The Red Stick War & Magic Realism

Why am do I write about Native Americans?

Why am do I write about Native Americans?

“Why do you write so much about Native Americans?” is a question I get all the time. In practically every story the hero and / or the villain as well as multiple supporting characters will be tribal members.

“I think Indians are about the most interesting people in the whole world,” doesn’t sound nearly intellectual enough—even though it is exactly right—so I usually say something like this: “The unbroken thread of mysticism that runs through Native American culture fits perfectly with my concept of magic realism.” If that doesn’t clear things up, I try a little harder.

Drawing of the Great Comet of 1811

Drawing of the Great Comet of 1811

Great events we don’t remember have mainstream Euro-Americans throwing salt over our shoulders, avoiding black cats, stepping over cracks, and leaving the thirteenth floor out of our buildings for reasons we don’t understand but must believe on some level. The same thing applies to Native Americans. They have a history that reaches back fifteen thousand years. Most of it isn’t written down but it’s been carried into the present by legends and ceremonies and lessons learned around the evening meal. It’s part of who they are.

Hale Bop Comet

Hale Bop Comet

Native American history is unique, so the way they approach the world is unique too. Whether they are lawyers, doctors, ministers, teachers, artists, writers, politicians, unskilled workers, soldiers, or criminals they put an American Indian spin on everything they do. That spin is what makes them the most interesting people in the world.

To get an idea how different background leads to different world-view, consider the Red Stick War.



In March of 1811 the brightest comet in recorded history made an appearance in the night skies over the United States. The Great Comet of 1811 didn’t lose the title of the biggest and the brightest until the appearance of the Hale Bop Comet in 1997. Remember what happened in southern California then? If you don’t, Google Heaven’s Gate.

When a Shawnee mystic named Tecumseh saw the comet he took it as a sign. He traveled around the country telling everyone who would listen that the fuzzy light in the sky was a supernatural message. The very nature of the Indians’ relationship with their tribal lands was about to change.

He encouraged tribes to unite against further white incursion on their lands before it was too late. He found a willing audience when he visited the Muskogee Creek, whose tribal territory (most of what is now Alabama and part of Georgia) was starting to look very good to white farmers.

Tecumseh promised a sign would follow his visit, which would prove his prophecy was true. When the New Madrid earthquake struck in December, a large number of Creek were convinced.

The Muskogee who joined the Tecumseh Confederation were known as the Red Sticks. The name may have come from red war clubs they carried, or from bundles of red sticks they used to count the days between strategic events. Half the Creek Nation joined in the movement and the other half were firmly against doing anything that would provoke the U.S. government. The division started a civil war inside Muskogee territory.

Ordinarily, the Red Stick war would have played itself out on tribal land but the War of 1812 had just started. The British armed the Creek Red Sticks and their Seminole allies and encouraged them to attack U.S. Army positions. When that happened, General Andrew Jackson moved his troops into Creek lands and by August 9 of 1814 he forced the tribe to sign the Treaty of Fort Jackson.

In memory of Tecumseh

In memory of Tecumseh

Despite protest of the Creek chiefs who fought the Red Sticks alongside Jackson, the Creek Nation ceded 23 million acres (93,000 km²)—half of Alabama and part of southern Georgia—to the United States government.

Eight years later, President Andrew Jackson forced the Creek to sign the Treaty of Cusseta, relinquishing their remaining lands east of the Mississippi and accepting “voluntary” removal to Indian Territory. The Army force-marched nearly 20,000 Creek across Tennessee and Arkansas starting in 1834. Three thousand five hundred Indians died in the process.

The Great Comet of 1811 really did portend a significant change in the Creek’s relationship with their land, even if it didn’t go exactly as Tecumseh planned.

That’s the unbroken thread of mysticism that fits perfectly with my concept of magic realism.

Billy Dixon’s Lucky Shot


Marker at the former location of Adobe Walls

Marker at the former location of Adobe Walls

On June 27, 1874, twenty-eight men and one woman sleeping in a run down settlement called Adobe Walls learned it’s better to be lucky than to have an army on your side. Most of them were buffalo hunters, stalking bison in the Texas panhandle where they weren’t supposed to be. The Treaty of Medicine Lodge made it illegal for white men to hunt in Comanche territory, but the demand for buffalo hides was high and the animals were growing scarce.

Comanche and Kiowa warriors had driven white men out of Adobe Walls ten years prior with unrelenting attacks. The garrison had been blown up and abandoned, but the hunters were venturing back and putting increased pressure on the buffalo herds. The settlement consisted of a few crude buildings including Hanrahan’s Saloon. Continue reading

Oklahoma Ghost Dancers



In 1890, the Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation were participating in Ghost Dance ceremonies, which according to the Piute Messiah, Wovoka, would turn the world into a Native American utopia. The dancers painted their bodies black and white and danced in a circle all night long. They wore special shirts that were supposed to protect them from bullets. To the U.S. Army it looked like they were preparing for war.

