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 2)
NOW IT WAS January 2013, and the oil boom still had not come to White Shield despite rumors that it would. An oil company had leased land on the west edge of the segment, though by the time the company gathered the resources to bid, most of the reservation had been leased. According to seismic reports, White Shield had little oil. The leases there were table scraps—land no other company wanted.
Irene preferred it this way. She saw how the boom was changing the north and west segments of the reservation, and she was grateful—or, at the very least, hopeful—that White Shield would be spared. Altogether, Irene had lived on Fort Berthold only a few years since she left at age eighteen, but she planned on moving back when she retired from her job as a professor of social work at Minot State University. There, every semester for twenty-two years, she had lectured a new class of students on the less heroic foundations of their country—on Indian boarding schools and genocide—and every year, some of her students could not believe that either ever happened.
It relieved Irene to go home to the reservation where few people questioned these things. Of course, not everyone agreed with her on everything. For instance, while she hoped the boom would never come to White Shield, many tribal members regarded the drilling rigs across the lake with jealousy. “Jeez, we were born in the wrong stars,” Irene heard them say. “Jeez, those Hidatsas got money over there.”
In fact, some tribal members who lived in White Shield received royalties for land they owned in Mandaree. Their checks varied in size—some large, $10,000 or more, and some very small—which swelled and shrank with the price of oil and were inversely proportional to the size of one’s family. The larger the family, the greater the fractionation, the less a person earned in royalties. Most Arikara families were like the Yellow Birds in that they received little to no royalties, but there were a few exceptions. There was the man and his aunt who one day appeared at Madeleine’s door with a crate of meat and said, “This is for you.” And there was Candace, Irene’s cousin, who had always been less fortunate, since so many of her relatives had died or gone to prison. To put herself through college, Candace made and sold crafts, but with the boom, her luck had turned. “Irene, did you hear?” she said one day when they saw each other at a wake. Candace was now earning $85,000 a month and already had spent a large portion of the money on cars for her kids.
Jeez, that would be nice, Irene thought, but to Candace, she said, “Let me tell you this: If anybody deserves that money, you do, because you had to put up with so much over the years, and nobody was there to help you.”
Candace was also charitable toward her elders, and whenever she saw Madeleine in town, she reached into her wallet for a hundred-dollar bill. “Grandma, is there anything you need?” she would say. Madeleine always assured Candace she did not need anything, but once, when Candace insisted, Madeleine mentioned her grandson was in the hospital and could use a laptop. Candace gave Madeleine a thousand dollars.
These tales of generosity spread across White Shield: A man shuttled people to AA meetings. An elder gave her money to Saint Anthony Catholic Church. Another woman, before she died, donated to the American Legion, while a man bought a vehicle for the addiction treatment center in Parshall, and his sister hired a bus to carry elders to casinos in South Dakota. Irene’s best friend, Evangeline, bought Pendletons and star quilts to give to those who could not afford gifts for the pallbearers at their funerals.
As Irene put it, it was the “way of our people” to help those in need. These were also the ways, she sometimes complained, of people who had more money than they knew what to do with. When her friends posted photographs on Facebook of vacations in Mexico and Hawaii, Irene wondered when their fortunes would run out. Most tribal members appeared to spend their money on harmless things, but some, she knew, spent it on drugs. With all the new money around, drugs were proliferating on the reservation. Irene knew of a man in Minneapolis, an addict who earned $30,000 a month and blew each check in a matter of weeks. Sometimes, he asked her sister Cheryl for a loan. “Can you give me forty dollars until my check comes?” he would say, and Cheryl would wire him the money. He never paid her back.
The story disturbed Madeleine. “Gee, he could be helping people instead of killing himself or the people he’s with,” she griped to her daughters. “You know it says in the Bible, What good is money if you end up in Hell?”
Madeleine was not fond of the boom, but her distance from it by living in White Shield had seemed to foster, more than anything, indifference. She was glad some families were getting a break after suffering for so long, and she appreciated her friends’ generosity. Irene, on the other hand, believed her mother was blind to the darker ways the boom was changing their community—to the ways it had changed even their own family.
It was Irene who noticed when her mother’s spoons went missing, who said one day in her blunt manner, “Mom, your son is using. He’s taking your spoons and using them for drugs.”
“Oh my,” Madeleine replied.
No one could blame Madeleine for failing to notice something unfamiliar to her. Lissa liked to joke that her grandmother could not tell the difference between sage and marijuana: “She smells weed, and she’s like, Gee, that’s good. My kids are praying.” But to Irene, at least, the change was obvious: Alcohol was becoming a side note to more devastating addictions.
If the flood had tethered the people to the same past, money was dividing them by their futures.
And it was not only tribal members suffering the impacts of the boom. “You know a white boy went missing from Mandaree,” Lissa announced one day. “He went missing from Tex’s place.”
Now even Irene did not know how to respond. Madeleine simply replied, “Oh my,” and no one said anything after that.
