Essay: Comanches and Me

Words by Sloane Citron

Words by Sloane Citron

“There, under the piece of mud, I think I see one,” I shouted to my friend, Donny Sadler, who was digging near me. I scraped at the wet earth, malleable but still hard, and slowly pulled out the arrowhead. It was a beauty—all points in perfect shape and clear markings on the carved flint.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was holding perhaps an arrowhead from the last Comanche band—essentially, small family groups—led by Quanah Parker, the first and only true Comanche leader, though he led a mix of defeated and compromised bands who were making their way to the reservations onto which they were forced.

For generations, the Comanches, actually a disparate tribe of individual bands with no real leaders, roamed the Texas Panhandle plains, finding food, refuge and safety in the canyons unique to this region.

The vast, mostly treeless area comprised of grasslands is on a high, flat plateau. And yet, suddenly, there are deep canyons (known as inverted mountains) carved by ancient rivers and their tributaries. The most famous of these is the spectacular Palo Duro Canyon, second only to the Grand Canyon in size and grandeur. Other canyons dot the landscape, breaking up the monotony of the endless expanses.

This is where I grew up, in Amarillo, a 30-minute drive from Palo Duro Canyon and from another, smaller canyon—simply called “The Canyon,” where my family had built a small cabin in the early 1960s. My father, a surgeon, joined the Korean War effort, and was sent to Japan for two years. While there, he developed a fondness for the architecture, and so when it came time to build a getaway for weekend retreats, he constructed it in Japanese fashion. The whole structure rested on stilts, one side for living with a small red bridge connected to the sleeping quarters. In the front, mounted on a large wooden structure, was a large Japanese gong, which could be heard throughout the canyon and was used to gather us children for meals and bedtime.

At the time, several of the local doctors developed small cabins here, drawn to each other, the natural beauty of the canyon, a small creek running through the middle of it and the rudimentary nine-hole golf course at its center. Of course, we children loved it out there. We climbed the hills, built rock wall forts, lit fireworks, explored old Indian caves and fireplaces, caught fireflies, watched lightning storms, swam in the shabby community pool, went creek fishing with long bamboo poles, played kick-the-can late into the night and, best of all, hunted for arrowheads, especially after a good rain.

Last summer, I spent some time in an adjacent canyon where our longtime family friend, Trudy Klingensmith Kraft, still owns the cabin her parents built more than 60 years ago. It’s a stunning spot where conversing, hiking and discovering are the key activities. She showed me her numerous arrowheads, points and flints, from a lifetime of collecting. Trudy raved about the Pulitzer Prize finalist and epic New York Times bestseller Empire of the Summer Moon, which examines the rise and fall of the Comanches and the famous Quanah Parker.

A hard book to put down, it paints an accurate picture of the struggle between the native tribes and the American destiny of millions of settlers coming to claim their piece of the open Plains territories. Neither side could claim moral victory, as there was torture, extreme violence, destruction and brutal killings on both sides during the four-decade war for control of this part of the American West.

What was of particular interest to me was that much of this mayhem happened in and around the canyon that I had hiked, explored and loved as a child. The burned-out caves we found were used by the Comanches; the long-hardened paths were traveled on by their horses as they sought the last of the buffalo; and, most of all, their thousands of arrowheads littered the ground, once resting on top of their handmade shafts, shot and lost in an effort to kill game, other natives and settlers.

To me, as a kid, they were simply something we hunted for, found with great regularity and collected. Until I read this enlightening book, I didn’t have a true understanding of the historical significance they held. As a sentimental man who keeps things because of the places they return me to, I knew that my arrowheads were someplace in my home, but where? I wanted to see them in a new light, caress their flinty edges and feel their sharp points, imagining their history. After a long search, I discovered my lost treasures tucked behind some books in my bookcase. I pulled them out and was transported not only to my childhood, but now, as well, to the time of the Comanches who fought in vain to hold their place on the Panhandle plains.