Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 1: The Brightest Yellow Bird | Part 2)
THAT SAME MARCH, Lissa’s daughter Shauna moved in as well from Minot, where she had been living with her children. She had been sixteen when she had her first child; her second came two years later, on the day of her mother’s last arrest; and when Lissa got out of the halfway house, Shauna—twenty-one-years-old—had given birth to her third. She was single, having escaped an abusive relationship with the baby’s father, which ended when she was nine months pregnant in an incident for which they had both been charged with assault. He was convicted, her charges dismissed, but they lingered on her record. Shauna had found herself broke and unemployed, and when her mother suggested she move to Fargo, she agreed. If anyone knew how to start life over, her mother did, Shauna thought. That winter and spring, Shauna shared a bedroom in her mother’s apartment with her kids, and when Lissa returned from the laundry each afternoon, Shauna went looking for work. After many rejections, she found a job tracking fraud for a major financial institution. She rented her own place. As soon as she moved out, her younger sister, Lindsay, who was nineteen, moved in. Lindsay had been raised by her father in Bakersfield, California, and that spring, for the first time, Lissa lived near all five of her children at once.
In appearance, Shauna took after her mother. They were roughly the same height, with sharp cheekbones, dark eyes, and milky-coffee skin. Shauna’s nose was different, small and upturned, but her face was as round. They had similar habits. “My mom and sister are like the same person,” Obie observed, by which he meant they were confident, opinionated, and shared a fondness for television crime shows. But in other ways they were distinct—so distinct that some relatives claimed they were nothing alike. Irene, with whom Shauna spent much of her childhood, was sharply attuned to the differences. Where Lissa had refused to wear anything but T-shirts and jeans and had made a habit of turning her stockings into ribbons, Shauna had let her grandmother clothe her in floral vests and take her to get her nails done. Shauna smiled like her grandmother—lips pursed, eyes electric. Appearances mattered to Shauna in a way they had rarely mattered to Lissa.
It was Shauna who suggested they make a trip to the reservation. More than a year had passed since her last visit—longer for her mother. Shauna was the only one of her siblings who had ever lived on the reservation, and she had no desire to do so again. An “urban Indian” she called herself, suckled on the amenities of the city, but if ever asked where she was from, Shauna always replied, “Up on the rez.” The Yellow Bird family was from White Shield, a town in a southeast “segment” of Fort Berthold. Most of their relatives had left the reservation for school or work, but some uncles and cousins remained, as did Irene’s own mother, Madeleine, who was approaching ninety years of age. Every July, the family gathered in White Shield for a reunion on the weekend of the segment’s powwow, when many people who had left came home from far-flung cities and reservations. Shauna wanted to go. Lissa was less sure. “I’ll think about it,” she said, but Shauna would insist.
TO SAY THE Yellow Birds were from White Shield is not exactly true. To be more accurate, they were from the bottomlands of the Missouri River, where their ancestors farmed for more than four centuries before White Shield came into existence. If the Yellow Birds identified with any one tribe, it was with the Arikara—the Ree, as white settlers called them; or Sáhniš, as they call themselves, meaning, in their own language, “the people.” The Arikara belonged to a family of tribes that lived on the eastern Great Plains. Around the fifteenth century, they separated from the Pawnee and pushed north, settling in a string of villages that spanned the Missouri from the southern to northern border of present-day South Dakota. In the 1700s, twenty thousand Arikara lived in these villages. They grew a variety of crops, which they traded with other tribes for meat, hide, fur, and horses, but their most valuable yield was corn. According to the Arikara genesis story, it was At’ná, or Mother Corn, who led the people from their resting place underground to the surface of the earth, where, after enduring many obstacles, they made a home on the Missouri River.
