Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 17: Shauna)
IN THE SUMMER OF 2016, Lissa was invited to speak about citizen engagement in missing person cases at a Department of Justice conference in Atlanta, Georgia. She called me as soon as she received the invitation, sounding uncharacteristically nervous. Organizers of the conference had asked her to send a résumé so that they could compose a biography for the program, but Lissa had not made a résumé since college. “I was thinking, Where do stripper, bondswoman, drug dealer, and welder fit into this?” Lissa told me. “I said, ‘Can we skip the résumé?’ ” She asked if I would write the biography, and I agreed.
It was her third speaking engagement. Her first had been at a gala for the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition, in Fargo. Obie accompanied her. “My mom bought me some nice clothes,” he told me. “We got there, and I was like, ‘Wow, you’re not my crowd.’ These people were high-class. This one chick had a totally white dress on. Her hair was well-conditioned.”
Lissa spoke, and then, to her surprise, the Coalition honored her with its annual Arc of Justice Award. “I wasn’t going to stay,” she recalled, “but a woman said, ‘You know, Lissa, we’d really like you to stay and eat.’ Obie grabbed a plate and said, ‘Come on, Mom.’ He made me stay. We were eating, and they were giving awards. They said my name, and Obie’s like, ‘Hell, yeah!’ And—oh my God, this kid—he was hitting me on the back. ‘You go, Mom!’ I was sitting there in shock. He said, ‘Get up! Get up!’ ”
“She was crying,” Obie said. “I was like, Wow, my mom really likes what she does. Then the newspaper wrote an article, and in the picture I was kneeling next to her. My teachers were like, ‘Is that your mom? Tell her to keep it up.’ ”
When Lissa told me about the award, I knew she was proud. Still, I wondered if she wished investigators had in some way recognized her effort as well. I asked her one night while we were sitting in the apartment. It was February 2017—seven months since Trudell showed Lissa the burial area.
“I think I’m just used to it,” she said. “I mean, if it was all about getting a pat on the back, then that sort of person would have expectations that someone would respect what they had to say. Do you think a person used to that entitlement would still be looking for a body five years later? I don’t have to have those pats on the back to go where I go. I don’t need that from anybody. I’ve learned not to need what a lot of people get.”
“You can’t think of any time in your life that you’ve wished for affirmation?” I asked.
Lissa thought for a while. “One of the times would be with Shauna after I was paroled,” she said. “I remember her sitting on that couch right there, holding a new baby, crying, saying, ‘What am I going to do? I can’t get a job.’ I said, ‘First you need to have faith.’ I told her the mustard seed story”—from the Gospel of Matthew, about how “the Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field,” which grew so large “that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches.” Shauna had not been convinced. Since her dismissed charges had lingered on her record, no one seemed to want to hire her. “I said, ‘You explain. You humble yourself,’ ” Lissa recalled, “and she did, and when she got a job, she said, ‘They got tuition reimbursement.’ ‘Well, you better get in school part time, because it’s free money.’ And now look at her. That would be one time. She won’t give it to me, and that’s fine. I give it to me just by watching her.”
“She told me that story,” I said.
Lissa laughed. She didn’t believe me, but it was true. I had it recorded.
THEIR RECONCILIATION HAD begun one night the previous summer. Three years after Shauna stopped talking to her mother, she sent Lissa a string of messages:
Sometimes it’s important that children know and accept that they can never love as much as their parents love them. I now know. You have those moments thinking, ‘I’m NEVER going to be like her.’ Then you become just like her. I have a daughter that I’ve tried to be the best mom to, all for her to resent me at times. I looked at an old conversation you wrote years ago (obviously). No response or acknowledgment on my part as you poured your heart out. How horrible that must’ve felt. I’m so sorry for that.
When Lissa saw the messages, she cried. “It’s okay,” she replied. “I saw you read it and knew someday you would reflect on that. I prayed for it, sun danced over it for many years now and prayers answered! It was and always will be okay!…I love you guys so much!”
