In eastern Wyoming snakes a narrow creek along the vacant landscape, its muddy waters barely trickling from north to south parallel to Highway 18 as the area’s few travelers pay it any mind. In the middle of the creek, on a lonely island displayed modestly beneath the blinding sun, sways a single narrowleaf cottonwood tree in the unceasing gales, the only sign of life above the surface of the dull waters.
Old Woman Creek, they call it. Legend has it the locals named it after seeing the ghost of an Indian woman dancing in the moonlight along the banks. They say she still visits the creek during the full moon every month, and some seasoned elders, gray and haggard from the country sun, even say that the creek runs backward those nights.
I’ve never seen the creek reversed, but I’ve seen it dried up, and from the way the locals talk, that’s the old woman’s fault too. She’s haunting us, they say; don’t go anywhere near that river. They say she lives in that cottonwood tree now and she dances on those banks even still.
That old tree doesn’t stand more than seven or eight feet off the ground, but the westerly wind whips her branches and leaves around like a dancer in the throes of passion, up and down and side to side. Only her roots remain motionless, a stubborn, grounded reminder that this was her place long before the whites showed up and don’t you dare ever make her leave it.
That’s at least what the locals say — or they used to say, since they don’t talk to me anymore, not since I started visiting that creek on my own. Old Woman Creek, they call it. Wakpa Winu’cala, I call it.
My kunsi first heard the story of the winu’cala when she was a little girl during the Great Depression, just after the coal mine closed and forced everyone out of town, leaving it the ramshackle place it is today. My kunsi said the white people blamed the old woman for destroying the coal industry there — her spirit lingered over them even then, never letting them forget the past, the way we would never forget it either. The winu’cala died there at the hands of the wasicupi, when they started coming west. They wanted the land, but she wasn’t willing to give it up and preferred to spill her blood on it rather than go quietly into that good night.
The locals say she’s been there ever since, her blood running through the red dirt on the banks of the creek and up the rolling hills on either side of the highway. They say she’s the reason the creek dries up every year and the reason no one comes to their towns anymore.
I know that’s bullshit. We Indians had nothing to do with the white people’s own self-destruction of their town — they’re good at that all on their own. But I chuckle when I hear the winu’cala mentioned in popular lore.
My kunsi passed down the story to my ina, who in turn passed it down to me. As soon as I heard about it, I went to that tree myself: the exact spot, or so it’s claimed, that the winu’cala fell to her knees begging for the white soldiers to spare her baby’s life, and then her own. The creek flowed wider then, and she clutched her hands to her bosom in desperation on the banks as the water lapped up at her muddied knees. The soldiers killed her and her infant son anyway.
The white people don’t tell this side of the story, only that the Indians used their sorcery and trickery to turn the coal miners out of a profit — not how the white folks and coal miners got there in the first place . They told me to stay away from the haunted creek, only seeing the white woman in me and not the Lakota refugee, an exile from and in her own home. When I went anyway, they turned their backs on me, disavowing my Indian half as if it were all of me.
So I journey to Wakpa Winu’cala myself, since the day my ina first told me the story of our people. Every full moon I go to that island in the creek and sit with the tree as the westerly winds caress my hair and her branches. When the hanwi is high and round in the sky, I sing so all the white people can hear me miles away, the faint ghostly melody floating on the wind. I sing for the winu’cala. I sing for my kunsi; I sing for my ina. I sing for myself.