WHENEVER LISSA VISITED the new house in White Shield, she sat in the living room or at the kitchen table and talked over the din of the television, or if the day was warm, she went out on the porch, drank coffee and smoked cigarettes, and watched pelicans lift up from the sloughs. Her visits had become easier since the first reunion after her release from prison, but they were not exactly comfortable. For one thing, her mother, who wore her hair in a tight perm, still regarded Lissa distantly, as if at any moment she might pull a childhood stunt. The rest of her discomfort Lissa owed to how hot her relatives kept the house during the winter. The heat made Lissa want to shout, “Mitákuye oyás’in!” like one did in the sweat lodge before the holy man threw open the door.
Lissa rarely mentioned KC to her mother. The first time she did, it seemed that Irene did not hear. The second time, Irene replied, “You better be careful. These people are not good people. They could come after you or somebody in our family.” Madeleine had agreed.
Lissa recognized in their warnings a fear so familiar to her that she regarded it as its own species of fear, endemic to the reservation. “When you leave back to Fargo, we still have to be here,” her relatives said, as if Lissa’s distance shielded her from the political reality of reservation life. In a certain sense it did: The tribe provided almost everything on Fort Berthold—work, shelter, lunch for elders, grants to pay medical bills or attend the Indian National Finals Rodeo. People said it paid to be a friend of a councilman or, better yet, family, and if friend became foe, the consequences could be grave. “You remember Evangeline,” Irene said—Irene’s best friend who once spent a winter in a tipi outside her tribally owned house after someone in tribal government locked her out on a grudge.
Still, Lissa knew it was not just out of fear that her relatives warned her—they also respected Tex Hall. His reputation had grown in the year since Wayne, Irene’s husband, died. Recently, a photo had circulated of Tex shaking President Obama’s hand at a White House Christmas party, and it seemed, anyway, that he spent more days traveling to Washington, D.C., and other cities than at the tribal headquarters. The boom had given him this power, in part, with Fort Berthold already producing a fifth of the oil coming from North Dakota. Tex wielded this fact like a club, threatening to pull out of a state tax agreement if the legislature did not amend it in the tribe’s favor. He had come to be seen by many as a gatekeeper to the reservation. To do business on Fort Berthold, it was rumored, one had to win his favor. This was of little consequence to the Yellow Birds, none of whom worked in the industry, but it mattered to them that Tex was powerful and, more important, that he was family.
“Tex, I admire him!” Irene told Lissa one day. “He is a leader in a lot of different ways. But when people start going up the ladder, you know, sometimes they start losing their mind as far as greed is concerned. You be careful. There’s different layers to people, and sometimes we don’t know all the layers. These people he’s working with, they could go after you.”
HER RELATIVES’ DEFENSE of Tex disturbed Lissa. Even if their chairman was not responsible for the disappearance of a man from his property, should they not hold him accountable to find out who was? And if James was responsible, then why did they not worry that a murderer was at large on their reservation, enabled and enriched by their chairman?
Lissa wondered if her relatives even believed her. No doubt it was hard for them to imagine that Tex could be involved in something so sinister, but the way they averted their eyes when she shared the story with them made Lissa suspect they were even more loath to believe it for the fact that it had come from her. She hated to feel disbelieved. She brimmed with an old anger as her memory ushered forward old complaints: Everyone was suppressing their pain with something, Lissa thought. Madeleine buried hers in the church, prayed it away with beads and rosaries, while Irene hardly seemed to do anything but work. Even Michael, who had taken Lissa in so many times, and whom she called her “dad,” had his own methods of escape, she believed. He had been a professor at universities all over the country, and by the time he returned to direct the Tribal and Indigenous Peoples Studies program at North Dakota State University in Fargo, he had taken up traditional methods of meditation. The way Michael put it, he was “decolonizing” his mind. He wrote books on the subject, delivered lectures around the world. He believed that by returning to spiritual ceremonies and contemplative practices, Indigenous people could rewire their brains to heal from the trauma of colonialism. “Neurodecolonization” he called it, as if you could will the settlers to leave your body, exorcise their whiteness right out of you.
What her dad said made sense to Lissa, and she had been influenced by his thinking. She admitted that, at times in her life, she had felt proud of her relatives’ successes, their piety.
But now, suddenly, she resented it all. The rosary beads. The university titles. The fancy words used to describe the Indian Condition. These seemed to her like props in a performance meant to trick an audience into believing everything was okay. But everything was not okay. What was wrong with plain suffering, with showing the world how much you hurt? This, Lissa decided, was why she had drawn so close to her uncle Chucky. While others hid their shame under glossy exteriors, Chucky had not tried to hide his anymore. Chucky had suffered in the open.
In the final year of his life, his slip toward death had become a march, louder and more determined. He had begun to pass out standing up. Lissa saw him in this state only a few times, but her relatives told her it happened often. Some no longer seemed to notice when Chucky fell, numbed by the regularity of his drinking.
