Dustin Tahmahkera: The last chief of the Comanches and the fall of an empire

Recorded atJune 16, 2020
Duration (min:sec)06:02
Video TypeTED-Ed Original
Words per minute157.9 slow
Readability (FK)45.68 difficult
SpeakerDustin Tahmahkera

Official TED page for this talk


Late one night in 1871, a group of riders descended on a sleeping army camp, stole about 70 horses, and disappeared. Led by a young chief named Quanah Parker, the raid was the latest in a long series of altercations along the Texas frontier between Indigenous people and United States forces. Who was this brave warrior? Dustin Tahmahkera details the life of the last chief of the Comanches. [Directed by Tomás Pichardo-Espaillat, narrated by Dustin Tahmahkera, music Cem Misirlioglu / WORKPLAYWORK].

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100:07 Late one night in 1871, a group of riders descended on a sleeping army camp.
200:14 In minutes they stirred the camp into a panic, stole about 70 horses, and disappeared.
300:21 Led by a young chief named Quanah Parker, the raid was the latest in a long series of altercations along the Texas frontier between the indigenous people known as the Numunu, or Comanches, and the United States forces sent to steal Comanche lands for white settlers.
400:40 Though the conflict was decades old, U.S. Colonel Ranald MacKenzie led the latest iteration.
500:46 From summer to winter, he tracked Quanah.
600:49 But Quanah was also tracking him, and each time the colonel drew near his targets, they disappeared without a trace into the vast plains.
700:59 The Comanches had controlled this territory for nearly 200 years, hunting buffalo and moving whole villages around the plains.
801:08 They suppressed Spanish and Mexican attacks from the south, attempts to settle the land by the United States from the east, and numerous other indigenous peoples’ bids for power.
901:19 The Comanche Empire was not one unified group under central control, but rather a number of bands, each with its own leaders.
1001:28 What all of these bands had in common was their prowess as riders— every man, woman, and child was adept on horseback.
1101:36 Their combat skills on horseback far surpassed those of both other indigenous peoples and colonists, allowing them to control an enormous area with relatively few people— probably about 40,000 at their peak and only about 4-5,000 by the time Quanah Parker and Ranald Mackenzie faced off.
1201:57 Born around 1848, Quanah was the eldest child of Peta Nocona, a leader of the Nokoni band, and Cynthia Ann Parker, a kidnapped white settler who assimilated with the Comanches and took the name Naduah.
1302:13 When Quanah was a preteen, U.S. forces ambushed his village, capturing his mother and sister.
1402:20 Quanah and his younger brother sought refuge with a different Comanche band, the Quahada.
1502:26 In the years that followed, Quanah proved himself as a warrior and leader.
1602:31 In his early twenties, he and a young woman named Weakeah eloped, enraging her powerful father and several other leaders.
1702:40 They stayed on the run for a year, attracting followers and establishing Quanah as a paraibo, or chief, at an exceptionally young age.
1802:50 Under his leadership the Quahada band was able to elude the U.S. military and continue their way of life.
1902:57 But in the early 1870s, the East Coast market for buffalo hides became lucrative, and hunters slaughtered millions of buffalo in just a few years.
2003:07 Meanwhile, U.S. forces led a surprise attack, killing nearly all the Quahada band’s 1,400 horses and stealing the rest.
2103:16 Though he had vowed to never surrender, Quanah knew that without bison or horses, the Comanches faced certain starvation in winter.
2203:24 So in 1875 Quanah and the Quahada band moved to the Fort Sill reservation in Oklahoma.
2303:33 As hunter-gatherers, they could not transition easily to an agricultural way of life on the reservation.
2403:40 The U.S. government had promised rations and supplies, but what they provided was wildly insufficient.
2503:46 Quanah, meanwhile, was suddenly in a weak political position: he had no wealth or power compared to others who had been on the reservation longer.
2603:56 Still, he saw an opportunity.
2703:58 The reservation included ample grasslands— useless to the Comanches but perfect for cattle ranchers to graze their herds.
2804:07 He began a profitable arrangement leasing the land to cattle ranchers, quietly at first.
2904:12 Eventually, he negotiated leasing rights with the U.S. government, which ensured a steady source of income for the Comanches on the reservation.
3004:21 As Quanah’s status on the reservation and recognition from government officials grew, he secured better rations, advocated for the construction of schools and houses, and became one of three tribal judges on the reservation court.
3104:36 Tired of speaking with multiple leaders, the U.S. government wanted to appoint one chief of all Comanches— a role that hadn’t existed outside the reservation.
3204:47 Still, many Comanches supported Quanah for this role, just as several older leaders had supported him to lead them against the U.S. armed forces.
3304:56 Even Quanah’s former adversary, Ranald MacKenzie, advocated for his appointment.
3405:01 Quanah acted in Hollywood movies and befriended American politicians, riding in Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration parade.
3505:09 Still, he never cut his long braids and advocated for the Native American Church and the use of peyote.
3605:15 He began to go by Quanah Parker, adopting his mother’s surname, and tried to track down his mother and sister, eventually learning they had both died shortly after their capture.
3705:28 Quanah adapted again and again— to different worlds, different roles, and circumstances that would seem insurmountable to most.
3805:37 Though he wasn’t without critics, after Quanah’s passing, Comanches began using the term “chairman” to designate the top elected official in the tribe, recognizing him as the last chief of the Comanches and a model of cultural survival and adaptation.
3905:53 In that spirit, today’s Comanche Nation looks towards the future, with over 16,000 enrolled citizens and countless descendants.