It Isn't All Cowboys and Indians

Portlyn Houghton-Harjo | Essays


I imagine Tenskwatawa staring at the sky, watching a slew of shooting stars. A thousand white rockets against the blue-black. Maybe a mosquito bit him while he watched. Maybe the swollen mound that came up from his skin reminded him of the body he was in. Maybe then the gears started turning. Maybe he saw a thousand mosquitos in yankee caps. Maybe he saw Oklahoma.  

I have never seen a meteor shower. I know Tenskwatawa didn’t either, but I’d like to think he did. I see mosquitos drink my blood. I see funerals and memorials and histories. I don’t have to write about the oil rigs that would come to litter Oklahoma to drink from the red clay. We all know what they look like, bobbing up and down or stalled forever.  

On a recent trip back home, gift shops were littered with the phrase: “Oklahoma: It isn’t all Cowboys and Indians!” I laughed, because yes, it is. America itself can be boiled down into two sects and we’ll always want to kill the other sect. An Indian in the gift shop looking at a bumper sticker will want, for a brief moment, to kill the Cowboy within her.  

I used to have red cowgirl boots and a hand-me-down matching cowgirl outfit. When I was five, my parents bought me a silver and pink toy gun in Colorado. I wore my bright red get-up the entire trip. The hokey half-gas station, half-gift shop was a monument to the West. My dad took photos with cardboard-cutouts of Indians, flipping off the disposable camera when the shop owners weren’t looking. The gun was in a bin of various child-sized weapons and I thought it was the prettiest. My parents spent five bucks on it. It was cold plastic and had faux bone trimming on the sides. I pointed it at my dad immediately. My small hand loosely gripped the silver handle of the gun. I liked the pop it made when I squeezed the trigger.  

My dad pushed the gun out of his way, and scolded me. “If you point fake guns at people now, you’ll grow up to point real guns at people.” Violence was hazy and barely known to me, but I knew that sometimes violence led to death and shame coiled its way into my stomach. I didn’t want to be violent, or bad. 

Tenskwatawa prophesied an apocalypse, he said that white people were born of an evil spirit. Some people say he was a drunk but they forget that drunks can tell the truth if they’re scared enough of it. He saw earthquakes and a solar eclipse, he saw evil and fear. If he saw all that, I hope he also saw survival.  

There was a sect of Creeks who believed him. The Red Sticks fought with his brother against the United States. They painted war clubs red and tried to kill a future president. It was a small war that turned into a civil war that became a big war. It was the war that created reservations and put us where we are now. After all that, I can’t call Tenskwatawa a drunk. Maybe he was, but it doesn’t matter. It’s in my blood to believe him.  

America’s always been full of Cowboys and Indians, shooting each other up.  


I couldn’t pinpoint the moment that I first heard of the rapture—it wasn’t a common sermon at First Indian Baptist Church. Just by being in the bible belt, half-living in Oklahoma’s rural areas and its urban ones, the rapture and evangelism was always in the periphery of my vision. In Tulsa, I lived a ten minute drive from the giant praying hands that grew from out of the ground at Oral Roberts University. The language of evangelism and its brimstone and sulfur was not “fringe” in Oklahoma, it was something you could experience down the street. It spouted itself from cousins’ Facebook accounts and aunts’ TV sets. As a kid, I didn’t know exactly what the rapture meant, but I knew it meant the passing on of the people I loved.  

I used to have a recurring dream about being the last person left on Earth. I was four or five. I dreamt that I’d wake up in my Nana’s rural home in Holdenville, Oklahoma. I would search for my uncles, my grandparents, my parents. I’d look outside and I would see their cars, untouched. No one would answer my yells for them. It was the same bad feeling, over and over. I knew I was the last one left in the entire world, unraptured.  

Another early dream: a funeral for an Indian man. My family gathered around a river in the front yard of my great-grandma’s house (there is no river, stream, or creek near her house). The dead Indian man was placed in the river and we watched as he drifted away, downstream. He wore a flannel shirt and jeans. He looked like Will Sampson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  

Since 2020, I’ve missed six funerals. I made it to one. I used to think that Natives just die, all the time. I am a person made from grief, piling on top of each ending. More than milestones, I remember deaths. Grief is unending and bone-deep. It feels like it happens in pairs now. When my great-uncle died, I went to his funeral. I missed the one for my childhood best friend’s brother. He was 17 and she found him in their bathroom. We used to call him a monkey, the way he would climb on one piece of furniture and throw his small body to the next one.  

