By Earl Goldsmith
When I was growing up, Buck Burgess, the widely known Indian Snake Dancer, lived in Henryetta. His real name was Edward Nolan Burgess, but everyone knew him as Buck. 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. His father, also Edward Burgess, was a full blood Creek and world champion steer roper until he was killed in the Cheyenne Rodeo when Buck was ten. Buck was raised by his mother and his paternal grandparents, rather than by the Henry’s. Since Hugh Henry was a quarter-blood and his wife Hettie, was white, Buck was 1/8 Creek from his mother’s side and 1/2 Creek from his father’s side, so Buck was 9/16 Creek, though many though he was a full-blood.
In performing his famous snake dance, Buck wore a fancy feathered costume and used from two to four Black Snakes (not poison) that were just short of six feet long. As he danced, he held them near their heads with their tails dangling and curled up so they didn’t hang clear to the ground or platform. Late in the dance, he put their heads in his mouth, took his hands away, danced a minute or so with them hanging from his mouth, then pulled them out and danced a little longer 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. He performed all around the country, including New York City’s 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 performed the dance – which isn’t hard to believe.
I grew up at 410 State Street (the house is still there) on the south side of Henryetta and when I was small, Buck and his wife, Wanza, lived at what was 510 Oklahoma Street, a block south and a block west from our house before I-40 was built through the south part of Henryetta, The K O & G railway went past the northwest corners of both lots and our houses could been seen from each other across some open garden fields. My sisters and I spent a lot of time at his house – and my older sister was a babysitter for his preschool daughter, Edwana, who had serious problems with her fingers and toes grown together like in the thalidomide babies of the 1960s.
Many thought Buck had difficulty talking because he carried a pad with him and wrote on it to communicate with others and often just muttered “Hmpff” or “Ugh” (nothing negative intended here). While he did have hearing problems, he could talk when he wanted. My mother was his second grade teacher at the old Irving school in the first year to teach in Henryetta (1921-22). Later, when Buck frequently walked past our house on the way to or from downtown, he often came in and talked with Mother. She said the real situation was that he just didn’t care to talk with non-Indians because he had trouble accepting the change from the Indian culture that was well underway.
In addition to his snake dancing, Buck was a commercial painter of advertisements, many for the Blaine Theater. He also painted pictures, and made all his fancy feathered dancing costumes himself.
Buddy Sturdevant (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 of letting them 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 in the depression that was continuing until it was finally ended by World War II, One day in 1939 or 40 when Buddy and I were 9 or 10 and were snake-staring, a man drove in the driveway and pulled a burlap bag from his car. Buck came out and the man said he had three snakes. Buck reached in, pulled one out, held it up, decided it was too long, jerked it back and snapped it forward like a whip and popped it so hard that it killed it. He threw it aside and reached for another one that also 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 be the one to pop this one. Buck let the man have it. 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 the yard like he was in total fright and about to drop dead. Buck stood there laughing like crazy, while Buddy and I were just 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, but in about 2000, one of my HHS 1948 classmates said she saw him in a restaurant in Barstow, California many years ago. Buck died in the 1980s 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.
By happenstance, I saw the obituary of Buck’s daughter, Edwana, in the Free-Lance or Oklahoman in 2007 and contacted her daughters in Wyoming and Arizona. I learned from them that her finger and toe problems had continued, but were eased by many surgeries through the years 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 her mother, Wanza.
As a last note, I must mention that Jack Gibson, the P. A. announcer for every HHS home sporting event from 1937 through 1993, married Hugh Henry’s youngest daughter, Tchinia, in the 1920s, so Jack was Buck’s step-uncle.