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Pekka Hämäläinen

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Associate Professor of History, University of California, Santa Barbara and Co-Director of Indigenous Studies Minor 
Area of Research: U.S. History, Borderlands, Native American History 
Education: Ph.D. in History, University of Helsinki, 2001 
Major Publications: Hämäläinen is the author of The Comanche Empire, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. Paperback in 2009. Awarded the Recognition of Excellence, Cundill International Prize in History at McGill University. Winner of Pekka Hämäläinen JPGBancroft Prize, Merle Curti Award, Caughey Western History Association Prize, Norris and Carol Hundley Award, William P. Clements Prize, Great Plains Distinguished Book Award, Philosophical Society of Texas Award of Merit, and Kate Broocks Bates Award. ForeWord Magazine's History Book of the Year. An alternate selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, Book-of-the-Month Club 2, History Book Club, and Military Book Club. El imperio comanche. Translation of The Comanche Empire by Ricardo García. Peninsula Press, forthcoming 2010. He is currently working on  The Shapes of Power: Frontiers, Borderlands, Middle Grounds, and Empires of North America, 1600-1900. Under contract with Yale University Press. 
Hämäläinen is the editor of When Disease Makes History: Epidemics and Great Historical Turnings Points, ed. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press,2006, and currently working on Major Problems in North American Borderlands History, ed. with Benjamin H. Johnson. Under contract with Houghton Mifflin Company. 
Hämäläinen is also the author of numerous scholarly journal articles, book chapters and reviews including among others: "Into the Mainstream: The Rise of a New Texas Indian History," in Beyond Texas through Time: Evolving Interpretations, ed. Walter Buenger and Arnoldo DeLeon. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, forthcoming; "The Politics of Grass: European Expansion, Ecological Change, and Indigenous Power in the Southwest Borderlands," William and Mary Quarterly 67 (April 2010), 173-208. Reprinted in Major Problems in North American Borderlands History, ed. Pekka Hämäläinen and Benjamin H. Johnson. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, forthcoming; "Pathogens, Peoples, and the Paths of History," in When Disease Makes History: Epidemics and Great Historical Turnings Points, 1-16, ed. Pekka Hämäläinen. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 2006; "The Rise and Fall of Plains Indian Horse Cultures," Journal of American History 90 (Dec. 2003), 833- 862. Winner of Arrell Morgan Gibson Award. Reprinted in American Encounters: Natives and Newcomers from European Contact to Indian Removal, 1500-1850, 361-92, ed. Peter C. Mancall and James H. Merrell. New York: Routledge, 2006; and The American Indian: Past and Present, 6th ed., 53-77, ed. Roger L. Nichols. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008; "The First Phase of Destruction: Killing the Southern Plains Buffalo, 1790-1840," Great Plains Quarterly 21 (Spring 2001), 101-114; "Beyond the Ideology of Victimization: New Trends in the Study of Native American-Euroamerican Relations," Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 26 (Oct. 2001), 45-49; "Of Lethal Places and Lethal Essays," with John R. Wunder, American Historical Review 104 (Oct. 1999), 1229-1234; The Western Comanche Trade Center: Rethinking the Plains Indian Trade System," Western Historical Quarterly 29 (Winter 1998), 485-513. Winner of Bert M. Fireman Prize. Reprinted in Major Problems in American Indian History, 238-257, ed. Albert Hurtado and Peter Iverson. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001; "Hevosen leviäminen ja sen vaikutukset Pohjois-Amerikan tasangoilla sekä Länsi-Afrikan savanneilla" [The Spread and Influence of the Horse on the North American Great Plains and the Western African Savanna], with Pekka Masonen, Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 21 (1996), 31-41. 
Awards: Hämäläinen is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki, 2010-2012 (declined); 
Institut d'Etudes Avancées in Nantes, 2010-2011; 
Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, 2009-2010; 
Turku Institute for Advanced Study, University of Turku, 2009-12 (declined); 
Recognition of Excellence, Cundill International Prize in History at McGill University, 2009; 
Bancroft Prize in American History, the Trustees of Columbia University, 2009; 
Merle Curti Award for the best book on social and/or intellectual history, the Organization of American Historians, 2009; 
Caughey Western History Association Prize for the most distinguished book on the history of the American West, the Western History Association, 2009; 
Norris and Carol Hundley Award for the most distinguished book on any historical subject, the American Historical Association Pacific Branch, 2009; 
The William P. Clements Prize for the best non-fiction book on Southwestern America, the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University, 2008; 
Great Plains Distinguished Book Award, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Center for Great Plains Studies, 2009; 
Award of Merit for the best fiction or non-fiction book on Texas, the Philosophical Society of Texas, 2009; 
Kate Broocks Bates Award for the best book on Texas history prior to 1900, the Texas State Historical Association, 2008; 
History Book of the Year, ForeWord Magazine, 2009; 
Silver Medal, Independent Publisher Book Awards in History, 2009; 
Honorable Mention, PROSE Award in U.S. History and Biography/Autobiography, Association of American Publishers, 2009; 
Finalist for Carr P. Collins Award for the best book of non-fiction, the Texas Institute of Letters, 2009; 
Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, 2009; 
Arrell Morgan Gibson Award for the best essay on Native American history, the Western History Association, 2004; 
Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki, 2003-2005; 
Most Distinguished Dissertation of the Year (all disciplines), the University of Helsinki, 2002; 
William P. Clements Center in Southwest Studies, Southern Methodist University, 2001-2002; 
Bert M. Fireman Prize for the best student essay published in the Western Historical Quarterly, the Western History Association, 1999; 
Fulbright Fellowship, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1995-1996. 
Additional Info: 
Formerly Assistant Professor of History, Texas A&M University, 2002-2004. 

