Quanah Parker (ca. 1850-1911) was a young half-blood Comanche leader in the late 1870s or early 1880s in southwestern Oklahoma. Quanah means “fragrance”. Even though he considered himself to be totally Indian, his mother had been captured from white settlers. When his mother Cynthia Ann Parker was taken captive she was a child of four or five according to varying stories. She was taken into the family of a band chief who had lost a daughter and was reared by his favorite wife. Her name was Nadua, “Someone Found”. By her teens there was no distinctive difference between Cynthia and any other Comanche girl except for her blue-grey eyes, she could tan hides, sew with a sinew and an awl, and cook over a tipi fire as well as any other Comanche girl would do in everyday life.
Following the Civil War the Parker family in Texas was able to locate their daughter. By then she was married to a band Quahada chief of the Comanches, Peta Nokona, and was mother of children. Attempts to persuade her to return to her family failed until her husband was killed in an upheaval between his tribe and the army troops. Only then did she consent to return to her family. She took her baby daughter Prairie Flower with her, but left her son Quanah (the Eagle) behind to be reared by his Comanche relatives who would teach him what a man should know. It was evident that Quanah would assume his father’s position as a band leader, and his mother felt that he she be trained by people who were as much hers as his.
Needless to say when Cynthia returned to her family she experienced culture shock. Being used to life in the open, she soon became convinced that the confinement of indoor living would quickly kill her and her baby. The inevitable did happen, the actual disease-Tuberculosis, measles, or a cold-was never diagnosed, but anyone that the child was not immune to took her life. Cynthia, it is assumed, simply died of a broken heart or homesickness.
After her death, her family naturally wanted to claim her son, Quanah, since he was the only boy left of what once had been, they said, a large and promising family. They deemed to be very persuasive in convincing him to come to Texas, learn the white man’s ways for the Indian ways were fast dying, and he should become a stockman. Quanah finally consented, but convinced that no matter what he learned he would soon follow his mother and little sister into death.
His self-prophecy almost became fulfilled. Soon after arriving Quanah, the young Comanche Eagle, genuinely seemed to lay on his deathbed. White doctors were unable to help him. He was not able to tolerate the white man’s food that his grandmother prepared for him. All he did was lie numb in a stupor or twist restlessly in her brass bed. He begged to be taken outside, into the opened air, where he could lie on the good earth and draw his strength back from it. He also pleaded for an Indian medicine man.
His Grandmother Parker knew of no medicine man, so in despair she sent for a woman referred, by the Mexican term curandera, who cures with herbs, prayers, and magic. She spoke Spanish but like many of northern Mexico she more Indian by blood. She immediately ordered a brush arbor to be built which was opened to the north, south winds. Quanah was to lay on a pallet on the ground with his head to the east. While he lay there the woman prayed and smoked tobacco-filled corn-hush cigarettes over him. She dosed him with tea that was “as bitter as death.”
After recovering in four days, Quanah spoke of returning to his Comanche people. But before departing he attended Mexican-Indian ceremonies of prayer and healing with the woman that cured him. The woman told him there was a bush that would guide men to the sacred cactus. She showed him the bush, and cautioned him that its beans were deadly poisonous unless they were used properly. Its red beans should never be worn except for ceremonial reasons
She especially emphasized to Quanah that since a woman had first brought peyote to the people, women should always have a place in its worship. Their duties were to bring water and food, especially water since all life comes from it, to the men who sang their prayers. Quanah promised solemnly to obey all the rules she and the men of her family had taught him.
Although Quanah would become the founder of the peyote religion, he brought back to Oklahoma with him more knowledge than just about peyote and its ceremonies. From his Texas relatives he learned something of the cattle business. He now had knowledge of both the Indian and white man’s ways and he put it to good use, even though some of his people resented him for his half-blood saying he was not a true Indian. In the early 1900s when land was allotted in individual holdings of one hundred sixty acres each, Quanah claimed his own allotment and the allotments for each of his eight wives, and also those of his then living children. This huge block of land composed the small town of Cache, near what is now the Wichita Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Oklahoma.
In the center of his empire Quanah built his “Star house.” In the massive house was a large communal dinning room with long tables and benches to accommodate the family and guests. Each wife had her own bedroom. There were boys’ and girls’ dormitories. A restaurant size kitchen and stove adjoined the dinning room. There were daily and weekly activities scheduled for every member of the well organized and peaceful household.
Although Quanah never slept in the house or under any roof his bedroom was across hall from the dinning room. In it was his Grandmother’s brass bed, the one he had lay so sick on; a bird’s-eye maple straight chair; and a huge picture of Quanah in full-tribal dress, gold framed hanging over the mantel of the fireplace. Behind the house was a tipi for his sleeping, resting, and entertaining visitors. There also was a brush arbor. Another tipi was also there for almost weekly peyote ceremonies.
There is a story, probably apocryphal, that once when Quanah was summoned with other Comanche leaders to Washington to meet the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and the Land Office surveyors, the Commissioner supposedly said to him, “Quanah…You aren’t a wild Indian anymore. You’re a civilized man with a house to live in, and a civilized man only has one wife at a time. You have eight right now, and you might get married again. You’ll have to decide which wife which wife you will keep, and which ones you will send back to their own families. Go home, Quanah, and tell them what you have decided.”
“Mr. Commissioner,” Quanah is supposed to have replied, the eagle lids hooding his blue-grey eyes for a moment, “you tell ’em.”
Quanah left, no trouble was ever made, and the wives stayed in the big house with the star amicably. They were either sisters or cousins, and lived in accordance to an old Comanche custom of marrying related women to prevent friction in the family.
Chief Quanah Parker died of pneumonia in 1911. He was buried as he lived, as an Indian. One wife had his name and date of death tattooed around her wrist, the others, by the other living members of his family obliterated his name, never to be spoken again according to a death taboo. The only evidence of such individuals comes from persons not sharing these taboos.
In researching this article this author has found two references concerning the reason why Quanah founded the peyote religion or church. Both concerned a vision of Jesus which he was supposed to have experienced. In the vision Jesus is said to have told him to start the peyote religion. There are two versions when such a vision occurred. One claimed the vision occurred when Quanah was initially very sick, near death; the other claims it happened during a time when he was wounded and healed by a Ute Indian. But such claims seem unverified. In the biography The Last Comanche Chief: The Life and Times of Quanah Parker, the Reverend J. J. Methvin is quoted, “…under the influence of the peyote, Quanah said the got their inspiration from the Great Father while the white man got his from the Book. He said, ‘All the same God, both ways good,'” From the same work: “Although Quanah never accepted Christianity in the formal sense, like most other Comanches he believed that Jesus was the Brother of the Red Men as the sat in their peyote tipees and prayed to the Creator.”
The religion had Christian elements, which was natural since it was delivered to Quanah by a Mexican-Indian woman who was most likely Catholic or had been Christian influenced herself. No one can question the Christian influence in the peyote religion. But the concept that its founder had a vision of Jesus, especially when reading that Quanah lived as an Indian and died as an Indian, can be questioned. A.G.H.
Marriott, Alice, Carol K. Rachlin. Peyote. New York. Thomas Y. Crowell, Co. 1971.
Neeley, Bill. The Last Comanche Chief: The Life and Times of Quanah Parker. New York. John Wiley & Sons. 1995.
Quanah Parker. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quanah_Parker>.
Quanah Parker. <http://www.lnstar.com/mall/texasinfo/quanah.htm>.