I arrived in what is now Lubbock, Texas, the latest “stake” of history that’s settled over the layers of existence that is the “staked plain”, the Llano Estacado. The term “estacado” usually means “stockaded” or “pallisaded” and refers to the fortress-like rise of the escarpments at the edges of this formation. The “stake” refers to how earlier inhabitants would mark the llano with stakes of various types to guide their way.
For a flat, desolate, seemingly featureless plain of what was a shallow sea millions of years ago, so much has happened in its nearest past. Geographically, the Llano crosses Texas on the west in the “Panhandle through the Permian Basin and somewhat fusing with the Edwards Plateau, another raised flat land that reaches near to Austin and San Antonio. In the east of New Mexico, the Llano ends with the Mescalero Escarpment near Roswell. But this region represents a larger whole merging the histories of western Texas –Oklahoma, and the respective eastern corners New Mexico and Colorado and the western parts of Oklahoma and Kansas; what was the domain of the Comanche. These states claim a portion of what would otherwise be one geologic and geopraphic unity.
Once the sea dried, it became home to a multitude of floral and faunal migrations mxed in with homegrown indigenous plants and creatures; the first layer, the first “stake”. It seems inevitable that all these creatures great and small would be followed by a second stake, human immigrants. Although it is not likely that humans came only via a landbridge “Ellis Island” to the north, a great many did and they proliferated multiple cultures and civilizations. It also seems that the first act of these early peoples was to help along the clearing of the large mammals that once ruled unobstructed. They didn’t do so with disease, but they did fashion spearpoints and a desire to survive, to colonize. After all, the entire area was truly “despoblado”, inhabited only by . . . .food and the materials for shelter.
The third stake on this flat unified plain came with the development of a host of simple to greatly sophisticated cultures; Jumano/Chisos, Anasazi/Pueblo, Zuni, Hopi, Navajo, many others. All of these interacted with others to the east and further west. In their midst entered the Apache, Ute, Kiowa, and an almost inconsequential group of ostracized Shoshone known to themselves as the Nermernuh, to the Ute, kimantsi–“people who alway fight us” or “enemy”–and which the Spanish eventually formed into their tongue as Comanche. The Comanche highlight the fourth stake to this flat land, Mesa, buttressed by eroded canyons that made the land appear like a “palisaded” steppe, “estacado”.
If you watch and listen as you drive through this featureful expanse, you can feel the layers speaking in emotions, from the bones of camels, elephant ancestors, giant sloths, and especially ancient horses and bison to the laughter of Juman/Chiso/Pueblo children and the laments of expelled Shoshone for their lot in trying to eke out a living, unwanted and on foot, atop a sea of grass and succulent buffalo steaks galloping all too fast to catch.
It took a fifth stake, the Spanish, to change history, They brought along the descendants of the earlier horses, those now extinct in the Americas but from whom horses first evolved. There is some belief that horses have remained here and to many Indian people there is a view that rests within their collective memory. What is undeniable is that what the Spanish took for granted as transportation, the Nermernuh/Kimantsi/Comanche learned to prize above all else as their salvation; the ships that would carry them across the seas of grass and the harvest of its bounty. For 250 years, the Comanche sat astride the Llano Estacado holding back the Spanish, French, Mexicans, Texans, and Americans. Until the buffalo were gone and then so were the Comanche. A few other layers have come since then but this journey is about understanding what came before the layers that have obscured a deeper past, a deeper origin.
Ancient Lakes, Ancient (Mega) Fauna
Lubbock Lake is a dried former lake where prehistoric flora and fauna and of human layering in the land can be found through every period of human history for at least 12,000 years. The lake was part of a meander of the Yellow House Draw itself a former part of the Brazos River. It served as a water source until the 1930’s and when the city of Lubbock tried to dredge it to revive access to the underground springs, they were unsuccesful but in the process uncovered the layers of different peoples who “staked” their claim to life on this land. Layers on layers of cultures and the fossilized bones of earlier extinct megafauna like the bison antiquus, the predecessor to the the “American buffalo” (bison bison). Those layers, stakes, begin with the bison and their contemporary megafauna, the mammoth/mastodon, giant sloths, horses, camels, lions, tigers (sabre-toothed) and short-faced bears (yeah, you know you want to say “oh my!” Go ahead).
Long before bison bison, the ancestors of the favored resource of the Comanche and other people of the Great Plains in North “America”, there was bison antiquus. B. Antiquus existed 125,000 to 14,500 years before the present (BP) along with other pleistocene megafauna and that finally disappeared from the Americas around 11,000 to 12,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age.
There is some controversy about how the megafauna died off, but my favorite paleontologist, Timothy Flannery makes a compelling argument for the final demise of the megafauna as a result not of changing climate, but of the human migration that followed on the heels, or hooves, of these now extinct animals.
