Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 5: What Good Is Money if You End Up in Hell | Part 1)
IN THE WINTER OF 2013, the oil boom slowed in North Dakota. Although the price of oil remained high, at ninety dollars a barrel, companies would drill only the wells they had begun or those where their leases would soon expire. Many workers fled south to oil fields in Oklahoma and Texas, while those who remained braced themselves for the cold. They skirted campers with plywood, stuffed scraps of insulation into makeshift walls, lined the insides of huts with emergency blankets, and reinforced windows with duct tape and sheet plastic. They installed propane heaters, praying they would not leak. They lived as many tribal members lived, burning what fuel they could find.
Snow came. The roads iced over like plates of glass, causing semis to jackknife across the highways.
Lissa visited the reservation almost every weekend, though the snow made it difficult to search for KC on foot. Instead, she drove, stopping here and there to take photographs. She took particular interest in the tribal dwellings she passed that winter: in one image, a pale-yellow shed; in another, a concrete bunker with plastic sealing the windows; then an old blue clapboard, the paint peeling; and a trailer set crookedly in its lot. Later, when asked why she had taken the photographs, Lissa would say she was documenting “our oil-rich reservation.” The irony of the season had not been lost on her—that while many reservation families struggled to heat their homes, the oil that once had lain beneath their feet had gone to keep others warm.
She often stopped in White Shield to visit her grandmother Madeleine. Since Lissa’s first summer out of prison, the tribe had built Madeleine a new house—a single-story white house at the end of the same dirt lane, with a window looking east over fields and sloughs past the border of the reservation. The farmhouse Madeleine lived in previously had been coming apart for years, crawling with freeloaders that rambled in from the prairie—mice that scurried through cracks in the walls and snakes that crept through the plumbing. The snakes in particular were a problem. They bobbed in the toilet bowl and climbed the curtains in the living room. Once, when Irene asked Lissa to fetch beets from the cellar, Lissa had gone down barefoot, and when she pulled the chain that dangled from a light at the bottom, the snakes had writhed and scattered. Lissa had screamed. An uncle laughed from the top of the stairs. “Better put some shoes on,” he warned. Lissa suspected it was because of the snakes, and the mold, that the tribe had granted Madeleine a new house. She suspected also that the tribe had taken pity on her grandmother for having lost her oldest son.
Chucky’s death had shocked the family. Even Lissa, whom he told of his intent to die, experienced a strange lack of feeling whenever she visited White Shield after he was gone. It was as if, in dying, her uncle had clipped the thread that bound her memory to the reservation, and now the two existed separately for her, parallel but never touching. Her grandmother’s new house felt too sterile, and the old farmhouse, though it remained standing, and though an uncle had moved in and filled the rooms with his belongings, seemed emptier than it had ever been, a museum of forgotten objects.
The first family reunion after Chucky’s death, in the summer of 2012, had been a smaller gathering than usual. Lissa’s children in particular seemed less eager to accompany her on trips to Fort Berthold. “I like the reservation,” Micah said once, “but it’s kind of like a restaurant you don’t have in town. It’s like Big Boy. It’s great every once in a while, you look forward to it, but you don’t want it in your city, because it kills the fun.”
If asked where they were from, all of Lissa’s children replied, “White Shield,” but Lissa could not deny that they were city kids—and now, with Chucky gone, and the family overcome with grief, the reservation did not seem as fun to them anymore. Even Obie, always eager to see his grandpa Dennis, who had left Fargo and moved back to the reservation, appeared to have lost interest in visiting. On a recent visit, Obie had been shamed for taking bacon from the breakfast table before his elders had been served.
Lissa did not mind going alone. In winter, the cottonwoods faded in the bottoms of the coulees, and the grass was cut to its stiff, sharp stems, and the prairie turned gray and brittle. The weather shifted wildly. Some days were warm, the next mornings cold, the snow so dry it blew away in a light wind. Madeleine’s house thronged with relatives. Lissa’s aunt Cheryl had moved in, and there were more cousins than Lissa could count, who trailed babies through all the rooms. Lissa rarely went to the old farmhouse anymore. Once, when she passed by, she had peeked in Chucky’s bedroom and noticed his furniture had not been moved.
“There’s too many spirits in there,” Dennis told Lissa. Dennis wanted to burn the house down, and Lissa agreed. If the house was gone, her memories might return to her, she thought, but as it was, Lissa felt nothing for the house, and this nothing reminded her of her family’s loss.