Personal Anecdote

This happened many times in 2006 and 2007: 

It is 2 AM, and I'm suddenly wide awake. I've had less than an hour of sleep, but the adrenaline jolt has eliminated any chance of getting more. I know the cause of my unwelcome alertness: panic. The writing is too slow, the tenure deadline is too soon, my kids are growing up too fast, and my insomnia is worse than ever. I suppress the urge to howl in frustration, and instead get dressed and leave the house. I walk the half-mile to the office, convinced that the night is ruined-as is the following day, which will find me exhausted and unable to think or write. I cling to the idea that if I get down just one half-decent sentence tonight, surely it must be better than nothing. 

I ended up staying in the office for twenty hours, writing more than I had managed in weeks. I couldn't count on this pattern, but it happened often enough for me to finish the book and become a professional historian. I found writing my first book-a book that I knew would be controversial-a dreadful and debilitating task, and I don't think I would have made it without those moments when expectations and self-criticism were temporarily suspended. Most of the thinking and conceptualizing happened while I was busy with other things. They still do. I sleep better these nights, but getting anything worthwhile on paper still requires mind tricks; insights only come when I'm preoccupied with things-running, hanging out with the kids, cleaning the house-that seemingly have nothing to do with the job. 

This, of course, is commonplace. Anyone who has tried to write on a sustained basis knows the workings of the subconscious. And they know that for mind tricks to work, they must catch one by surprise; they must be-or at least feel-thoroughly accidental. One can't force them, or even be aware of them. One can only appreciate them in hindsight. 

Like almost all my friends in academia, I wrote my first book slightly scared and enormously annoyed, thinking that there was little in the way of method to my madness. I'm glad that I didn't realize at the time that I did have a method, all along. 


