Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 14: The Badlands | Part 2)
ON THE DAYS I spent in Fargo, Lissa would leave for the welding shop, and Micah and Obie for school, and CJ for various construction jobs, and I would be left alone in the apartment. It was dim and quiet inside. Hours passed without my noticing. I sat in the living room, in front of a television I had never seen on, amid stacks of clean towels and clothing piled in the space between two couches that CJ had claimed as a makeshift closet. On a side table sat a bottle of cologne, which CJ applied liberally each night after he showered. “Take that shit outside,” his mother complained, but he never listened. There was something mindless, sweet in the way they fought—not bitter like Lissa’s arguments with Obie.
By the summer I had sorted through the documents on her computer and moved on to some crates she had also shared with me, which she kept in the garage. Lissa had two of these crates from the storage unit she rented while in prison, containing every record she had saved since the nineties. Here were the police reports from the morning OJ almost killed her, and the transcripts, arrest records, and affidavits that trailed her own slip into crime.
About a year after Lissa survived OJ’s attack, she had finally left Minneapolis. Shauna had been on the run for two months when, in September 2000, she appeared in school. Irene, who was on her way home from a conference, collected Shauna and brought her back to the reservation. That winter, Lissa followed, staying with her grandmother in White Shield and then in a shelter with Micah and Obie, who were one and two years old. In 2001, Lissa rented a house near her mother’s in Minot. That was where she was living on January 17, 2002, when the train hauling anhydrous ammonia gas derailed. Thirteen people were hospitalized. While Micah suffered damage to his lungs, Obie began to have seizures. Lissa often sat awake at night, afraid her sons would stop breathing. It was their near death, she had told me, that triggered her second addiction. By then, her mother had convinced her to see a psychologist, who diagnosed Lissa with a variety of disorders and prescribed Adderall to treat her ADHD. Something about the Adderall worked, and Lissa had stopped using crack, but after the train derailed, she lost control again. One morning, as she prepared to leave for her job—construction at the time—she noticed her Adderall was missing. Her new boyfriend had taken it. He gave her meth to use instead until she could refill the prescription.
Lissa’s arrest record began the following September, in 2002, when she shattered a friend’s car windshield with a tire iron and attacked another friend with her keys. In a statement, Lissa explained that the second friend had taken CJ to her own house without Lissa’s permission. Two days later, Irene submitted an affidavit:
Lissa seems to have lost interest in caring for herself. She is wearing the same clothes for days, does not take baths, sleeps all day, uses profanities toward the kids. I heard from Shauna that Lissa may be using meth and drugs like that. There is a history of addiction and I think Lissa has been in treatment before but it was in Minneapolis. She…is falling back into a major relapse. I feel she needs long-term psychiatric and addiction treatment and this is the critical time. Lissa is college educated, quite manipulative. It has been very difficult for her to stay on the right track with her children.
Lissa did not go to treatment. That December, she attacked the second friend again, with a baseball bat. When officers found Lissa, she was drunk, screaming obscenities. She spent weeks in jail. Upon her release, Irene arranged to have Lissa arrested again and sent to an addiction treatment facility. Legally, her blood had to be drawn and tested first, but nurses could not get a needle in, her veins collapsing from her drug use. They let her go.
Lissa was arrested many times after that for minor violations, but it was not until the summer of 2005 that she was caught possessing drugs. That July, Irene spoke with an investigator in the sheriff’s department and relayed what Shauna had told her—that Lissa was “not ‘with it’ or coherent”; that she left needles lying where her young kids played; that she had lost weight; that she had sores on her body and face; that strangers were always coming to the house. For three days, officers surveilled Lissa, and on July 22, they arrested her. She was let out on bond. The following March, she was arrested, again, for drug possession, and on January 11, 2007, she was sent to prison.
I had acquired the transcript of her trial from a courthouse in Bismarck, and when I saw her mug shot on the top page, I had hardly recognized Lissa. Her hair was thin, her skin pocked with sores. “Where is she now?” the clerk had asked when she gave me the file, and I replied that she was well and sober. The clerk seemed surprised. “You don’t really hear stories like that,” she said.