How the Arikara found their way to White Shield was less a matter of mythology than survival. By the late 1700s, European settlement to the east had pushed Sioux bands west, and the Arikara became ancillary recipients of the colonizers’ violence. The Sioux frequently attacked, forcing the tribe to consolidate into larger villages, and after these attacks and a smallpox epidemic reduced the tribe to 2,500 people in 1780, the Arikara moved north. When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark encountered them in 1804, they were living at the confluence of the Missouri and Grand rivers, by the southern border of what would become North Dakota. They stayed barely two decades. In 1823, fur traders led by a brigadier general, William Ashley, entered a village and attempted to seduce women. One trader was killed; the next day, Arikara warriors killed twelve others. In retaliation, the U.S. Army attacked with more than a thousand soldiers and Sioux warriors. The Arikara fled, living as nomads, and then moved north, again, to the Knife River, where they settled near a Mandan village and a trading outpost called Fort Clark. In 1837, a steamship arrived at the fort bearing passengers infected with smallpox. Half the Arikara died of smallpox, while the Mandan fared worse—nine in ten succumbed. The hundred Mandan who survived moved north to a bend in the Missouri, where they formed a new village with the Hidatsa called Like-a-Fishhook. In 1862, the Arikara joined them there.
By then, the Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa had signed a treaty with the United States drawing the boundaries of a reservation—west of the Missouri, north of the Heart, east of the Powder rivers, south of the Canada border—containing more than twelve million acres. According to the terms of the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty, which five other tribes including the Sioux signed, the tribes would “make an effective and lasting peace” with neighboring tribes and white settlers. In exchange, the U.S. pledged to protect each tribe “against the commission of all depredations by the people of the said United States” and provide annuities—food, material, and tools necessary to the tribes’ survival while confined to reservations. But even after the treaty was signed, white settlers continued to encroach on Sioux territory. The Sioux, in an effort to undermine good relations between the three tribes and the U.S. government, attacked more frequently, destroying crops, burning homes, and pillaging resources. The Arikara were trapped on their reservation, unable to hunt, and in 1867, when U.S. officials requested assistance for military campaigns against the Sioux, a chief named Son-of-the-Star sent more than a hundred Arikara men to serve as scouts for the army. Some of these men served under General George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Son-of-the-Star had a son named Sitting Bear, who had a daughter named Fannie Bear, who had a daughter named Jessie Everett, who had a daughter named Madeleine Young Bird. Madeleine would marry a man named Willard Yellow Bird, who was the son of Charles Yellow Bird, whose father was called Old Man Yellow Bird.
In 1870, nineteen years after the Three Affiliated Tribes signed the Fort Laramie Treaty, the U.S. government violated the treaty by shrinking the reservation, claiming eight of the twelve million acres. The government took land for a railroad by executive order in 1880 and, in 1891, divided the remaining land into 160-acre parcels, which it “allotted” to a head of each Indian household; and eighty- and forty-acre parcels, assigned to each woman and child. The purpose of allotment, apart from acquiring land for white settlers—what land the government did not allot, it sold—was to replace communalism with individualism. In 1887, Congress had applied the policy to tribes nationwide by passing the General Allotment Act, whose architect, Henry Dawes, defined “civilized” men as those who “cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey (and) own property.” By then, a federal agent assigned to oversee the reservation had already compelled families to leave Like-a-Fishhook, where they farmed communally, for individual plots of land. Those who refused were deprived of annuities. In 1884, the agent set fire to Like-a-Fishhook, and within a few years, the village was abandoned.
Old Man Yellow Bird was among those forced to move. He settled on the east bank of the Missouri, on a bluff overlooking a forest of willow and cottonwood, where the Arikara formed a village called Armstrong. In 1904, 380 Arikara remained. They hunted, raised livestock, and grew corn and beans, among other crops they had adapted over centuries to the northern plains. They dug wild turnips to boil with meat. They gathered water from creeks and timber from forests and berries from along the river, which they dried and mashed with corn. In 1924, they renamed the village Nishu, after a late tribal chief whose traditional name meant “arrow.”
Slowly they remade themselves. Through subsistence farming and leasing their allotments to white ranchers, reservation families became self-sufficient, and in 1920, the local Indian agent reported he had not had to distribute rations for five years. Around that time, the three tribes filed a claim against the United States, and, in 1930, won a $2 million settlement for land the government had taken. Each citizen received $1,000, deposited into an account managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and it was due, in part, to this money that they fared better during the Great Depression and the Second World War than their less self-sufficient white neighbors. Two-hundred-and-fifty tribal members served in the war, and each time a serviceman returned, his village honored him with a feast and a dance that often lasted all night.