It’s easy to understand the soldiers’ mistake. They expected some kind of reprisal from the Lakota since the government had recently broken their treaty once again. Lakota reservations were reduced to tiny islands in the poorest regions of South Dakota and Nebraska, tribal land was converted into into personal allotments. The Lakota were a warrior culture with several impressive victories over the U.S. Army. It was difficult to believe they

Southern Plains Ghost Dance

Southern Plains Ghost Dance

would be satisfied to dance in circles and wait for God to eliminate the white man. When the disturbance at Wounded Knee was over, about three hundred Lakota were killed, most of them unarmed, many of them women and children.

The Southern (Oklahoma) Cheyenne and their long time allies, the Southern Arapaho heard about the Ghost Dance from their northern relatives and started organizing ceremonies in the summer of 1890 (a few months before the disaster at Wounded Knee). Almost every

Southern Plains Ghost Dance Shirt

Southern Plains Ghost Dance Shirt

camp along the Canadian and Washita Rivers held all night dances two or three times a week.

A Southern Arapaho man named Sitting Bull added a unique feature to the southern plains Ghost Dance. After the ceremony had been underway for several days he stepped into the circle, made hypnotic passes with an eagle feather in front of participants. Hundreds of them went into trances. People who had been in this trance told (through the medium of song) of being transported to a different world.

Newspapers in El Reno, Oklahoma City, and Guthrie terrified white residents with articles warnings of an impending Indian uprising. They called upon the U.S. government send troops to protect defenseless whites. It looked like a military confrontation was eminent, but fortunately the War Department sent Lieutenant H.L. Scott of the 7th Cavalry to assess the danger.


Southern Plains Ghost Dance Dress

Southern Plains Ghost Dance Dress

The lieutenant visited Cheyenne and Arapaho camps from December, 1890 (when the Wounded Knee Massacre took place) through February 1891. He concluded that the Ghost Dance Ceremony was a harmless religious activity and posed no danger to white settlers. If this young soldier hadn’t exercised wisdom and restraint, Oklahoma could have had a Wounded Knee Massacre of its own.

In the spring and summer of 1891, the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho sent delegations to visit the prophet Wovoka and brought back some “sacred medicine paint” and specific instructions for conducting the ceremony. The dances weren’t held as frequently as before and attendance dropped off, but they were still attracting a large numbers.

In October 1892 they sent another delegation to visit the messiah. Wovoka astounded them by saying he was tired of so many visitors and they should go back home and tell their people to stop dancing. At first the Oklahoma Ghost Dancers refused to believe the message from Wovoka was genuine, but when he refused to correspond with them the ceremony’s popularity declined. A form of the dance was incorporated into the Native American Church and is still performed today as a ceremony of cultural restoration but the tribes no longer expect the white man to disappear or the dead to rise again, or the buffalo to come back in large numbers.

Ghost Dance

Wovoka (aka Jack Wilson)

Wovoka (aka Jack Wilson)

A Paiute shaman named Wovoka (aka Jack Wilson) came down with a high fever in 1888. While he was delirious, he had a vision that would keep him front and center on the stage of American History for the next few years. His soul was transported to a higher plain, which was the spirit home of all the Indian ancestors of all the tribes that had been killed by the white man. The animals the tribes hunted were there too. The white men were conspicuously absent.

Early in 1899 he had a second revelation during a total



eclipse of the sun. All those dead ancestors and all the animals were coming back. The white man would be swallowed by the earth. God was angry because he had sent his son to bring blessings to the world and the white man had killed him. God planned to give the Indians a fresh start in a Euro-Free planet if Wovoka would teach all the tribes a variation of the traditional Paiute Round Dance. Video available here.

 A Northern Paiute shaman, Wodziwob (Grey Hair) had made similar prophesies in the 1870’s, although he limited the Indian Renaissance to his tribe and didn’t include the Christian

"Bullet Proof" Ghost Dance shirt.

“Bullet Proof” Ghost Dance shirt.

crucifixion element.  Unlike Wodziwob, Wovoka was well acquainted with Christian theology. The Golden Rule was an essential element of his prophesies. He urged his followers to live impeccable lives, refrain from drinking alcohol, and to make no trouble for the white man.

What is truly amazing is how quickly the Ghost Dance religion spread through so many tribes and across so much geography by word of mouth. Wovoka’s prophesy became a pan-Indian movement without him leaving Paiute lands even once.

