Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder
NFMOA Outsider Art Gallery


The following is a reconstruction from microfiche records of a feature article and six photographs that originally appeared in the Salt Flat News in May of 1975. ©1975-2002, Richard Menzies


Can All This Grandeur Perish?


For sixty-four years an Oklahoma Creek Indian named Rolling Mountain Thunder followed the Great Spirit trail as a truck driver, as a preacher, as a cop, as Frank Van Zant. Thunder worked at various jobs and lived in the white man's world, yet he was never really a part of that world.

Then seven years ago the trail took him to Thunder Mountain, Nevada, where he sensed immediately the presence of the Spirit. The place was, he says, the site of an ancient Indian community, the "finest civilization ever known." When his car broke down, seemingly refusing to leave the place, Chief Thunder accepted it as an omen. Next came a gratuitous meeting with a land owner and an offer he couldn't refuse.

In the years since, Chief Thunder and his friends have erected several unusual buildings beside Interstate Highway 80 near Imlay working entirely with materials indigenous to the roadside, including discarded bottles, hubcaps, guard rails. By salvaging boards and metal from abandoned buildings, by trucking in tons of rocks and cementing it all together with enormous quantities of concrete, Chief Thunder has erected a fantastic home he calculates will stand for at least a thousand years.

Upon first startled glance, from the window of a moving auto, the whole establishment seems to savor of Krazy Kat; yet others presumably grounded in the architecture of ancient America claim to find among the maze of flying buttresses, arches, friezes and statuary a pattern as old as mankind itself.

The roadside spectacle is called simply the Monument and is dedicated to the Great Spirit. It is the conspicuous part of a growing community that now numbers about twenty-seven, most of whom are living in the nearby mountains and side canyons, attempting to recast their lives in the ancient mold.

Recently Chief Thunder spoke with us at his unusual home in the desert where he lives with his wife Ahtrum and his three children: Obsidian Lightning Thunder, Thunder Mountain Thunder, and three-month-old True Brave Eagle Thunder.

Frank Van Zant - Chief Thunder Frank Van Zant - Chief Thunder Frank Van Zant - Chief Thunder
"My father said that a hundred and sixty acres was big enough for a jackrabbit but not big enough for a man. And that's where the irony of this comes in, because it seems that every bit of land that we fretted and worried about for years to buy up here came in one hundred and sixty acre tracts." "I was just going to drive away and leave it. Only I couldn't get away. I got forced back with a full load, and there was a car sittin' there on the prairie. It was the guy who owned the property. And he offered me such terms that I couldn't turn it down." "We're headed right into intellectual poverty that's worse than being on any reservation or worse than being in any prison, because you can't break out of it. It's a voluntary intellectual enslavement such as that federal barbed wire fence out there."

SALT FLAT NEWS: Is that your real name, Chief Thunder?

Well, actually, I'm officially Rolling Mountain Thunder. But they call me Chief Thunder.

SALT FLAT NEWS: But you had a different name before you came here?

I used to use a different name, but I've always been RollIng Thunder.

SALT FLAT NEWS: Which one of these peaks is the sacred mountain?

0h, that rugged. craggy one up there. It was the spirit mountain or god mountain or something like that long before the white man came here. But It was a spirit place, and it was the place where some people wanted to be buried. And then on the other side of it, between, Thunder Mountain and Star Peak, why, they had the sacred meeting grounds, where they met for thousands of years even before the Paiutes came in.

SALT FLAT NEWS: Have you found any physical evidence up there of these people?

I've found sufficient evidence to establish the antiquity of the mountain and its use. We've found tools - not many of them - because they didn't use that many way back there. But we found enough of them in this one canyon that we bought that's called Sacred Canyon. We found one - the archaeologists were here and identified it almost immediately as 11,000 B.C. It's a definitely identifiable type of projectile. And theres a footprint back up on the other side of the mountain; it's in rock where it was laid down over a million years ago. So man has always been around there.

And some people, such as Tony Shearer who wrote the book Lord Of The Dawn -he was researching the tale Of Quetzalcoatl, and he's also an Indian guy -and he quit lifetime broadcasting and went through South America, Mexico, researching where the point of origin might have been. And after he wrote the book, and two months after it was published, he stopped by here, and he said it scared him. He stopped on the freeway, and here's the building that he saw sketched in the tombs or whatever they call them in South America and Mexico. And there's the, mountain.

So he said he just stuck his foot on the carburetor and drove to Salt Lake City, took a plane and went back to South America to confirm what he thought was true. And then he came back a second time armed with pictures and sketches, -and it 1ooked just like this building. And that mountain.