That summer and fall, Lissa did not search for KC. In August, a video circulated online showing dozens of tribal members from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, three hours south of Fort Berthold, in a peaceful confrontation with police. They had gathered to stop the construction of a pipeline that would transport oil from the Bakken to a terminal in Iowa, cutting across the Missouri River north of their reservation. The company building the pipeline originally planned to cross the river above Bismarck, but the city protested, and although the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe opposed the new route, the company ignored its complaint. A group of Standing Rock and Cheyenne River youth ran more than five hundred miles to deliver a petition to the Army Corps office in Omaha, Nebraska, and when the colonel refused to see them, they ran to the White House in Washington, D.C. On July 26, 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed a complaint in federal court. Three weeks later was the peaceful confrontation with police, during which the tribal chairman, David Archambault, was arrested. In the weeks that followed, delegations from hundreds of tribes, including the MHA Nation, appeared at Standing Rock in solidarity, and thousands of Native Americans from around the country joined, erecting an encampment not far from the pipeline construction site. Soon it was the largest demonstration for Native American rights since the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee. Lissa went every Friday after work. She built two snug wooden shelters outfitted with cots, heaters, and racks to hang clothing on, where several Yellow Birds joined her. Irene and Madeleine would not stay the night but delivered donations to the encampment. I visited a few times, as did Rick Arey, who would happen to be there with Lissa on the day that the pipeline company’s security sicced dogs on demonstrators.
Then, one day, Shauna visited as well. Lissa sent me a black-and-white photograph she took that weekend: her daughter against a backdrop of snow and smoke rising from a circle of tipis. Shauna was flanked by her children, clutching a swaddled baby, staring stoically into the camera.
I visited Shauna that same winter at her house in Eagan, Minnesota, just south of Minneapolis. I arrived on a Monday evening. One of her sons answered the door and led me up a flight of stairs into a living room furnished with a plush couch and a television mounted over a fireplace. A playpen blocked the entry to keep her youngest child, a year old, from escaping. Shauna did not rise when I came in. She was seated on the couch with a laptop, her hair knotted above her neck. She wore soft black pants, the pockets turned out. “I have to finish something for work,” she said, so I sat quietly until she was done.
We were the same age, twenty-nine, born five days apart. Her face was shaped like her mother’s—wide with high cheekbones, full lips, and a small chin—but in other ways she seemed different. When she spoke, her words were calm, measured, and when she listened, she pressed her lips together, as if her mouth were a small cage.
“I had to do my own healing to move on,” Shauna told me. “Now I’m trying to look at my situation through my own kids. My kids always ask me, ‘Have you told her you love her? Have you talked to her lately?’ It means a lot to them. I don’t want them to think it’s okay to hold on to those resentments, because I don’t want them to do that to me. Even if it’s a surface-level relationship with my mom, anything is better than nothing. I feel better now. I feel like I have more control over myself, over what I’m willing to enjoy or when enough is enough and I can walk away.”
The baby cried sharply, and Shauna lifted her, rose from the couch, and lowered to her knees. In one swift movement, she removed an old diaper and slipped on a new one. “We don’t really talk about personal stuff yet,” she continued. “It’s, check in, check out. The hardest things we talk about are parenting—the struggles I have with my kids and how she feels guilt for that.”
“She says she feels guilty?” I asked.
Shauna nodded. “I used to take care of my brothers a lot while she worked several jobs to try to make ends meet, and once in a while I’d come home to a letter on the table and a couple of brand-new CDs. There were times like that when she showed appreciation. But other times I’d find a letter after something bad happened. She’d try to talk about her addiction, and I’d be like, ‘What you did was wrong. I don’t care what your excuse is.’ I tried not to get emotionally attached to her words. I felt loved, but I also felt that she was dependent on me, and I didn’t really have a choice in that matter.”
She rose from the floor. “Do you want dinner?” she said, and I followed her into the kitchen and sat at a tall wooden table. Her oldest son was doing homework. He was ten, born on the day Lissa was arrested in Bismarck. I knew this because I had read it in the transcript of the testimony Shauna gave in her mother’s defense:
Q: How old are you?
Q: Do you know the lady next to me at this table?
Q: Who is she?
A: My mom.
Had I only read the testimony, I might have assumed Shauna hoped to spare her mother from prison, but Lissa had suggested otherwise: It was Shauna, she told me, who put her there, on trial, in the first place.
“Yeah, not that she was doing or selling drugs of her own accord,” Shauna said, rolling her eyes, when I mentioned this to her. But what her mother had said was partly true. Though Shauna had never seen Lissa use drugs, in the summer of 2005, when Shauna was almost eighteen, she began to notice new signs: needles and other paraphernalia scattered around the house, her mother disappeared into a bedroom. “I was trying to keep some order, but I could see the transition,” Shauna said. “My mom became very aggressive. My grandma would commit her, and my mom’s smart, so she would get through to people that she didn’t need treatment, and they’d let her go. There was no helping her. She could con her way out of everything.” Shauna told Irene what she had been seeing, and Irene told the police.
Shauna placed a warm sausage on a plate and set the plate in front of me. “Sweet tea?” she said. She strapped the baby in a high chair and called for her other children.
