I See Dead People…and So Can You

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A tour guide at Hell House, Dan Summers, poses for a picture in Cedar Hill, Texas in October 2006. Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Indian Country Today Media Network website.

Of course there are ghosts. Do you think you're the only human being who noticed when ghosts have appeared across time, across space, and across cultures wherever people are mystified?

There are ghosts in the same sense there are UFOs going back to times before humans could fly. If it flies and you can't name it, it's a UFO. If it makes your hair stand up and all your senses scream that you are not alone when you think you are alone, it's a ghost.

Death calls up powerful emotions unmatched in any other context. Since the presence of a ghost does the same, it's not surprising people put the two together.

Halloween is the holiday when we face fear and get right in the face of the supernatural. Children wear costumes and adults seek out opportunities to confront the unknown or, some would say, the misunderstood. In that spirit (no pun intended), we offer four places you can go to laugh at your deepest anxieties. Or, as the case may be, scream.

El Museo de las Momias, Guanajuato, Mexico

The Museum of the Mummies in Guanajuato puts death right in your face. Some of us thought that in death inconvenient labels of race and class no longer matter. Any Indian who has fought a NAGPRA claim understands race still matters. Dead Indians are treated in ways that would be intolerable for dead white people. Even when the dead white people have historical significance when discovered, they are quickly studied to solve the puzzles they present and then reburied.

In Guanajuato, we are shown a postmortem application of class distinctions. The people who are on display are earning money for others, just like they did in life, and they are above-ground in the first place because their relatives could not afford to keep them in the cemetery.

In some cases, we also see the horrible evidence of premature burial. Try not to be haunted by taphephobia.

Finally, these bodies are working-class Mexicans. By blood, they will be Indians. By culture, we don't know because the dead are silenced, but even now there are many indigenous languages learned in Mexico before the colonial language of the Spanish.

Some research universities in the U.S. still hold enough dead Indians to put the Guanajuato museum to shame, but, since NAGPRA, the dead are not displayed.

If you are not disquieted by El Museo de las Momias, you have nerves of steel.

La Misión de La Purísima Concepción de la Santísima Virgen María, Lompoc, California

Working-class Indians are the focus again at the place now called La Purisima Mission and now a California State Historical Park rather than a church. One of the very early Spanish missions, it was founded in 1787 by Dominican Fr. Fermín Lasuén, who was the direct successor to the recently sainted Junípero Serra y Ferrer.

Apologists for the slave-driving Fr. Serra claim that he stood between the Indians—at La Purisima, the Chumash—and the soldiers who would have treated them even worse. Whatever the truth of that tale, after Mexican Independence in 1823, the soldiers were no longer getting paid and were out of control.

Barbaric treatment of the Indians led to the Chumash Revolt of 1824. In response to the brutal beating of a Chumash child by a soldier, the Chumash burned Mission Santa Inés, sacked La Purisima and held it for about a month.

Some claim the spirits haunting La Purisima are Chumash and some claim they are Spanish. Like most of the Spanish missions, it was a seething cauldron of evil that could change the behavior of even good people. You will have to ask the ghosts about their national origins.

The Devil's Highway, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah

Some people claim the reputation of U.S. Highway 666 was nothing but hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia (fear of 666), but the fact is that traffic fatalities were two and a half times those on other New Mexico highways. Two counties bisected by 666, San Juan and McKinley, have also had twice as many fatalities among pedestrians as other New Mexico counties.

Critics of the "Devil's Highway" moniker point out that the unusual numbers of deaths are confined to the New Mexico sections, while the Colorado and Utah parts have more normal accident statistics. The most deadly part of the Devil's Highway passes through the Navajo Reservation after leaving Gallup on the south end and heads for Ute lands near the Four Corners on the North end.

It passes the Shiprock, sacred to the Navajo, and Ute Mountain, sacred to the Utes. The highway crosses beautiful lands, worth seeing even when not ghost hunting.

