Nomads, the historical records show, can evade, resist, stop, sustain, exploit, destabilize, and destroy empires. They can also build enduring empires of their own, but only if they modify the essence of their being and became less nomadic. Nomadism appears fundamentally incompatible with empire-building. Empires thrive on structure and stability, whereas nomads - at least the nomads one finds in most scholarly studies - are shifting and factional. Their institutions, like their very way of life, tend to be fluid and ephemeral, and they lack such classic elements of empires as state structure and surplus-generating agriculture. Indeed, to preserve their might, nearly all nomadic empires develop over time more fixed institutions of governance and production that required at least seasonal sedentarism.Countless colonial officials failed to comprehend and contain the Comanches. Comanches deflected the controlling gaze of colonial agents through their traditional political culture in which power was dichotomized, leaders could be both strong and weak, and group membership was flexible. A vast collection of relatively autonomous bands and organized for multipolarity and fluidity, the Comanche nation appeared formidable and fragmented, structured and shapeless, incomprehensible and impregnable all at once. Seen from the outside, the Comanche nation was an amorphous entity that lacked a clear center to negotiate with - or obliterate - and an explicit internal structure that would have rendered its external actions predictable. The Comanches, it seems, were so dominant not in spite of their informal, almost atomistic social organization but because of it.
The Comanche Empire (Yale, 2008) by Pekka Hämäläinen has been my best read in months. It describes the emergence of an obscure band of Shoshone's on the great plains just before 1700. Here, equipped with horses and fired by unbounded energy these former hunter-gatherers created the wide-ranging semi-nomadic, trade-centred, raiding-dependant Comancheria empire that lasted for over a century. George Catlin, who painted the Comanche village above in 1834-35, estimated that principle Comanche village had six to eight hundred tipis organized in long parallel lines "which gave the settlement a gridlike appearance of streets and rowhouses," according to Hämäläinen. On the outside this book is the story of the rise and fall of the Comanches, but it also incorporates anthropological and ecological views, explaining how ecological factors and social organization contributed to their success. The Comanches, I can't help myself comparing, were the Vikings of the great plains.