“We went through some really bad times,” she said. “I don’t let that dictate how I live my life, but I look at it as missed opportunities. That’s what I hold on to. You missed it. There were critical moments that could have changed any of us.”
“What kind of mom were you wishing for?” I asked.
“Oh, you know, the typical sit at home and cook dinner and wash your laundry and iron your clothes and take you to school and show up at conferences. The PTA mom. Whatever they show on TV. Who doesn’t want that mom? But as I grew up I realized I learned a lot of things that not a lot of other people learned because of the struggles that I went through. No matter what, I’m still okay today. I have to give that credit to her. In the worst of times, she still made sure that we had somewhere to sleep. She still made sure we ate. We may have gone without a mom, but we didn’t go without our other needs. I value that. I feel like it gave me strength and resilience in the end, and that’s why I’m at where I’m at today, and I’m okay with where I’m at.”
Shauna collected the dishes from the table and rose to wash them in the sink. “I grew up with somebody that I really didn’t know,” she said. “I didn’t have the desire to know. All I saw was an absent parent. Now I want to know. Who is she? What are her passions? Why? I don’t know a lot about her past. I think it’s been a long journey for her. I think there’s a lot more darkness than she’s revealed. Things that she just feels aren’t worth resurfacing. I don’t know if it’s being neglected, being lonely, or somebody hurt her. I just think she’s been through a lot. I think she wants to move on. I think that’s why she tries to make that impact on other people.”
Shauna smiled, her lips closed tight, her eyes intent and blinking. I could not tell what she was feeling. I asked if she ever cried, and she laughed, rinsed another dish. “It takes a lot to make me cry,” she said. “I used to when I was younger. You could look at me funny and I would cry, but I think I learned that crying gets you nowhere. I don’t really cry anymore, maybe once every five years. My grandma’s like that, too.”
I had seen Irene cry once. It had been the first night we met, in a restaurant in Minot. She was telling me about one of Lissa’s arrests. After the arrest, Irene had attended a pretrial hearing at which she approached Lissa’s boyfriend in a hallway outside the courtroom. She grabbed him by the arm. If anything ever happens to my daughter, I’m coming after you, she had said. As Irene told me this story, she had begun to cry. “I really was going to,” she said. “I was so afraid. I was so afraid she was going to die.”
I told this story to Shauna. The baby squealed, and Shauna rose to lift her daughter from the high chair, pressing her to her hip. “I’m surprised,” she said. She, too, had seen Irene cry only once. “We were talking about the things my brother went through in foster care,” Shauna explained. “Our foster mother used to pick up my brother and throw him like a ball into the wall. She used to hold his head under toilet water, to the point of him almost giving up. We’d sit at the dinner table, and he had a speech impediment, so he couldn’t speak clearly. If he couldn’t say the word she wanted him to say, she wouldn’t give him food. I felt really guilty, because I was in second grade, and I would have to leave him when I went to school. And being so conditioned—don’t talk, don’t tell, don’t trust anybody, keep a secret—I never said anything, and so I carry a lot of that guilt. And those are only the things that I saw. There’s no telling what I didn’t see when I wasn’t there. It’s really hard for me to think about a lot of the things he went through. I look at him sometimes, and I’m just like, Could I have saved you? What more could I have done? I was old enough to convey that to somebody, and I didn’t.” When a foster father later molested Shauna, she had not said anything about this either, reasoning that at least her brother was safe.
Shauna set her daughter back down, returned to the sink, and soaped a glass with a sponge.
“I’ve seen my mom cry more times since prison than I did in my whole life,” she said. “She was always in control. You would think someone struggling with addiction would be out of control. But I still felt she could put down the pipe whenever she felt like it. As odd as it sounds, I always felt that she was in control of herself, but I also felt that she didn’t know how to find the answers she needed to move on with her life. She resorted to drugs as a kind of mask, but she always knew the truth.”
“What truth?” I asked.
“Just that life was a certain kind of way. Nothing was going to change. That she needed to find who she was.” Shauna rinsed the last dish, dried her hands, and came to sit. Her kids had gone to the living room, her baby fallen asleep. “I truly believe that going to prison helped save her,” she said. “I wasn’t regretful. A lot of people call me a snitch, but I didn’t look at it that way. I knew that if she continued on that path, she might die, and I’d much rather my mom go to jail than die.
