Two years ago, archaeologists made an astonishing find. Working in the backcountry of Great Basin National Park in Nevada, they came across a rifle leaning against a juniper tree. This was not just any rifle — it was a Winchester Model 1873, a repeating rifle known as “the gun that won the West.” When checked with Winchester archives at the Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming, it turned out that this rifle was manufactured and shipped in 1882, sold at about $25, one of 25,000 made that year, and one of 720,610 made between 1873 and 1916, when production stopped. In 1882, that particular gun might have been deployed by the US army against Native Americans who were being purged from their homelands; by Native Americans who had acquired it in trades; by settlers; by trappers, miners, hunters, homesteaders, cowboys, travelers, and anyone else who had a need.
The discovery of the old rifle in the park is important not just because of the role that Winchesters played in American history, but because people didn’t generally leave rifles behind in 1882, or in the years after that; nor do they do so today. And it wasn’t lying on the ground or buried in a cache; it was propped against a tree — a fact that makes its story all the more intriguing, as if it were starting a conversation. Pick me up — I dare you! I’ve been here for a long time; or have I? Where’s my owner?
According to a press release from the National Park Service, “The cracked wood stock, weathered to grey, and the brown rusted barrel blended into the colors of the old juniper tree in a remote rocky outcrop, keeping the rifle hidden for many years.”
This Winchester may have avoided detection for a long time, but there is much evidence of our desire to be armed and to use firearms in plain sight across the West. Left behind every day and year after year are countless bullet shells across the byways of the outback. As I write, I’m sure that there is more than one person traversing, say, the Little Bighorn battlefield or any number of others in search of overlooked remnants of metal that may have once ripped through someone’s body. In my travels across the marked and unmarked trails of our wide open spaces, I have come across spent cartridges everywhere — and evidence of their use. Years after the massacre of 34 wild horses in the Virginia Range outside Reno, there was an empty box of Winchester cartridges lodged between the branches of a tree overlooking the site — now a shrine to the downed mustangs. “Winchester — the gun that won the West, the ammo that brought it to its knees — now back as a reminder, placed intentionally and possibly by the people who killed the horses,” I wrote at the time, and immediately hiked away from the area with a companion.
Yet one cannot walk certain paths or drive down a desert two-lane without spotting a bullet-riddled sign, or shrine, or pockmarked carcass of an abandoned vehicle. And there is more than physical evidence. One cannot explore many areas without gunfire going off in the distance or even nearby, or traverse remote highways without seeing bar joke bumper stickers that say, “I carry a handgun because my AR-15 won’t fit in my purse.”
In my travels across the West, I sometimes meet people who carry a copy of the Constitution in their cars or pockets (I myself carry one in my purse), who can discuss search and seizure law as well as recognized legal scholars, who quote the Second Amendment like scripture. “Don’t tread on me” is a mantra of theirs, and often, the flag is flying in their front yards or is posted near fences at the edge of their property. As someone who has spent years bearing witness to the American story, I consider myself patriotic; flying the stars and stripes doesn’t bother me (my father raised the flag every day outside his home), and is often — though not always — mistaken by some as an indicator of malice. I have written about many misunderstood figures in my books and plays; some have become my friends, and others will never make that cut.
He was two seats over and in a cell phone trance, the Second Amendment with a boarding pass.
I think for instance of a Gulf War veteran who was called to testify in the murder trial of a fellow Marine who was accused of killing the two girls whose stories I tell in Twentynine Palms
. It was apparent that being on the witness stand was an ordeal; he had flown across the country to deliver bad news, recount his small and unwitting part in a damaging timeline and harrowing tale. When it was over, he was spent. The color was gone from his face and he had the shakes. But there was something he wanted to tell me, he said, when we met in the hallway outside the courtroom. “I have Gulf War Syndrome,” he confided. “They won’t admit that it exists. Please tell people what happened over there.”