Ghost Dance Shirt

Ghost Dance Shirt

Like most large scale religious movements, believers modified the details to suit their purposes. The Lakota added a militaristic element. They can hardly be blamed for that. Their messianic leader, Crazy Horse, had been bayonetted by a military guard while resisting arrest in 1877. They were forcibly held on reservations and were dependent on rations from the U.S. government that came irregularly when they came at all.

Aftermath of Wounded Knee Massacre.

Aftermath of Wounded Knee Massacre.

Hundreds of Lakota gathered on South Dakota Reservations to try and dance the white man away. They wore what appeared to be war paint, and “bullet proof” Ghost Shirts while they danced all night in circles. The white population including the local Indian Agent were certain there would be an uprising and asked the Army to suppress it.

 The order went out to arrest Chief Sitting Bull at the Standing Rock Reservation. He was killed in the attempt on

Mass Grave for Lakota  massacred at Wounded Knee

Mass Grave for Lakota massacred at Wounded Knee

December 15, 1890.

When Chief Big Foot heard of Sitting Bull’s death, he tried to head off disaster by seeking protection at the Pine Ridge Reservation. The army intercepted his band on December 28 and brought them to the edge of the Wounded Knee to camp, where things quickly went wrong.

During the process of disarming the Lakota (according to one version of events), a deaf tribesman named Black Coyote refused to give up his rifle. A scuffle escalated and a shot was fired which resulted in the

Wovoka's grave

Wovoka’s grave

7th Cavalry’s opening fire indiscriminately from all sides. The Lakota warriors who still had weapons began shooting back at the attacking soldiers, who quickly suppressed their fire. The surviving Lakota fled, but U.S. cavalrymen hunted them down. When the smoke cleared and the shooting stopped, approximately 300 Sioux were dead.

The Southern Cheyenne continued Ghost Dances in Oklahoma until Wovoka himself sent word that they should stop. He told a delegation he was tired of so many visitors and they should return home and tell their people to stop dancing. Wovoka (aka Jack Wilson) died in 1932 and was buried on Paiute land. People still leave flowers on his grave.

Mysticism is an important element of any story that deals with Native America, whether those stories happened a hundred years ago, or yesterday, or even a hundred years in the future. In my fiction that mysticism takes the form of Magic Realism. If you are interested in seeing my approach to Magic Realism, check out my free short story collection Southwest Gothic Tales, my Kindle single, “Messages”, and my first novel, Owl Dreams. My second novel, Magic Popsicle Sticks, is in the capable hands of Pen-L Publishing, and will be available later this year.

The Crazy Snake Rebellion


Chitto Harjo

Chitto Harjo

In 1906 an eloquent Native American orator embarrassed the U.S. Senate by pointing out the ephemeral nature of Indian treaties: “This was the first agreement that we had with the white man. He said as long as the sun rises it shall last; as long as the waters run it shall last; as long as the grass grows it shall last.”

What a fantastic quote. It sounds like something Chief Dan George might have said in Little Big Man—classical Plains Indian Dialogue right? Even though Chief Dan George was Coastal Salish from B.C. Canada.

 The speaker was an Oklahoma Creek named Bill Harjo. He was better known in those days by his traditional name, Chitto Harjo—Crazy Snake (actually Snake Crazy, since Creek sentence structure is similar to Spanish). Harjo literally means recklessly brave,

Members of the Crazy Snake Rebellion

Members of the Crazy Snake Rebellion

but who wants a Native American folk hero named Recklessly Brave Snake?

Chitto Harjo failed to convince the U.S. Senate to respect the treaty of 1832. This agreement guaranteed the Creek (and other tribes) specified lands in Oklahoma after they were forcibly removed from their ancestral homes. Oklahoma was about to become a state, and the Wounded Knee massacre (1890, one year after South Dakota Statehood) was still fresh in

Jailed  "Snakes"

Jailed “Snakes”

everybody’s minds. President Teddy Roosevelt had no intention of bringing another state into the union that had independent tribal governments within its borders.

The Dawes Act created tribal roles and divided Indian land into allotments. This law had been around since 1887, but the tribes of Oklahoma, especially the Creek faction under Chitto Harjo’s leadership, had successfully resisted its implementation for years. Their legal recourse ended in 1898 when congress passed the Curtis Act that eliminated tribal governments.

Harjo was arrested in 1901 along with ninety-five of his supporters. They were sentenced in federal court to two years in Leavenworth but the sentences were immediately suspended on their promise to stop their anti-government activities. Most of the “Snakes” did stop but Harjo kept organizing opposition to allotment. He eluded arrest for ten months, but deputy marshals captured him in the spring of 1902. He and nine others were imprisoned at the Leavenworth federal penitentiary where they served their two-year sentences.

while the water flows Hauser sculpture, OK state capitol.

while the water flows
Hauser sculpture, OK state capitol.