In 1944, the U.S. Congress passed a flood control act, proposing a series of dams on the Missouri, which, as the longest river in the nation, had become central to its economy. A year earlier, the river had flooded millions of acres of farmland, and although the floods were later blamed on the Army Corps of Engineers—on levees constructed downriver, preventing the natural flow of water into the floodplains—the Corps was tasked with corralling the river into a series of reservoirs to regulate flow and ensure safe passage for grain barges. In 1945, the year the Second World War ended, the Army Corps, without official approval from Congress, began constructing the Garrison Dam at a site ten miles downriver from Nishu. The dams on the Upper Missouri, called the Pick-Sloan Plan, were located so as not to disturb white settlements. Instead, they would flood the bottomlands of eight reservations, land guaranteed to tribes by treaty and home to thousands of families. Pick-Sloan, the Lakota historian Vine Deloria, Jr., wrote, was “the single most destructive act ever perpetrated on any tribe by the United States.”
In 1947, the year Congress officially approved the Garrison Dam, Madeleine Yellow Bird gave birth to her first of fourteen children, whom she named Irene. Five years later, Madeleine and Willard left Nishu and moved nineteen miles north to a flat, treeless plain, where Willard and a cousin gathered signatures on a petition to name their new community after an Arikara leader, White Shield.
Nishu disappeared into the reservoir. Later, in the stories reservation families told, the water would become as much a divider of time as it was of geography. Before the flood and after.
After the flood, the Bureau of Indian Affairs built a headquarters in New Town, on the northern border of Fort Berthold, and, as directed by an act of Congress, opened a “relocation” office where tribal members could apply for work in Phoenix, Albuquerque, Denver, Minneapolis, Atlanta, the Bay Area, and Los Angeles. In 1969, when Lissa was less than a year old, Irene took a job in a Los Angeles relocation office, and after that, it would seem that she and her daughter were set indefinitely adrift. Theirs was a shared fate: Among citizens of more than five hundred tribes recognized by the United States, a majority had become “urban Indians,” and “Indian Country”—defined as Indian land, land not entirely stolen—had become, in reality, a patchwork of reservations and cities and the highways threading between them, on which Native people were always moving, always leaving and coming home.
THE WAY FROM Fargo to White Shield is almost three hundred miles and has only two turns—north, toward Minot, then west, past a bridge over the Missouri River and the outflow of the Garrison Dam. In midsummer, humidity blots out the horizon, cleared now and then by drenching rain and lifted, again, with new gusts of heat. The prairie grows lush and green. It hums at night with frogs and cicadas, and sings in the morning with birds. All along the way are rapeseed fields, yellow in July; and corn and wheat; and grain silos that rise like tiny silver cities; and thick groves of trees that hide farmhouses from view. The first town past the river is Garrison, a gas station and some brick city blocks; and twenty miles on is the reservation, a green sign marking the border. There is no change in the landscape. Like the fields surrounding Fort Berthold, the land here is cultivated in large part by the descendants of Scandinavian and German homesteaders who bought reservation tracts from the U.S. government over a century ago. Soon after the border, White Shield appears: first a gas station, the only business in town; and then the community complex, a steep-roofed wooden building where funerals, fundraisers, and elders’ birthday parties are held, among other celebrations. By the complex are the powwow grounds; past the grounds is the Catholic church; and past the church is the school and the housing clusters built after the flood, which include the apartments known as “the Jungle” and a row of large dwellings locals call “Knots Landing” after a 1980s soap opera about rich white people who live in big houses, drink too much, and kill one another.