“At least when it’s gone you can romanticize it,” she said. “I’d rather it be ‘the house that used to be there’ than have to look at it and feel nothing.”
THE NEW HOUSE was the fourth Madeleine had occupied since moving to White Shield in 1953. Her first house had been an old clapboard, dragged up from the bottomlands and propped on cinder blocks just in time for the flood. Then she had moved across the street, to a cluster of homes the government built for relocated families. In 1981, when Madeleine and Willard bought their third home, the old farmhouse, they turned the second house into a store. YB’s, they called it. They sold candy, pop, and sandwiches, which you could not get from the government commodity truck that delivered rations monthly to White Shield, and eggs and meat they raised on the land they had purchased, where they resurrected the old farm. In addition to chickens and hogs, they kept horses and planted gardens from which they harvested and preserved much of their own food. Lissa’s generation of Yellow Birds helped on the farm but more often roamed the property. They tied belts around the hogs, loose enough to slip a hand underneath, and took bets on who would hold on longest. In the summertime, they swam in sloughs and rode horses to the lake, where they played along the banks. Sometimes their elders joined them there and told stories from the years before the flood. It was not far from shore where Nishu and the other villages had been—where the schools and churches and forests had been—so one could imagine, looking out on the lake, another world beneath the water.
It was this world Madeleine had tried to replicate when she and Willard bought the old farmhouse. She had been raised some miles north of Nishu, on the road to Garrison, where her family grew carrots, corn, potatoes, peas, and rutabagas, and raised hogs for bacon and cows for cream, which they delivered to Nishu. Madeleine spent much of her childhood in Nishu with her grandfather, Clair Everett, and grandmother, Fannie Bear, who lived in a frame house on a bluff overlooking a slough. Below the house were thickets of chokecherries, Juneberries, plums, and gooseberries, which her grandparents harvested and preserved, and forests so lush and tall that nothing grew beneath them. Here, in the springtime, Clair came to hunt, departing the house before dawn, and often when Madeleine woke, a duck would be roasting in the oven.
Clair Everett’s original name had been Elk Tongue, but in 1901, when he was nine years old, a government agent rounded up children from Fort Berthold and placed them in boarding schools. Elk Tongue had been sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where the superintendent was a U.S. Army captain, Richard Pratt, famous for his punitive pedagogy: “Kill the Indian and save the man.” If students spoke a native language, teachers beat them or washed their mouths with lye soap. Elk Tongue, who spoke only Arikara when he arrived, was severely punished. One day, he went with some younger boys to a pigpen on the school property, where older boys had been riding a sow and, by accident, killed her. The older boys told the younger ones to say yes when asked if they had done it, tricking them into believing that “yes,” in English, meant no. And so the younger boys admitted falsely to killing the sow and were whipped and deprived of food. They quickly learned English. After five years at Carlisle, Elk Tongue returned to the reservation as Clair Everett, and in 1936, he would be among the first men elected to serve on the new tribal council.
He still spoke Arikara, though rarely around Madeleine, who learned words but never became fluent. She did not blame her grandfather for this. As Madeleine later understood it, her elders were protecting her from the shame and punishment they and their own elders endured. For decades, Indian agents had kept tribes from practicing their traditional ceremonies, and in 1887, Congress codified the ban, allowing agents to arrest holy men. What ceremonies the Arikara carried on they practiced in the privacy of their homes. Many of these ceremonies made use of bundles, assemblies of sacred objects wrapped in wool blankets, each containing at least a pipe, tobacco, and an ear of Mother Corn. There were many of these bundles—for childbirth, for women, for men, for each of the twelve Arikara clans—but those containing the most power were the medicine bundles, capable of healing physical and spiritual wounds. Clair kept several medicine bundles, having inherited their stewardship from his parents, and their use was documented by Melvin Gilmore, a white anthropologist who visited Fort Berthold in the 1920s. One bundle contained bear medicine, which treated fractures and injuries to the abdomen. Another comforted mourners after a death in the tribe—“to wipe away their tears,” Gilmore wrote. In one of these ceremonies, a holy man retold the Arikara origin story, and when he came to a part at which death entered the world, the women began to wail. Then, all at once, the women stopped. Together, the mourners smoked a pipe contained in the bundle, and one by one they stepped forward, wrapping their lips around the ear of Mother Corn and drinking from a mussel shell dipped in tea. They spit the tea into their hands and washed their faces in its medicine.
