Decimation Nation

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

In which I discuss mad Methodists, monomaniacal Mormons, and tattooed Mohave Indians on the expressway to Manifest Destiny (and my research for The Blue Tattoo). Violent Encounters (U. of Oklahoma Press) includes interviews with nine authors about major massacres like Sand Creek and Mountain Meadows along with lesser known incidents like the 1871 Camp Grant massacre in Arizona, in which Anglo-Americans teamed up with Mexican Americans and Tohono O’odham Indians to slaughter over a hundred Pinal and Aravaipa Apaches—mostly women and children.

From the introduction by the authors: “Violent Encounters allows the reader to reconceive what it means to conceptualize a historical event, the ways in which history is used to as a political tool, and the need for the incorporation of multiple viewpoints when reconstructing past events.”

Arizona Death Trip: Phantom of the Black Hills

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

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.