When I was growing up in Henryetta, Buck Burgess, the widely-known Indian Snake Dancer lived there. His real name was Edward Nolan Burgess, but everyone called him Buck. (His snake dance performing name was Chief Lone Eagle.) He was born in 1913, and his paternal grandfather was Hugh Henry, the first person to settle in what became Henryetta. Buck’s mother was Hugh Henry’s oldest daughter, Hettie, and he was born west of Schulter in 1913. burgess dance
His father, also Edward Burgess, was a full blood Creek and word champion steer roper until he was killed in the Cheyenne Rodeo when Buck was ten. Buck was raised by his mother and paternal grandparents. Since Edward Burgess was a full blood, Buck was half Creek from his father’s side and Hugh’s wife, also Hettie, was white, meaning Buck’s mother was one-eighth Creek, so Buck was 1/16 Creek from his mother, and a total 9/16 Creek, though many thought him a full blood. In performing his snake dance, Buck took the performing name of Chief Lone Eagle and wore a fancy feathered costume. He used two to four Black Snakes (not poisonous) that were six feet long.
Some sources have reported that he used rattle snakes, but while he may have caught some, and even kept a few when he was young and picking up rocks to look for snakes because of his great interest in them, I do not believe he used them in his dance.) As he danced in an upright position, he held them near their heads with their tails dangling and curled up so they didn’t hand clear to the ground or platform.
burgess headdressLate in the dance, he put their heads in his mouth, took his hands away, and danced a minute or so with them still curled up. He usually put two or three in his mouth, but sometimes four – I saw him dance with three, but never four. In 1941, a cousin from Illinois was visiting us in Henryetta on the Fourth of July, and his big wish was to see an Indian – non-Indians had already taken Illinois by then. So we took him to Okmulgee to see Buck’s Snake dance. I think the cousin was satisfied. Buck performed all around the country, including New York City’s original Madison Square Garden, for the Pawnee Bill Wild West Show, at big rodeos, and for President Eisenhower. It’s claimed that he was the only person who ever perform a snake, which isn’t hard to believe. I grew up at 410 State Street (the last I knew the house is still there) on the south side of Henryetta and when I was small, Buck and his wife, Wanza, lived at what, before I-40, was 510 Oklahoma Street – a block south and a block west of our house.
The long ago removed K. O. & G. railroad went past the northeast corner of both of out lots and our houses could be seen from each other across some open garden fields. My sisters (Betty and Dora) spent a lot of time at their house – the older sister, Betty, was a babysitter for their preschool daughter, Edwana, who had serious problems with her fingers and toes grow together like in the thalidomide baby problems of the 1960s. Buck and Wanza also had a younger son named Eddie, that my older sister sat for along with Edwana.
Many thought Buck had difficulty talking because he carried a pad with him and wrote words on it to communicate with others, and often just muttered “Hmpff” or “Ugh” (nothing negative intended here). While he did have hearing problems , when he wanted to talk he did. Still, when he was a boy, he had scarlet fever and it left him with a bit of a speech impediment and a hearing problem that would continue for the rest of his life. When Buck was in the second grade, my mother was his teacher at the old Irving School in her first teaching year in Henryetta. It was an earlier Irving School than the one that was there when I was a kid. It was undermined, but more seriously than the later one, and was sinking. It had to be closed and replaced by the Irving school that consisted of at least five building and was there when I was growing up. Buck joined the Boy Scouts, became an Eagle, and was active in that organization the rest of his life. Later, he played football for the HHS Hens. I think his senior football season was in 1931 when they won just one game and made only 55 points for the whole season.
Because he had trouble in school and fitting in with others because of his being Indian, he was somewhat of a loner, and it is believed by some that the performing name, Chief Lone Eagle came from being a loner and an Eagle Scout. When I was small, Buck often walked past our house on the way to or from town, and sometimes came in and talked with Mother, his childhood teacher. With regard to his not talking, he would always talk with Indians, and Mother said he didn’t usually like to talk with non-Indians because he had trouble accepting the changes from the Indian culture that were well underway. In addition to his snake dancing, Buck was a commercial painter of advertisements. Many were posters for the long ago Blain Theater. He also painted pictures and made all his fancy feathered dancing costumes himself.
Buddy Sterdavent (now deceased) and I often spent time just staring or looking at Buck’s snakes that he kept in screened cages beside his garage. That was okay with Buck – he knew we wouldn’t even think to taking one out. People around town knew Buck would pay $5 for a six foot (but no longer) Black snake and $5 was a lot of money back then. The reason he didn’t want them to be longer than six feet was that he didn’t want their tails to touch the floor because he might step on them while he dancing with their heads in his mouth in a lower body position and the snake might react to that in a manner that could be unleasant. Even at six feet, the could reach the floor when he danced in an upright position, but they always curled up to the point where they didn’t. burgess fulldress
One day when Buddy and I were 9 or 10 and were snake staring, a man drove in the driveway, got out, and pulled a burlap bag from his car. Buck came out and the man said he had three snakes. Buck pulled one out, held it up, decided it was too long, jerked it back and snapped it like a whip and popped it so hard it killed it. He threw it aside and reached for another one that turned out to be too long, so he popped and killed it, too. As he reached for the third, the man stopped him. He told Buck it was too long, too, but he wanted to pop it, so Buck gave it to him. The man swung it back behind his head like a whip, but before he could jerk it forward, it wrapped around his neck. He started yelling and running around in the yard like he was about to drop dead.
Buck stood their laughing and Buddy and I were all eyes, not knowing what to think. Finally, Buck stopped the man, took the snake, and popped it. For doubters, I am not an expert on snakes and don’t know if they have necks that can break or just what their bone structure is, but I do know that when Buck tossed them aside, they were dead or at least so numb they didn’t move as long as Buddy and I were still there. Buck moved to California in 1945 when I was fifteen and I never saw him again, though one of my 1948 HHS classmates told me she later saw him in Barstow. He took up house and custom painting in the San Francisco area and also performed his snake dance in that area. When he retired, he spent the last few years of his life living with a daughter and it is said that he told her he wanted to be buried in Henryetta.
eddie burgess and hettieHe died with Alzheimer’s in 1988 after giving his costumes to the Creek Nation museum in Okmulgee. I went there to see them at the time of the 2003 Henryetta all-school reunion, but they were in storage. In 2007, I happened to see the obituary of Buck’s daughter, Edwana, and contacted her daughters in Wyoming and Arizona. They told me that her finger and toe problems had continued, but through the years they were eased by many surgeries to the point that Edwana enjoyed bowling on a regular basis.
Edwana’s graveside service was August 15, 2007 at Westlawn Cemetery, and she rests next to her mother, Wanza. While I am not sure, it may be that her brother, Eddie, rests with them. While, as mentioned earlier, Buck had said he wanted to be buried in Henryetta, I don’t know if he is. One last point to mention. Jack Gibson (Mr. Henryetta), the announcer for every HHS sporting even from 1937 through 1993, married Hugh Henry’s youngest daughter, Tchinia, so he was Buck’s step uncle.