On the morning she drove to White Shield to attend the Yellow Bird reunion, Lissa had washed her hair and brushed it, plucked her eyebrows, and painted her nails a light, iridescent pink. As she studied herself in the mirror, she had seen that her skin was still marked with the traces of her drug use, but in other ways her body had restored itself. Her lips were bright with natural color, and her hair, once short and fried to platinum, had grown past her shoulders, dark and thick. She was not as skinny as she once had been, but she was not yet fat, either. She had pulled on a pair of tight jeans and a black cotton shirt with a scooped neck, and slipped a ring onto her left thumb. “You’re an attractive woman,” a friend had told her recently, and that morning, Lissa had allowed herself to agree.
But on the road to White Shield, her confidence cracked. She imagined her relatives preparing for her return, stowing away their needles lest she raid the diabetics’ closet. She knew they were ashamed of her. No one else in her family had gone to prison except for an uncle, a Korean War veteran who once had threatened a cop. Lissa’s mother could not even bring herself to say the word “prison.” That “other college,” Irene called it, as if prison were a school she sent her daughter to, to do a little more growing up. It was Irene who had sent Lissa there, Lissa believed—Irene and Shauna who notified the police. Lissa had not seen her mother since the arrests. Nobody except for Shauna and Shauna’s kids had visited her in prison.
It was even longer since Lissa had seen her grandmother, Madeleine. She remembered clearly the last night she had spent on the reservation, in the winter of 2001. She had left Minneapolis, where she lived for almost ten years, in hope that by coming home she could leave her addiction behind. As soon as she arrived, Madeleine had not wanted her. One night, after Lissa went to bed drunk, an uncle had shaken her awake and told her to get out. It had been almost midnight, thirty degrees below zero. Micah and Obie had been sleeping beside her. Are you serious, Lissa had said, and as she packed, Madeleine had stood as still as a shadow in the bedroom doorway. Fuck you and your fucking white man God, Lissa had screamed. You’re a fucking sinner just like everybody else.
Now it was summer, and the White Shield powwow grounds were full with color—feather roaches and beaded yokes, and tin cones on the jingle dresses. Beyond the church, Lissa turned onto the road to Madeleine’s old farmhouse, a lane that tunneled through waist-high grass and curved along a row of poplars. There was a Quonset hut that Lissa’s grandfather had used as a shop and a studio where he practiced saxophone until he died in 1997, and the farmhouse—gray, with a pale-yellow door and a red porch strung with icicle lights. The lawn was lush and groomed, and in the backyard, a cradle of trees had formed. There were gardens marked with railroad ties; flowerpots, stacked; petunias blooming by a birdbath. And in a chair in the yard sat Madeleine, wearing a blue headband, gray shirt, and khaki pants.
She looked older—that much Lissa could tell from the way her grandmother did not rise when they embraced. Madeleine’s eyes were narrowed toward the sun, which felt hot on Lissa’s back.
To the east, toward the border of the reservation, the surface of a slough glinted. Lissa scanned the property but did not see her mother. An uncle caught her eye and winked. “You got my money?” he said. A half joke. Lissa knew an Indian was sort of joking when he followed his line with a guttural, “Ayyyeee.”
She glanced around once more for her mother but did not see her. “Say,” Madeleine said, “get me a pop from the kitchen,” and Lissa cut gratefully toward the farmhouse.
The inside was dark and sweltering, with shades pulled over the windows, fans propped on chairs. From the entry, Lissa could see into the living room where the glow of a television caught the bare, sweating skin of children sprawled on the floor—cousins, though they did not look up when she came in, and anyway, they were too young for her to recognize. The couch was new, the pictures rearranged. Everything else looked the same. Lissa followed a hallway into a kitchen, where food was laid out for dinner that night. She crossed to the refrigerator and stopped. On a shelf against the wall were three boxes of syringes. Lissa reached for a box. There were five syringes in all, alcohol swabs, and a finger poker to check blood sugar. She lifted a syringe and twirled it in the window light. A milliliter. This had been a good size, she thought, the right hit. She tried to remember the needle sinking into her, the cold and then the warmth. Once, in Minot, when she ran low on meth, she had gone to a liquor store, purchased a bottle of vodka, and shot that up instead. She had hardly noticed the difference. Sometimes, she had wondered if it was the needle she was addicted to. The rush had been the same.