In March of 1909, three years after Harjo’s speech to the U.S. Senate, a large number of “Snakes” gathered at the Hickory Ground Green Corn Ceremony. Much to the displeasure of white citizens, the Creek allowed many displaced Black families from Henryetta to set up a tent camp near the town. Unemployed and landless, the families resorted to stealing meat from white owned smokehouses to feed themselves.

An armed posse from Henryetta rode to the tent camp and killed several Black men. Harjo was not present at the camp, but he was held responsible for what came to be known alternately as the Smoked Meat Rebellion or the Crazy Snake Rebellion.

Four Deputies came to Harjo’s home to arrest him on March 27, 1909. Shots were fired. Two of the Deputies were killed and Crazy Snake took a bullet in the hip. A larger posse returned to Harjo’s home to find him gone. Vigilante groups roamed the vicinity pillaging Snake farms in search of him. Oklahoma Governor George Haskell called out the First Regiment of the Oklahoma National Guard to restore order.

In spite of an intensive search, Chitto Harjo was never found. It is widely believed he died of his gunshot wound and was buried in a secret location by his Choctaw friend, Daniel Bob, but rumors persisted for years that he had fled to Mexico with a number of his followers.

Cultures have been colliding in Oklahoma since long before statehood and they haven’t stopped in recent years. We mostly settle our differences peacefully these days, at least on a geopolitical scale, but those differences still exist and they provide excellent fuel for fiction. I believe Owl Dreams, and my soon to be released novel, Magic Popsicle Sticks illustrate our differences and similarities clearly. We are a real melting pot in Oklahoma; We should expect a few lumps in the gravy.




Allan Houser

th-1Every Oklahoman is familiar with Allan Houser’s sculpture, even if they don’t know his name. A picture of Sacred Rain Arrow is on our license plate. As Long as the Waters Flow is in the south plaza our state capitol grounds. He has pieces in our airport, in several of our art museums and on the campus of Oklahoma University in Norman.

 The rest of world also knows Houser’s art. His work is included in the permanent collections of over 70 museums across the United States, Europe and the Far East. His career spanned six decades, and his influence can be seen in contemporary, modern sculpture and graphic art. Among his other honors, Allan Houser was the first Native American to receive the National Medal of Arts.

Pretty impressive for the child of two people who spent their early lives in prison.

Houser’s father, Sam, was Geronimo’s first cousin. He was a very young man when the Apache wars ended. In 1886, members of his tribe—Chiricahua Warm Springs Apaches—were loaded into cattle cars and shipped from the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona to the swampy lands of the American southeast. Sam was among the women and children jailed at the Castillo de San Marcos th-2in St. Augustine, Florida. Allan’s mother, Blossom, was born in the prison camp at the Mount Vernon Barracks in Alabama where surviving members of the tribe were sent in 1887.

 About 300 captive Chiricahuas were eventually sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma where they were held for another 23 years. Allan was the first member of his family born out of captivity shortly after the Apaches were released in 1914.

Mountain Spirit Dancer

Mountain Spirit Dancer

His birth name wasn’t Houser. Back then it was Haozous (loosely translated: the sound of going away). If Allan Houser were a protagonist in a magic realism novel we’d call that symbolism.

When the Apaches were released from Ft. Sill, most of them went to the Mescalero reservation in New Mexico. Eighty-one adults, including Sam and Blossom Haozous accepted land allotments around Apache and Lawton Oklahoma.

It seemed Allan Houser was destined to become an Oklahoma farmer during one of the worst droughts of the 20th century. But in 1934 he noticed a magazine ad for an art school in Santa Fe (The Dorothy Dunn School) and applied. Allan excelled at drawing and painting and became the school’s most famous student. By 1939 his work was exhibited

Allan Houser's sculpture garden

Allan Houser’s sculpture garden

in San Francisco, Washington D. C., and Chicago.

In 1947 Haskell Institute in Lawrence Kansas solicited applicants to do a commissioned marble sculpture honoring former students who died in WWII. Even though he had never done a full size sculpture before and had never worked in marble, Allan managed to persuade the jury to give him the commission.

 Comrade in Mourning was the result. It became the iconic Native American Sculpture of its day and launched Allan Houser’s career.

 Native America always plays an important role in my fiction (Owl Dreams,

Sculpture Garden / Houser

Sculpture Garden / Houser

Messages, Southwest Gothic Tales). That makes me a natural fan of Allan Houser. His life would fit seamlessly between the covers of a magic realism novel—A member of a generationally imprisoned minority becomes a world famous artist. In Houser’s case the story is magic but it’s also true.

Allan Houser’s art can be found in collections all over the world, and starting May 1. 2014, some selected works will be exhibited on the roof of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Everyone who can should go and see it.