By Larry Rose
THE RANCHER CREAKED BACKWARDS on his porch rocking chair. His hand shook from age, perhaps, as he pointed out to the box valley in front of us. His face was drawn, afraid.
“It was 1832, the Kiowa call it “The Year the Stars Fell”. Too many of the warriors were out on raids, and left their camp undefended. The women and children, old folks, were caught by the Osage from the northeast, their old enemy but this time paid well by the US Cavalry. On a Kiowa hunt. The Osage killed all of the Kiowa trapped here…., and then cut off their heads and put them in the camp cooking pots or strew them on the ground to be found by the young men on their return. From then on the sign for Kiowa was the action of getting your throat cut, drawing the thumb like a knife across your throat, like this”.
He made the sign then looked at the high cliff to te north. He looked afraid.
A great story. I should have known. I should have looked up the origin of the name. Hundreds massacred. US Cavalry paid for it. The Year the Stars Fell. The People whose throats were cut.
He added, “I taught history at OU. Bought this land as soon as I retired sort of to preserve it, honor it. And to tell its story. Moved here with the wife. She’s gone now.”
I first knew of Cutthroat Gap from a geologic map in the old part of the geology library at the University of Oklahoma. Old paper map, torn and dog-earred. Browning. I was searching for a field area for my dissertation on mineral transport, one that had three different rock types, no more, drained by small streams into a confined area.
Looked good on the map. So, one day in the Fall, I drove down to the Gap, about 150 miles from my office at the university, down through the dry plains, the few trees in the stream beds turning blood red, and low brown rolling hills of Chickasha, Fort Sill and Snyder. Turning east I drove along a narrow straight red clay and dirt road flanked by fields of stubble, and finally there was a cattle guard and rickety gate lined with barbed wire. Through that lay the road up to the mountain front a mile away and the entrance to the Gap.
The Gap lay through a narrow and sinuous break in the mountain along the dry stream bed of intermittent Cutthroat Creek. In the shadow of the cliffs the sun was just a glint off the granite near the top of the defile.
Young, scrappy, dedicated to my studies, science and the earth, I cut a “fine figure”, I knew I did, in my suntanned field wear, shiny black cowboy boots, sharpened steel Geology hammer and fancy Brunton compass in a worn thick leather case slung to my belt. And of course the black cowboy hat I had affected since I came to Norman from New York two years earlier. I even affected an Okie accent. Gotta get along.
There was one house in the valley, a small valley maybe three quarters of a mile square, like a box, fault bounded, ancient. The starkness and the gleam of the rocks, and the quiet overcame me as I stepped out of my car for a full view. Seven hundred foot cliffs of the reddest granite, brilliant, reflective of both deep, rich, and light red, surrounded me on four sides, with jet black massive sills of crystalline gabbro shining like a mirror that was stroked through the granite. Intense contrast in color. And at the bottom a soft creamy sandstone called the Post Oak formation derived from the granite and gabbro during the Cretaceous some 80 million years ago. Perfect!
And the quiet! Only the rapid movement of the clouds above let me know there was a world outside. There was no wind. Stillness. Lowing of a cow. It supported a few head of range cattle.The few trees , scraggly oaks, a few willows by the creek, madrona, had lost most of their leaves, the oaks looking like streaking black lightning outlined against the cliffs.
The stream down the center of the valley was dry most of the year. Grass, sparse now with the lack of recent rain, spotted the flat valley floor. The desolation was beautiful, magical. I breathed deep. But it felt dangerous too. I knew there were copperheads and prairie rattlers. I was glad of my boots! But it was more than just that. Ancient. The place was ancient. Millions of years of deep time secrets to be discovered or never to be known?
I drove to the house, a small cabin really, gray clapboards and a steeply peaked roof, to ask permission to be on the land. The old gentleman rancher was on the porch, just rocking, a hand rolled cigarette, looking out. “Hello! Hi… my name is Charlie Hanson and I’m down from OU to work on my dissertation… like to study your land on and off for a few months if that’s OK sir.?.”
“Come on up, sit down. If you close the gates and don’t collect too many plants or specimens that’ll be fine.”