She twirled the syringe again, noting the tiny orange cap, the tab wings. That was when she saw her aunt Donna standing in the doorway of the kitchen.
“Lissa, what are you doing?” Donna said.
Lissa glanced once more at the syringe and returned it to the box. “I was trying to remember what was so important about it,” she said.
Donna paused. Then she crossed the kitchen and wrapped her arms around Lissa. “I’m glad you’re back,” she said.
AS FAR AS Lissa knew, Donna never told anyone about the incident in the kitchen. Her relatives’ fear that she would relapse was palpable without them mentioning it. “Don’t say that,” an aunt had chided when an uncle made a prison joke, as if the mere reminder of her crimes might incline her to commit more of them. The reunion was the beginning of a strange new discomfort Lissa felt in the company of her family. In the visits she made afterward—to Madeleine’s house in White Shield; to Minot, where her mother lived and taught social work at the university; to the shores of the lake where Lissa went with her cousins to fish and camp—she was able to create an illusion of closeness in which it seemed no time had passed. Illusions had always come naturally to her. Lissa knew how to make people who were distant appear close. She could enter their conversations at just the right time, make them laugh, soothe them with her bluntness. She could fill the too-quiet spaces—not with small talk, but with important things: losses they had suffered; things they still feared; stories they shared from their childhoods and adulthoods. Lissa could almost make her relatives believe she was the same girl they had known years ago—though if they thought too hard about it, inevitably they would remember. She saw the unease come into their eyes. She could not shake them from their watchfulness.
They had every reason to be afraid. Before her release, Lissa’s confidence that she would not relapse had bordered on smugness. Once, a caseworker at the halfway house had suggested she open a savings account, and Lissa had joked, “Indians don’t do that shit.” When the caseworker asked what she would do if she got out and blew a paycheck on drugs and died, Lissa replied, “I’ll be dead.” The caseworker was a prim woman named Jan, and Lissa liked to give her a hard time. In the end, Lissa and Jan had made their peace. Lissa started a savings account, and after she was paroled, Jan invited her back to offer advice to inmates. Lissa still did not want to relapse, but now, a year into her parole, the fact of her sobriety had begun to seem less a matter of desire than of circumstance.
The first year was the easiest. It was in the second year that Lissa came perilously close to using again. In September 2010, a man hit her with a truck as she crossed the street near her apartment and dragged her body for ten yards before realizing what he had done. Lissa broke an ankle, her pelvis, and her left arm, and cracked five vertebrae in her neck. She spent weeks in a nursing home, where Irene and Madeleine visited, as did Bruce, her boss at the laundry. Micah rode his bike there after school or caught rides with men from the recovery group, until at last, against her doctors’ wishes, Lissa went home to the apartment.
She could not work and filled her days with other things, like journaling. On October 26, 2010, she wrote:
I have come to the conclusion that everything happens for a reason….Now that I am stuck in this wheelchair, I have one of two choices. I could whine…and get nothing done while feeling 100% miserable or shut up and use my time wisely to do all the things I always said I never had time to do. I think I will go with option #2. Get something done and try to figure out what exactly God wanted me to slow down for….I figure now I need to develop a plan, ie structure my time, prioritize my goals and recovery. Organize! Something my OCD loves to do.
