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Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 10: The Search | Part 1)

BY THE END OF MAY 2013, winter loosened its grip on the reservation, and people emerged from the dark warmth of their homes, and weekends filled with picnics and softball games, and the lake echoed with pop songs thrumming from the radios of drifting boats. The powwows began in June, first in Twin Buttes, the southernmost segment; and then in Lucky Mound, White Shield, Mandaree, and Four Bears. For many years, the final powwow, in early August, on the bank of the lake, had attracted the best dancers and singers, but on the first weekend of July that year, Mandaree drew a lively crowd as well. Oil companies donated $20,000 to the celebration, which, with private contributions from Mandaree families, amounted to the largest pot of powwow cash in the segment’s history. Dancers and singers came from all over the continent—Arizona, Montana, Wisconsin, Saskatoon—to compete for the generous prizes, and the Mandaree councilman, in a nod to industry, named the powwow “The Heart Beat of the Bakken.” In addition to the dancing and singing contests, there were horse races, bingo games, a rodeo, fireworks, an egg toss, tug-of-war, a basketball tournament, a chili cook-off, a battle of the bands, and a parade of rez cars. There were contests to determine who had grown the biggest turnip or beaded the prettiest earrings, who could rattle her tongue the fastest or war whoop the loudest, who could devour the largest watermelon or fry the most delicious fry bread.

 

Lissa attended many of the powwows that summer to hand out missing person posters and spread word about KC. Some men and women in her sun dance circle avoided powwows, lamenting the capitalization of spiritual tradition, the conspicuousness of tribal wealth; and indeed, the dancers’ regalia appeared more expensive every year. Still, Lissa liked to go. Her aunt Cheryl had been a champion traditional dancer, and when Lissa was a child, Cheryl taught her how to dance. Lissa came to prefer traditional dancers, who wore simpler clothing and moved more subtly, to fancy dancers, who wore neon ribbons and feathers. “If you watch closely,” Lissa would say, “you’ll see the ones that really have the spirit, the teachings, because they’re the ones with the footwork.”

She enjoyed perusing the stalls that formed a ring around the grounds. She bought gifts for relatives, fabric for a sun dance dress. She tried on turquoise necklaces and ran her hands over leather. The quality of goods had improved since the boom. The vendors, like the dancers, had come from farther afield, since tribal members had more money to spend. Lissa liked to take it all in—bison hides and deer antlers, medicine wheels and packets of herbs, and all the trappings one needed to sew a dress: porcupine quills, feathers, fringe, Venetian glass beads, tin cones for the jingle dresses, cowry shells, bone pipes, abalone disks, fabric, ribbons, needles and thread.

In summer, clouds descended on the prairie like flocks of birds, constantly landing and lifting. The sky weathered to dark gray. The mustard bloomed bright yellow.

Lissa rarely stopped in White Shield anymore but went straight on to Mandaree, where she drove the back roads and sometimes wandered on foot through the draws and wider canyons. Before the boom, it had been easier to wander the reservation, and many tribal members did. They fished, camped, hunted, and gathered medicine. Although fences divided cattle pastures, it had been easy to slip between strands of barbed wire or to lay down a gate. Now hundreds of oil wells dotted Mandaree, and on new roads bisecting allotments, companies posted signs reading OILFIELD TRAFFIC ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT. The companies had little legal ground to keep people off the land, since they did not own it, but the signs, if not the traffic, discouraged tribal members from wandering.

 

Lissa considered it an act of resistance to wander, and that summer she covered more ground than in any year before. Marks of the boom were everywhere. Even land that remained intact was on its surface changed: creeks and sloughs sucked dry, the water purchased or stolen; the prairie littered with food wrappers, plastic bottles, scraps of carpet, aluminum flashing, jerricans, busted work boots, bullet casings, oily rags, electronics, cigarette cartons, and empty tins of chewing tobacco; and a dense smog overlaying it all. Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency had sued a company for failing to properly limit pollution at their well sites on the reservation. One day, Lissa wandered behind the Maheshu shop and came across what looked like a heap of giant condoms. They were filter socks for straining contaminated water after it had fracked a well, before the water was injected, again, into an old well for disposal. Each gram of a used sock contained up to seventy picocuries of radiation, fourteen times the amount allowed in North Dakota landfills. Since the Bakken generated seventy-five tons of filter socks a day, and since the only landfills that accepted the socks were located out of state, the socks were often found stashed in abandoned buildings or dumped in fields.