“No, sir. I’m here to collect rocks, I’m working on my doctorate in Geology. I wanna be a rich oil man”, I chuckled. .
His face changed. Looked very gray, older, stared out at me. “Here, sit down….” He motioned for me to sit on the crude weathered bench by his rocking chair.
Then he told me about the Cutthroat Gap massacre. Of course I was curious about the name.
“There’s more I guess you have to hear”, he said as if in a deep depression. “I don’t much like telling this part of the story, but you have to hear it”.
He turned quickly,and somewhat unnaturally looked me right in the eye. I was startled by this sudden move.
In a slow, very serious voice he started, “ Every year about Easter some of the Kiowa tribal council would come here driving down from Carnegie, the Kiowa “Capital”. I would put them up for a few nights in my spare rooms. I always welcomed their company and their stories. Each time a young man would be honored by being asked to go spend the night up there dancing and praying.” He pointed to a promontory on the cliff on the northwest edge.
“Every year until 1964 they came. Since then, never again. Very sad, well, more strange than sad.”.
This depressed tone started when I mentioned geology, rocks. What was going on?
“The young man, Jim I remember his name was, came down from his night on the High Place and in his hand was a piece of the red granite. Nothing special. Just a rock. When the elders saw it they started shouting, asking where he got it, how he could be so stupid? I watched as one of the elders rushed at him and was going to hit him! But then something made them all suddenly fall silent. They looked up and pointed to my roof.
“Sitting there staring at them, at all of us, in the fullness of the bright morning, was a large brown and white, deep-eyed owl.
“ Then the panic really started! They shouted, honked their car horns, screamed, wept, banged pots! But the owl just stared immovably… staring directly at them..
“Now I had heard owls at night, but I never saw one here in the daytime. The owl wouldn’t move. Now you have to understand, owls are an evil omen to just about all tribes of Plains Indians. There are stories of Kiowa raids as far as to Mexico to get horses that, seeing an owl, turned to home immediately sure that someone would die or that there was some sort of calamity going to be visited on the people. These people staying at my house were good church going men of course… but the old ways? They stay strong.
“ And here, in Cutthroat Gap, the realm of the ghost spirits of the massacred, their panic was truly frightening”
“An owl! For a shaman his road included killing an owl to show his immunity to fate and his bravery. He would use the skin as a hand puppet to foretell only evil.
“So they wept, went inside my house and paced, just paced. They would try anything, save climbing up and touching it or harming it in any way, to get rid of the bird. A solution? They hoped that if Jim climbed back up and put the rock back maybe then it would be OK. . They were desperate. Even though the sun was climbing in the east, my front room felt like it was in pitch darkness.
“Standing right here, they watched him as he climbed and a few minutes after he topped the cliff the owl flew away! It just flew away…I never saw another one since, but I can still hear them at night”.
Okay. Seriously. This guy is having fun with me. A young geologist, all full of himself, a creature of rational thought, the Scientific Method… and rocks are sacred, and rocks are cursed by Owls that are more than owls. Big Joke!
“Look, I think you can be free to collect but just not from up there. Look, respect for the traditions, OK? “ Yes, respect. Buy I knew he believed in the whole owl mystery.
“Yes, respect”, I answered.
For the next few hours I walked the valley to be sure it was right for my work. It was, so I said good-bye to the old gentleman and drove back to Norman with a great story to tell.
As I drove northeast, in my rearview mirror I could see a towering storm forming over the Washita. It was following me.
Content… And that was the end of it. No more stories. Only a field area remained and months of hard work. .
Geology students help each other with their field work. I mean being alone, you can’t carry too many rocks. So Dave and Paul volunteered to go down to the Washita Mountains with me the next week. But before we left they made me smoke a White Owl cigar and we had a lot of fun joking about curses and things.
In Dave’s open Jeep the fun was multiplied. Also, his Jeep gave us a leg up on getting around in the Gap.
We collected for about eight hours, worked hard labeling and mapping the location of at least 100 samples. But as it would have it, the soon-to-set sun found us up the cliff by the High Place. Paul was putting a sample in his backpack when I told him we don’t really need to collect here.