Now, as I sorted through the files in the garage, I thought of what the clerk said. Lissa’s sobriety seemed so certain to me, and indeed, enough years had passed since her recovery that others who knew her were similarly confident. “I think nothing is going to make her use,” an addiction counselor who knew Lissa at the halfway house had told me. “In the community we say, ‘You don’t listen to what people say. You watch what they do.’ ”
But as I read the police reports, my confidence in Lissa waned. I saw that addiction had driven her to violence, and yet I recognized her in the reports—her rage, her disdain for authority, her cleverness and knack for manipulation. It was all there, in the documents and in her, it had been there and always would be, and for the first time, it became obvious to me that the line separating Lissa’s past from her present was porous. Sobriety was not a dam. It could not hold back her pain. The fact of her sobriety seemed miraculous, fragile. What had changed in her? I wondered. I thought of all the people I had met through Lissa—cousins, uncles, oil-field workers—who, in the short time I knew them, had relapsed. I wondered if Lissa ever felt lonely, all these people falling down around her, and I realized that the person least certain of her sobriety was, perhaps, Lissa herself. Later, I would mention this to her, and she would reply, “Every day I wake up an addict. It’s something I can’t shake, just like being Indian.”
I had begun to notice a certain vigilance Lissa applied to her daily life. She rarely went more than a few days without taking Adderall, making exceptions only for ceremonies and searches, since the drug, she believed, interfered with her spiritual sensibilities. If she ever felt she was spinning out of control, she visited the sweat lodge or closed herself in her bedroom and slept. She had tricks to contain her anger. Once, she called me from an airport, where she had come “this close,” she explained, to punching a customer service agent, but she had taken a deep breath, mustered the funniest story she could think of, and burst into laughter. She was particularly careful about whose company she kept and allowed few people in her apartment. It was no accident she was still single. Among the documents in the garage, I came across a letter from an old friend, Billy, whose windshield she had smashed with the tire iron. He had written to Lissa when she was at the halfway house and visited her when she got out. During his visit, Billy was caught on security camera stealing a jacket from a store and leaving in Lissa’s car. Lissa found this out only when her parole officer called. Lissa called Billy, who posed as his brother and called the store, promising to mail the jacket back. Shortly after that, Obie and Micah delivered a lecture to their mother on “relation-shits.” Lissa filmed their speech, giggling, but her sons meant it. “Boyfriends are out of the question,” Micah told me. “I just don’t trust guys. Guys are assholes.”
Lissa could not control everything—least of all, her children. One evening, I was sitting with her in the kitchen of the apartment when voices rose in a far bedroom. Lissa remained still for a moment, listening, and then got up and knocked on the bedroom door. No one answered. “Open the door,” she commanded, and the door swung open.
Obie and his girlfriend, Caitlin, were fighting. Obie had tried to leave the room; Caitlin had tried to stop him. “I feel like everyone’s obstructing what I’m trying to do,” Obie told his mother. “I’m trying to get some space. I don’t know how that’s not clear.”
Caitlin was crying. “I just wanted to talk to him,” she said. “I’ve had a long day. I just wanted to lay with you and talk to you.”
“We did. We were laying down. Then you started watching TV. You can’t be selfish. You can’t just control me.”
“You always talk about breaking up whenever you’re mad at me,” Caitlin said.
Lissa took a deep breath. “Listen up, Obie,” she said. “You need to quit making this ultimatum that it’s over, because it’s traumatic to her. I can hear it. Okay? If you guys are going to fight, fight right, or don’t fight at all. You need to be more respectful. I don’t want any physical shit in here. Caitlin, you need to stop standing in the way, because if he wants to leave this room, he’s going to leave this room. Let him go. But, Obie, don’t put more fear on top of her fear by saying, ‘Fuck it, we’re done.’ ”
“I need to get out. I need my space,” Obie muttered.
“So when are you coming back?” Lissa said. “Give her a time. How long are you going to be gone? An hour?”
“I was going to wander to the movies. I have no plans.”
“Can you come back in an hour or two?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes,” Obie said.
Lissa turned to Caitlin. “You going to be okay?” she said. Then she shut the door.
On another evening in Fargo, just before Lissa, Micah, and I were to leave for the reservation, Obie and Lissa got in a fight. She wanted to take him out to dinner before we left, but when she asked where he wanted to go, he suggested an expensive steakhouse. Lissa said she could not afford it. Obie became angry. She was always leaving, he said, and she never did anything he asked. We were sitting in the living room, Obie and Caitlin side by side on the couch. Lissa rose silently and walked out the door. I followed, but as soon as we had left the building, Caitlin caught up with us. Obie had pushed her, told her to get out of his way, and fled through the sliding doors. Now we could see him sprinting down the sidewalk, the hood of his sweatshirt flapping as he ran.
Obie moved out of the apartment a few weeks later to live with Caitlin and her family. His departure saddened Lissa. Micah, who sensed his mother’s loss, tried to fill the void. He teased her to make her laugh. One night, in the living room, Lissa asked Micah to show me “that thing with the purse.”
