Oatman Redux: Hell on Wheels

Monday, December 5th, 2011

If tattooed Eva on “Hell on Wheels” seems to have stolen Olive Oatman’s chin tattoo, it’s because she’s based on her, as the HOW blog explains (with a quote from The Blue Tattoo). Eva’s Oatman has been tweaked: she’s a prostitute, which Oatman never was; she’s blunt and outspoken, which Oatman never was; and in 1865 when the show is unfolding, Oatman was a national celebrity, newly married to a wealthy Michigan cattle rancher and living in Texas during what she called the happiest period of her life. Eva’s the latest of more than a dozen tributes Oatman has inspired in art, film, theater, fiction, t.v. and music over the last 150 years, from Elmore Leonard’s “Tonto Woman” to Phantom of the Black Hills’ “Olive Oatman,” a song that, come to think of it, would work beautifully on Hell on Wheels. What’s AMC waiting for?

True Lies, Beautiful Fakes

Monday, August 29th, 2011

Fans of the Museum of Jurassic Technology will enjoy artist Scott Serrano’s lovingly meticulous, faux period installation in a show called “Hudson Valley 2011: Exercises in Unnecessary Beauty” at the Samuel Dorsky Museum (SUNY New Paltz).

In “Picturesque Flora: Wallaceana,” the chronicle of a mock botanical expedition, Serrano imagines an island on which each plant mimics the tragic life of a modern or 19th century figure. That includes Olive Oatman, who inspired him after he read The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman. Serrano’s mythological Oatman cactus is surrounded by wildflowers named for her family members, most of whom were killed in the 1851 Oatman massacre. The desert bloom, Serrrano tells me, represents “a symbolic ghost awakening.”

The flower’s changing colors mark the phases of Olive’s life, shifting from white (she was raised in Illinois) to red (she was adopted by Mohave Indians) back to white (she was ransomed back by the U.S. government). And the lined petals echo her chin tattoo (which was in fact applied with cactus needles). Fittingly, the bloom retains a red center, denoting, as the placard reads, “the past history of the flower inscribed upon the very petals of the blossom.” It’s a touching, nuanced tribute to America’s only white Mohave.

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.”