One day, while Lissa was visiting White Shield, Chucky passed out in a ditch by her grandmother’s house. Lissa went to look. His pants were wet, so she returned inside and laid towels on Chucky’s bed. A cousin helped her carry their uncle to his room, where, with the gentle precision of a hospice nurse, Lissa stripped his clothes, bundled them, and stuck them in a bag. In the kitchen she found a pair of latex gloves, which she wore as she scrubbed the mess from his skin. She rolled him onto his back and washed him again, pulling the towels from beneath him and lifting his torso to straighten the bedsheet. Over his groin she laid a hand towel. Then she went outside and scoured the dirty towels with a hose.
The next time Chucky fell in a ditch, Lissa had been in Fargo. Her relatives told her their versions of the story—how Chucky had been drinking when an acquaintance pushed him out of a car not far from his mother’s house. Madeleine and Irene had gone out for an errand, and when they returned to the house, they found Chucky inside, still drunk. He lunged at his sister, pulling on her perm, as Madeleine yelled for him to stop. He spent that night in a mental health clinic in Minot, where Lissa reached him by phone.
“I pulled your mom’s wig out,” he said.
“I heard,” Lissa said. “That’s fucked up, Uncle, but kind of funny.”
Chucky did not remember the fight. He knew only what he had been told—that he had yanked on his sister’s curls, and then his mother had leapt up and they all fell to the floor, and he had kicked someone in the face.
“Come down here to Fargo,” Lissa said.
“No, you’re sober. I don’t want to do that to you.”
“I tell you what, they opened a wet house here,” where he could drink but still have shelter. “Let’s get you a room. That way we know you’re safe. It’s too cold for you to be just running around anyway.”
“Seriously, Uncle. If you want to die, go ahead. You’re grown. You said that before, and that’s your decision, but I just want to be there with you.”
Chucky did not call Lissa when he arrived in Fargo. She heard he was there from an aunt, whom he had visited in Bismarck.
“Shit, nobody even told me,” Lissa said when her aunt called. After her aunt hung up, Lissa tried to call Chucky, but he had lent his cell phone to a cousin. Finally, Chucky called her from a hotel bar. He would not tell her which hotel.
“I’m drinking,” he said. “I don’t want you to come over here.”
“I’ll come sit with you,” said Lissa.
“You’re on probation.”
“Fuck probation. I want to know where you’re at,” she said, but still Chucky refused.
After he left the bar, he called Lissa again from his hotel room. She pleaded with him to tell her where he was, but he would not. He told her he would die that night, so Lissa borrowed Micah’s phone and kept her uncle on one line while she dialed relatives on the other. It was late; no one answered. Now and then, Chucky fell quiet, and in these pauses, Lissa dialed every hotel in the Fargo phone book. None had a Charles Yellow Bird.
At five A.M., her phone shut off. She was still in her clothes from the day before. She brewed a pot of coffee and took Obie and Micah to school.
She had made Chucky promise to call her again, to meet her for breakfast, but he did not. Just after eleven o’clock, Lissa received a call from a relative she had tried to contact the previous night. Chucky had been found in his hotel room, the relative said.
Two days after her uncle’s body had been returned to the reservation, Lissa went by the hotel where her relative said he died. It was one she had dialed while she spoke to Chucky, a grim building with a hallway like a basement corridor. “You’re sure he’s not there,” she had pleaded with the clerk, but now she knew why the clerk had said he was not: He had checked in as “Charles Bird.”
Lissa passed the clerk without stopping and walked straight to the door of the room where she was told he had been. “Can I help you?” a janitor asked. Lissa explained; the janitor nodded and said he was sorry. Did she want him to open the room?
“No,” she said.
She stood at the door, thinking of her uncle’s body. She had been told the belt left no marks. The ceiling was low, so he had landed on a knee, kneeling as if before a woman, or God, his arms lifted slightly and stiffened by his sides. It was an odd pose, but it made sense to her, as if Chucky had at last confronted the spirit that possessed him. She hoped he had. She hoped he had broken free of it. On the phone, she had tried to coax this spirit away. “You can take his physical body,” she had warned, “but you’re never going to take his spirit, because I love him, because my power is stronger than yours.”
As she stood at the door, a wan woman came into the hallway, and then the clerk appeared around the corner and began hollering for someone to get out, and Lissa thought the clerk was hollering at the woman but then realized the clerk was hollering at her.
Lissa looked at the janitor, at the woman, at the clerk.
And then she saw that Chucky’s spirit was gone, and the thing that had taken his body but not his spirit was still there—she could see it—in their skin and in their eyes.
She had to go. “I’m glad my uncle got out of here,” she said to them. “May God save you.”
NOW TWO YEARS had passed since Chucky died, and still Lissa recalled the night before his death so clearly that it was as if she had lived it not just once.
She often thought of what her uncle had said to her that night. He had said a lot of things, but one thing he kept coming back to. He had been reading about human DNA, about the way our family histories are imprinted on our nucleotides. He said that our bodies remember. Some scientists believed that our genes could be turned on or off by the things our ancestors had seen or done or the things we ourselves had seen or done, so it was possible that our fates were decided by former lives and that our lives, in turn, decided the fates of our grandchildren.
Imagine that, Chucky had said. No such thing as innocence at birth. Violence, like milk, passed from grandmother to mother to son.
Imagine that. Imagine how impossible it is to stop something like that.