By Pekka Hämäläinen

  • To understand the particular nature of Comanche imperialism, it is necessary to understand how Comanche ascendancy intertwined with other imperial expansions-New Spain's tenacious if erratic northward thrust from central Mexico, New France's endeavor to absorb the interior grasslands into its commercial realm, and the United States' quest for a transcontinental empire. Comanches, to simplify a complex multistage process, developed aggressive power policies in reaction to Euro-American invasions that had threatened their safety and autonomy from the moment they had entered the southern plains. Indeed, the fact that Comanche territory, Comanchería, was encircled throughout its existence by Euro-American settler colonies makes the Comanches an unlikely candidate for achieving regional primacy. But as the Comanches grew in numbers and power, that geopolitical layout became the very foundation of The Comanche Empire JPGtheir dominance. Their overwhelming military force, so evident in their terror-inspiring mounted guerrilla attacks, would have allowed them to destroy many New Mexico and Texas settlements and drive most of the colonists out of their borders. Yet they never adopted such a policy of expulsion, preferring instead to have their borders lined with formally autonomous but economically subservient and dependent outposts that served as economic access points into the vast resources of the Spanish empire. 
    The Comanches, then, were an imperial power with a difference: their aim was not to conquer and colonize, but to coexist, control, and exploit. Whereas more traditional imperial powers ruled by making things rigid and predictable, Comanches ruled by keeping them fluid and malleable. This informal, almost ambiguous nature of Comanches' politics not only makes their empire difficult to define; it sometimes makes it difficult to see. New Mexico and Texas existed side by side with Comanchería throughout the colonial era, and though often suffering under Comanche pressure, the twin colonies endured, allowing Spain to claim sweeping imperial command over the Southwest. Yet when examined closely, Spain's uncompromised imperial presence in the Southwest becomes a fiction that existed only in Spanish minds and on European maps, for Comanches controlled a large portion of those material things that could be controlled in New Mexico and Texas. The idea of land as a form of private, revenue-producing property was absent in Comanche culture, and livestock and slaves in a sense took the place of landed private property. This basic observation has enormous repercussions on how we should see the relationship between the Comanches and colonists. When Comanches subjected Texas and New Mexico to systematic raiding of horses, mules, and captives, draining wide sectors of those productive resources, they in effect turned the colonies into imperial possessions. That Spanish Texas and New Mexico remained unconquered by Comanches is not a historical fact; it is a matter of perspective. -- Pekka Hamalainen in "The Comanche Empire" pp. 4-5.
  • "The rise of this Comanche-centric order and its ecological underpinnings illuminate the complex and unexpected ways in which transoceanic exchanges, biological encounters, and human ambition could intertwine to shape power relationships in early America. They form a counternarrative to conventional colonial histories by revealing a world where Indians benefited from Europe's biological expansion, safeguarded their homelands by displacing ecological burdens on colonial realms, and debilitated European imperialism with imperial aspirations of their own. It is a counternarrative that expands the scope of indigenous agency from the social to the biological sphere because it shows how Indians could determine not only the human parameters of colonial encounters but also the ecological ones. As such it is a story that may help bridge the gap that separates the declensionist narratives of American Indian environmental history from the works that emphasize the resilience of indigenous polities and cultural forms. Native survival in colonial America was often a race against ecological degradation and the loss of land and its resources. As the rise of the Comanches shows, however, the outcomes of that contest could remain undetermined for a long time." -- Pekka Hämäläinen in "William and Mary Quarterly" (April 2010)
  • About Pekka Hämäläinen

