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Comanches Come to Texas

Around 1500, the Shoshone came out of the Great Basin area of the western part of the North American continent and through the high mountain passes of the Rockies onto the region around the North and South Platte Rivers. For whatever reason, the tribe split and one part left present-day Wyoming to move south and east onto the Great Plains. This part of the tribe became the Comanche. Around 1700, this new tribe used the passes of the mountains of northern New Mexico to move west and make alliance with the Utes they found there. The Utes, who had been trading with the Spaniards and getting horses, provided the Comanche access to the horse, allowing them to become what most historians call the greatest light cavalry the world has ever seen.

A mere fifty years later, the mounted Comanche show up in Texas, pressuring the tribes they encountered as well as the Spaniards who were moving north. They contended with all kinds of opposing coalitions: Ute-Spaniard, Spanish-Apache, Apache-Kiowa, Mexican-Mescalero—you name it, Comanches defeated it. From the Arkansas River in Kansas south to the Eastern Sierra Madre in Mexico, from Santa Fe in the west to the Sabine River in the east—–a territory of about 800 miles by 600 miles—-became Comancheria—where the Comanches lived. When European Texans won independence from Mexico in 1836 the Comanches and their allies were in absolute control of the Texas plains.

A new scholarly work by Pekka Hamalainen, a Finnish professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, titled Comanche Empire is the most current and accepted examination of the Comanche rise to power. Recommended by no less than the Comanche Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Comanche Empire analyzes in depth how this once wandering tribe of nomads became the dominant power in the middle of the continent, following with their vast herds of horses the migrating buffalo.

It was these mounted empire builders that became what we call Comanche. This is not what they then or now call themselves. Navajo call themselves Diné—their word for “the people”. Likewise, the Comanche call themselves Numunu—the people. The following is an explanation of the name by Johnny Wauqua, former Tribal Chairman of the Comanche Tribe of Oklahoma.

Numunu -The People

To themselves the Comanches are “The People”– from the word Numunu– meaning “human being”. It was not because they failed to recognize other people as humans, but in the minds of the Comanches, others were less than Comanches and the Comanches were the People.

The English language had no word for them originally nor did the Spanish. The Spaniards of New Mexico enjoyed first contact with the Comanche and gave the tribe the name by which they were later to be known by Spaniard and American. It was the Spaniard who taught us to know the Comanche as Comanches.

It was found that the Spanish learned the word from the Utes, who became the special enemies of the Comanches. In the Ute language, Comanche means “enemy”. The word is more exactly rendered “Komantcia”, which in a fuller sense means “anyone who wants to fight me all the time.” Generically the Utes applied this term to the Comanches, whom they fought. The Spaniards applied the name and Americans picked it up.

In the sign language of the plains, the Comanche are known as the Snakes. The term is still in general use by the older members of the tribe.

The overall tribe calling themselves numunu was divided further into clans, or groups of families. There were once dozens of clans, some small and some large. Five clans were the most influential. The clan living at the northern edge of Comancheria that ate lots of roots was called Yamparika. The upper middle section of Comancheria was dominated by the Kotsotekas—the buffalo eaters, while the lower middle was home to the Nokonis—the movers or returners. The western edge of the area, the Llano Estacado, fell under control of the antelope eaters—Quohadi. The southern Comanche, the honeyeaters or Penatuhkah, dominated the area from the Edwards Plateau through the Cross Timbers north to the Red River. This was the clan lead by the three great chiefs who contested the expansion of the Texans: Old Owl, Buffalo Hump, and Santa Anna.

From around 1650 to 1874—much longer than Texas has been a state– the Numunu dominated this entire region. With their vast herds of horses, which they used to track and kill the buffalo, they roamed unchecked from Wyoming deep into Mexico. Those herds of buffalo provided them with food, clothing, and shelter, as well as myriads of other, smaller necessities and trade items. They were unquestionably, according to Ernest Wallace and Adamson Hoebel, the “lords of the plains.”