By Adrian Roman
It was the summer of 1948 in Nevada and the thermometer was just north of 100 degrees. Oklahoma was hot, but not like this, thought six-year-old John Wilkerson. His father had driven the family from Indian Country to get work at the Hawthorne Navel Ammunition Depot.
John asked his mother, “Why do we live so far from home in a project where the air doesn’t stir ‘til after dark?”
She told him, “There was no work in Oklahoma. We made the journey to survive.”
It was a different time. No one locked their doors or questioned when young boys ran out the door looking for mischief. How much trouble could they get into? John and his friends, tired of throwing rocks at jackrabbits and dodging tumbleweeds, turned to more exotic adventures, like pulling undergarments off Mrs. Miller’s clothesline, and peeping into windows.
One night, spying on another neighbor’s house, the boys saw several NDN men dressed in strange clothing. Pressing their ears to the window, they listened to the men talk and guessed they were headed to a gathering. While one boy stayed behind, the others rushed home to gather water bottles, jackets and flashlights. When they returned, the lookout said one NDN had mentioned Walker Lake, a spot twelve miles away. An adventure at twilight should have been out of the question, but a curious band of youngsters trailed the older group when it left.
Instead of going north to the south shores of Walker Lake, the NDN men walked west into the desert. They moved toward a mountain with a huge white ‘H’ painted on one side, forty miles away. The boys followed, a hundred yards behind. After Thirty minutes, the water was gone and the boys were tired. As the sun set, the men were joined by others. Together, they continued west.
Walking for miles, avoiding jack rabbits, snakes, and horn toads, the party reached a clearing. There, sagebrush, tumbleweeds, and cactus had been cleared to form a large circle. Soon, those who sat close enough were warmed by a small fire. They passed brown quart beer bottles one to another, drinking and laughing. The boys, hiding behind tumbleweeds, watched as the men told stories, got drunk and stumbled around. Some in the circle began to pull small containers from their pockets and bags. Taking off their shirts, they poured a white liquid into their hands and began smearing it on their upper bodies, even helping one another cover hard-to-reach areas.
The boys heard bits and pieces of dialogue. One uttered “Shilombish” and pointed toward Walker Lake. This frightened John and the others. His family still spoke their Native Choctaw and knew ‘Shilombish’ was a word for ghost. A five-year-old friend began to cry.
One of the men said, “You ready to dance Big Jim?”
Big Jim was Jimmy Joe Wilkerson, John’s uncle. For the next hour, the boys watched as he and the others danced and chanted to the beat of a hand drum. Some would set out briefly to watch and drink. After quenching their thirst, they’d return and others would pick up the bottle. Kicked-up dust clouded the flames and rose to the evening stars.
Getting cold, the boys backed away and went home. Safe in bed, John’s mind raced, questioning what he had seen. He fell asleep, determined to ask Uncle Jimmy for answers when the time was right.
The next day, Uncle Jimmy Joe came to babysit John and his younger sister Martha Jo while their mother went to a women’s domino party. There wasn’t much furniture; Jimmy sat in the single club chair. Its arms were flat and wide enough for Martha Jo and John to sit on either side. Jimmy had brought a loaf of bread, a pound of baloney, potato chips, and two quarts of beer in a brown paper bag. Martha Jo and John wrapped one arm around Jimmy’s neck and held a baloney sandwich with the other. There was no TV or radio; the children watched.
After guzzling one beer, Jimmy lost his mind, and passed the second bottle around. They had never tasted beer. It was awful. Still, everyone shared snacks and managed to have a good time. Finally, John found the courage to ask about what he had seen in the desert.
“It was a Ghost Dance, but don’t tell your mother.”
“What is a ghost dance?” asked Martha Jo.
“It’s a dance where Indian warriors unite to fight the white man and drive them from our country”.
“Why do you want to fight the white man?” asked John.
“You youngsters don’t know about the bad things the white man has done to us Indians”, slurred Uncle Jimmy.
Mary Jo was intrigued. “Can I see you dance Uncle Jimmy?”
“No, no women allowed!”