Among the places Lissa searched most often was a canyon near Mandaree, where the border of Fort Berthold skirted the Little Missouri River. An allotment there belonged to an uncle on her grandmother’s side and, being so close to the river, reminded Lissa of the bottomlands before the flood. Cattle roads threaded between tall clay bluffs and groves of cottonwood thickening toward the bank. Lissa had chosen the area because it seemed a likely spot for a body to be buried. It was not far from the Maheshu shop, nor from the main road, and yet it felt remote, the topography too varied and too close to the river for it ever to be drilled. A gate guarded the entrance to the allotment, but apart from an earthmover rusting on a hillside, there were few signs anyone went there. The roads cut through sagebrush and canyons formed by sudden rain, one road so impassable that Lissa had to park and cross on foot over fallen logs onto a grassy rise on the other side. There, poking from a vast, green slope, were prairie dog mounds. The rodents stood on their back legs to greet her, sounding an alarm, and if she stayed long enough, they forgot her as they grazed and dug new portals to their underground city.

 

She was not systematic about the way she searched. She plotted no transects, no GPS points. She considered the distance of a site from a road, the density of the soil. She looked for disturbances in the land—mounds of hardened dirt, concavities in the grass, cigarette butts tossed carelessly behind. Beyond this, she relied on intuition. If she had a feeling about a place, she went, and if the feeling lingered, she went again.

Lissa documented her findings meticulously, like an archaeologist on an endless dig, unearthing the scraps of former lives as the boom chafed at the reservation around her. She often thought of what was being lost to the boom. She remembered the stones on the bank of the lake where she had gone camping with her family years earlier—stones arranged like the constellation Auriga—and wondered what other effigies or burial grounds had been paved over by roads and drilling pads. Once, an oil worker brought her a plastic bag containing bones he found near a well site. He had heard Lissa was searching for someone. “Shit, I ain’t taking them,” she joked with the worker. “That might be some mean old Hidatsa.” She advised him to give the bones to law enforcement.

She found many bones herself, most of cows, horses, and deer. Once, she found a human sacrum in White Shield not far from the lake. It was so old, so soft and porous, that she felt it could have turned to powder between her fingers. Lissa gave it to a police officer, who sent it to a museum in Bismarck, where an archaeologist carbon-dated the bone and learned that the person to whom it belonged had been dead seventy-five years. Lissa wondered if the bone had risen up in the lake after the flood, from a grave that was never moved.

 

She rarely searched alone that summer. Dozens of people from the reservation and neighboring towns saw her posts on Facebook and offered help. They arrived with sandwiches, water, shovels, and metal detectors, following Lissa wherever she went. Her most reliable companion was Micah, who now rarely missed a trip with his mother. He was fourteen, taller and leaner, not quite skinny, with ears that stuck out like tiny wings. He no longer seemed haunted by KC but rather excited by the prospect of finding him. Micah wondered if one day he might become a detective or a forensic anthropologist. He was, in Lissa’s words, “down for the cause,” and when volunteer searchers complained about ticks or sore feet, Micah shook his head. “I know, man,” he liked to say. “The struggle is real.”

Among her other regular companions were two members of the tribe, Tiny Crows Heart and Waylon Fox. Tiny lived half the time in Sanish, in a trailer not far from the apartment where Lissa lived as a child, and the other half in Twin Buttes, where he was developing a Hidatsa language program. Both men were tall, gaunt, and wore their hair long. Waylon was Lissa’s cousin on her great-grandmother Nellie’s side but had grown up nowhere in particular. This nomadism had crept into his adulthood. Waylon slept under bridges and on the couches of patient relatives. He was a good singer and for years had followed the powwow circuit, hitching rides from reservation to reservation, winning enough money to pay his way in between. Eventually, he had decided powwows were fanning his bad habits and turned to traditional ceremony. This was how Lissa met Waylon, in the sweat lodge on the south side of Fargo. When Waylon was sober, he made good company. He brought his drum and practiced prayer songs as they drove. Often, he thought up his own songs, and the lyrics made Lissa laugh.

It was on these searches of the reservation and of the towns just beyond the border that Lissa frequently encountered oil workers. She would tell several stories from her encounters that summer: In one, she had been driving on a street in Williston, an hour west of the reservation, when she came across a man grilling cheese sandwiches in the bed of a pickup truck. She had noticed him because of a line of workers extending along the street. They were standing in the bright sun, fanning themselves with dollar bills. Lissa had not seen what they were waiting for, at first, so she parked and approached a man in the line. “What are you waiting for?” she asked. When he told her, she walked to the front of the line and called out to the man making sandwiches. “How much are they?”

 

“Five bucks.”

“What if I wanted another piece of cheese?”

“I’ll give you one more for a dollar.”

Lissa did the math—sixteen slices of cheese cost three dollars; a loaf of bread, one—and suddenly was struck by the absurdity of the boom, by the gross fact of men waiting in the sun to pay five dollars for a grilled cheese sandwich.