“New Yorker! I’m from here and we hear those stories all the time! Silly. Hanson, get over it.
I gave in.
We drove back to the glass and brick geology department on the south oval and we unloaded the samples down into my basement lab. I went home, exhausted. A great day.
Banging on my door! Two AM. Paul dishevelled. He had been crying. “I saw the owl!!! My father is dead. ! And seriously, KEEP AWAY when you see me!. I want nothing to do with you!”
He turned and walked with long,determined strides into the night.
It appeared that his father’s cancer, in remission, had returned and took him suddenly. Paul blamed me! Talked wildly about an owl… and he never did talk to me again even though we saw each other almost daily. The look on this handsome man’s young face that night was a mix of hatred, sorrow and terror.
Time passed, a month perhaps, and I had to return to Cutthroat Gap for stream samples and a few more rock locations. I decided to bring my undergraduate field mapping students with me to see if they could do a job on the Gap. Before I let them go off to make their maps I warned them not to go up to the High Place because, I half lied, the rancher didn’t want anybody up there.
So I’m down in the steam bed collecting sand when I heard a crashing and the sound of rocks falling. Splintering. Ringing as they hit. The nineteen year old frat boys and sorority girls, second year majors, were rolling boulders off the cliff!
I flashed at them with my compass mirror which meant “HERE, NOW!” And I gave them hell.. Mainly because of the danger to others or cattle who might be at the bottom… and also told them that I would have a hard time trusting them again… and that grades would be lowered.
WE got back in our cars… them depressed, and me still angry, and drove home. When I got to the department office I got a message URGENT from Sacramento, California. My girlfriend, the beautiful , vivacious Carol Ellen, visiting family, had had a motorcycle accident. The prognosis was not good. Same time as the rocks came tumbling down? Yes, of course. Coincidence? After six months in hospital she pulled through… but I had had enough of these coincidences. Was this getting out of hand?
So I went to sources… I read every book I could find about the magnificent Kiowa, perhaps the best light cavalry the world had ever seen, their alliance in 1800 with the Comanche and the unrivaled war of inevitable defeat they fought against the United States lasting almost 80 years. They used courage, strategy, buy also magic, magic knives, magic tribal bundles, calendars. And gave no quarter. They carried with them their warrior traditions and their shamanic beliefs from their ancestral homes in the Black Hills, also granite, moving south by dog travois until they found the horses.
Cutthroat Gap figured in their story both as a historical marker and also as a cursed place they used to go to but no more. There were several other such places sacrosanct to the tribe scattered throughout southwest Oklahoma’s mountains and hills.
That reading and talking enriched me and I am grateful.
But the question nagging me was not answered. Books didn’t talk about such things. The question… Why was Paul’s father the victim of Paul’s “transgression” ? And Carol the victim of mine?
“We hear you’ve been working in Cutthroat Gap:”, said Fred Wills, young member of the Kiowa nation, a student of mine in Freshman Geology. I sought him out after class. Yes I imposed on him with my outrageous question. “We don’t go there any more”. I was anxious. Here was this nice young man confirming the sacredness of Cutthroat Gap to his people. Then he followed with the rancher’s owl story… detail by horrific detail.
Then, “ You asked about Paul’s curse and yours? Why not Paul? Why not you? “ He looked both sternly and apologetically at me.
“ Never the guilty party! Always the loved ones!”
I went back to Cutthroat Gap a few times more. My scientific self overwhelmed by magical thinking, by Vibrations, history, dull music on the wind, I never ventured anywhere near the High Place again. The world is full of such stories as I found out over the years. Do I believe them?
Lesson. “What is fact today will be heresy tomorrow”… Audric Baillard. .
My life took a rapid turn.
About the Author:
Larry Rose is an earth scientist, travel, environmental and education writer. Blending a career as a science writer for the National Science Foundation with a Grammy nominated career as a musician, his life has been full of contrasts. Born in New York, he has lived and worked in Paris, Oklahoma and San Francisco.. Now making his home in Medellin, Colombia, he is enjoying the country, its people and its always surprising culture.