Madeleine was born a few years after Gilmore recorded the ceremony but would never witness anything like it. When she was six years old, her parents enrolled her in a missionary school in Elbowoods, the reservation town fifteen miles west of Nishu, where she hardly noticed that students were forbidden from speaking their native language, since most had never learned their language anyway. Madeleine was a devout Catholic. She recited the rosary every morning and rarely missed Mass. For high school, she returned to Nishu, where she met Willard Yellow Bird, who served in the military for two years following the Second World War. When he returned, he and Madeleine married and had their first child, Irene.
In 1948, the year that the Three Affiliated Tribes signed a contract with the U.S. government approving the Garrison Dam, Madeleine gave birth to Chucky. With young children, she had no time to attend meetings about the dam, so what little she knew she heard from her father, Ben Young Bird, who had been elected to the tribal council. By then, the dam was inevitable, the council grasping at any rights it could salvage from the designs of U.S. congressmen. In 1952, Ben made several trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby for a bill ensuring that the mineral rights beneath the lake would be returned to the tribe and that landowners would be able to go on grazing their horses and cattle along the banks. The bill succeeded.
By 1954, 586 graves had been dug from the bottomlands and reburied. That March, pools formed in the Nishu lowlands, and a newsletter issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs warned of the coming flood: “When the spring runoff starts coming down the Missouri River, the waters will rise rapidly.” The first village to flood would be Beaver Creek, and then Red Butte, and then Nishu: “The Nishu School will be flooded in June. The road from Albert White Calf’s old place, east three miles, and the old Fort Berthold Public School, will be flooded sometime during July. The old Rapp Store and the Lucky Mound Corner will be under water about the first of June….By August, the bridge at Lucky Mound, the bridge at Shell Creek and Sully’s Lake will be flooded….By December, the site of Elbowoods will be under some 55 feet of water.”
Madeleine and Willard moved to White Shield. There were no trees or coulees to block the wind, and whenever they went outside, the cold cut through their clothing. Many people would cry for their loss, but not Madeleine, who in those years did not cry much at all. “I felt really sad about it,” she would say, “but, you know, when the government wants something, they take it.”
NOT LONG AFTER Madeleine moved into the newest house, the basement flooded, destroying boxes of old photographs. Among the few that had been saved was a portrait of Madeleine and Willard taken a year before Irene was born. They stood by a fence in Elbowoods on a blustery day, Madeleine in heels and a dark, slim dress, Willard in a button-down and an undershirt. They were close but not touching, laughing but in different ways. Willard cast his eyes to the ground, while Madeleine looked straight into the camera.
A relative made copies of the photograph and distributed them at the reunion one summer. Lissa hung hers above the desk in her apartment, where she saw it whenever she walked in. “Grandpa’s got that shy, puppy love,” she observed, “and she’s just like, What’s up? And look at them shoes! Grandma was stylin’.”
The circumstances of the photograph added to its nostalgia. Lissa felt proud of having come from such handsome people, but her pride was muddied by the bitterness of knowing how soon her grandparents’ lives changed. After the flood, the unemployment rate on the reservation rose to 70 percent. The only jobs available were with the Bureau or the tribe, and the tribe’s only income came from federal appropriations, the leasing of its pastures, and several small settlements it had lobbied for and won to account for the loss of the bottomlands. Never had the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara been so dependent on the U.S. government. Since the land to which they had been moved was dry and infertile, families no longer grew their own food, relying on surplus “commodities” such as flour, oil, canned vegetables, and processed cheese and meat. Some families tried to live on the land allotted to them, but without water or electricity or neighbors around, the living was almost impossible. In 1967, 81 percent of people living on the reservation had to haul water to their homes from a half mile or more away. Most families moved to housing clusters such as those in White Shield, erected in each reservation segment, or to already established towns, like New Town and Parshall. Willard drove buses for the White Shield school and worked for the tribe, and although YB’s drew some income, Madeleine was generous with credit, particularly toward relatives who could not afford food. The store lost money, and in 2000, two years after Willard died, Madeleine shut the store down.
