Comanche Indians

The Comanche Indians are a Native American ethnic group whose historic lands (the Comancheria) consisted of present-day eastern New Mexico, southern Colorado, northeastern Arizona, southern Kansas, all of Oklahoma, and most of northwest Texas. They also traveled down into Chihuahua, Mexico.

Tribal Origin: Shoshone

Tribal Name: The name Comanche is derived from a Ute word,  kɨmantsimeaning “anyone who wants to fight me all the time.” 

Native Name: Numunuu, means ‘the People.’  Nermernuh is another name they use for themselves.

Home Territories: New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas

Language: Uto-Aztecan>>Northern Uto-Aztecan>> Central Numic>>Comanche

Alliances: Apache and Kiowa

Enemies: Apache during the period of their expansion onto the Great Plains. American settlers at times.

Membership: Membership in the tribe requires a 1/8 blood quantum (equivalent to one great-grandparent).

Comanche Culture

The Comanches were hunter-gatherers, with a typical Plains Indian culture, including the horse. There may have been as many as 45,000 Comanches in the late 1700s.

They were the dominant tribe on the Southern Plains and often took captives from weaker tribes during warfare, selling them as slaves to the Spanish and later Mexican settlers. They also took thousands of captives from the Spanish, Mexican, and American settlers.

In 1680, the Comanche acquired horses from the Pueblo Indians after the Pueblo Revolt. The Comanche were one of the first tribes to acquire horses from the Spanish and one of the few to breed them to any extent. 

The Comanche may have been the first group of Plains natives to fully incorporate the horse into their culture and to have introduced the animal to the other Plains peoples.

They separated from the Shoshone after this, as the horses allowed them greater mobility in their search for better hunting grounds.

They also fought battles on horseback, a skill unknown among other Indian peoples at the time. Highly skilled Comanche horsemen set the pattern of nomadic equestrian life that became characteristic of the Plains tribes in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were said to be the best horsemen on the Plains.

During that time, their population increased dramatically because of the abundance of buffalo, an influx of Shoshone migrants, and their adoption of significant numbers of women and children taken captive from rival groups.

They were estimated to have taken captive thousands of people from the Spanish, Mexican, and American settlers in their lands. Curtis Marez suggests that this contributed to the development of mestizaje in the borderlands, as the descendants of such captives were mixed-race.

By the mid-19th century, the Comanche were supplying horses to French and American traders and settlers, and later to migrants passing through their territory on the way to the California Gold Rush, along the California Road. 

The Comanche had stolen many of the horses from other tribes and settlers; they earned their reputation as formidable horse thieves, later extending their rustling to cattle. Their stealing of livestock from Spanish and American settlers, as well as the other Plains tribes, often led to war.

The Comanche also had access to vast numbers of feral horses, which numbered about 2,000,000 in and around Comancheria, and which the tribe was particularly skilled at breaking to saddle.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Comanche lifestyle required about one horse per person (though warriors each possessed many more). With a population around 30,000 to 40,000 and in possession of herds many times that number, the Comanche had a surplus of about 90,000 to 120,000 horses.

They were formidable opponents who developed strategies for using traditional weapons for fighting on horseback. Warfare was a major part of Comanche life.

Comanche raids into Mexico traditionally took place during the full moon, when the Comanche could see to ride at night. This led to the term “Comanche Moon”, during which the Comanche raided for horses, captives, and weapons. 

The majority of Comanche raids into Mexico were in the state of Chihuahua and neighboring northern states

Comanche raids for material goods, horses, and captives carried them as far south as Durango in present-day Mexico.

At end of the 18th century, probably more than 13 bands existed, but there were five major bands (listed from north to south):

  • Yamparika (“Yap [or Root] Eaters”)
  • Kotsoteka (“Buffalo Eaters”)
  • Penateka (“Honey Eaters”)
  • Nokoni (“Wanderers” or “Those Who Turn Back”)
  • Quahadis (“Antelopes”).

Four levels of social-political integration were found in Comanche society:

  • Patrilineal (tracing family lineage from the father’s side) and patrilocal (living with the husband’s community) nuclear family
  • Extended family group (the people who live together in a household, no size limits, but kinship recognition was limited to relatives two generations above or three below).
  • Residential local group (rancheria, comprised one or more extended family groups, one of which formed its core).
  • Division or band (several local groups linked by kinship, sodalities (political, medicine, and military) and common interest in hunting, gathering, war, peace, trade.