She healed from the accident faster than her doctors expected. Even her children wondered at the speed of her recovery. “My mom is like a cat with nine lives, except her nine lives never run out,” Shauna said. Lissa did not deny it. How many times had she come this close to death? Accidents. Fights. The wrong cocktail of drugs. She supposed she was lucky, though at times this luck felt like a chain tethering her to life. Lissa had always believed she would die young and had lived with this in mind. Once, she had taken matters into her own hands and swallowed a bottle of pills, but a friend found her in a pool of her own vomit and delivered her to the hospital. Lissa called this attempt at suicide an “overdose” and described it in her journal like this:
The people that witnessed my overdose never really said anything to me about it except for Bart, one of my true friends. Not only was he the one who rescued me but he said I had better not ever do that again cause it traumatized him and then he died of an overdose a couple years later in Atlanta all by himself. Bart had left Minot because of warrants and to try to start anew elsewhere. It didn’t take him long to get back in the dope game. His girl, Jess, and their two babies went with. The dope took over and Jess returned to Minot….The story was that one day she got sick of Bart and his dope and got the kids ready, they went to the store and never returned. She took the bus back to North Dakota without telling him. One day Bart called me out of the blue. We were on the outs when he left Minot. He asked me if I would kill him if he returned. I stated that no matter what we would always be friends. He told me that he was coming back to be with the kids and Jess and could I pick him up on Monday 2 a.m. in Bismarck. I agreed. I received a call from his sister on Friday. Bart would not make the trip….They had his funeral instead on that Monday morning. I didn’t make it to the funeral.
When Lissa got bored of writing to herself, she wrote letters to friends she knew before she went to prison. In one, she admonished a man who had relapsed and gone back to treatment:
So you’re back in!? Wow! Figures. I know what you’re thinking. After October you’re done. Done!…No more bullshit, right? Well good for you! All I can say is that if you didn’t PLAN on fucking up anyway you wouldn’t have had anything to worry about. But oh well. As you can probably tell I’m disappointed. Nice of you to think about your friends let alone your kids before your addictions! ASSHOLE!
On the next page, she listed his options:
- Productive happy sober life.
- Dysfunctional addictive life with jail, institutions, cycle, or…
When she reread the letter, she would wonder if she had written it for herself as well as for her friend. One day, as she sorted through her old belongings from the storage unit, she came across a quarter ounce of meth in a container buried beneath some papers. She kept it for three days and then dropped it in the toilet, watched the crystal soften into gel. For a moment, she considered fishing it out, shooting it up with the toilet water, but then her body began to quake. She flushed.
IN THE DISTANCE Lissa felt from her relatives—in the years after her release from prison, before she heard of Kristopher Clarke—she drew unexpectedly close to her oldest uncle, Charles Yellow Bird. Chuck, or “Chucky” as Lissa called him, was a year and eight months younger than her mother, Irene. He had spent much of his life in Denver and Albuquerque, where he worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Although not as accomplished as his older sister or his brother Michael, who were university professors, Chucky was, according to his siblings, the smartest of them all. He read endlessly, especially about history and politics. Once he had been offered a scholarship to a program at Harvard, which he turned down. As Michael would put it, Chucky was “driven only so far”; he wasn’t interested in “the old American Nightmare.” For a while, he lived at home in White Shield and taught art at the school, where he pushed for an Indian-led school board and founded a club called Arikara for Survival. Chucky had noticed that few young people knew their language, let alone their culture. He gathered elders, recording the stories they told. He wrote grants, pooling money for the club, and hired staff—Michael, whenever he was home from college, and Irene, who kept the books.
This was the Chucky his brothers and sisters bragged about: Chucky who saved the Arikara language. Chucky who liked to call his mother on the phone and say, “How’s my fat little Indian lady?” Chucky who loved books, Ford Mustangs, and playing pool. Chucky who loved music most of all and whenever he came home drove his Mazda 280Z right up to the house, blasting Rickie Lee Jones’s “Chuck E’s in Love.”
The Chucky Lissa had known when she was a child was different. After he left the reservation, she saw him only when he came home, and Chucky came home when he was having a hard time. Lissa remembered one particular summer, in 1984, when she had been living on Fort Berthold with her uncle Michael. One day, she and a friend took off around the state, stopping at powwows and sleeping on strangers’ floors. It had been late at night some weeks later when they came to White Shield. As they neared her grandparents’ house, they saw headlights coming fast on the dirt lane. A car pulled up. It was Chucky. He had a gun. “I’m going to blow your head off,” he said, and so they had skidded down the lane, dashed into the house, laid breathlessly on the cold enamel of the bathtub.
