Wasape: Life of a Comanche Warrior
Beyond the Firelight
I start this story which Bad Runner, my friend, calls a biography. He and I were among the last of Quanah’s warriors to come to the reservation after Bad Hand’s soldiers burned our village in Palo Duro and murdered most of our horses.
Quanah, one of our leaders, is really the one who caused me to write my story. This was at a time when I knew not how to read and write.
He told me, in his words. “You must write your story, which in every way is the Comanche story. First, you must survive these times of hunger and White man’s disease. Then, you must learn to read and write the White man’s language. There may be more war. But I have decided to come in out of the cold and starvation of the Llano Estacado to save our people. This is what you and our Quahadi must do to live. Then, you can write your story.”
This was told to me as some of us rode and some walked slowly east to Fort Sill and the reservation, starving and humiliated by our losses. Struggling to hold our heads high as men of honor must always do.
Our women and children suffered most. They gathered and cooked weeds and buffalo horn stew along the way. Some died along that trail. There was nothing we could do. We had been beaten by Bad Hand. That’s Colonel Ranald MacKenzie, and his troops of mounted cavalry.
These were black days. I could not see far beyond the closest campfire. Not far into my future at all, for my mind was occupied by ideas of escape and revenge. More revenge was my ambition, not writing stories on papers that can teach but blow away in the wind. I would learn otherwise in the future, beyond the firelight.
I Avoid Schools
It is now many moons past at Fort Sill and when I vowed to write our story. Quanah insisted, like he did with the blue-eyed one, Herman, that the Whites, when their hearts seek to be right, will know and understand and respect our ways. What awaited us here? Today this prison life is still not good. It is what the Whites call a reservation. What have I learned? It is wrong for a man to promise to feed you and your family and then let you starve while you wait for the food that never comes.
But this is what happened as often as the sun rises and sets. Now, after I learned to write, I was convinced that the Whites wanted to wipe away the people and our ways like blood from their hands. “Civilize” us in boarding schools. Scrub our language and culture from our minds or eradicate us. But we would not let them succeed. I resisted their attempts to seize my son, William, who I had with my second wife, Cooksalot.
Many of us are sick and suffer from war, starvation and the White man’s diseases but some of us, we cling to our ways. It is disappointing to the true warriors among us but Quanah wanted us to take up the White ways. It is hard to eat an empty promise. It goes poorly with their wormy beef. But a warrior must call upon the patience of the stalker when learning White ways.
I am here where there is some peace on the large mountain of the Wichitas. I can see a valley to the west where the buffalo grass is high and green. I see buffalo which was our way of life. I have Bad Runner with me who puts my words down on paper with a pencil as I speak them. It is called writing. I learned to read and write when I was much younger, but my friends are faster than my hands with this tiny weapon called a pencil. I have pledges from my good friend Jack Wilson, and the blue-eyed White Comanche Herman Lehmann to hold my pencil as often as they can to help me in this story quest.
I lost my parents when I was young; my mother to smallpox, my father to a gunshot wound after the second Adobe Walls battle. I am driven to have my own family and protect them and our tribal skills and knowledge. But my search for family is a story of bad medicine. I lost my first wife, Sweet Flower, a fine Cheyenne woman. I longed for another and to have children. Sweet Flower and our baby, Little Laughing Boy, were killed by Tonkawa.
Now, I have a second wife, Cooksalot, and have been working for Quanah and the big rancher, Burk Burnett, to learn ranching. But Quanah talks about me going to Chilocco Indian School to learn how to read and write, grow crops and raise cattle, all White man’s things. I would be away from my wife, little boy, and friends and this place for four to five years. There are other savage things, brutal punishment, beatings and deaths that I hear about these places. But Quanah says I will be wise in White man’s ways when I finish. I do not look forward to the things I hear. Poor food, burning of native clothes and replacement with White man’s uniforms. Prison cells for those who behave in our way. How does one learn by whip and chain?
I have a shelter here with Quanah and a bunk house with Burnett’s cowboys. Bad Runner says I should feel special because I have these friends. It is raining and cold now. I don’t know what special feels like, except a warm fire. I shot a young deer yesterday so I have meat. Later today I will take the deer to my friends who have nothing to eat.
Coyotes complain on Hunting Horse Mountain. One cannot trust these tricksters. This is the mountain where many of our people come to say their death song and watch their last sunrises. There’s spirits everywhere. In the wind and rain and rocks and trees. If you listen and are quiet the trees will talk to you. I had that happen in Palo Duro. Cottonwoods talk a lot.
I remember when Bad Hand Mackenzie’s soldiers chased us out of Palo Duro. They captured fourteen hundred and twenty-four ponies and mules at the canyon. They shot a thousand and forty-eight to keep us from stealing them back. Our people and the horse spirits are still pissed. Spirits refuse to leave the canyon. We’ve seen it with our own eyes. Their death and our people suffering. It’s a terrible thing to have in your heart all this time.
Knowing that our old ways will soon be gone forever is sad, like waiting for the campfire to run out of wood, watching it turn to bright coals then cold and quickly die. The embers stay alive as long as you can blow on them, but soon, they will die and us too, if we do not fight for ourselves.