Mary Jo insisted, “I’m not a woman, I’m a kid. Why can’t I come see?”
“No, only men”.
John responded, “How ‘bout me? Can I come watch?”
“I’ll do better than that. Come with me tomorrow to Walker Lake. After we swim, I’ll take you to the mountains and show you where the warrior dance was created.”
“What do you mean ‘created’?” asked Martha Jo.
“It means to be made or born,” replied Jimmy.
“Like mommy making me a baby sister?” chimed Martha Jo.
“Could be. How do you know about that?”
“I heard momma talking to daddy about a name for the baby.”
“And, what did you hear?”
“Momma said Dorothy Ann is coming in June,” said Martha Jo.
“Oh no, another sister. Give me another drink.” demanded John.
“Ha, you like that firewater.”
“No, but you do, and I want to be smart like you. And, and…, I want to learn to dance the Ghost Dance like you Uncle Jimmy.”
Mother came home, discovered the scene, and chased Uncle Jimmy out the door with a broom handle. John tried to stand and walk, but fell down. Martha Jo laughed, then yawned. Though smart enough not to drink too much, she was sleepy. Mother put her to bed. The boy was still dizzy and light-headed. A hot bath, a glass of milk, and sleep would cure him.
The next day was Sunday. True to his word, Jimmy Joe took John and two friends on the bus to Walker Lake. Mother fixed John an afternoon lunch, a sack full of sandwiches and chips. She gave him 10 pennies to buy a bottle of pop.
At the lake, everyone piled out of the bus and dashed to join the hundreds already enjoying the cool water. John ran as fast as he could for twenty yards, but hot rocks and sand burned his feet. He threw his towel down and stood on it for relief. Repeating this process several times, he reached the lake and jumped in. His whole body felt refreshed.
After underwater summersaults and friendly games of tag, John decided to swim out to the pier. The square wooden platform floated about fifty yards from shore. Boys sat at its edge, acting silly, making eyes at the girls who sunbathed there.
Getting bored, John figured to swim underneath the pier. He took a deep breath, dove in and turned to make the short trip. Halfway, he became disoriented and tried to rise for air. His head hit the bottom of the platform. In a panic, he reached up, only to cut his hand on a protruding nail. Stabbed in the head, he might have drowned.
Instead, the boy dove deeper into the cold and clear water. Looking up, John saw a square shadow. Avoiding it, he shot to the surface gasping for air. His bleeding hand reddened the water. No one had noticed him in trouble. Somehow, he swam back to shore. Uncle Jimmy took him to the first aid station where a nurse bandaged his wound.
It was late afternoon when Uncle Jimmy told John, “Since you can’t swim anymore, let’s take a little hike into the mountain.”
“You gonna show me the place where the Ghost Dance started?”
“Yep, follow me. Put your sandals on and button up that shirt. It gets rough up there.”
Jimmy found the trail at the base of the mountain and motioned for John to take the lead. If the boy slipped and fell, the older man would catch him. The two skirted pine trees and ducked under cliffs. Only the sound of a rattlesnake slowed them. They spotted it and trekked on, past jackrabbits scrambling for safety and shade. Soon, the sure-footed boy had created a gap between the two.
“Slow down kid,” shouted Jimmy.
John stopped and waited until Jimmy caught up. A couple hundred feet up, both turned and looked back. The lake covered fifty square miles.
“John, you see those two large boulders up ahead and to the left”?
“We’re going between that narrow opening. Once you get through, stop and wait for me. It falls sharply into a flat basin on the other side.
On the other side of the gap, they gazed at the sacred ground below, an area about half the size of a football field. As Jimmy warned, the trail downward was steep. Smaller boulders along the way were ideal posts to view and dream.
“John, we are on sacred ground here. More than fifty years ago, an Indian danced the very first Ghost Dance right here.”
“Was he Choctaw like you and me Jimmy?”
“No, he was Paiute. Probably from the reservation just north of here. Set down; let’s rest and talk for a while.”
“Jimmy, how did he make the Ghost Dance”?