And with that voice of his, you know, that he developed as a broadcaster, he said, 'This Is the place. This is where it all started, and this is where it's coming back to. That which was out there before everything went zap is now returning here. ' And he said, 'This is the Thunder Mountain of the legend. In the final days, why, the only survivors shall be at the place that will rise up in the final days. There shall rise up a place called Thunder Mountain in the final days, and the only survivors will be at Thunder Mountain!

SALT FLAT NEWS: Were you following some kind of blueprint when you started building here?

Well, in getting this place here, it was the Great Spirit entirely. I came up here to this mountain In 1959 or '60. And we spent ten days on the mountain and researched it enough to know that it was the mountain. And then we left. And I never considered coming up here, because it was too much work, and I was too old then.

And eight years later, why, circumstances, visions, and everything, why, I found myself right back here on this mountain eight years older and doing it anyway.

So I built that one place, and I thought that was enough. That's one mile up the canyon, and I started to leave. I was just going to drive away and leave it. Only I couldn't get away, I got forced back with a full load, and there was a car sitting there on the prairie. And I stopped and asked if they needed any help, and it was the guy who owned the property. And he offered me such terms that I couldn't turn it down. So I went to work here.

Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder - The Monument - 1975

With tons of cement and loads of leftovers. . .


SALT FLAT NEWS: Your car couldn't leave?

It couldn't get down the road. I got as far as Carson City, and it began to die and quit. Wouldn't run anymore, and we didn't have that much money to afford a big repair bill, so we turned around and started back this way, and it ran perfectly.

So, about once a year or two, why, I try to leave again, and when I do, it's catastrophic the things that happen.

SALT FLAT NEWS: You can't even go to San Francisco for a visit?

I can't really get out of here to do anything. I can go get a load of rock or something like that.

SALT FLAT NEWS: So you've been living here for six years?

Since 1969, down here. But I moved on the mountain in '68. And since then we've bought these two canyons up there and started scruffing in them, and I thought, that's where He wants us to live, but He lets us get places started up there and then He just makes it impossible for me to work in there. And then somebody else moves in. So I guess we're just opening it up for these people who are interested in living the old traditional ways.

SALT FLAT NEWS: What qualifications does a person need to live here?

Oh, the only qualifications we've ever had is that they aspire to the pure and radiant heart. Now, that doesn't mean that they would have to be pure and radiant. There's no such thing. But that they would like to be a little bit more pure and have a little more radiant heart than they have, you know, and will work for it.

Thunder Mountain Park - Landlord
  Thunder builds a brave new world.

SALT FLAT NEWS: How do they find this place? Do they read about you?

No, most of them just fall in, off the road. There hasn't been much written about me that I know of. Some just seem to know exactly what it is, especially those who've worked hard in their life. They know what it is and foreigners seem to know, people from the old country. People from old England and those places. They seem to know exactly what it is.

As you probably know, we had nine big lights here before. They were just so people in trouble could find us, 'cause they didn't know we don't have anything to sell here. We're not a business. And at night, you know, even if we had a museum, we're not open for museum tours. But we've had those all removed now.

Now it's mostly older people, people on pensions or something else that's moving in. Although we still have some younger people here, too.

SALT FLAT NEWS: Do you serve them meals?

Yeah, I kept track of them one summer, and we served 34,000 meals.

SALT FLAT NEWS: Where did you get all that food?

I don't know. It was amazing. It was like feeding them on half a loaf of bread or something. Because we had just a very small tiny garden then and we'd prepare food for the regular people here - eight or nine people - and that would be cutting the cook a little short. And then they'd start dropping in, and then we'd feed forty or fifty at that one meal. But somehow it all came through, and if anybody got shorted a little bit, it'd be the cook. But they could always come up with something else, you know. Just the smell of the food would have to suffice.

SALT FLAT NEWS: And you built this place entirely out of roadside materials?

Material found here, yeah, except that we've bought an astronomical amount of cement, to glue it all together.

Now this building here, in nine months, we put twenty-five tons of just cement in it, And it didn't change the outward appearance of it at all, Well, the roof in all areas is at least five or six inches thick, reinforced concrete, and steel reinforced, and in some areas they're a foot and a half thick. Like the ceiling of the main monument there, the ceiling has got to be a foot and a half to two feet thick.

SALT FLAT NEWS: There's a regimen of hard work here, then.

The "people who live on the monument are not asked to do any work. Nobody is asked to work here. One thing they cannot do is, there's no visiting between houses; each has his own lodge and he's expected to stay in it. Nobody enters another's abode unless it's a real emergency. We work together all day, but at night, when the day's work is done, everybody goes to their own rooms and that's where they're expected to stay.

Now, we have other people living here, like those who are living in the canyon, but they're not subjected to that. They're not part of this medicine society of ours, either. This is pretty rough, and the average person couldn't take it. But we don't ask them to work; the only thing we ask them to do is that they don't interfere with those who are working.

