Comanche Indians’ Lesson for Modern Christians

American Christians are losing their identity.  This is deeply troubling when you consider that our identity is paramount to who we are and how we live.  Consider that Christ’s earliest followers did not name themselves Christians.  The non-believing world did.

Quanah Parker, the fiercest Comanche of his generation

Early-day believers lived for Christ as “aliens” and “strangers” in the world.  They took seriously the call to live “in the world” but not become “part of it.”  To those watching, this drew the derogatory term, Christian – little Christs.  To the newly branded Christians, this title represented a supreme compliment.  It signified that their unique identity was so manifest to the world that it singled them out and named them.  They were Christ’s and proud of it!

I fear American Christians, by contrast, are working so hard to impress and mimic the world that we are, in turn, losing our identity.  Driven by self-consciousness, striving to emulate the world’s coolness in our lives and worship, we have, by default, surrendered the one thing that makes us unique – our Christ-like identity.

Allow me to highlight a tragic case of identity loss from deep in America’s past – that of the Comanche Indians.  The total destruction of the Comanche’s identity serves as an arrow speeding toward the fate of many American Christians if they don’t take heed.

Of the many tribes in the New World prior to Columbus’ discovery, the Comanches ranked among the lowest and least west of the Mississippi River.  Hailing originally from modern-day Wyoming, they lived in Stone Age squalor.  They were small of stature, poor hunters, and lived a subsistence existence as hunter-gatherers.  Their status and identity, however, were about to change radically.

The Spaniards, having easily conquered and settled giant tracts of South and Central America and modern-day Mexico in the 1500s, pushed their expanding frontier deep into North America.  The foot-bound Indians were no match for horse-mounted Conquistadors.  Inevitably, some of the Spaniards’ rugged ponies escaped and roamed wild across the vast plains.  Their natural affinity for the dry, arid climate was exceeded only by the Comanches’ almost divine marriage with these Spanish horses.

It’s as if God created Comanches for horses.  They captured, broke, bred, trained, and rode horses better than anyone in the world, period.  The first European and American eyewitnesses to the Comanche’s skill with horses were amazed.  Athanase de Mezieres, a Spanish Indian agent described them: “They are so skillful in horsemanship that they have no equal.”  Colonel Richard Dodge led an early expedition that made contact with the Comanches.  He believed them to be the “finest light cavalry in the world, superior to any mounted soldiers in Europe or America.”

A mounted Comanche became an extension of his horse.  Young boys, who received their first horse by five or six years of age, could soon ride at full gallop, reach down, and hoist a grown man from the ground.  George Catlin, a well known chronicler of the west, wrote of a stratagem of war, which was learned and practiced by every young man in the tribe: “He is able to drop his body on the side of his horse at the instant he is passing, effectively screened from his enemies’ weapons, as he lays in a horizontal position behind the body of his horse, with his heel hanging over the horse’s back…In this wonderful condition, he will hang whilst his horse is at fullest speed, carrying with him his bow and shield and also his long lance 14 feet in length.”  In this position, a Comanche warrior could loose twenty arrows from beneath the horse’s neck in the time it took a soldier to load and fire one round from his musket.

A direct descendant of the Conquistadors' horses which transformed Comanche culture

The Comanche’s unique relationship with the horse totally transformed their identity.  Whereas they had previously been a beaten down people in the mountain west, by the time they migrated to the southern plains and forged their newfound relationship with the horse, the Comanche found themselves immeasurably altered as a people.  Historian S.C. Gwynne wrote, “What happened to the tribe between roughly 1625 and 1750 was one of the great social and military transformations in history.  Few nations have ever progressed with such breathtaking speed from the status of skulking pariah to dominant power” (see Gwynne’s excellent book Empire of the Summer Moon).