My mother’s father died before I was born. I grew up in that grief. One April Fool’s, when I was confused about death and grief, I told her over and over again, “Look! I see your dad! April Fools!” 

My great-grandmother, the matriarch, died when I was 8. My other great-grandmother and an aunt, still both matriarchs, died on the same night within an hour of each other. I was 15. Between 8 and 15, I couldn’t tell you how many funerals I went to. It was the right thing to do. I tagged alongside my grandmother while she wept for everyone. I shook the hands of many grieving family members. Some were strangers, some were relatives. I learned that the community I’m from was always grieving. I learned to show up for those in grief and, at the very least, bring them a good meal.  

Whatever evangelical worm squeezed its way into my head stayed in my psyche and put the fear of not God, but Death, into me. I was afraid of the rapture because I was afraid of death. As a child, my dreams were constant reminders of it and it felt like it surrounded me. Each death was an apocalypse, and it meant the loss of stories and family histories and knowledges that were fading quickly.  

As I write this, my mother is her mother’s caregiver. She had a brain tumor before I was born. I never knew how she was before it. People say that the rapture will happen in an instant, but that is not how many deaths go. How long can the rapture go on if pushed? Is this the revelation of rapture or just pre-grieving? I never liked how neat religion makes death. Death is rarely painless and clean. The grieving process is simplified to a “God called her home” or “at least he’s in paradise.” Now, sitting in all of this grief, I wonder what part of my brain will want to kill me.  

I am always reaching for the slippery thing that’s just out of reach. I leave it offerings when I can.  

I don’t know if these are many raptures, coming for each part of my life before it gets to me. I don’t know how to grieve in a wailing way but in a way that bubbles until a funeral, until a dream of the departed happens, until I’m alone in a dark room. 


As I grow older, my fear of death and the rapture has become an obsessive exploration of it. I read about the stages of decomposition in dying matter and find myself letting food fester to see what happens. I am interested in what happens after the cataclysmic moment of death: the rebirth of natural states and the return of the body to the dirt. I feel like a molded girl at times, ready to return to the dirt I’m from.  

The Indian archetype has been regurgitated over and over again. The Cowboy, with his Indian, has come back into the American subconscious each decade. From Clayton Moore’s 1949 Lone Ranger to Johnny Depp’s 2013 portrayal of Tanto, there’s something about the deathly tension in this dynamic that has a grip on America. The Indian in Westerns can be two things: a “good” Indian, who helps the white Cowboy and whose death becomes a character developing vehicle for the Cowboy, or the “bad” Indian, one of the many nameless screaming and attacking Indians that the Cowboy kills. As this trope is reborn throughout the decades, real Indians find themselves picking up these regurgitated pieces of themselves. I try to assemble my tribe pre-removal in the form of paywalled academic journals. I try to frankenstein what my family knows and what these academics know together. I research the moment of our South Eastern apocalypse in an un-ending loop of wanting to know something I’ll never actually know.  

The Indian as a dying figure was necessary for America to become a country. As Philip J. Deloria has argued, Americans have used the decimated figure of the Indian to form a new cultural identity as both rebellious and savvy, while actively harming the reality of the Indigenous people of America. The Indian is reborn and killed again and again until an Indian is standing in a gift shop, holding a bumper sticker that says “Oklahoma! It isn’t all Cowboys and Indians!”  

I think about death too much. It finds its way into my poetry, into my search history, and into my home. I hold deadly artifacts with reverence. Small bits of my dead relatives that take their form in a chipped tea set, decaying photos, or a stained and beaded medicine bag. When I touch these objects, my chest swells in ultimate sadness and pride. They mingle together and make my eyes tear up, until I eventually overflow. 

 I want to hold everything that a dead person I love has touched. I want to hold ashes and coffins. I want to hold decaying bodies, even. I want a future where death no longer scares me. I want to know how Creeks and Seminoles viewed deaths, before Columbus, before there was even a glimpse of our own apocalypse. In the fullest era, where everyone ate, I want to know how we died. Death is wanting, obsession is wanting. I am wanting more than the world could ever give me.  

Natives have endured many raptures and we will continue to do so. There’s a swollen, buzzing thing in all of us that makes us remember our dead as reminders of why we live. The dead move into the land, and with each death, I care more about the land they died in. I care more about Oklahoma as more of my loved ones die there. I have intense pulls back home to pay my respects, or to live in its soil because they no longer do. Everything I do as a living person is for my dead. The Indian is pointing an arrow at the Cowboy inside of me, and I never know when he’s gonna shoot.