The Life of Ten Bears: Comanche Historical Narratives

The Life of Ten Bears: Comanche Historical Narratives

The Life of Ten Bears: Comanche Historical Narratives

The Life of Ten Bears: Comanche Historical Narratives


The Life of Ten Bears is a remarkable collection of nineteenth-century Comanche oral histories given by Francis Joseph "Joe A" Attocknie. Although various elements of Ten Bears's life (ca.1790-1872) are widely known, including several versions of how the toddler Ten Bears survived the massacre of his family, other parts have not been as widely publicized, remaining instead in the collective memory of his descendants. Other narratives in this collection reference lesserknown family members. These narratives are about the historical episodes that Attocknie's family thought were worth remembering and add a unique perspective on Comanche society and tradition as experienced through several generations of his family.

Kavanagh's introduction adds context to the personal narratives by discussing the process of transmission. These narratives serve multiple purposes for Comanche families and communities. Some autobiographical accounts, "recounting" brave deeds and war honors, function as validation of status claims, while others illustrate the giving of names; still others recall humorous situations, song-ridicules, slapstick, and tragedies. Such family oral histories quickly transcend specific people and events by restoring key voices to the larger historical narrative of the American West.


Thomas W. Kavanagh

Ten bears

At his death on November 23, 1872, Ten Bears (Parua Semʉno) of the Yamparika was probably the best-known Comanche to the outside world. He had just returned from a trip to Washington dc in search of peace. He had been the principal Comanche speaker at the Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek (1868) and the Treaty of the Little Arkansas River (1865). He had visited Washington in 1863. He was probably known to the U.S. Army in the forts along the Canadian River in New Mexico and to travelers along that river, as that was his favorite area and the Yamparikas controlled its robe trade. He had come to prominence about 1860; before then he was a secondary figure, signing the Treaty of Fort Atkinson (1853) behind several others.

This much the taivos—as Comanches called Americans—knew. Comanches knew a lot more: of how he was orphaned as a toddler, how as a youth he sought revenge upon his family’s killers by leading daring raids on their own villages, how he shamed rivals with biting satire, that before becoming principal Yamparika chief he was headman of the Ketahto local group. Ten Bears’ personal history had become part of the historical narratives collected here by his great-great-grandson, Francis Joseph Attocknie, better known to Comanches as Joe A.


A group of Comanche ex-horse-warriors were gathered for a story
telling session at Mount Scott.

From chapter 27, “Pohocsucut and the Two Kiowas”

Historical narratives are an important genre in Comanche tradition. the narʉmuʔipʉ told by those ex-horse-warriors at Mount Scott were not “Coyote was out looking for mischief” tales, they were biographical narratives that involved real people doing real deeds; they were history. the collector of these narratives, Francis Joseph Attocknie, once pointedly said to me, “History without names is just stories.”

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