  • "The Comanche Empire is a landmark study that will make readers see the history of southwestern America in an entirely new way." -- David J. Weber, author of "Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment"
  • "This exhilarating book is not just a pleasure to read; important and challenging ideas circulate through it and compel attention. It is a nuanced account of the complex social, cultural, and biological interactions that the acquisition of the horse unleashed in North America, and a brilliant analysis of a Comanche social formation that dominated the Southern Plains. Parts of the book will be controversial, but the book as a whole is a tour de force." -- Richard White, author of "The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815"
  • "The Comanche Empire is an impressive achievement. That a major Native power emerged and dominated the interior of the continent compels a re-thinking of well worn narratives about colonial America and westward expansion, about the relative power of European and Native societies, and about the directions of change. The book makes a major contribution to Native American history and challenges our understanding of the ways in which American history unfolded." -- Colin G. Calloway, author of One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark 
  • "For many readers, [The Comanche Empire] will be an eye-opener because of its vigorously advanced argument that for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Comanches created a mid-continental empire that controlled the economy of a huge part of the West, turned the northern Spanish and Mexican territories into its colonial appendages, and dominated the geopolitics of the both the Republic of Texas and, for a time, the United States in their imperial designs on the Southwest. If you are unused to thinking of American Indians as having this kind of agency in western history, The Comanche Empire will rearrange the furniture in your head." -- Dan Flores, "Montana: The Magazine of Western History"
  • "Perhaps we can simply stipulate that The Comanche Empireis an exceptional book-in fact, one of the finest pieces of scholarship that I have read in years. . . . Hämäläinen has given us a closely argued, finely wrought, intensely challenging book." -- Joshua Piker, William and Mary Quarterly
  • "Cutting-edge revisionist western history. . . . Immensely informative, particularly about activities in the eighteenth century." -- Larry McMurtry, "The New York Review of Books"
  • "A fascinating new book, details [the Comanches] unusual and colorful history. . . . Hämäläinen writes well and his narrative has an infectious verve and flow. . . . His broad themes are never in doubt, and the evidence he marshals is both compelling and convincing. He has rescued the Comanches from myth and distortion and given them their due in the sprawling epic that is our American story." -- John Sledge, "Mobile Press-Register" (AL)
  • "Comanche Empire is an impressive, well-written, and important study that should significantly influence future metanarratives, whether they include all or parts of Texas, the West, the Borderlands, or even general histories of the United States and Mexico." -- Ty Cashion, "Journal of Military History"
  • "Hämäläinen's treatment of the complex relationships between the Comanches and other European and Native American societies is unique . . . Hämäläinen collates and narrates the events of the eastern and western frontiers through time in such an effective manner that the reader is swept in the flow of an almost seamless narrative." -- Mariah F. Wade, "Great Plains Quarterly"
  • "The Comanche Empire connects "the West," understood by American historians to mean the trans-Mississippi Western United States, with "the West" as understood by world historians, through the materialist lens of world systems theory. What emerges is formerly unthinkable: a world of "reversed colonialism" in which the Comanche consciously created a functional empire by exploiting and controlling a huge geographic area and the several Euroamerican states that contested for it. . . . The construction and maintenance of this empire by the Comanche and their sometimes surprising allies, and its Carthaginian destruction by the massed might of US forces, form a grand narrative, convincingly told." -- John Harley Gow, "Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadiennes d'histoire"
  • The mere existence of a Native empire is important, but it is the impact of that indigenous imperialism on traditional perspectives of colonial North America and American western expansion that is truly critical. Demographic and geographic growth meant that Comancheria had eastern and western poles of power. But a political and cultural unity remained, and the Comanches still had the ability to counter-act any and all Spanish attempts to establish greater control over Texas and New Mexico. Indeed, by the early nineteenth century, Spanish administrators could not avoid the fact that Comanches had blunted or defeated all efforts at military intimidation or political manipulation. . . . The blueprint of Comanche empire relied on Comanche perspectives of space, and New Mexico and Texas can clearly be viewed as part of a growing Comanche dominion. Instead of a cohesive, if sparsely populated, northern colonial state, for example, Texas "spent its last years under Spanish rule as a raiding hinterland of the Comanches, who used it as a stockroom for their export-oriented livestock production system" (p. 187). This truly represents a crucial reconfiguration of political space in colonial North America. Just as notably, it reinforces the significance and impact of geographic perspective, a notion similarly enhanced by scholars like Daniel Richter." -- John O. Bowes, "Reviews in American History"