The original 666 designation meant the 6th U.S. highway emanating from Route 66, the Mother Road from Chicago to California that is no more except in songs and stories. The 666 designation was changed on July 30, 2003. The Navajo Nation had sought the change for years, not because 666 holds any meaning for the Navajos, but because some Navajos believed the number scared away superstitious tourists. Navajo hataalii George Blue Horse participated in the dedication of the new number, 491.

The accident rate has fallen a bit with the new number, but skeptics point to the safety improvements made at the same time. Locals still call it The Devil's Highway.

Bosque Redondo, New Mexico

A direct translation of the Spanish, bosque, is roughly "the woods," but in the southwestern borderlands of the U.S. it has come to describe areas of trees in the floodplain of rivers and streams, trees that could not exist but for the periodic flooding.

Redondo sometimes refers to a round trip in Tex-Mex, but the straightforward Spanish translation applies here, to make Bosque Redondo refer to a round stand of trees in the floodplain of the Pecos River in Eastern New Mexico.

To the Navajo, their time at Bosque Redondo was called Hweeldi, but the important thing to know is that it exists outside the boundaries marked by the Four Sacred Mountains where the Holy People had instructed the Navajo they would prosper.

To the United States government, it became known after the fort constructed there, Ft. Sumner, better known in popular history as the place where Pat Garrett shot Billy the Kid. The important thing to know is that Bosque Redondo was intended to be the first of many multi-tribal reservations located west of Indian Territory.

The first occupants of Bosque Redondo were Mescalero Apaches. The Navajo, of course, would never agree to move from Dinétah, the homeland defined by Blanca Peak of the Sangre de Cristos or Tsisnaasjini' in the East, Mount Taylor or Tsoodzil in the South, the San Francisco Peaks or Doko'oosliid in the West, and Mount Hesperus or Dibé Nitsaa in the North.

I take the time to explain the lay of the land because I intend to offer personal testimony about the ghosts of Bosque Redondo and I understand that might subject me to ridicule.

The U.S. government sent the experienced Indian fighter Christopher "Kit" Carson to round up the Navajos. He did so by destroying their crops and orchards, burning their hogans, and killing their livestock. In 1864-1865, thousands of Navajos were force-marched at gunpoint in at least 50 groups along seven routes, marching some 300 miles in 18 days and not being told where they were going. Hundreds died.

I say "thousands" and "hundreds" because I am Cherokee and my tribal blood memory is the Trail of Tears. I know the futility of starting an argument about exact body count. Thousands of surviving Navajos joined about 400 Apaches in an American concentration camp designed to hold 5,000 people. According to Army records, population peaked at 9,022 in 1865. It shrunk afterwards by escapes and by death.

Crops failed because of brackish water and inadequate irrigation. Congress appropriated funds for beef but later investigation showed the taxpayers were billed for prime healthy cattle but the Indian agents took delivery of sick and skinny culls from the New Mexican herds and kicked back part of the profit to cover it up.

Women were forced to sell themselves to soldiers for food, but still babies died. Disease was rampant.

Children and women and men, the Navajos died by the scores until June 1, 1868, when new leadership at Ft. Sumner concluded a new treaty that released the surviving Navajos to go home, ending the blood memory of horror they call The Long Walk.

Science tells us so many died at Bosque Redondo that the result was a "genetic bottleneck" that allowed diseases carried by recessive genes to manifest in later generations. Battle, starvation, disease, and spiritual disconnection—these were the origins of the ghosts at Bosque Redondo.

In the 1980s, I set out to write a poem about Bosque Redondo patterned on Yevgeny Yevtushenko's Babi Yar, a European story of mass murder and false pretenses. Because I don't read Russian, it was slow going through four English translations and five years.

Every few months, I would get "stuck" and despair of ever finishing. I would then return to Bosque Redondo, sit by the brackish river with my back against a cottonwood tree and let the ghosts speak to me. Two things were certain. I would cry until I could barely breathe and I would come away with a clarity of purpose that would hold me on task until the memory faded.

The poem closes my book, Wicked Dew. I tell this story knowing some people will consider me a fool. I cannot appeal from that judgment except to hope I spoke—even foolishly—for the justice denied to the ghosts of Bosque Redondo.

Of course there are ghosts.

I See Dead People…and So Can You | Opinion