“What, you’ve never seen her man purse?” he asked me. He lifted a red canvas tool bag from a chair in the kitchen, slung it over his forearm, and began to strut. “She’ll walk into Walmart like—” He shot his mother a coy look. Lissa giggled. “She tries to make it look all fancy, too. Then she gets to the register, and the thing’s so unorganized, she pours it out.” Micah dumped the contents onto the carpet, held the bag up to the light. “If she angles it just right—” Lissa was laughing hard now, her cheeks streaked with tears. “Then she tries to sweep it back—” Micah mimed shoveling the contents with one arm while causing them to scatter.
“I hate teenagers,” Lissa said.
“Tobacco, keys, pills, kinnikinnick.” Micah held up a sprig of sage. “Once she finds this, it’s smooth sailing.”
“Shit,” Lissa said, pulling her son into a hug. “Come here. You’ve made me cry, so that’s going to cost you.”
Later, Micah told me, “People use your past as a weapon, but I can see what she’s been through. There’s been times where we got separated, and she was like, ‘I promise that won’t happen again.’ Some of the times haunt me. I remember the first day I saw my mom in jail. She was sitting in that white and black pinstripe. It was fucking upsetting. She’s like, ‘Everything’s going to be okay, honey.’ Another time, I came home, and there was a cop sitting outside the house. He said, ‘You guys are coming with me,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my fucking God, again?’ We jump in the car with this guy, and he passed us all a piece of green-apple gum. We went to a house that night, and the whole night I cried. Nothing compares to the parent bond. It’s like a heartbreak. You don’t want to wake up. You can’t go to sleep. Just, every day, you live second by second. I can still remember the pain.
“I don’t know who my dad is. On Father’s Day, I’ll say, ‘Happy Father’s Day, Mom. You were by my side through it all.’ Even if she wasn’t here, she would write to me. I remember when my mom got out of prison. She worked two jobs. The only day she had off was Sunday. She would bike all the way from Centre”—the halfway house—“to the Ridge, where I was with Grandpa Dennis. She’d always go out of her way to come visit. She’s always supported me no matter what. She’s like, ‘You’re capable of doing anything you want.’ My mom is a big inspiration for me. I tell her this: ‘It’s crazy, Mom, people can call you what they want, but you went from selling drugs, using drugs, and completely switched it around.’ I think my mom is one of the most intelligent people I know. Intelligence is something that can’t be measured. You have to be open-minded, and I feel like what my mom has been through has allowed her to be open-minded, which allows her to do what she does.”
LISSA HAD A term for things outside her control—“spiritual warfare,” she called it. I wasn’t sure what she meant at first so I looked up the term on the Internet. I learned it had roots in Catholicism but was popular among evangelical Christians, who use it in describing their prayers as combat against a myriad of evil forces. Lissa had never been inside an evangelical church, skeptical as she was of “white people religion,” and when I asked her where she heard the term, she could not remember. The first time she used it with me was on the day she fought with Obie and he ran away. After we had seen him sprinting down the sidewalk, Lissa had climbed into her car and sat there for a long time. “This is what I was telling you about,” she said finally. “This is that spiritual warfare.”
I came to think of spiritual warfare as something that could be dislodged inside of us, that could drift from our guts into others’ guts, that could shake us like the flu. It was all our pain in spirit form, marauding invisibly among us. If there was ever a time I saw it myself, it was that first spring I began accompanying Lissa to the reservation.
I remember the night clearly. We had arrived at Tiny Crows Heart’s place, a single-wide trailer on the Sanish bluffs flanked by old bed frames, some lawn mowers, and a boat. It was dark, the lights of trucks flickering on the road below. Micah and Waylon had gone inside while I lingered in the car with Lissa, who was finishing a cigarette. We were talking when, suddenly, Lissa looked away. I asked what the matter was. She shook her head. “It was probably just the light,” she said. “I saw blood coming out of your nose.”
Inside Tiny’s trailer, Lissa burned sage in a cast-iron skillet, fanned the smoke across her body, and ordered me to do the same. Then she sat at the kitchen table and lit another cigarette. The trailer was sparsely furnished but felt crowded. There were two leather couches in a V by a window, a jug of water—the utilities were shut off—a table strewn with books and papers, a radio tuned to country, a propane heater that screamed like a blowtorch, and a hologram tacked to the wall of an eagle, which flapped its wings when you moved your head back and forth. Micah and Waylon were asleep. Tiny was telling a story about a time he jumped off the bridge into the lake. He had not intended to jump, he said. He had been walking on the bridge when it just happened. In the air, he had straightened himself into a dive, and when his body pierced the water, he sank so deep that he brushed the bottom with his fingertips. When he resurfaced, he swam to shore, but in those moments that Tiny was underwater, he had felt himself entering a world beyond this world. He had felt himself die and come back to life.
