What does it mean to be David Yeagley?

The Comanche commentator, scholar, and artist explains in this closing chapter of our conversation. Photo: David Yeagley and Bald Eagle

FLORIDA, July 16, 2012 — This has been a long and winding road.

Since my initial interview with David Yeagley, I could tell that he was the kind of man who not only liked to share, but articulate his viewpoints. Such a quality tends to be on the rare side these days; perhaps as a result of our society’s emphasis on instant gratification. 

After the interview ended, and with Yeagley’s permission, I decided to publish a few additional question-and-answer documents which he had sent. These were just supposed to be for my own informational purposes, but the quality of his writing merited a much larger audience.

Now, over half of a month since the first segment of our conversation was published, it has finally reached an end. In this last part, Dr. Yeagley will explain his rich Comanche heritage to us on a deeply personal level.

From how fellow Comanches regard him to the enduring controversy over his great-great-grandfather, storied dignitary Bad Eagle, Yeagley leaves no stone unturned.

****

Question: Family identity is obviously very important in American Indian life.  How does your family play into your story? What is your family story?

Answer: Ours was not a large family, though our records go back to the early to mid-19th century. My important ancestor was a Comanche named quin-ne kish-su-it.  That’s “Bad Eagle” in Comanche.  (It probably means ‘wild’ eagle, untamed, as if there is another kind! A lot is implied there.)  He was born in 1839, so the testimony shows, and died in 1909.  He was kin (cousin) to Eschiti, the last Comanche medicine man, and Mumsekai, an important leader who lived until the 1940’s.  Eschiti was the actual chief of the surrendered bands at Ft. Sill, until Quanah Parker out-manoeuvered him, and got himself appointed by the federal government as leader.  The Indians had settled on Eschiti, since Parker was half white, though a great warrior. (I have recently posted the whole story of Bad Eagle on ComancheMedia.com, under “Comanche History.”  It is not a fancy site, but, my partner Nick Tahchawwikah and I hope to develop it.)

Bad Eagle was captured by the Spanish (Mexican) army some time in the 1850’s, taken to El Conejo, in Coahuila, and there adopted by his captor, one Capitan Lopez Portillo. Bad Eagle was given the name Cruz Portillo. He was made Catholic, and started a family down in Mexico—with another Comanche captive, Endanah, as he called her. One of their two sons was Anacleto, my grandfather, or, my mother’s father (later called “George”).   

Our records show that, by the 1880’s, Bad Eagle had accumulated several names.  He returned to the Comanches a good while before the 1880’s, but was called Kodose, probably because the Comanche did not roll the “r” like the Spanish did.  Instead of Crrruz, it was k-dos. In addition to his Comanche, Spanish, and English name, he was at one time calledTu-vi-ai by some Comanches. One military record has three of his names written side by side, in English, Spanish, and Comanche.  

When called Tu-vi-ai, Bad Eagle apparently help lead the U.S. Cavalry to Palo Duro canyon, to round up the last of the free Comanche, the Quahada, of which he himself was one. That was in the summer of 1874. By June of 1875, all known Comanche were at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma.  

Q: So how is your family regarded?  Is there generational resentment?  Was Bad Eagle considered a traitor?  

A: Probably, by some, at the immediate, emotional level.  However, I see Bad Eagle as having foresight. He had lived in the white world, the non-Indian world, the “civilized” world.  He knew what was happening.  He knew there was no hope for Indians on the plains, hunting freely. That life was gone. There was no more game. The white man had removed it. The only possible future for Indians was in the land “ghettos,” or the government controlled camps.   

In other words, I think he made a decision to save what was left of the Quahada, rather than let them die of hunger on the plains, or be eradicated by war.

Q:  I understand that some people have challenged your whole Indian identity, even to the point that Bad Eagle did not exist.  Do you really have proof?

A: Well, if military records are of any value, if land allotment records of any regard, if 19th century personal letters are important, and if birth certificates can still count at all (—given our presidents false account of his own), then yes, I can certainly prove who I am, and that Bad Eagle existed, quite forcefully.

I am currently suing the culprits who have indulged in this hateful rumor about my identity. They are grossly uninformed, misinformed, and blatantly malicious.  They began attacking me first by saying that I wasn’t the son of my Comanche mother, and that I was adopted. The libel evolved from there.

It was all from professional envy, I think, particularly that of aggressively liberal individuals, Indian and white. Some media corporations joined in, and I included them in the suit as well. Things have quieted down considerably, though the suit is still in court. 

