“A young man has come to the oasis. His name is Will. They say he is family, but I do not know him. He is strange and powerful. I am drawn to him. He stares right into my spirit. He is a Ghost Runner.” -- Carlota from “Carlota” by Lewis deSoto
It’s one of the Mojave Desert’s most famed and enduring stories: the tragic 1909 true-life account of Willie Boy, a self-proclaimed Paiute Indian from Arizona who killed out of love for a young Chemehuevi woman, Carlota -- an incident that resulted in one of the largest and well-known manhunts in the history of the West.
On a hot September night in 1909, Willie Boy met Carlota’s father Old Mike Boniface in Banning with a shotgun, in efforts to win Carlota’s hand in marriage. In the scuffle that ensued, Willie Boy shot and killed Boniface and then, with Carlota, fled on foot into the desert wilderness, eluding the San Bernardino Sheriff’s posse for nearly two weeks before also reportedly killing Carlota in Pipes Canyon, and later reputedly committing suicide at Ruby Mountain after a shootout with the group.
This grievous love story has continued to fascinate the public, as well writers, filmmakers and artists to this day. A considerable body of work focusing on the story of Willie Boy and Carlota has been rendered, perhaps most famously by UC Riverside professor/historian Harry Lawton in the 1960 western-genre novel, “Willie Boy: A Desert Manhunt,” and the 1969 big-screen film “Tell Them Willie Boy is Here,” starring Robert Redford and William Blake.
Both of these renderings of the tale were made from Eurocentric points of view, focusing on Willie Boy’s character, and offering little interpretation of events from desert Native perspectives -- including Carlota’s. However, the advent of a new visual-audio art project, “Carlota,” by Cahuilla artist/author Lewis deSoto, adds a new dimension to the Willie Boy story. The installation is now on long-term view at Joshua Tree National Park in the Oasis Visitor Center.
Born and raised in San Bernardino, DeSoto, who is also a professor of art at San Francisco State University, has ancestral roots to Inland Southern California’s Soboba and Agua Caliente Cahuilla lands. He has long been interested in the Willie Boy incident and its many interpretations over the years, especially some of the highly-disputed “facts” and claims -- most notably concerning the true identity of Carlota’s killer and Willie Boy’s reported “suicide.“
“Carlota” is presented in illustrated story form along the circular 29 Palms Oasis/Oasis of Mara at the JTNP visitor center on eleven didactic plaques etched with a laser onto sheet aluminum. The story that appears on the plaques, told from Carlota’s point of view, was written by deSoto and initially conceived as part of “Sand to Stone: Contemporary Native American Art in Joshua Tree,” a multidisciplinary art project that featured works by American Indian artists with ancestral cultural ties to JTNP and the surrounding desert regions. Artist Vincent Desjardins created the 1950’s early-1960’s line form drawings that accompany each piece. “This style of drawing is much like the form used in many graphic novels,” deSoto says.
For the sound component, which is played from the visitor center and can be heard along the start of the trail, deSoto asked singer and composer Erin Neff to create a vocal interpretation of the story and artwork. She vocalizes this retelling -- shaped in themes of “wonder in love,” “longing and sadness,” “fear” and “liberation” -- in a dramatic acapella, operatic style to convey Carlota’s emotions. Emily Clarke, the teen daughter of Cahuilla artist Gerald Clarke Jr., narrates the story in a “soft, native-inflected voice suitable for telling Carlota’s story,” deSoto says.
“The era of the Will episode in 1909 was a time of racism and discrimination towards American Indians in the U.S.,” deSoto explains, “and due to the popularity of the Ghost Dance -- and evidence indicates that Will was a Ghost Dancer -- there was a widespread fear of an Indian uprising, that isn’t unlike fear of terrorists today.”
This resulted, deSoto feels, in the dominant story -- in which Will and Carlota’s voices were excluded -- being shaped by these influences, until the 1996 publication of “The Hunt for Willie Boy: Indian-Hating and Popular Culture” by historians James A. Sandos and Larry E. Burgess. Like these authors, deSoto felt compelled to offer an American Indian perspective when revisiting the story, through his art and writing.
In creating “Carlota” deSoto says, “I felt that in the many tellings of the story during the past 100 plus years, Carlota’s voice has been left out; her voice was muted.” He adds, “I decided to rename ‘Willie Boy’ [to Will] in my exhibit, as I can’t imagine Carlota calling him a name that sounds derogatory, and probably given to him by an Anglo -- a spirit runner.”
DeSoto too felt a deep obligation to commemorate Carlota’s life as a young Chemehuevi woman, and her presence in the midst of this unfortunate tragedy. “I also wanted to explore who Carlota was, and what it was like, through her eyes, to be a teenager deeply in love,” he says. Additionally, it was important to deSoto to incorporate the symbolism of coyote into his exhibit, he says, because coyote serve in so many Indian stories as a link between humans and the spirit world. Carlota was a runner, like Will, and ran many miles with him before she was shot and killed.
It’s also fitting that "Carlota” continues on at the 29 Palms Oasis/Oasis of Mara. A location that played an important role in the Willie Boy/Carlota incident, the area was a longtime Chemehuevi village and resource site used by several desert Indian tribes for centuries, including Carlota and Willie Boy’s families, until 1909, after which remaining tribal members -- including some of Carlota’s family -- were relocated by the federal government to their present-day location at the Cabazon Indian Reservation near Indio.
As “Carlota” continues on display for at least the next year, deSoto anticipates that its accessible format will engage visitors to learn a Native point-of-view on the Willie Boy/Carlota legend. “This doesn’t look like art, so the general public, those who aren’t specifically attuned to art, or seeking an artistic experience here at the park visitor center may be more receptive to it,” he says.