LINCOLN, Neb. - Born in 1922, Henry "Charlie" Mihesuah, Comanche of the
Quahada band, grew up in the 1920s and '30s on his family's allotment near
Duncan, Okla. Historian Devon Abbot Mihesuah gives us a fascinating and
entertaining look at a man whom although more than able to get along in
white society, never forgets his Comanche heritage nor his ties to his
Devon Abbot Mihesuah, Choctaw, is a professor of applied indigenous studies
and history at Northern Arizona University. She is also Henry's
daughter-in-law. Her latest book, published in early 2003, evolved from a
series of long conversations with Henry reminiscing about his life
experiences. Abbot provides context and detail in her commentary and also
includes several conversations with Henry's non-Indian wife, Fern.
"First to Fight," the book's title, refers to the English translation of
the Comanche word Mihesuah. Henry's grandfather, who was called Mihesuah
(pronounced "my-he-sue-ah") was a close friend of prominent Comanche leader
Quanah Parker. Both men fought at the Battle of Adobe Walls in June 1874.
Henry's father, Joshua, was forcibly placed in an Indian boarding school as
a child. As unfortunately was the norm, the experience caused him to lose
touch with much of his Indian heritage, particularly the language and
religious beliefs. This indirectly influenced Henry, a full-blooded
Comanche who was brought up as an English-speaking Christian.
Now in his 80s, Henry laments his lack of formal education, and his
inability to speak fluently in the Comanche tongue. But neither stifled his
ability to prosper in both the white world and in Indian country.
"I don't know why I didn't ask more questions [of the elders] when I was
younger," Henry said about his limited knowledge of his family history.
"Those old ones could have told me a lot of things. I just wasn't
interested back then. Now I am, but it's too late to ask questions."
Growing up during the Depression and the Dust Bowl, Henry learned farming
and hunting on his family's 160-acre allotment. He stayed in school through
the eighth grade "just to play basketball," as he explains it. His family,
though not wealthy by any standard, did as well if not better at the farm
trade then most of his neighbors. During difficult times, the Mihesuahs
readily shared what little they had with all their neighbors - Indian,
white and black.
In the proud tradition of the Comanche warrior, Henry enlisted in the U.S.
Marine Corps in late 1944.
"I had thought about what the United States had done to Indians and why I
was fighting," said Henry of his military service in the aftermath of World
War II. "I didn't think about it being the U.S. It's just a country and us
Indians were here first. I was defending Comanches, yes, but also a way of
life that Comanches and other Indians live. Which is mainly the white way.
I also was defending the idea of democracy. Not everyone's equal in the
U.S., but the idea is worth fighting for." After leaving the service, Henry
decided to take part in a BIA relocation program, through which he and his
family moved to California's Bay Area. He worked as a mechanic there for
some 20 years, despite the Golden State's noted historically racist
attitude toward Indians.
"I didn't like the way they treated Indians," said Henry of Californians.
"They're always running Indians down in California. I had trouble with them
taivos [whites] in California, but not in the service."
Indeed, the book is replete with examples from Henry's adolescence,
military service and adulthood where he refused to tolerate racist
attitudes toward anyone, particularly Indians. His surname, "First to
fight" does not mean he's a bully - rather it signifies that he's not
afraid to stand up and defend himself.
The Mihesuah allotment is today completely surrounded by non-Indian owned
land. Henry continues to stand up to the taivo who own most of that land
and refuses him an easement to easily access his property.
Able to straddle two widely different cultures, Henry Mihesuah is a proud
man. He loves his family and his people and, until disabled by a serious
auto accident, maintained a strong work ethic. He takes no nonsense from
people "running Indians down," and maintains compassion for his fellow man,
Indian or not.
For more information, contact University of Nebraska Press, 233 North 8th
Street, Lincoln, Neb. 68588-0255; phone (800) 755-1105 or visit