The transformation was actualized in the hunt for buffalo.  All Plains Indians relied exclusively on the seemingly countless buffalo herds for their total existence.  Prior to the horses’ arrival, buffalo hunting was a frightening, dangerous pursuit of man against massive beast.  The horse tilted the field dramatically in the hunters’ favor.  Mounted Indians could equal the pace of stampeding buffalos and hurl their lances at close range, ducking away to safety at the last minute.

Given the Comanche’s expertise with horses, they quickly ascended to the supreme hunters on the plains.  No other tribe came close.  The distinction defined them.  An individual brave’s status in the tribe was ranked by his success as a hunter.

The Comanche’s dominance as buffalo hunters soon led to a healthy, thriving, and growing population of Comanche Indians.  Nomadic, following the buffalo herds, they hunted a range that extended from northern Mexico to Kansas, encompassing New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma.  Several bands of Comanches, numbering in the tens of thousands, soon ruled the mammoth territory the Spanish named Comancheria.

The inextricable tie between horses and hunting buffalo led to a fundamental change in the economy of the Great Plains: horses became worth more than any other asset.  Leveraging their expertise on horseback, the Comanches attacked the Spaniards and other Indian tribes, stealing horses at will and amassing enormous herds.  Soon, the Comanches were the wealthiest tribe in America.  Gwynne wrote, “It is not uncommon for a Comanche warrior to have one hundred to two hundred mounts, or for a chief to have fifteen hundred.  (A Sioux chief might have forty horses, by comparison).”

George Catlin painted this Comanche village in 1834

Soon, the Comanche’s identity was not just tied to hunting buffalo, but to war.  Now, a brave earned a name for himself and established his standing in the tribe by growing into a strong warrior.  From this point forward, Comanches existed for one reason: to wage battle.  To quote Gwynne: “No tribe in the history of the Spanish, French, Mexican, Texan, and American occupations of this land had ever caused so much havoc and death.  None was even a close second.”

Another author noted, “They were so masterful at war and so skillful with their arrows and lances that they stopped the northern drive of colonial Spain from Mexico and halted the French expansion westward from Louisiana.  White settlers arriving in Texas from the eastern United States were surprised to find the frontier being rolled backward by Comanches incensed by the invasion of their tribal lands.  So effective were the Comanches that they forced the creation of the Texas Rangers and account for the advent of the new weapon specifically designed to fight them: the six-gun.”

What happened to the Comanches?  How could such a dominant people group fade into the dimness of history?  The answer is that their identity was destroyed.  Two things leveled the death blow.  The first and greatest destroyer appeared on the Great Plains in the 1860s: the buffalo hunters.  Gwynne wrote, “Between 1868 and 1881 they would kill thirty-one million buffalo, stripping the plains almost entirely of the huge, lumbering creatures and destroying any last small hope that any horse tribe could ever be restored to its traditional life.  There was no such thing as a horse Indian without a buffalo herd.  Such an Indian had no identity at all.”

Buffalo hides ready for shipment to market

Soaring prices for buffalo hides drove the mass extinction.  The U.S. government was not ignorant of the butchery; in fact, it allowed the virtual extinction to continue as a deliberate political act.  General Phil Sheridan, commander of the Military Division of the Missouri, said, “These men [buffalo hunters] have done in the last two years…more to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years.  They are destroying the Indians’ commissary…For the sake of a lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo are exterminated.  Then your prairies can be covered with specked cattle and the festive cowboy.”

Americans, flush with Manifest Destiny, were itching to move west, but the fierce Comanches stood in the way.  Repeatedly, they repulsed settlers and effectively rolled back wave upon wave of westward expansion.  Forty years of Great Plains history is filled with blood, rape, and brutal savagery.  As General Sheridan’s note revealed, the buffalo hunters solved the problem in a little over ten years by driving the Indians’ livelihood to utter extinction; thus, the Comanche’s identity was dealt a death blow.

The Comanche’s second identity destroyer was the white man’s civilization.  Comanche Indians had always been a “people apart,” to quote Gwynne; “fiercely independent, arrogantly certain that their pragmatic, stripped-down Spartan ethic was the best way to live….They were the world’s best horsemen and the unchallenged military masters of the south plains.”