Her second encounter occurred on the reservation, in New Town, on a day even hotter than the one in Williston. Lissa spotted a man on the road on the east edge of town, swinging a bag of candy. He was young, an immigrant from an African country he would name but she would forget. The man wore jeans and a long-sleeved denim shirt. When she yelled to him, “Where are you going?” he smiled.

“To the man camp,” he said.

The camp was seventeen miles away, in a northeast corner of the reservation. The man seemed grateful as they drove, and spoke cheerily in English. He had recently immigrated to the United States, he said, and had come to the oil fields to pay off debts. He had no car, but he was accustomed to walking. “In my country” was the phrase he used. Lissa hated this phrase. The refugees who lived in her building used the phrase, and she wanted to shake them, say, “Like it or not, this is your country now,” but to the man she was polite.

They turned south toward the lake. A cluster of trailers appeared, and the man got out. Lissa never saw him again. Later, she would wonder what became of him: “I said, ‘It’s cool to meet you,’ and he said, ‘No, no, the cool all mine.’ He was probably eighteen, nineteen—barely legal to be working. You hear of people blowing up on rigs, dying in car accidents, and here this kid was walking on this dusty, congested road, and he was just happy. Maybe he was one of the ones making twelve grand a month. Even if he was, you could see the sacrifice people were giving for this.”

 

Her relatives regarded the oil workers who had overtaken their reservation warily, but Lissa found herself feeling more sympathy than suspicion. It seemed to her these workers had been caught up in something beyond even their control. “I hated oil,” Judd Parker, KC’s former housemate, said once. “I never thought in my life I’d do oil. I ended up in the oil fields because I had nowhere else to go.”

One day that summer, Lissa dropped by the house where Judd still lived, tucked into a knoll above Four Bears Village, not far from the casino. It was a nicer house than most on the reservation, with a wraparound deck and large windows and a curtain of trees that hid the houses below from view. Judd came to the door wearing pajama pants. He was in his forties but seemed younger, with blond hair brushing his shoulders and a blond shadow of a beard. He looked a bit like General Custer, if Custer had smoked a lot of pot.

Judd led Lissa into the kitchen and through a corridor into KC’s bedroom. The room was empty. Jill had reclaimed her son’s belongings except for a bottle of vitamins KC had left in a cupboard and a pair of boots, which Judd handed to Lissa. “What was that day he disappeared—the twenty-second?” Judd said. They returned to the kitchen. Judd was meandering and apologetic, rarely finishing sentences, blending one into the next. He was from North Carolina, where his father owned a successful record company that had produced hundreds of albums of Southern gospel music. Judd grew up loving gospel more than anything, until he heard the Grateful Dead. In the nineties, he had followed the Dead “until Jerry died” and then returned to North Carolina, where he worked for his father and sold albums at flea markets on weekends. By then, Judd had a wife and two sons. They needed money, so he took a job in Aspen, Colorado, building a Ritz-Carlton hotel. The recession hit; the work ran out. Judd called a drill foreman he knew in North Dakota whose company had contracts with Steve Kelly, the former tribal lawyer who owned Trustland Oilfield Services. Kelly gave Judd a job, and that was how Judd met KC.

 

“Did you see him much?” Lissa interrupted. It was a Sunday evening, and the sun was setting. She had to work in the morning.

“KC? Not much,” Judd replied. He had seen him only when they came home to sleep. “I mean, you think you know someone, but you can live with someone your whole life and not know them.”

Judd began another story, and when Lissa glanced over at him, she realized that he was crying. Jeez, these guys are so sensitive, she thought.

“I was following this dump truck back from Williston,” Judd said, “and, well, a car went in front of the dump truck, hit him head-on. I watch him, closer than I am to you. I watch him die. For four minutes, I watch him die.” That evening, Judd called a fellow oilfield worker—“and he’s like, ‘Did you steal his wallet?’ I’m like, ‘Fuck you. I watched this guy die.’ It was emotional for me. It kind of affected me.”

Judd went on: “I swear, with all this money, people turn against each other. My landlord and his sister—they don’t talk. It’s all about mineral rights, this property, that property. I know an Indian lady. She’s got a single-wide trailer that’s trash, but she’s got sixteen oil wells. People say, ‘I don’t see why she wouldn’t build a real house.’ How do you not understand that? Money doesn’t change anything.”

Lissa supposed Judd was an exception to the workers she met in the oil field. Yet every worker she met seemed to have wound up there for a different reason. Or was it the same reason? Even Rick Arey, who had spent his adult life on oil rigs, and whom Lissa now knew better than any oil worker given how often they spoke on the phone, had misgivings about the industry. “This is the only place I’ve seen this kind of carnage go on,” he told her. The longer he lived in North Dakota, the more his pride in the industry had faded.