I think of a latter-day hermit whose story I told in Desert Reckoning
. On a hot August day at high noon, he waylaid a LA County cop with whom he’d had a run-in almost 10 years earlier, at the same time and near the same place in a remote area of Los Angeles where the pavement runs out and everything else begins. Well-versed in Carlos Castaneda, where to cache water in the desert, time-travel machines, and even Gail Sheehy and the aging process, he had been preparing for his personal end times by digging his own grave at the edge of his property and ambushing the cop who showed up at his door one day, looking for someone else. His personal greeter, a rattlesnake, lay coiled in a bucket at his front door — the living symbol of why not to tread on the person behind it.
I think of the old cowboys who occasionally show up at my events for Mustang
. When everyone is gone, they approach me and want to talk. Now in their 80s and 90s, they regret living the life mandated by the grade-school mantra we all learn: “It’s a free country and I can do what I want.” They apologize for their role in the decimation of wild horse herds, for going into the wilderness and whacking mustangs for a price, or for participating in brutal “Misfits”- style round-ups in which horses were taken from the land and sent to slaughterhouses for a meager per-pound rate that led to the confiscation of millions. When they look across a plain, they see a Walmart or a string of fast food establishments, and know that they are a part of what got us to this moment, and they wonder where the reckoning is and what, if anything, they can do.
I also think of the most demented among us, such as the shooter in the latest mass shooting in Las Vegas. It happened on October 1, 2017, during a concert, and by the time it was over, 58 people were killed and over 500 were wounded — victims of one more gunman whose profile baffles those who put together profiles; although he lived in a planned community on a dead-end street named Babbling Brook Road, and spent much of his time in front of flashing and screaming casino machines, subsisting on comped food, among other elements of obliteration and disconnect. According to many news reports, the incident was the “biggest” of its kind in American history. Thus, it placed the killer at the top of a hideous list, begun in modern times by Lee Harvey Oswald, shooter of “just” one person, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was at that time the most famous and revered man in the world. This renders the Vegas killer front and center in the ever-growing annals of such events, until he is displaced by one more empty man whose profile is not having one. Is it any wonder that sometime during the act he joined his compadres in taking a selfie, as other killers have done en route to the schoolroom or while replacing magazines?
Are these incidents the result of bad people doing bad things, and the consequence of unfettered access to guns? Yes — but there is so much more. There are ghosts on the plain, and the time has come for America to face them. I speak, for instance, of the incident that was truly the biggest mass murder in our nation’s history. It’s called Wounded Knee, and what happened there was the culmination of the Indian wars, precipitated by the assassination of the great Lakota leader Sitting Bull two weeks earlier. Many issues converged at Wounded Knee, but in the end, it had much to do with the confiscation of firearms. As I recount in Blood Brothers
As December of 1890 played itself out and word of Sitting Bull’s ambush spread through the camp, some of his followers and those of the Minneconjou Big Foot fled south, hoping to get to the reservation at Pine Ridge where perhaps there was sanctuary with the Oglalas. On December 28, three days after Christmas and in the midst of a winter blizzard, they were intercepted by soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry — Custer’s outfit — at Porcupine Creek just outside of their destination. There was discussion and Big Foot, weakened by pneumonia, agreed to an escort to the agency. That evening, the group of 230 men and 230 women and children arrived at a creek named Wounded Knee, just inside the reservation. There they set up an immediate village, a thing to which they were accustomed, and there, on the following morning, they were told to disarm. Surrounded by armed soldiers and faced with Hotchkiss repeating weapons on a hill overlooking the campsite, they relinquished their guns, which were stacked up on the frozen ground. Already stunned by the death of Sitting Bull, the villagers grew increasingly wary and nervous. They could not flee, this they knew, lest they risk a massacre. They could not negotiate; this latest incident, after years of others, including the assassination of Crazy Horse and the vanishing of the buffalo, suggested that things were coming to a close. The soldiers too had become more agitated. A search for concealed weapons was ordered, and two more rifles were found. Black Coyote, later said to be deaf, balked at turning over his weapon. A scuffle ensued and hell broke loose, with the Indians grabbing their guns and the soldiers blasting them at close range and from the bluffs above. When it was over about 300 Lakota had been killed, including 62 women and children; others may have gotten away and died of their wounds later. Big Foot was killed in this encounter, his haunting image forever preserved in a photograph of his frozen and gnarled body, found on the site on a travois several days later, along with the other bodies. The Seventh Cavalry also suffered casualties; 25 men had been killed and 35 wounded in this horrific action which has come to be seen as a coda to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. On New Year’s Day, 1891, army wagons came from Pine Ridge to retrieve the dead. Surviving children were found wrapped in shawls amid the carnage, and one soldier uncovered a baby under its mother and adopted her. The bodies were taken to a hilltop where one of the Hotchkiss guns had fired at them, and buried in a mass grave.