It was due to this poverty that Lissa’s grandmother believed the drinking set in. Lissa had heard various theories about the drinking. Some said it had been a problem since fur traders brought liquor to the plains, while others thought it began with World War II. No one denied the war had made it worse. Among various men who returned from the war, drinking was a common pastime. Madeleine had three uncles who fought in France and in Okinawa, and the one her age—sixteen when he left—came home an alcoholic. He had developed a taste for liquor in battle, he told her, thinking it would make him braver. Madeleine believed him, though she did not believe the war was wholly or even largely to blame. Her husband had never gone to war, nor had her father, and both drank. Madeleine blamed the drinking on the flood.
When Lissa was born in 1968, White Shield had existed for sixteen years. Her memory of the reservation began four years later, after her stepfather, Willy Phillips, was murdered in Oakland, and she returned to North Dakota with her mother.
In Bismarck, Irene worked as a secretary at a tribal college while Lissa attended school. Lissa spent many weekends in White Shield, the reservation largely foreign to her. She was two years younger than her mother’s other child, Cory, whom Madeleine had taken to raise as her own son, and roughly the same age as her uncles Loren and Rodney. The four of them went everywhere together. To wander so freely across the reservation was a novelty to Lissa, and she moved with righteous curiosity. In Bismarck, she had few relatives apart from an aunt and cousin who lived in an adjacent apartment, so she spent much of her time in the company of her mother’s friends, most of them white lawyers and professors. Lissa was good at making conversation with these friends, at offering coffee when they visited and answering their questions, but she never felt the city belonged to her in the way the reservation did.
The longer Lissa lived between the city and the reservation, the more complicated her perception of both places became. Lissa was the only Native American in her first-grade class, so each return to Bismarck felt like a return to hostile territory. The students called her “yellow turd,” “yellow piss,” “blackie,” “blanket ass,” and “squaw.” Often boys followed her home, yelling “Indians are dirty” and “Indians are drunks.”
The more Lissa heard these things, the more she believed they were true, and each time she returned to the reservation, it revealed itself to her in sharper relief. She saw that some of her relatives were indeed dirty; that their hair was long and uncombed; that their houses were crowded and in disarray. She noticed empty liquor bottles, the relatives off-kilter, heard whisperings that so-and-so drank himself to sleep.
The reservation became her paradox, a source of her shame but also the place where she felt most free. In a sense, the reservation saved her. One day in Bismarck, when she was six years old, the boys who followed her from school caught up. They punched her, pulled her hair, tore apart her shoes. As soon as Irene took one look at Lissa, she had gone searching for the boys, and when she did not find them, she called a friend, a lawyer, who threatened to sue the school on her behalf. Irene also called her dad, Willard, and when Lissa returned to White Shield the next weekend, her uncles had been ready. They padded her fists with socks and cinched tape around her wrists. They showed her how to kick and punch and how to slip from choke holds. All that weekend they had fought, in the fields and in the house, and the next week, when the boys followed Lissa home again, she hurt them, and they ran away.
Her mother would say Lissa had been a precocious child before she could even speak. At seven months old—when Irene regained custody—Lissa learned to propel herself out of her crib. At eight months, she learned to walk, and then it had not seemed long before Lissa spoke in whole sentences. She plied Irene with questions, her curiosity unflagging, and she was clever, always discovering ways to thwart her mother’s rules. After Bismarck, they had moved to Minot, where Irene enrolled again in college. She would often try to study at night after she put Lissa to bed, but instead of sleeping, Lissa would lie awake with a handheld mirror, cocked at an angle to watch her mother work. Lissa had so much energy as a child that she often got in trouble in school. Her mother took her to psychologists, one of whom recommended testing and, upon seeing the results, concluded that Lissa was bored, her intelligence unusually high.
When Lissa was young, these qualities endeared people to her, but as she grew older, her precociousness hardened into defiance, and her defiance broke into a reckless rage that scared even her own mother. Lissa was thirteen when they moved to Milwaukee with Irene’s husband, Wayne White Eagle, where she developed a habit of pulling fire alarms and stealing her mother’s things. Among the items she stole were photographs Irene had saved to make an album to give to Lissa when she was older, but Lissa had resolved to not grow old, to kill herself or disappear, and it was not long after they arrived in Milwaukee that Lissa ran away. She was found living with a Laotian family in another part of the city. When Lissa refused to come home, Irene called her brother Chucky for advice, who told her to report the family to Lutheran Social Services. It worked; the family kicked Lissa out. She was sent to South Dakota, to the Flandreau Indian School, and then to Fort Berthold to live with her uncle Michael. When her mother got a job in behavioral science at the medical school in Grand Forks, Lissa joined her there. One day, Lissa and Irene got in a fight. Irene fell, and Wayne called the police. Lissa was committed to a psychiatric ward, where she remained for weeks until Michael came and got her. She was sixteen years old.
