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Discover Mid-America — May 2005

Ritual violence regulated power and wealth before U.S. arrival

Captives & Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands by James F. Brooks; University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill and London (2002); 432 pp., B/W illus., tables, maps, paperback, $22.50, 0807853828;

Southwestern colonial, mestizo, tribal and pueblo peoples practiced slavery long before Spanish arrival and did so a good long time after. But it was only with the arrival of eastern capitalism — with white society’s need to ascribe ethnicity and race — that the hegemonic and age-old practices of taking captives for social and political purposes began to narrow to that of chattel servitude.

With the arrival of U.S. power in 1877, slavery officially ended while racism and classism extended its reach into the area. But James Brooks’ Southwest becomes neither a remade Old South nor all Fred Harvey and Kachina dolls. Rather, it’s a historical plain upon which complex cultures meet. In this arena, Brooks is able to sort out the roots of raiding peoples and the ways in which those practices wended into history, culture and modern ritual.

Opening Captives & Cousins, Brooks takes the reader through the reenactment of the romantic conquest of Los Comanches in an Indian/Mexicano village. In this dusky ceremony, El Capitan, the Comanche leader, leads his daughter, La Cautiva, and twenty men on a search for a specially made doll representing the Christ Child, El Santo Nino.

Once the villagers discover they have been violated, they pursue the intruders, capturing La Cautiva. The Comanches run and when safely away from the village, turn back with El Nino and with El Capitan stopping at the houses of the elderly and infirm to invoke the blessings of the child.

Meanwhile, the villagers take La Cautiva to the head of a procession to meet the Comanches. When they meet, a rescate or ransom negotiation begins, in which the terms of release for the prisoners are meted.

The Comanches receive wine, food and cash. “To regain his daughter, El Capitan promised that his people would again revisit the village on its saint’s day or when a villager wished to sponsor a velorio (death vigil).” The leaders shake hands and the Comanches shed their native dress to become familiar villagers who, with their neighbors, ready themselves for midnight mass.
Brooks uses allegory as a beginning rather than the standard thesis-argument-conclusion structure of most histories to illustrate that “the conquest of ‘Los Comanches’ variously summons and silences a past rich in social possibility and burdened with malign realities. Rituals of violence, exchange and redemption were central to the men whose societies met in the Southwest Borderlands during the colonial era.”

Conquest normally frames the colonial Southwest story. But as Brooks shows, the tale is more than one culture overtaking another. Natives understood systems of honor, shame and prestige among the Spanish as much as the Spanish recognized these in native political economy. These became ways in which “native and colonizing peoples crafted a locally negotiated distribution of wealth and power that led not simply to distinction between captives and cousins or to hierarchies of masters and victims but to interpenetration of cultures.”

Thus rose systems of cooperation, slavery and captive redemption outside state sanction that served both labor needs in an area of scarce natural resources and political and diplomatic balances necessary to preserve and extend culture.

Brooks does not take a stand on whether slavery was a good or a bad thing in the Southwest, only that, at first, slavery here was not that practiced in the South — where people of one race were enslaved for one economic purpose.

Captives, whether used for labor, family extension, and tribal hegemony or to stitch together political powers, occupied a number of social strata. They could be “redeemed” in several ways, including being taken back in raids by the people who lost them.

In effect, slavery established a level of ritual violence necessary and accepted for regulating power and wealth in the region, without allowing any one people to gain the upper and unbalancing hand.

Captives & Cousins concerns us also as readers not merely because it contains a tale of slavery, but complicates and explains pre-/post-contact native history and how that history influences modern life. Captives were part of a highly complex system of captivity and rescue accomplished with accepted practices of raiding and retribution, trading, and buying and selling. Involved in this story are people who came to be identified with Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado after the colonial period: the Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne and Apache.

These people were among the first to encounter Spanish settlers and Mexicanos moving north into what is now New Mexico. Political shifts that occurred in the region after contact established a new era of power relations in which the various Southwest peoples formulated diplomatic and political relations based on common cultural norms. When balances tilted toward white hegemony after Mexican Cession, these people scattered into the southern plains and northern Mexico.

Brooks’ Captives & Cousins mixes highly interesting historical analysis with individual and folkloric stories, creating a tale that is as thought provoking as it is pleasing.

Patrick Dobson is a journalist, poet, and freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City, MO. He publishes and edits the online literary magazine, the poetrysheet. His award-winning columns, editorials, and articles have appeared in PitchWeekly, eKC, and Discover Mid-America. His poetry and short stories have been published in the pages of The Kansas City Star, Review, Friction Magazine, Mid-America Poetry Review, The Same, and Thorny Locust. He is now pursuing a doctorate in history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at or

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