Arizona Death Trip: Phantom of the Black Hills

Since she was ransomed back from Mohave Indians in 1856 wearing a tribal chin tattoo, Olive Oatman has inspired a sculpture by Erastus Dow Palmer, two biographies, two novels, a play starring John Wilkes Booth’s brother, a 1965 episode of “Death Valley Days” (featuring Ronald Reagan), four children’s books, a 1982 short story by Elmore Leonard, and an Oscar-nominated short film (2008), but never a song.

Until now. Last month the country grindcore band Phantom of the Black Hills released a fittingly Deadwoodesque tribute to America’s first tattooed white woman on “Ghosts,” tweaking some interesting themes, like whether or not Oatman, a Mormon, lost her religion as a white Mohave. If the facts in “Olive Oatman” are iffy (twisted as they’ve been for over a century), the mood is right: Here’s the Oatman clan heading west:

Her and her family prayin’ to the moon
Piled in a wagon, rolling to their doom
Bones of the past rattlin in the back
That’s when the mountain roared

Indeed, the Yavapai Indians who killed Oatman’s family in southern Arizona (then Mexico) were mountain dwellers. (Note to Governor Brewer: back then, the state was filled with nativists–none of whom were white). Phantom nails it in saying Oatman, who was taken captive, then traded to the Mohave, “had to bend but she never bowed.”

The song’s gritty vocals and driving rhythm–slow in the intro, then double time–evoke Oatman’s ride on a prairie schooner driven by a reckless and monomaniacal father of seven, bound for California (the place, wrote Didion, “where we run out of continent”). A banjo traces jittery lines of fingerpicked beauty across this well-worn gothic narrative. Though Phantom of the Black Hills’ website is damnably uninformative (perhaps a masked dude aiming his banjo at you like a loaded weapon is all you need to know), I’m glad an L.A. band with a pistols-at-dawn attitude was the first to claim this California dreamer.

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2 Responses to “Arizona Death Trip: Phantom of the Black Hills”

  1. Paula Ruiz- White says:

    When I was a child growing up in Arizona I was always told along with my sisters “don’t go outside in the sun as you’ll get as black as an Indian and folks will think you’re and Indian”. This was of course in the 1960′s. My grandmother raised us and she was a white as can be and was accepted into the white schools. She of course came from Spanish decent and her kin had white skin and blue eyes. The rules were simple in Arizona and to this day they haven’t changed. “No speaking Spanish or no speaking Indian”. Look it up, Arizona never bothered to change the rule. The fear was deep in my grandmother who is almost 100 years now. Our generation was not taught Spanish and if we wanted to learn it, we had to on our own. We would settle down as children to hear stories of Pancho Villa and Johnny Ringo and of course the dreaded indians. I have a wealth of knowledge in my head hoping to write about and I have passed it on to my daughter who has no interest.

  2. margot.mifflin says:

    Wow–100? I suggest you grab a tape recorder and get your grandmother to tell you all she can.

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