As an example of such political and kinship-based division, the Yaparʉhka, identified as a separate division. Because of cultural and linguistic differences from other Comanche bands, they became the “(Yap)Root-Eaters”, in contrast to the Kʉhtsʉtʉhka (“Buffalo-Eaters”). The Yaparʉhka division was composed of several residential local groups, such as the Ketahtoh Tʉ, Motso Tʉ, and Pibianigwai.

In contrast to the neighboring Cheyenne and Arapaho to the north, the Comanche never developed a political idea of forming a nation or tribe.

The Comanche recognized each other as Nʉmʉnʉ and bands seldom fought against each other; but the Kwaarʉ Nʉʉ pursued policies against the Spanish and Indian settlements in New Mexico independently of the Kʉhtsʉtʉhka.

As a consequence, at the time when Comanche society was breaking down, the once respected and feared Penatʉka Nʉʉ provided U.S. Army Indian Scouts for the Americans and Texans against their still fighting and free-roaming Comanche kin.

The band was the primary social unit of the Comanche. A typical band might number about 100 people. Bands were part of larger divisions, sometimes called tribes.

Before the 1750s, the three Comanche divisions were: Yamparikas, Jupes, and Kotsotekas. In the 1750s and 1760s, a number of Kotsoteka bands split off and moved to the southeast.

This resulted in a large division between the original group, the western Comanches, and the break-away Kotsotekas, the eastern Comanches.

The western Comanche lived in the region of the upper Arkansas, Canadian, and Red Rivers, and the Llano Estacado.

The eastern Comanches lived on the Edwards Plateau and the Texas plains of the upper Brazos and Colorado Rivers, and east to the Cross Timbers.

Over time, these divisions were altered in various ways. In the early 19th century, the Jupes vanished from history, probably merging into the other divisions.
Many Yamparikas moved southeast, joining the eastern Comanche and becoming known as the Tenewa.
Many Kiowa and Plains Apache (also known as Kiowa-Apache or Naishan) moved to northern Comancheria and became closely associated with the Yamparika.
A group of Arapaho, known as the Charitica, moved into Comancheria and joined Comanche society. New divisions arose, such as the Nokonis, closely linked with the Tenewa; and the Kwahadi, who emerged as a new faction on the southern Llano Estacado.
The western-eastern distinction changed in the 19th century. Observers began to call them Northern, Middle, and Southern Comanche.

One of the largest groups, as well as the southernmost, lived on the edge of the Edwards Plateau and east across to the Cross Timbers, and became known as the Penateka, (Penatʉka Nʉʉ) Southern Comanches.

In the eastern part of the Comancheria, between the Colorado and Red Rivers, roamed the Nokoni ( ‘Movers’, ‘Returners’).  

South of them were the strong, associated smaller bands or residential groups of the Tenawa (Tahnahwah or Tenahwit — ‘Those Who Live Downstream’) and Tanima (‘Liver-Eaters’). Together, the Nokoni, Tenawa, and Tanima were called the Middle Comanche.

Just north of the Nokonis in the Red River Valley, between the Red and Canadian Rivers, lived the numerous residential local groups of the powerful Kotsotekas (‘Buffalo-Eaters’). They took their name from the large buffalo herds that were always in their territory.

The northernmost Comanche band was the Yamparikas ‘(Yap)Root-Eaters’). As the last band to move onto the Plains, they retained much of their Shoshone tradition.

Because the Kotsoteka and Yamparika lived in the northern part of the Comancheria, they were called the Northern Comanche. The last large group was known as Kwahadis (Quohada or ‘Antelope-Eaters’), originally Kotsoteka-residential local groups that moved south out of the Cimarron Valley onto the desert plains of the Llano Estacado.

They emerged as a new division in the 19th century. Though the western-eastern distinction had changed in the 19th century, these people were classified as Western Comanche because of their relative isolation on the westernmost edge of the Comancheria.

All these division names were spelled in many different ways by Spanish and English writers, and spelling differences continue today. Large-scale groupings became unstable and unclear during the 19th century. The Comanche society was slowly overwhelmed and ultimately subjugated to the United States.