He could be violent when he drank, but with Lissa his tussles were more often abstract. He liked to tease younger kids to get their attention, calling out to them as they ran through the house. While Lissa’s cousins shied away from Chucky, Lissa had always quipped back. He challenged her to riddles. Some were logic problems he culled from books; others, questions he dreamed up about the world. Lissa did not solve his riddles right away. Often, days elapsed before she presented him with an answer. She would try to surprise him, offer it in passing as if the riddle had been too easy. Later, they admitted to each other that there was nothing amicable in this exchange. Chucky described it as “a battle of the minds” and took pleasure in stumping her.
So it surprised both of them when, after Lissa’s release from prison, they became close. In 2011, Chucky left Albuquerque and moved to his mother Madeleine’s house, where Lissa found him one day in the living room.
“Why are you moving home?” she said.
“What’s it to you?” Chucky replied.
“I think I have an idea.”
“What is it, then?”
“I think you came home to die.”
Chucky frowned, dark brows crowning his narrow eyes. He had been lost in the city for too long, Lissa thought, unmoored, alone to practice his addiction. He looked tired, like he had given up. Lissa told him so and crossed to a bay window where she had left her cigarettes.
They sat on the porch, looking south toward the lake. Chucky asked what she had meant. “You used to look impenetrable,” Lissa said. “Like you could shoot an arrow and it would bounce off you, but now I think it would kill you.”
Chucky said nothing.
“Well, you got cirrhosis now or what?” Lissa said.
“I’ve had cirrhosis. I’m in the later stage of cirrhosis.”
“You don’t think you can heal yourself?”
“Your mom and grandma are always trying to get me on medication, but I’d rather just go out like this.”
“Gee, Uncle, that’s kind of sad.”
“You say it like it is,” he said.
The next time Lissa visited White Shield, Chucky had slipped into a depression. He rarely came out of his room anymore. “What’s going on?” Lissa asked Madeleine, but her grandmother didn’t know. Lissa knocked on his door until he opened it. His bedroom was small, dim, cluttered with books and papers. She took a folding chair from a corner, set it between the bed and the wall, and reached for a book, flipping the pages mindlessly.
“I’m moving back to Denver,” Chucky finally said.
“They just don’t want me here.”
“Are you drinking again?”
“I’m a grown-ass man. I can drink.”
“Hey, I’m not the enemy here. Go ahead! I don’t have a problem with it.”
After that, whenever Lissa visited Madeleine’s, she went straight to Chucky’s bedroom. He did not go back to Denver. She often found him studying Article 25 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which defines the relationship between tribes and the U.S. government. From the look of it, the article would have taken a lifetime to decipher, with seven chapters, twenty-four subchapters, and hundreds of parts, not to mention an exponential number of subparts. It concerned, mainly, the management of Indian land from the enforcement of federal laws and regulations to the duties of federal officials in regard to reservation resources. The basis for the code was a series of treaties through which the U.S. had promised to act as “trustee,” furnishing tribes and members with the necessities it had stripped from them when it stole their land. These included food—no longer annuities, but commodity programs—and education, housing, and law enforcement. According to the code, the federal government held Indian land “in trust,” which meant that if a tribe or individual wished to use their land—build a house, dig a well, run cattle, drill for oil—they needed approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Chucky had spent his career working for the Bureau, and yet he distrusted the arrangement. He knew how federal agencies lost titles, sold land out of the tribe, paid leasing fees to the wrong landowner or to no landowner at all. He had sued the government himself, but although he knew the law better than most, he had been left near the end of his life with some philosophical questions: Who, really, owned Indian land? And what did “tribal sovereignty” mean if federal agencies determined the land’s fate?
Lissa and Chucky parsed these questions and then turned to others. They discussed the U.S. debt to China, wars in the Middle East. They indulged in conspiracy theories. Their riddles lost their hard edges, and they took pleasure in each other’s company. This was how Lissa would remember her uncle after he was gone: Chucky at his desk, she in the folding chair, sifting aloud through the strange logic of the world. He was her proof of intellect, confidence that her mind had not dulled in their years apart—and still, there was no denying that Chucky was the brightest Yellow Bird.
He died on December 6, 2011, eleven weeks before Kristopher Clarke disappeared.