By Grainne Rhuad
“Following the ghosts is about making a contact that changes you and refashions the social relations in which you are located. It is about putting life back in where only a vague memory or a bare trace was visible to those who bothered to look. It is sometimes about writing ghost stories, stories that not only repair representational mistakes, but also strive to understand the conditions under which a memory was produced in the first place, toward a counter memory, for the future.”-Avery F. Gordon
Standing at the trailhead to Captain Jack’s stronghold, one feels as if they have been set down in some sort of Neverworld. One could easily be in a pre-historic or post-apocalyptic setting. You could equally imagine yourself on the Moon or Mars. For miles there is nothing but struggling sage-brush and cooled lava flow. Rocky and dusty, the air is still, and you get that creep up your back as if although there is nothing in sight for miles, you know you are not alone.
You wouldn’t be the first person feel this way. For over 100 years people hiking and hunting in this desolate area have reported feeling one or more presences, hearing footsteps when nobody is beside them, strange brushes of breeze on absolutely still days and even a few have reported hearing drumming, dancing and the murmuring that accompanies a working village.
This is Captain Jack’s stronghold and it was the place of the last stand for his band of Modoc warriors and their families.
The Modoc Indians as a tribe are very closely related to the Klamath Indians both of which originally resided in Upper portions of California and southern portions of Oregon. Somewhere along the line the two tribes separated probably due to hunting or tribal politics. However their language was very similar and indicated a shared history.
In 1864 the Modoc joined the Klamath in ceding their land to the United States and joined their near cousins at the Klamath reservation. However, the Modoc and the Klamath Indians were different enough in practices and social life that they never really got along with each other. Most Modoc stories point to the Klamath tribe looking down on the Modoc and holding it over them that they were able to stay on a portion of their ancestral land. Additionally the Paiute who had long been in conflict with the Modoc were interred at the same reservation not long after the Modoc had been settled there. This introduction of the Paiute caused a great deal of strife on the reservation.
Many attempts were made by the Modoc to leave the reservation and return to their ancestral land but it was a Chief known as Kintpuash who crossed paths with a Shaman known as Curly Haired Doctor that would change the course of the Modoc tribe. Curly haired doctor was a practitioner and believer in the Ghost Dance and recognizing both strength and discomfort in Kintpuash, he indoctrinated the chief who would later become known as Captain Jack into the Ghost Dance belief. It was this belief that ghosts of the fallen and brave warriors would join their descendants’ cause in battle that encouraged young warriors to follow Captain Jack. In 1870 Kintpuash gathered together a band of warriors and their families and headed south towards California. Immediately soldiers were sent after them and the resulting skirmishes became known as the Modoc War (1872-1873)
Kintpuash, also called Captain Jack, was not interested in dealing with the United States government. He and his group had no intention of ever returning to any reservation and told them so. Stating “Not hurt to be killed with gun. Hurt much to starve to death!”
The Modoc band wandered for about two years but after an attack on settlers in 1872, the United States Army lead by Col. Frank Weaton was called in to deal with them. The U.S. Army pushed them into the lava beds around Tule Lake where the natural terrain made a perfect Fortress for the Modoc. They successfully eluded the Army from Jan to April, when they fell due to the traitor known as Hooker Jim who, in exchange for his own life, led the Army through the labyrinth of tunnels, rooms and paths to find Captain Jack. Captain Jack was tried and subsequently hung.
All of this activity, the battle, the fear on both sides, the uncertainty, the sudden deaths and the Ghost Dances set up the natural consequence of remnant psychic activity.
When walking through the short hike now called Captain Jack’s Stronghold one finds it extremely easy to be reverent. Although the pathways are narrow, one feels as if spirits walk alongside them. Not malevolent, simply observing, almost offering up guide-like service. Whispering in your mind’s ear, “look this way, see what I made.” If you slow down and pay attention and listen to these promptings you will see petroglyphs made to pass the time, notches carved for holding tools. All the while you will know, remember and see what it took to stand for something. This is the gift of what remains.
Eventually you will reach the Junction of two trails where stands a prayer tree continuously in use. Here you will find hanging all manner of things from pieces of ribbon to tennis shoes. Tobacco both loose and in cigarettes line the bottom of it, there is sage and evidence of ritually burned materials left by those who came to commune in this place where tragedy made a tear in the veil. As this is technically a crossroads do not take it lightly. Say a prayer, sing a song, and give a gift to protect you from that which may be able to pass through.
Continuing on you will come to the place that was held most sacred by the Modoc band when they were there; the Medicine Circle. It was here that the Ghost Dances were practiced almost nightly to ensure help from the otherside, and to ensure their own continuance in case of death so they could fight again against the tribe’s enemies. This place of all the places is the most unsettling. It is clear the amount of energy that lingers. People complain of stomach aches, sudden chills, and a sense of foreboding. It is important to be careful and respectful and remember that the spirits that linger in this place died none too happy with their white cousins. People have complained of feeling followed out of this place.
One such person was James who shared his experience visiting the site. As a youth James visited Captain Jack’s stronghold along with his family. He describes his experience as oppressive and heavy, saying he “felt like something was going to happen beyond my control, I just didn’t know what.” In fact this feeling grew the longer he stayed there. “I felt my heart racing and didn’t know why.” He states. “I also felt incredibly sad, particularly when sitting in Captain Jack’s cave. There were pictures carved into the stone there. I felt that if I had lain down, I would not want to get up. I remember asking my parents to leave as I could not overcome the feeling that I wanted to cry. This feeling lasted about a half an hour after I left the site.”
James also went on to state that although it has been some time and he is grown now, he will never go back there to visit. “The feelings were so strong and raw and not my own. I have never felt that way in any other place.”
A case for psychic disturbance could be made due to the history of the spot. Psychic investigators and enthusiasts often point out that where a lot of emotion accompanies death, a shadow of that emotion will remain, somewhat like a recording of an event. This is neither good nor bad; it simply serves to remind people of an event.
Another, more scientific explanation for off-putting feelings in the area is the fact that it is a lava flow and not a very old one at that. This pyroclastic land feature is only about 200 years old and there is still a great deal of volcanic activity close by. People very often feel sick, dizzy and out of sorts around active volcanic energy.
In any case the reports of psychic and ghostly activity seem to be malignant in nature. Rather, people mostly feel discomfort and sadness. What is mostly described is a feeling that they are witness to something important, that this site and its past should not be forgotten and should be given respect.
*Author’s Note: Due to wildfires in 2008, the public no longer has access to self-guided hiking here. Instead they have a Ranger to guide and interpret the trail. Current Modoc tribe members however have access to the site to practice traditional rituals and ceremonies. For more information and directions to Lava Beds National Monument visit http://www.nps.gov/archive/labe/content/INTERP_To_Do_Captjack.htm