One of the best-known Comanche leaders, Quanah Parker, belonged to the Quahadi band. His mother, Cynthia Ann Parker was a white captive who was captured by the Comanche as a young girl. 

Many years later she was “rescued” by whites, and spent the rest of her life trying to get back to her Comanche people. 

Like most other tribes of Plains Indians, the Comanche were organized into autonomous bands, local groups formed on the basis of kinship and other social relationships.

Buffalo products formed the core of the Comanche economy and provided meat,  robes, tepee covers, sinew thread, glue, water carriers made of the animal’s stomach, and a wide variety of other goods.

Comanche Language

The Comanche were one of the southern tribes of the Shoshonean stock, and the only one of that group living entirely on the plains.

Their language and traditions show that they are a comparatively recent offshoot from the Shoshoni of Wyoming, both tribes speaking practically the same dialect and, until very recently, keeping up constant and friendly communication.

The Comanche speak the Comanche language, a Numic language of the Uto-Aztecan family, sometimes classified as a Shoshone dialect.

Comanche Migrations

Within the traditional period, the two tribes lived adjacent to each other in southern Wyoming, since which time the Shoshoni were beaten back into the mountains by the Sioux and other prairie tribes, while the Comanche have been driven steadily southward by the same pressure.

In this southerly migration the Penateka seem to have preceded the rest of the tribe. The Kiowa say that when they themselves moved southward from the Black Hills region, the Arkansas River was the northern boundary of the Comanche.

In 1719 the Comanche are mentioned under their Siouan name of Padouca as living in what now is west Kansas. It must be remembered that from 500 to 800 miles was an ordinary range for a prairie tribe and that the Comanche were equally at home on the Platte and in the Bolson de Mapimi of Chihuahua, Mexico.

Their original migration took them to the southern Great Plains, into a sweep of territory extending from the Arkansas River to central Texas.

They reached present-day New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle by 1700, forcing the Lipan Apache people ever southward, defeating them in a nine-day battle along the Rio del Fierro (Wichita River) in 1723.

By 1777, the Lipan Apache had retreated to the Rio Grande and the Mescalero Apache to Coahuila.

They have been close confederates of the Kiowa since about 1795. As late as 1805 the North Platte was still known as Padouca fork. At that time they roamed over the country about the heads of the Arkansas, Red, Trinity, and Brazos rivers, in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Comanche History

For nearly two centuries, the Comanche people were at war with the Spaniards of Mexico and extended their raids far down into Durango.

They were friendly to the Americans generally, but became bitter enemies of the Texans, by whom they were dispossessed of their best hunting grounds, and carried on a relentless war against them for nearly 40 years.

The Comanche warriors were known for attacking on nights with a full moon and for their skills of fighting while on horseback. They were known as the most skilled horsemen of the Plains.

In 1835 they made their first treaty with the U.S. Government.

In 1864 Col. Christopher (“Kit”) Carson led U.S. forces in an unsuccessful campaign against the Comanche.

In 1865 the Comanche and their allies the Kiowa signed a treaty with the United States, which granted them what is now western Oklahoma, from the Red River north to the Cimarron.

In the mid-19th century the Penateka, a southern band, were settled on a reservation in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The northern segment of the tribe, however, continued the struggle to protect their realm from settlers.

The government was unable to keep squatters off the land promised to the tribes, and it was after this date that some of the most violent encounters between U.S. forces and the Comanche took place.

Upon the failure of the United States to abide by the terms of the treaty, hostilities resumed until 1867, when, in agreements made at Medicine Lodge Creek in Kansas, the Comanche, Kiowa, and Kiowa Apache undertook to settle on a reservation in Oklahoma.

It wasn’t until after the last outbreak of the southern prairie tribes in 1874-75 that the Comanche and their allies, the Kiowa and Apache, finally settled on it.

Comanche Population

By the early 1800s the Comanche were very powerful, with a population estimated at from 7,000 to as many as 30,000 individuals. 

In the mid 1850s,  the population was drastically reduced by war and disease. They numbered only 1,400 in 1904, and were attached to the Kiowa Agency in Oklahoma.

Today, the Comanche Nation consists of 14,700 members (2010 enrollment figures), about half of whom live in Oklahoma. The remainder are concentrated in Texas, California, and New Mexico.

The Comanche people are federally recognized as the Comanche Nation, headquartered in Lawton, Oklahoma.

Famous Comanche