If the reservation had been her paradox when she was younger, as she grew older, it became her only constant. In all her flitting from one city to another, the reservation always took her back.
After the fight with her mother, Lissa took a break from school, and it was decided among her relatives that she would care for her great-grandmother, Nellie Red Fox. Nellie was bone-thin, hard as a statue, with a prominent nose and a wide, square jaw and eyes that blinked like a deer’s. She wore cataract glasses on account of her diabetes, the lenses shaped like marbles sliced in half. As a child, Lissa made fun of the glasses that so many elders on the reservation wore, which made them all look like bugs. When the glasses had fallen out of fashion, Lissa had wondered, Did the aliens claim their people? But Lissa knew where the glasses came from: They came from the flood, which had brought diabetes by replacing farms with convenience stores and commodity trucks and by destroying the hospital, which the U.S. government had promised, but had yet, to replace.
The year Lissa moved in with her great-grandmother, Nellie’s diabetes worsened. Her toe became infected and then was amputated, and Nellie was bound to a wheelchair. Each morning, as Lissa later wrote in her journal, “Grandma would wheel herself into my room.”
“Say! You can’t sleep all day,” all whipping some kind of towel or material at me because her chair couldn’t get close enough for her to wiggle me to get my attention. She would get me on task. “So and so is going to be here today, so straighten up. Make some coffee. Boil some meat.” She would get on the phone and start to check in with people. “Say, are you coming?” She would dial up someone else on her rotary phone. “Say! This is Nellie. Are you going to stop over?” “Say” was her favorite word to get your attention.
Nellie’s husband, Charles Yellow Bird, had died years before the flood attempting to save two boys who fell in the river. But Nellie never seemed lonely. She recruited her grandchildren to chauffeur her across the reservation to visit relatives or to attend prayer meetings. Sometimes these meetings were Arikara ceremonies, but more often they were Christian revivals, where devotees laid hands on one another’s backs and sang and spoke in tongues. Nellie was not particularly religious—no one heard her say anything about Jesus—but her family understood the Holy Rollers gave her back something she had lost: if not spiritualism, then the company of other Indians all wailing and singing at once.
She was a social woman, the life of the party. She liked to laugh at the white rock stars who twisted their hips and shook their butts and sang in funny voices on TV. She spoiled her grandchildren, most of all Irene, but with Lissa, whom Nellie resented for causing her favorite grandchild so much trouble, she was stern. “Leetza,” she called Lissa. Arikara was Nellie’s first language. She could not pronounce the soft i in Lissa’s name, and since the Yellow Birds deferred to Nellie, their matriarch, even Irene started calling her own daughter “Lisa.”
One June day, Nellie commanded Lissa to bring her a scrap of paper, on which she sketched the leaves of a wild turnip plant and sent Lissa out to dig. Lissa did not want to, but her great-grandmother scared her, so she did what she was told. She had never dug turnips before and at first struggled with a shovel to pierce the clay earth; then a neighbor gave her a pitchfork, which made the digging easier. Lissa filled two coffee cans with turnips. That night, Nellie showed her how to trim the stems and peel the skin, revealing the bright, white flesh, and how to braid the long roots into a rope, which they hung on the kitchen wall.
After that, Nellie was kinder toward Lissa. As her diabetes worsened, infection spread to her foot and then her leg. One day, after another amputation, a man visited the house. Lissa remembered this man clearly: He was short and wore a jacket and carried a rolled wool blanket. When he handed the blanket to Nellie, she cradled it like a baby and then pressed it to her face and cried.
Lissa never saw inside the blanket, but her grandfather, Willard, explained it to her afterward. He told her the visitor was Bobby Bear, the hereditary chief of the Arikara people and keeper of a medicine bundle. Then he told her that Nellie would die soon and that Lissa should return to school. He gave her a loan of $2,000. In the fall, Lissa moved to Bismarck where she lived with an uncle and then on her own. In June 1987, before her nineteenth birthday, she earned a GED. She gave birth to Shauna that August and started college in Grand Forks. A year later, her great-grandmother died.