SALT FLAT NEWS: It's like a monastery then.

It is. It's monastic. Except that, you can have a family here. Now we've got children from two families playing here - they can play together all day, but when the sun goes down it ends. Everybody's in their own lodge. You've got to have time to recuperate, the type of work we're doing here, 'cause we're in an emergency thing here, too, and no matter what the call for help is, we answer. If somebody asks us for help, why, we make every effort to do it. You know, if they're broke down on the road or hungry, or if they're out there stranded on the prairie and need to be moved in, why that's the only thing we'll stop work for.

SALT FLAT NEWS: I suppose you attract all kinds of people.

Oh, yeah. We have one who has a doctorate and we have one who is an old Indian medicine woman. And we have one who's engaged in the junk business, scrap iron, but they're all wanting something or they wouldn't be this close, you know? And we have one who's an attorney, or a female attorney, and she's building her own place. She's doing some writing, and other things. On very special occasions she enters this ground. But we don't enter her place and she don't enter ours.

Well, this way, they can keep their identity, and if they want to be part of this place, part of this medicine society, why then, they've got to accept my medicine. I never go looking for converts, though.

SALT FLAT NEWS: And you say you're a full Indian?

Well, I'm as full as I suppose you could be, although in my nation there were only ninety bloods when they were moved from the Creek nation in Georgia to Oklahoma. And my father was one of the bloods. In fact, he was part of the snake rebellion, because he didn't want the Creek nation to give up its sovereign power. And he said that a hundred sixty acres was big enough for a jackrabbit, but not big enough for a man. And that's where the irony of this comes in, because it seems that every bit of land that we fretted and worried about for years to buy up here has come in one hundred and sixty acre tracts.

But that land that he was offered was considered a paradise compared to this.

SALT FLAT NEWS: But the Great Spirit lives here?

Well, the people out here, like some of the ancient ones like the Washoes and others, why, they lived entirely within the power. But apparently, they left it pretty easily once the white man came. And maybe this is part of the learnings of the Indian people, and it could be that they will get strong enough to come back and be one with the power. But as one of the old spiritual prayermen who lived here and was the son of an old Washoe chief and the son of a Washoe medicine woman said, 'In order to be one with the power, you have to get up every morning one with the power.'

You don't want to ever lose contact with it, or you lose the power. And this is essentially the only lesson we try to teach here. Now, I don't know that any adult person's going to learn this lesson unless they're ready for it and want to.

SALT FLAT NEWS: But in theory anyone can?

Anyone can. Because I've even - I didn't until maybe a year or two ago - but finally through this thick Indian head of mine it came to me that very possibly the white man had his ancients too, who worked with the power. Before they got on this waste and material trip.

SALT FLAT NEWS: From your point of view, what does the future look like?

Oh, the future of this country? We're going into slavery. And everybody's working hard at it, to get us there. Because I mean everybody.

SALT FLAT NEWS: Slavery to whom?

That's a good question. That I don't know. But we're headed right into intellectual poverty that's worse than being on any reservation or worse than being in any prison, because you can't break out of it. It's a voluntary intellectual enslavement such as that federal barbed wire fence out there.

This is supposed to be the white man's free land, and now they're going to take away the white man's right to bear arms. And yet the ancestral memory, the tales my father told me, he told me that one of the reasons the white man wanted to come here was because he came from a country where everyone was a slave. And nobody had weapons - like the Indian people always had their weapons. We were allowed to have them. But in their country, where the white men came from, nobody was allowed to have weapons but the chief, and his special men.

And here, why, every man could carry a weapon. That way if the chief got out of line, or the government got out of line, why, the people could petition the government and they'd change, and if they wouldn't, why, the people could just take their guns and they wouldn't even have to use 'em. Because there were so many people, they'd just take their guns and go down and roust the chiefs out and put in new ones, and restore it to the peopbes control.

Now in California, they've already taken away the right to jury trial in some cases. And this is what the white man wanted so much; he wanted freedom, where he wouldn't be tried by just a judge - which was happenning over in England and some of those other countries. They get tried by a judge and they would be found guilty almost one hundred percent of the time. And in California they've already made this same law. There are some cases now where you can be arrested, and they don't call it a crime, they call it an infraction. But still, you can go to jail for it.

SALT FLAT NEWS: Briefly, could you give us your view of the national economy?

Well, that's why we're growing gardens.

SALT FLAT NEWS: Thank you, Chief Thunder.

Promises - Thunder Mountain Park

Our cover subject, Chief Thunder, has erected a number of interesting artworks, many of them depicting great moments in the history of the American Indian. This one - simply a pile of bleached bones and a word - evokes a distinctive mood.

The above article and photographs are presented here by permission.
© Richard Menzies