“I remember my mom always said, ‘I’m not going to get old. I’m going to die young.’ Her time was always in the near future. It’s crazy to see that she’s, what, forty-nine this year? I’m like, Huh, you actually are getting old. I always wonder with all the dangerous things she does, when is it ever going to catch her? And then sometimes I think she’s untouchable. Sometimes I think she’ll never die. She really is such a free spirit. Trapped within herself, but a free spirit. I do believe she’s got a purpose in this world. I do believe that although she may not have been the ideal mom, her purpose is beyond being a mom.”
THERE WERE MANY things I still did not know about Lissa, although it had taken me some time to realize this. For a period, I had thought I knew her better than anyone I had ever known, and while this remained true—while even people I knew my entire life had never revealed themselves to me so intimately—I knew now there were doors I had overlooked, doors that had never been open to me. I had stumbled upon these doors by accident, in conversations with Lissa and her family. Most I chose not to open. Everyone should have their secrets, I thought, though on a few occasions I had made the mistake of stepping too close. Once, I angered Lissa for this reason. Later, she would say she had felt “like a little dog, barking” at me to step away. I believe this was the only time Lissa knowingly lied to me. The secret came out anyway: Shauna found her father.
For a while, I had thought Lissa’s trick was to blind you with honesty so that you could not see what hurt her. Then I realized that even Lissa was unsure of what had hurt her. Just as there were doors in her life closed to her children and to me, there were doors in her mother’s and grandmother’s lives closed to her as well. All her life Lissa had heard rumors, so she had a vague sense of where her family’s pain came from. But it was not the precise events that mattered to Lissa. “You know people talk about how your DNA remembers from previous generations,” she told me. “I wonder what role that played with me, because my whole life, I’ve never been a stable person. I could walk out of my life with young kids and everything. I could walk out of my life and not care. And I think about my mom, born in Elbowoods, a product of relocation. She was made to feel ashamed of who she was. She disconnected from her people, from me. I wonder, did that contribute to my inability to find the right path? I’m okay with my path, now. I can be accountable. But I want to have an understanding why, because somewhere I really lost my way.”
I was surprised to hear Lissa say this. Rarely in the time I spent with her had I heard her wonder about herself. She was tired of people asking why she cared so much about finding KC. She found it easier now just to say why she cared for finding missing people at all. There was the fact that, years ago, she easily could have gone missing herself. She also believed she was paying a debt to society, making up for harm she had caused. “You know, this makes me happy,” she told me once. “It makes me happy to help these people that have no hope left in this world.”
Over the years, her relatives had speculated to me on Lissa’s motivations. Obie said simply, “She does it because she wants to do it,” while Madeleine supposed her granddaughter had finally found “something that fulfills her.” Percy told me, “She’s just that kind of person who sets her mind on something, you know what I mean?” Her uncle Michael explained, “When Lissa first started, I was like, What are you looking for? Are you searching for yourself? Why are you doing this for strangers? But I watched her, and after a while, I realized her passion was back. People discover their purpose.”
I, too, speculated on Lissa’s reasons. The more time I spent with her, the more I realized that in certain ways we were not all that different. It was possible that what drew her into the lives of people she searched for was the same as what drew me into hers: We wanted to know what others knew, to feel what others felt.
“You want to know what drives Lisa?” her uncle Loren asked me once. I had asked him because I knew that among her relatives, Lissa felt particularly close to Loren. They were the same age and had spent much of their childhoods together; in adulthood, they shared similar hardships. “It’s her spirit, her determination to know,” Loren said. He could think of few people who had lived as fully as Lissa had. “She wants to understand, to have a good time, to laugh about it, to cry.”
Loren saw little difference between the woman his niece had been when she used drugs and the woman she was now. Once, years ago, she had brought him a gift—a jacket for his son. “She was on the run,” Loren recalled. “She was tweaking, and she said, ‘I got this for him.’ I said, ‘You hungry?’ She said, ‘No, I gotta go.’ ”
The point, Loren explained, was that even in the midst of her addiction, Lissa had thought of others. The drugs had never changed this part of who she was.
But now Loren pressed me to go further. He believed there was an answer neither of us had considered yet. “You want to know what drives Lisa?” he asked again. “What would make you do something that you didn’t have to do? What’s your breaking point? Maybe that’s what you should look at with her. Maybe she hit a breaking point. You know, when I look at what she’s been through, she had nobody to stand there, to pull her aside, to walk with her, to guide her. She had to find that within herself. And I prayed. I love her. I really do. You don’t even know how deep that love is. But when she was in that dark place, I couldn’t reach over and help her. I think that’s why people come to her now, because she knows—that, at some point, nobody is going to be there. Nobody. Nobody will be there. You’re going to be all by yourself.”
WHAT WAS HER breaking point—the moment at which she felt most alone? Two stories Lissa had told me came to mind.