“One of the men with us the other night taught me some of its history. He is a descendent of that first dancer. The story goes, ‘about 1889, his grandfather experienced a vision’”.
“What’s a vision, Uncle Jimmy?”
“You ever have dreams at night?”
“Yeah, I had one the other night, when you got me drunk.”
“Funny boy. I never had a vision, but I imagine dreams can be similar. What kind of dream did you have?”
“I dreamed a bunch of boys at school were making fun of me. They starting hitting me.”
“Yep, us Indian’s all have a dream like that. It’s a dream today, but it’s gonna be real tomorrow. You better grow some muscles. What did you do John?”
“All of a sudden, I was very strong, and fast. I began fighting all of them at the same time. I beat them all. But in the end, I didn’t like fighting”.
“You may not like it, but you better get used to it. Indian boys got to learn to fight, or go off and die like a wounded cat,” Feeling clever, Jimmy howled.
“Momma would be mad. She tells me, ‘Be a good NDN. Don’t fight, but don’t back down.’”
“Your mother is a good woman; you listen to her. It sounds like you are going to be a great warrior when you grow up.”
“Tell me more about the vision.”
“Ok, but don’t interrupt me. The grandfather was named Wovoka. In his vision, he met the Creator and the ghosts of the dead NDN’s in heaven. They gave him a promise, a message, and a command. Together, they would form a great nation. United, they would do great things for their people. All Indians, Mother Earth and the great herds would be restored, so there would be plenty of food.
“The Spirit message was to be peaceful and leave the whites to their ways. The Creator would take care of things. The warriors were to dance for five days and exhaust themselves. They would be cleansed like in a sweat lodge, reborn as Indians, ready to be restored.”
“What’s a sweat lodge Uncle Jimmy”?
“Dang, John, when you interrupt, I lose my train of thought. And don’t ask what train of thought is. I’m trying to teach you everything I’ve been taught. Now, back to the Ghost Dance… I was told that Wovoka danced that first Ghost Dance in January, the same month you were born – pretty cool stuff. That event was so powerful, in a few months, Indians from nearly every tribe west of the Mississippi streamed into the valley to learn and participate. You’ve heard of Sitting Bull, the famous Sioux War Chief, haven’t you?”
“Oh yeah, He was a great warrior. I have a comic book about him. I want to be like him.”
“Well, he heard about the dance. In the fall of 1889, he sent some of his chiefs here to learn. They brought to the dance to South Dakota. Because of the cold there, it became the Ghost Shirt Dance. The Sioux took sacred dirt from Walker Lake, made a red ochre paint, and smeared it on their shirts and tipis. Sitting Bull Chief believed that wearing the shirts and doing the dance gave him and his warriors great power, protecting them when they fought the white men.”
“Was Wovoka a great warrior like Sitting Bull?” asked John.
“No, Wovoka was Northern Paiute. They weren’t a warring tribe. Wokova was a Medicine man and spiritual leader. After his vision, he taught others that proper practice of the dance could unite the living with spirits of the dead. The spirits would fight to end white expansion and bring unity, prosperity, and peace to Native American peoples.
“So, all Wovoka taught was the Ghost Dance”?
“Oh, no John, he also taught his people to love one another, not fight. Wakova believed Jesus would be reincarnated and thought hard work, not stealing and lying, would restore our ancient way of life. The buffalo would return; there would be good food and clean water for all. To answer your question, he was a different kind of great. He was a peaceful warrior.”
“Wow, that’s a pretty neat story. Uncle Jimmy, will you teach me the Ghost Dance”?
Jimmy and John make their way down the short trail onto the basin. The setting sun creates a golden glow over the mountain and its rays illuminate the floor. Jimmy begins to dance. There is no drum, but his feet pounding on the dirt produce an infectious rhythm. After watching a couple of minutes, John joins in, mimicking Jimmy’s movements. Soon, the young boy freeforms without his teacher.
On a magical evening in Nevada, the Sacred Ghost Dance is passed on. A million eyes watch a young boy experience the movement of life. The Shilombish are happy….