The relentless push of the white man’s invading culture destroyed this.  As Gwynne puts it, the Comanche were “submerged in a sea of the white man’s material goods…Where once the Comanche lived in the purity of the buffalo and all that it provided, now there were the taibos’ [white people] weapons and cooking tools and sheet metal, his sugar and coffee and whiskey, his clothing and calico.  They used his blankets.  They ate food boiled in his brass kettles.  At the core of their identity, they were hunters and warriors – precisely what the white man wanted to deny them.”

Demoralized and unable to find buffalo, pursued relentlessly by military fighters such as the legendary Ranald S. Mackenzie, the Comanches were left with no options.  With no buffalo, their families were literally starving to death on the plains, making them easy prey for the relentless Indian hunters.  Of the tens of thousands of Comanches at their peak, they were soon reduced to a tiny fraction of that number.

Malnourished, hopeless, and in many cases horse-less, they stumbled onto the government reservation in Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma), where white culture and civilization soon swallowed them whole.  Totally defeated, fathers could no longer teach their sons what it meant to be a Comanche: hunting and warring.  Mothers could not teach their daughters the ways of the buffalo.  Elders could not pass down their knowledge of the Great Plains, with its wild canyons, majestic mesas, clear rivers, and endless stretches as vast as the sea.  The Comanche’s identity was destroyed forever.  They no longer knew who they were.

The Comanche’s tragic drama runs dangerously close to what is happening far too rapidly across American Christendom: we are totally losing our unique identity.  Obviously, the parallels are not one-to-one, but the end result is the same.

Scripture is to Christians what the buffalo was to the Comanches: our lifeblood.  Our mortal enemies (Satan and the world he influences) aren’t slaying Scripture in the way buffalo hunters destroyed the Comanche’s lifeblood, but they are landing devastating blows.  They are accomplishing this feat by eroding Christians’ interest in and reliance upon God’s Word to such a degree that most of us totally ignore it.

Hungry Comanches could not have imagined walking next to a buffalo while at the same time ignoring it.  Yet, spiritually starved Christians find it quite easy to pass by a dusty Bible lying on the table and not take notice.  Slowly but methodically, their lifeblood is draining away, because they don’t drink in the words of life daily.

The Comanche’s second debilitating blow came in the form of the all-encompassing white culture.  No longer wild and free, able to chase the roaming buffalo herds, the Comanche were confined to the reservation where they were expected to become farmers and merchants.  Some made the transition quite well and became very “white,” while others refused and huddled in despair inside their tipis.  Try as they might to remain Comanche, it was impossible.  They were gradually sucked into the white man’s world, whether they excelled in that world or drowned in it.

The New Testament warns Christians frequently to beware of the world’s influence, the world being defined as the system of thought which stands in opposition to Christ’s teachings.  The world is subtle and seductive and very adept at luring unsuspecting Christians into embracing its values and lifestyles.  Before long, believers are so immersed in the world’s culture that they have no idea how far afield they have run.  Starved from the lifeblood of Scripture, they no longer hear the Holy Spirit’s warning bells.  They resemble the world and therefore potentially belong to the world.  How frightening for their eternal destiny, because those of the world never belonged to Christ to begin with.

Something must be done to stop this mortal bleeding within the community of faith!  We are becoming unrecognizable as Christ’s followers.  We look and act like the world around us.  No longer do we bear the indelible mark of our Savior.  We don’t know what it means to be Christians.  Our unique identity is passing away.

Sadly, this saga has already played out across vast stretches of formerly Christian Europe, where believers fell prey to the same two destroyers that are attacking American Christians now.  Let’s stop the bloodletting and identity loss in our lives and churches!  Our Savior is too great to deny, His message is to powerful to hide, and eternity is perhaps too near to ignore.