by the Spaniards. The highest level of Comanche political organization was the division, the tribally organized group of local bands linked by ties of kinship and men's societies. The names and numbers of these groups have changed greatly over the course of Comanche history.

The Comanches were assigned a reservation in southwestern Oklahoma following the Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek in 1867, but not all the bands were on the reservation until 1876. The reservation was allotted after the General Allotment Act of 1887. Most Comanches now live in the vicinity of Lawton, Oklahoma. They are active, although often partial, participants in the mainstream economy. Fort Sill in Lawton, Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, and Altus Air Force Base in Altus, as well as several other federal installations, provide employment. As a tribe the Comanches have few independent resources. In 1984 a bingo operation was opened, although it has been the focus of much controversy, and its contribution to the Comanche economy is uncertain.

Although more than half of the 1901–6 Comanche allotments are still in Indian hands, few Comanches actively work them. Rather, allotments are held as undivided joint property by multiple heirs of the original allottee and are leased to non-Indian farmers or stockmen. A number of oil wells have been drilled on allotments, and several Comanches have become quite wealthy through such revenues.

There are no reliable Aboriginal population estimates; similarly, details of epidemic diseases are scanty and contradictory. In 1870 it was estimated that there were 3,742 Comanches, including possibly 1,000 off-reservation. In 1875, 1,556 Comanches were reported on the reservation south of the Washita River. In 1900 there were 1,499 Comanches, but a year later measles took ninety-eight lives. The low point of 1,399 was reached in 1904, and it was not until the 1930s that the population again surpassed 2,000. In 1990 the tribal population was approximately 9,000.

See also HISPANIC AMERICANS: Comancheros .

Thomas W. Kavanagh Indiana University

Kavanagh, Thomas W. Comanche Political History: An Ethnohistorical Perspective, 1706–1875. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

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