The air in the trailer was thick with loud heat and smoke from idle cigarettes. I excused myself and went to a back bedroom. I believe I fell asleep, and when I woke, I could not breathe. Something was hovering over me, weighing on my chest. I ran to a window to open it, but it was sealed with plastic and duct tape. I took my bedroll and went outside and lay down on the grass. There was a pit dug in the yard, where, a year earlier, Tiny had built the sweat lodge in which Lissa, Waylon, and Micah prayed. I could breathe again, but I could not sleep. I stared out at the blackness of the lake and at two houses perched on the edge of the bluffs not far from where I lay. I had been to these houses. Once, Jason Morsette, the tribal member I sometimes drove with around the reservation, had taken me there. His aunt lived by herself in the first house, since her grandson, whom she had raised, was in prison. Auntie, Jason called her. She earned oil royalties, but there had been no sign of wealth in her house. As we sat in her kitchen, she had chain-smoked cigarettes and told stories about the spirits who lived on the bluffs. Then Jason had said there was something he wanted to show me, and I had followed him outside. We stood on the porch of the other house, staring down at the lake. Blankets covered the windows. I asked who lived inside. No one lived in the house anymore, Jason said—it was haunted with bad spirits—but only when we returned to Auntie’s kitchen did I realize what he meant. I stepped close to a portrait of her grandson that hung on the wall and recognized his name. He was in prison for prostituting girls, for raping them inside that other house. “He told me his relative did the same thing to him,” was the only thing Auntie said about it. I remember, when she said it, how grief drifted intangibly between us.
LISSA WOULD TELL me there was something strange about Tiny’s trailer that night—that a spirit had been restless or angry, perhaps. Micah and Waylon noticed it too. But months later, when I mentioned the incident in the car to Lissa, she barely remembered it. I still thought of it often; it scared me; and now that it was obvious it meant nothing to her, I felt incredulous. Had she actually seen blood? Was it a trick of the light? Or had she been testing me, in the way—I was beginning to learn—she had tested Sarah?
As I came to know many of her relatives that year, some would express a similar confusion about Lissa’s spiritual insights and beliefs. “Sometimes it’s like, ‘I don’t know about that one, Lisa. That’s maybe a stretch,’ ” Irene said. A cousin with whom Lissa was close, Tony, was even more skeptical: “I’ll be honest, sometimes I think those drugs destroyed her brain, man, because she’ll be saying some crazy shit where it doesn’t make sense.”
Still, everyone in her family would admit there had been times when Lissa was right. Once, she told Tony about a wolf that appeared in her dreams. “She said, ‘This wolf come, and he jumped over the top of us, and he was running in your direction,’ ” Tony recalled. “She said, ‘I think something’s coming, little brother. It’s going to be bad, but you have to be strong.’ I was like, ‘Damn, that’s too much. You might have messed your brain up.’ I tell you, six or eight months later, my girlfriend miscarried our baby.”
Her relatives listened whether they believed her or not. “I tease her about it,” Irene told me, “but everyone sees things differently.” Irene was quieter than Lissa about her spirituality but held many similar beliefs: “My grandmother, Nellie, when I was a little girl, told me that you could speak to the spirits and ask them questions. I trusted what she told me, so I would talk to the spirits. I grew up believing in it. Different things would appear to me. Sometimes, I would tell my mother when I would get scared, and my grandpa would stop by, and she’d say, ‘Tell your grandpa what you dreamt.’ And so I’d tell him. I told him once that somebody had died. There had been a burial. He said, ‘Well, it sounds like somebody is going to die.’ Here, his brother died.”
Irene later suppressed the dreams, but sometimes certain feelings returned to her, and she knew they were spirits. One day, after her brother Chucky died, she had been washing dishes in Madeleine’s kitchen when she sensed someone behind her. “You know who that is, because your mind tells you,” she explained. “I think Chucky saw spirits, too. He always seemed to know something would happen before it happened. I think that’s why he drank. It bothered him. A lot in our family seem to have that ability.”
I DID NOT have that ability, nor could I explain what came over me that night in Sanish. At the beginning of the next winter, Tiny Crows Heart died in his trailer, asphyxiated by a propane leak, Lissa was told. When she called me with the news, Lissa would mention the night we spent there and how the spirits had been angry.
Only once more would I feel something similar, when, one morning, Lissa sent me a message: “You should smudge! I had a dream about you and woke up in tears.”
“What was the dream?” I asked, but Lissa did not reply.
I forgot about the dream. I did not smudge. I never smudged, unless I was with Lissa.
The following week, I cried harder than I have ever cried. There was no reason for me to cry. It came suddenly, violently. I lost control of my body. When it was over, I went into my bedroom and found some sage a man had given me the year before in Browning, Montana. It was old and crumbled in my palms, but I put it on a plate and burned it anyway.