Q: So, your opponents were basically political, yet they attacked your Indian identity, apparently without evidence or foundation. Being Indian is very important then, especially of you are saying something political.  

A: It is intolerable if you’re conservative. The liberals, white and white-trained Indians, cannot abide an Indian who advocates conservative values. It destroys their carefully nurtured Indian image—one of perpetual belly-aching. The liberals want an Indian who validates all their anti-American positions. Who has more right to be anti-American than an Indian?!

For an Indian to honor America is unthinkable to them. Their only recourse is simply to claim I am not Indian. That is their only hope. 

Also, I have to say, again, there is some obvious professional envy in a number of my most outspoken opponents. When I was commissioned to write the movie score for Oklahoma State Historical Society, two of my opponents collaborated to threaten me and the Historical Society, simply because one of those opponents happens to be a composer of sorts, and was determined to win the commission.  I knew nothing about this at the time, of course, but he collaborated with another opponent to publish a lengthy diatribe against me and the fact that I won the commission. 

They accused me of being a non-Indian “white racist” who threatened the Historical Society, and who had ousted some poor Indian composer who wanted the commission. My opponents have shown no restraint whatsoever in their accusations to defame me and to discredit my identity. I really had to sue them.

Q: How do Comanche people regard you today? You have accomplishments in music, art, literature, and politics. What do they think of you?

A: Well, I can’t generalize any too much. There are a few opponents (I can think of only two malcontent women—whom I believe are emotionally motivated more than anything else). Comanches generally are curious, I think.  It takes time for the people to come to trust someone like me.  World politics and classical music are not traditional Comanche endeavors.  

Very much like Bad Eagle, I was separated from the people. I developed a life as an Indian in the white world. Returning to the fold is an agonizing process.  In a way, you can never heal the wound completely. To many Indians, being Indian is demographic and sociological. You stay with the group, no matter what. My mother and all her sisters inherited the notion of independent self-development.  Bad Eagle had been an Indian in a non-Indian world, and had been apparently quite successful. (We have old 19th century Spanish letters of his adoptive siblings asking him for money, as well as letters from his first wife and sons.)  The Comanches of my family all had the idea that they were to make it on their own, off the reservation, as it were. 

Our entire Comanche family has inherited the same disposition.  

But in the end, if you’re Indian, you are indeed bound to your people, in profound love and affection. No matter what they think of you, or whether or not they even know you, you offer yourself to them, unreservedly and with devotion.  This is the warrior role. You bring them the meat. If they want it, fine. If they don’t, you go back out and hunt more, and bring in some other kind of meat.  Maybe they’ll like that. You never take opposition personally. You will take it seriously, but not personally.  

Q: Who would you say are your real opponents, then?

A: Liberals.  Non-Indian liberals, and the naïve Indians they can muster. These are the people who have devoted the most effort to defame me. As I said, they even tried to oppose me when I was commissioned by the Oklahoma Historical Society to write a movie score for a 1920 silent film. They protested rather wildly. Here I was, the first American Indian to be commissioned to write a full-length movie score, and they literally freaked out over it. 

Any kind of professional success for me was to them anathema. It validated my conservative, patriotic values—something they eschewed more than Job evil.  

Q: What do you see in the future for yourself in relation to Comanche people? 

A: I think time will show that they have appreciation for what I have done, in the way of personal accomplishment as well as for Comanche people. If I have abused the privilege of being Comanche, I’m certainly not the first. Every individual Comanche is the complete authority on being Comanche!   

I believe in time it will be shown that I was right in most everything I proposed in the way of politics, policy, and patriotism.  I have not been the best communicator.  That I admit freely, since it is quite obvious. When a man is too far out in front of the flock, he seems to be opposed to the very people he loves and wants to look out for. This is a lesson long in learning.  

I do think our present leader, Wallace Coffey, is perhaps one of the wisest leaders in modern times.   No, I don’t agree with him on everything, but, I know he understands the Comanche way.  For that alone, I give him all the honors.  

****

Agree or disagree with Dr. Yeagley’s opinions, they are what they are.

No attempts are made to rationalize or sugarcoat anything; he stands by what he says and makes not a single bone about doing so. Perhaps he draws inspiration from his ancestors about things like this. One can only imagine how much a person’s word meant in traditional Comanche society. 

In any case, his story, and those of other contemporary Native Americans, are undeniably set in the present. Nonetheless, the quintessence of their respective meanings can only be found by looking deep into the well of history.

This might be why Bad Eagle was such an advocate of planning for the future.  


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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