And now let us take one more step back and recall the surrender of Sitting Bull, following years of exile in Canada after the Lakota and Cheyenne victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, aka “Custer’s Last Stand.” Lt. George Armstrong Custer was the soldier whose death Sitting Bull was blamed for, though that was not the case. I recount the surrender of Sitting Bull in Blood Brothers
, and as you will note, it involves the Winchester.
As his band entered the grounds of the fort, he rode in front of the column, along with other leaders such as Four Horns, White Dog, Spotted Eagle, High as the Clouds, Bone Tomahawk, and Red Thunder. They stopped in front of Major Brotherton, and Sitting Bull shook hands with the commanding officer. “Today I am home,” he said. “The land under my feet is mine again. I never sold it; I never gave it to anyone.” He explained that he had left the Black Hills in 1876 because he had wanted to raise his family in peace. He was returning, he said, because he knew that one of his daughters was being held at a nearby fort. “And now I want to make a bargain with the Grandfather,” he continued. “I want to have witnesses on both sides.” So a council was arranged for the following morning — the act of official surrender with all of the ritual required.
For now, his men laid down their guns before the soldiers. Sitting Bull held on to his Winchester, planning to relinquish it during the ceremony on the next day. Then they gave up their horses. “My boy,” he said, turning to his son Crowfoot, “if you live, you will never be a man in this world, because you can never have a gun or pony.” And then he began to sing: A warrior I have been. Now it is all over. A hard time I have…
The next day broke gray again. Shortly before 11 in the morning, an army official entered the camp and told Sitting Bull that the time had come. Sitting Bull and his son Crowfoot led the way across the parade grounds towards Major Brotherton’s quarters. They were flanked by the other chiefs and headmen and they were all followed by 32 Lakota warriors. Sitting Bull was still wearing the attire in which he had returned, and the old kerchief was still wrapped around his head, nearly covering his eyes. The Indians were escorted into Major Brotherton’s parlor, where they were greeted by a small group of soldiers and civilians, including the major, other army officials, a representative of the Northwest Mounted Police from Canada who had ridden in the night before, the trader Jean Louis Legare who had taken care of Sitting Bull north of the Medicine Line and then convinced him to return, an interpreter, and a reporter from the Pioneer Press. Sitting Bull shook hands with all of them except Major Guido Ilges, a Prussian Civil War hero who had made a name for himself hunting down Apaches and who had also imprisoned Sitting Bull’s father long ago.
The pivotal moment approached. Still carrying his rifle, Sitting Bull took a seat next to Major Brotherton. Then he laid down the Winchester, placing it on the floor between his feet. A few seconds of silence passed. The major broke it, as a translator relayed his remarks in Lakota. He explained existing policy toward those natives who had already surrendered and he told the new arrivals that they would soon be sent down the river to Fort Yates. This was a bit of good news; there they would be reunited with family members and friends, some of whom they had not seen since the days after the Battle of the Little Bighorn when many surrendered shortly after, knowing that even though the Indians had been victorious, it was the beginning of the end, and others, sensing the same thing but thinking and hoping they could outrun it, became fugitives.
Major Brotherton continued to explain how things would work now that Sitting Bull and his people were wards of the US government. It was simple, generic, and stifling. They were advised to behave in such a manner that no harm would come their way, and if they did as they were told, they would be treated well. The Hunkpapas indicated their approval, except for Sitting Bull who made no such acknowledging sound or gesture.
