Powwow Notebook . . .

Following are random tidbits from the Lasting Friendship Powwow:

Although this was the big 150th anniversary celebration, the Comanches gathered in Fredericksburg a little more quietly last year as a warmup. By now, this gathering is taking on the atmosphere of a class reunion, especially for the Comanches, who gave up their native Texas lands for a slice of Oklahoma more than a century ago after 1,000 years of residence.

"This is our homeland," said Larry Liles, emcee of the Lasting Friendship Powwow and great great-grandson of Chief Horseback, one of the peace treaty signers.

Chief Quanah Parker

The friendly spirit in Fredericksburg presents a stark contrast to that in some parts of the Hill Country, where old fears and hard feelings against Indians in general -- and Comanches in particular -- still flows just below the surface.

Reading between the lines of the excerpt from Chief Santanna’s 1847 speech to the peace council (read the excerpt here), it sounds as if the Comanches had reason to mistrust words of peace. The fact that they gave the German settlers a chance to prove their peaceful intentions -- and turned over several million acres of their homeland to the settlers -- seems to be a powerful argument for the basic fairness and generosity of the Comanches.

This isn’t to say the Comanches are shy about their warrior heritage. Even “civilized" Cherokees reserve their highest honors for warriors. Comanches take it a little closer to the edge. Chief Horseback’s descendant, Larry Liles, spent much of his running banter as powwow emcee reveling in the Comanche’s bloodthirsty reputation, with stories both serious and humorous.

Seriously he tells of the solemn dedication of the Army’s newest attack helicopter, the RAH66 Comanche, by the tribe’s leaders. Seventy percent of Comanche men, Liles says, are military veterans. And 20 percent of Comanche women. Digging into history, he tells of an ultra-violent warrior society, one of the members of which promised a woman a hide to keep her warm at night . . . then left the skin of a Pawnee at the door of her teepee.

Jokes take on a different flavor when Liles discusses Custer’s wardrobe of Arrow shirts, or jests:

"What do you call a white man surrounded by 300 Indians?

" . . . a Bingo card."

Here in Fredericksburg, where the bloodshed passed by, it isn’t so much a putdown or a boast as a good-humored ribbing between friends.

Something similar happened the night Chief Santanna brought his people to Fredericksburg in early May, 150 years ago. The lights from their campfires, witnesses said, encircled the settlement, driving home the point that only the good graces of the natives allowed the settlers to survive the night.

I wish I could post video of John Keel, the head traditional dancer, moving across the powwow arena. His photo -- a man with face painted white, with red claw marks up each cheek and topped with a white fur headdress -- appears at the top of this page and in the "Sights" area of this special report.

Keel, a soft-spoken 32-year-old, is shy with reporters and the flock of people who want to shoot is picture. But he dances like a man entranced, and he exudes menace. As a child among the Navajos, I scared my brother and sister with stories about skinwalkers . . . witches who change into animals, like werewolves. When Keel dances, he goes boneless, moving into a softly twitching, powerful glide that reminds me of some powerful, quiet animal moving in for the kill.

One just has to give in to temptation: imagining what it would be like to have this man coming after you in the Hill Country . . . say 150 years ago . . .

I wasn’t paying attention during the announcements . . . just looked up and saw those Indian “princesses" I’d been making snide comments about circling the drum, stabbing with spears and long businesslike daggers. A scalp dance, a Cherokee woman told me . . . the women do cleanup after the men return from battle.

There aren’t really any princesses, of course. These young women, decked in beaded crowns and Miss America-style sashes, are elected by their various tribes and tribal organizations to serve as ambassadors from their tribe to the outside world at large and to other Native American groups and events, especially powwows. In the powwows, they receive special seating and special places in the dances and processions.

The powwow was scheduled to take place at Fort Martin Scott, just east of Fredericksburg on Highway 290, but Friday’s torrential rains left the old fort unusable for the powwow’s heavy foot traffic and dancing. Some exhibits, including a cluster of tents, flint-chipping demonstrations, the Texas Camel Corps and early 1800s reenactments were still taking place Saturday.

The stars of this show were the two camels of the Texas Camel Corps, an area reenactment group scheduled to appear at this summer’s Texas Folklife Festival in San Antonio. Fort Martin Scott, which was in operation sporadically from 1848 until just after the Civil War, was one of the local headquarters of the Army’s camel experiment.

The camels were imported in the 1850s by then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. About 100 camels called Texas home, according to Camel Corps Commandant Doug Baum. Although the camels successfully adapted to use in the United States, after the Civil War, they were used less and less, perhaps due to their connection to now-vilified Davis, the ousted president of the Confederacy.

But although the last known descendant of the military camels died in a California zoo in 1934, Baum said, "There are those who still believe that descendants of Uncle Sam’s camels still roam remote parts of Texas, Arizona and California."

A highlight of the powwow was the reunion of two branches of a family formed during one of those peculiar episodes that make Texas history interesting. In the early 1850s, a young German lad named Rudolph Fischer (or Fisher . . . you can choose; his descendants did), was abducted by a Comanche war party and later adopted by a Comanche couple. Like some others caught in this situation, Rudolph accepted the Indian lifestyle so completely that he refused to leave it when given the chance. He took two Comanche wives and went with the tribe to its new slice of Oklahoma, where he was fruitful and multiplied.

A film documentary crew taped the reunion and interviews with members of the the Comanche Fisher family and the German Fischers, headed by Gunther Fischer of Bavaria.

An especially interesting angle to the Fischer saga was its connection to the last -- and arguably most famous -- Comanche war chief, Quanah Parker. You can see his statue at Sea World of Texas, if you have the urge. The family of Parker -- himself the child of an abducted white girl, Cynthia Ann Parker -- evidently intermarried fruitfully with the family of Fischer. With nine wives between them, Parker and Fischer apparently fostered their own population explosion. A number of Comanche Fishers also share Parker ancestry.

A personal highlight was meeting Teresa Parker of Amarillo, the granddaughter of both Quanah Parker and Rudolph Fischer. For a Texas boy, this was akin to meeting the granddaughter of Jim Bowie or Sam Houston.

The Comanches are joined at the powwow by members of other tribes, including Pawnee, Oneida, Choctaw and Cherokee, including members of the Texas Cherokees, who hosted Sam Houston and mingled with the Comanches. The Cherokee women stand out, with their tear-patterned cloth dresses and the red "crows feet" at the outside corners of their eyes in memory of the Trail of Tears.


© 1997, Jonathan C. Donley