Book review: The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hamalainen

Comanche portraits

The Comanches are usually portrayed in the existing literature as a formidable equestrian power that erected a daunting barrier of violence to colonial expansion. Along with the Iroquois and Lakotas, they have been embedded in collective American memory as one of the few Native societies able to pose a significant challenge to the Euro-American conquest of North America. But the idea of a Comanche barrier leaves out at least half of the story. (Introduction)

In this masterful account of the history of the Comanche people, Hämäläinen demonstrates that the Comanches were far from disorganized bands of violent Indians as they have previously been portrayed to be, most notably in the work of T.R. Fehrenback and Walter Prescott Webb. Through his meticulous research, extraordinary detail, and superb prose, Hämäläinen instead shows that the Comanches represented something closer to an empire. This is evidenced in their calculated military prowess, strategies of diplomacy, innovations in culture and technology, and economic growth. He further argues that the Comanche empire changed the course of American expansion, particularly in what is now New Mexico and Texas, through their dominant presence in the Southwest.  Continue reading

The complications in using art to solve medical mysteries

It is simultaneously fascinating, amusing, and occasionally annoying that people are constantly trying to find answers to old mysteries: Where are the remnants of Noah’s Ark? Who was the Mona Lisa (was it Lisa del Giocondo? Or a feminized self-portrait of a young Leonardo da Vinci?)? Did the Devil plant dinosaur skeletons to make us question our faith in God? (I would like to take this opportunity to state the obvious: this last “mystery” does not reflect my personal beliefs in the slightest, as I am a firm believer in science and evolution).

However, my “firm belief” in science can sometimes only take me so far. A recent theory about what caused King Tut’s death was posed by Hutan Ashrafian, a surgeon at Imperial College London who happens to have an interest in medical history. He claims that Tut died from a form of temporal lobe epilepsy, providing evidence for this theory using the following factors: paintings and sculptures of Tut and his immediate predecessors, which show feminized features such as large breasts and wide hips, and historical accounts of hallucinations (the Egyptians called these religious visions) that occurred during or after exposure to sunlight. According to The Washington Post, “The temporal lobe is connected to parts of the brain involved in the release of hormones, and epileptic seizures are known to alter the levels of hormones involved in sexual development. This might explain the development of the pharaohs’ large breasts.” Ashrafian claims that Tut’s broken thigh bone could have been a result of fall during an epileptic seizure, and that he very well could have died young from the disorder. Furthermore, three of his predecessors all died young and all exhibited feminine features in art, “proving” the hereditary nature of temporal lobe epilepsy. He even goes so far as to say that the associated hallucinations brought about ancient Egypt’s brief period of monotheism, since Akhenaten (Tut’s father) had a vision/sun-induced hallucination to turn the minor deity Aten, or “sun-disk,” into the supreme god.

Epilepsy is an interesting theory, to be sure, and it is now added to an ever-growing list of what killed Tut: malaria, a fall from a chariot, sickle-cell anemia, murder, a hippopotamus attack… However, I resent that this new theory completely ignores two important factors: spiritual agency in creating a new religion and creative agency in the manufacture of ancient art. Continue reading

Book summary: Native Seattle by Coll Thrush

A white woman buying a basket from a Native basket vendor, likely Makah or Nuu-chah-nulth (1911)

The idea that Indians and cities are mutually exclusive– or, more to the point, that Native people do not ‘belong’ in urban places– is, in addition to being an outgrowth of broader American ideas about progress, also a result of the simple fact that Indian people can be very hard to find in cities. (Introduction)

Note: Now that I am back in school, I am finding that I have pretty much no time to blog anymore. I wanted to try to post the occasional book review of whatever I am currently reading for comps, but I don’t even have time for that, really. However, it’s not like I have a shortage of stuff that I am writing; because this blog is my study tool and a place of learning (or so I would like to think), I am going to go ahead and post rough drafts of things that I am writing for class. Therefore, here is where I have to include a disclaimer: While I am more than happy to share my thoughts on whatever scholarship I may be reading, these are my thoughts. Therefore, I highly recommend that you use these reviews/summaries/whatever as a starting point for deeper research, and do not copy what I am posting. That is plagiarism, and plagiarism is very frowned upon in academia.

Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place by Coll Thrush is an in-depth analysis of the complex relationship between American Indians and white settlers/inhabitants in Seattle since the landing of the first settlers, the Denny Party, in 1851 to the present. Thrush seeks to dispel the widely-accepted assumption that is particularly pervasive in Seattle itself of the “Myth of the Vanishing Race,” a complex (yet false) belief that Native Americans—frequently represented as the “noble savage” or the angry warrior—disappeared after the arrival of white settlers. His main argument is that the many tribes that comprise(d) what is now known as Seattle were crucial and integral participants in the development of the modern city, moving well beyond the 1930’s, which is when history begins to essentially exclude them due to pervasive stereotypes and discrimination.  Continue reading