Major Brotherton now turned to the chief and asked him to speak. Sitting Bull remained characteristically silent for several minutes and then began. First he made a short speech to the Lakotas. It was not translated and there is no record of it. Did he give them a prelude of what he was about to say? Tell them not to worry — about tomorrow and the next day and the next? When the time seemed right, he turned to Crowfoot, telling him to pick up the gun and give it to the major. “I surrender this rifle to you through my young son,” he said, addressing all of the officers, “whom I now desire to teach in this manner that he has become a friend of the Americans. I wish him to learn the habits of the whites and to be educated as their sons are educated. I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle.”
There are many in this country who are looking over their shoulders, haunted by a shadow that always seems to be there. Perhaps it is the shadow that haunts our nation, the ghost of the body politic, a demon of past sins here in our homeland. Let us say the names: Washita, Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, and the lesser-known others, familiar only to the earth itself and the oral histories that contain them; how else to explain the never-ending parade of zombies, werewolves, and vampires in our books and movies? Those who feel this shadow so keenly are often on the frontlines of America’s dirty work, going to war when asked, heading into mines and driving trucks, sweeping the floors after our conventions and parties, stoking the fires down below, becoming sick from the smoke, pouring drinks for each other in bars where the liquor is cheap, and making sure to have a cache of weapons because you never know — a condition that has been aggravated in recent years by myriad factors, in spite of endless attempts to contain it.
There are ghosts on the plain, and the time has come for America to face them.
Some time ago, before 9/11, I found myself in the Southwest Airline lounge in the Reno airport. I overheard one of those conversations that explained a lot of things, a refrain really, the chorus of a song that we all know. It had to do with the civic religion of the country, our gleeful worship of personal rights. Someone was talking loudly on his cell phone, in the way that certain big people do, in case you should happen to miss them, a big man with a big gut, well over six feet, in a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. “Oh man,” he said, “I can’t believe this. They confiscated my ammo. I had a clip inside the steel toe of my belt and they actually made me leave it at the security gate.” He was two seats over and in a cell phone trance, the Second Amendment with a boarding pass. “I told them I was working security at one of the casinos, but they made me leave it anyway,” he said. “Can you believe that? But hey, I applied for a concealed carry and I should have it next week. Hey, did you hear Al is in trouble? Yeah, lawyers have been called and a grand jury is in session. Looks like indictments are coming… Hey, I almost had me some last night. It was just there waiting for me. It’ll be there when I get back. You know, I like Reno. I like this whole friggin’ state.”
Two years ago, after the discovery of the old Winchester, the National Park Service issued a press release:
Mysteries of the rifle’s journey through time spur creative and lively discussion....the Great Basin cultural resource staff is continuing research in old newspapers and family histories, hoping to resolve some of the mystery and fill in details about the story of this rifle. The park will provide a viewing opportunity for the community before sending the rifle to conservators to stabilize the wood and apply museum conservation techniques. The treatment will keep the gun looking as it was found and prevent further deterioration. When the rifle is returned to the park, it will be displayed as part of the park’s 30th birthday and the NPS centennial celebration.
So there it is — the gun that won the West, and allowed Native Americans to hold on to it for a little while longer; that was relinquished in a kind of prayer by Sitting Bull. We must now come to terms with our wars against those who preceded us on these great shores, among them, perhaps, the Great Mother Sacajawea, who guided Lewis and Clark through the West with her own child on her back, showing us the way.
This is an expanded version of the essay, "Winchester Cathedral," first published at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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is a widely published, critically acclaimed writer. Her books include the just-published Blood Brothers
(recipient of a starred review in Kirkus
, and Doug Brinkley calls it "a landmark achievement"), Desert Reckoning
(winner of the Spur and LA Press Club Awards for Nonfiction), and Mustang
, a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. In addition, she wrote the cult classic, Twentynine Palms
, a Los Angeles Times
bestseller that Hunter Thompson called, “A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer.” She writes the “Letter from the West” column for the Los Angeles Review of Books
and is a member of the core faculty at the UC Riverside-Palm Desert MFA Low Residency Creative Writing Program.