Buffalo weren’t just food for the early immigrants of this continent, their social, and eventual poltical, economy rested in the existence of these “Target runs” on hooves. One can see why early people built their lifestyle and subsistence around them.
Contrasting Blanco and White
Blanco Canyon is an ever-widening erosion in the Llano Estacado originating out of the steppe from the White River. it is interesting to note the difference in language to denote the same color, “Blanco” and “White”. I’m not sure why this distinction is made, but the metaphor is all too poignant when you consider its history. For, the first battle between the Comanche, led by their last warrior chief, Quannah Parker, and the Anglo, and Black, U.S. Army under Ranald MacKenzie was fought here. Well, to call it a battle is to give the army too much credit, they were largely routed resulting in MacKenzie receiving a debilitating and lifelong painful leg wound. One which would mark him psychologically as well as debilitate him physically from then on. The Comanche surprised the fledgling army unit, stole their horses, and the soldiers barely managed to survive with their lives. Some didn’t. For MacKenzie, it was a learning experience that he used effetively, eventually copying Comanche tactics to his credit and that led to their own surprise attack at Palo Duro Canyon that eventually broke the back of the Comanche resistance. A compelling account of this campaign and the life of Quannah Parker can be found in S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon.
I visited Blanco Canyon at the White River to fnd that it was now a rest stop and visitor center on U.S. Highway 82 about 34 miles southeast of Lubbock. I was struck by the great effort that was spent in stamping (another word for “staking”) the presence of the State of Texas all over this rest area. From well adorned stone walls and large picnic tables with the Texas star in the center all through and even down to the White River to the multiple flat rock viewing platforms, it seemed like the State wanted to make sure every inch of that space, arguably a space of military failure for Texas and budding “America”, was staked out as a place of honor. Indeed, reading the account of the “battle” on the Texas road marker (above), the reported account does its best to obscure that the Army was caught by surprise and that they were routed into a retreat.
The account of history by historians takes pains to leave little doubt that this space was now owned by the eventual victors from Comanche “terror”. It set in context to me the name of the river, like a metaphor for the coming staking of this majestic land as ceded to its new owners, themselves a “river” of White for generations to come. It is something I have recognized, especially among anglo Texans throughout history, to do their best to stamp out any evidence of earlier failures and assure their claim to supremacy. It is a vindictive effort at vindication of their perceived power over history.
Erosion and Recovery of Truth Along the Staked Plains
In both cases of Lubbock Lake and of Blanco Canyon, layers of earlier life and the lives of people in history have been revealed with the passage of time either through the eroding landscape showing who was there and their mark upon the land or by the stamping of a layer to hide what had happened, shoving “under the rug” a failure to establish a more hidden truth; that not every result was a pristine march of victory. That march is layered in a half truth of eventual military victory when the truth is that the Comanche were ultimately defeated not by military prowess alone but with the added success of White poachers that destroyed the buffalo herds–to call them “hunters” is to stretch the meaning given the relatively easy work one can do to ride up to buffalo and shoot them. That along with the weakening of the Comanche by disease like all other early peoples.
Layers of the truth are removed over time. Like a river cuts what seems like a flat interminable plain into canyons revealing all the history layered one on top of the other, I have found revealed my own different layers. From the fears at the bottom of a recurring dream to a search not for a single “heart of the matter” but the kernels of a seeded heart nurtured by the richness of the many different lives I’ve lived; the stamping of passion, intellectual growth, and lost memories that brought me pain as well as wonder. Layers that can only be seen when riding through distant histories of long dead ancestors and the reflections on my own history as the sands upon the winds, and the miles, go by.
I am roughly halfway through what I am sure is just one stage of a curious journey into time. And what motivates my heart. I fight the anxiousness to reach completion. It’s better to savor the very time I am takng. Tomorrow is a day best known before its passing. Today was a good day. To remember.
2 thoughts on “El Llano Estacado–Blanco Canyon, White River: A Pandemia Chronicle”
Tank, Mariana thought she was Comanche. Do you? You look so much like her older brother Mando,
Love your travels. I recently read some articles by Indigenous scholars who believe there were horses in North America before the Spanish brought them. Not the prehistoric ones but their decendents. I’m going to try to send you the article in an email.
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Hi, Chris, I’ve been operating on the idea that I have Comanche roots as part of my mestizo heritage. It’s interesting to hear you talk of Mariana’s brother and I always felt such a great affinity with Mariana beyond that we were Chicano socialists in the midst of so many Chicano nationalists. I still hold great memories of her and you, especially how you both often mentored me in some very gentle ways. I appreciate your keeping in touch. I read the articles you sent and replied via email. I am going to review my post and add something there from this discussion.
Thank you! Love and Solidarity Always