 

Rick was a decade younger than Lissa, born in Denver, Colorado, the middle of three children. His father had been a truck driver while his mother raised the kids. As a child, Rick had been fond of pyrotechnics. Once, he lit his mother’s can of hair spray on fire and burned a hole in the carpet. On another occasion, while his family was asleep, he set off a firecracker in his bedroom. His mother bought him books on safety and took him to the fire department, but none of this had worked. When an uncle found Rick in a closet with his cousins, lighting matches beneath racks of clothes, the uncle beat him until his bottom was bruised and, for days, forbade Rick from entering the house. Rick and his uncle camped in the backyard, where Rick was to imagine he burned the house down and killed all of his relatives. He never played with fire again.

His mother said that of all her children Rick had the biggest heart, but he did not stop getting into trouble. When he was nine years old, his family moved to Wyoming and then back to Colorado after his mother and father divorced. His mother married six times. Rick attended five high schools before he turned eighteen and dropped out. He was often left alone at home and used a lot of drugs. He got addicted to meth. He stopped eating. A friend rescued him and took him to live with his own mother in Fort Collins. Rick found work as a groundman on a rotomill, walking behind a machine as it chewed up asphalt. He worked that job for two years and then enrolled in the Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

It was his mother who made clear to Rick how important money was. She had been raised poor and, at age thirteen, taken out of school and forced to work. All the money Rick’s father earned had never been enough. Rick wanted to make money but did not know how. People told him to use his brain, but Rick had more confidence in his brawn. “I can read like the wind blows,” he said, “but I never had the patience to sit behind a desk.” After less than a year of college, he realized how much debt he already owed and quit. He worked three years for a moving company and then, on his father’s recommendation, got a job on an oil rig in Wyoming. BP operated the well; Nabors Industries, based in Texas, did the drilling. Rick began as a floor hand, “tripping pipe” into the drill hole and keeping the area clean, and worked his way up to derrick hand, one step below the “driller.” When BP shut down the rig—a worker was almost killed—Rick took a job on a Nabors practice rig, training roughnecks how to operate it safely.

 

By then, Rick was twenty-five years old. He felt proud of his work. Roughnecks, he said, had a reputation for being “the toughest motherfuckers around,” and the money was not bad either. Rick earned $5,855 every two weeks, which he spent haphazardly. In 2004, he got a DUI and, not long after that, at a gas station met a woman whose car had broken down and later got her pregnant. He learned he had a daughter when he received a subpoena for his DNA. After that, between car insurance and child support, drilling was the only work Rick knew that paid enough to cover his bills.

In North Dakota, something changed. Maybe it was KC going missing, or maybe it was the chaos of the boom on a scale Rick never witnessed before. Men were pushed to work so fast that inevitably they made mistakes. Amid so much negligence, Rick felt helpless. “I got to thinking,” he said. “The middle class, we don’t run shit, we’re just herded around like a bunch of cattle, and the powers that be, the people running this country, they’re not doing anything to stop it. They’re not doing anything to find alternative energy. They’re not doing anything to save the environment, but they bitch at all the Americans using plastic, that are going to McDonalds. It’s like, Alright motherfucker, we didn’t really choose this. This is what you’ve given us to survive. You’re the one that built the roads, put up the stoplights, invented the car. Don’t tell me you did it to make my life easier. You did it because you wanted to be a multibillionaire, and you’re power hungry, and this was the fastest, easiest way to do it. Nobody sat down and said, If we go forward with this, what’s America going to look like two hundred years from now? They didn’t fucking care about that. And they don’t care about it now. They tell us to stop using plastic, but that doesn’t mean shit in the grand scheme of things, you know? The only alternatives to save the environment have got to come from the people that made the trillions of dollars. They’ve got to think of a new way, because a guy like me—I know, ‘Don’t limit yourself, Rick’—but I can’t reinvent the fucking wheel. It’s just that I’m not that guy. I’m not that smart. Even for the Einsteins, it’s not that fucking easy.”

In the middle of an oil boom, there was no such thing as choice, Rick believed. Booms obliterated choice. “We’re born into this money machine, and it’s all we know. We go through the motions. We work hard. We retire at sixty. We go golfing or run around a nude colony. That’s the American dream. Quick money. Dodge diesels and women and drinking beers with your buddies. And there’s camaraderie in that. We all felt like we were really doing something. We were contributing to the economy. But that’s what sucks about money. When it’s gone, you figure out it’s not even real. It’s just a dopamine rush. We know what an oil field does. We know what drugs do. We know these things wreck everything about the human spirit, but we keep doing them.”

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