In the first story, she had been in a coma, in a hospital room in Minot. She had swallowed a bottle of pills after her sons were taken from her and placed in foster care. This was her “overdose,” her attempt at suicide, which I had read about in her journal, but later she had shared with me a dream she had that day. She had dreamed of a room, of the walls glowing red, of people gathered on a set of risers. She stepped closer to the people and saw they were her relatives. Her grandfather was there, and a cousin who had died, and then, from behind them all, her great-grandmother appeared. Hey, this one, Nellie scolded, shooing Lissa away as she always did. What are you doing here? Go on. You don’t belong here. And suddenly Lissa had felt pain—a deep, old, shuddering pain—yanking her back to life.
The second story was not a dream. It was some years later, the summer before her trial. Lissa was out on bail, facing years in prison. She had decided Shauna would be fine on her own; CJ would live with his dad; but no one had yet offered to take Micah and Obie, who were six and seven years old. Lissa feared they would go to live with a strange family, where they would be shamed and touched, tossed headfirst into walls. Where they would lose their breath into toilet water, or, if they were lucky, be loved. There was one more option Lissa thought of. She gave her sons a choice: Either they would go to foster care, or she would kill them and herself. Micah wanted to join his mother. Obie was not sure. But it was Shauna who stopped them all. Shauna who heard them talking. Shauna who begged Irene, who asked Dennis to take the boys. Shauna who kept her mother alive once more—who kept her mother from becoming a murderer.
Now I understood: Her breaking point was her children. It was their living that made Lissa want to live, their loss that made her lose herself. Did she regret the suicide pact, I asked her once? It took her a long time to respond. Finally, Lissa said, “I regret putting my kids mentally through it, but I don’t regret the decision, and I would probably make that decision again if it were put in front of me.” To kill her children would have been unspeakable, an act of cowardice and madness and love, but Lissa would have wanted people to speak it. She would have wanted people to say, “A mother murdered her children,” and she would have wanted people to wonder why, and in that wondering, she would have hoped they considered what she saw at that time: that she could not bear the possibility that her children be tortured by tortured people. That she had wanted only to save them from the violence that went on and on and on.
SURVIVING AND LIVING are different things. I learned this from Lissa. It was after Lissa survived that she chose to live, and it was when she chose to live that she emptied her body of her pain, and in its absence was so large a chasm that she could fit the grief of the world inside, become the keeper of others’ pain.
Not everyone was capable of healing themselves, she told me. There was, for one, her uncle Chucky. He had wanted to get better, had read all the self-help books, the latest theories and science. Sometimes he had made his nieces and younger siblings sit with him as he listened to cassette tapes. Adult Children of Alcoholics, the series was called. You see, Chucky seemed to be saying. There is a reason I am this way. But maybe that was his trouble, Lissa thought. He clung to his pain, his explanation. He would not let it go. This was the paradox of trauma: To heal from it, you had to know where it came from and then, in a sense, disbelieve it. You had to trust you were more than the damage done to you. No matter how much others made you suffer, you had to cease seeing yourself as a victim.
Lissa did not blame Chucky for this. “At some point, we’re going to have to realize that there are some people that are not going to recover, so for us to expect that is unreasonable,” she told me. The morning Chucky died, he had shared with her the source of his grief. He had chosen to tell her, he explained, because he knew that it would not change the way she thought about their family. He knew she would go on loving their relatives nonetheless.
It was the ugliness Chucky wanted her to carry. Everyone would see the beauty after he was gone. “There was a lot of good things about Chucky,” Lissa told me. “We all knew that part. Let’s talk about the time he was laying in the ditch with pissy pants, and nobody wanted to touch him. Let’s talk about that time, because we should learn to love each other enough that that doesn’t make a difference. If you’ve got to change pissy pants thirty to forty to two hundred times to see that person out of this miserable life and transition them to another place, then so be it. I want to learn something from that. I want everyone to learn something from that. I don’t want to just glorify Chucky, who he was at his good times. There’s a whole lifetime of hurt that he carried, and I heard about that in those last moments of his life. Let’s not forget that part. Let’s not forget the pain he carried a whole lifetime that ultimately got the best of him. He saw no way out. Why? Let’s talk about how we could make somebody else’s life better. He would have wanted it that way. That’s why I told him, Uncle, I don’t want you to die alone. Pissy pants is nothing. Laying in the ditch—that’s nothing. All that can be cleaned up. I want to sit there with you, because there’s something to be learned from this. I want to share that pain with you, because when you leave this earthly physical being, I don’t want you to feel like you’re the only one.”