Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 7: The Church)

THE TRIBAL POLICE WERE AMONG the first who noticed the change on Fort Berthold—track marks creeping up handcuffed arms, paraphernalia tossed in the backseats of cars. In 2012, for the first time, officers arrested a tribal member for heroin possession, and after that, a majority of crimes they responded to had something to do with drugs. The boom expanded the market for meth, while pills, more common among oil workers, became common among tribal members, as well. Local drug dealers yielded territory to men and women from out of state who, in an effort to increase demand, hawked drugs for free. It was money, more than the demand for drugs, that drew these dealers to the reservation—money that deepened the addictions of those already addicted and made families without money more vulnerable. This was another of the many ironies that had come to define the boom: The generosity Madeleine and Irene observed among rich families did not end with blankets or meat. Addicts with royalties were similarly generous: They got poorer people high.

In the summer of 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that over the three years prior, federal case filings on reservations in North Dakota had risen 70 percent. I was curious if this had to do with the oil boom, so I called Timothy Purdon, the U.S. attorney of North Dakota. He resisted my theory. In 2010, the same year that the Department of Justice declined to prosecute 62 percent of criminal cases referred to them from reservations in North Dakota, Congress had passed the Tribal Law and Order Act, which established an Indian Law and Order Commission to examine how the federal justice system systematically failed tribal communities. As part of the reform effort, the federal government gave more money to prosecuting crimes in Indian Country, enabling attorneys to pursue more cases, and in 2011, Purdon appointed an assistant U.S. attorney to work specifically with the MHA Nation. There was a growing sense among Native American victims that the crimes they reported would be prosecuted, he explained, and this had encouraged more victims to come forward. Still, Purdon said, the boom was having an impact. Just that summer, he had noticed that more cases than usual coming from Fort Berthold involved non-Indian perpetrators. “We had five or six in a month,” he told me. “We realized it’s non-enrolled folks moving to the oil patch.”


I returned to the reservation that summer to report on the rise in crime. It was a July evening when I arrived at the tribal police station in New Town, a brick building with an aquarium-blue lobby that had not been renovated in some years. I had arranged to ride along with an officer named Dwight Sage, a tribal member in his thirties with short-cropped hair and a shy smile. When he appeared in the lobby, I followed him outside, and we drove west out of New Town, emerging through a pass on the edge of a butte, where we could see flares flickering on the horizon and trailers clustered in pockets of the prairie. We ascended a bluff toward Sanish and turned onto a dirt road. The sun was setting, clouds gathering to the west, birds dipping in and out of the grass. A trailer appeared, and then a dozen campers parked down a hill where some oil workers had gathered, chatting. A tribal member emerged from the trailer. He had called in “a domestic,” Sage said—a fight over oil royalties, the man and his sister in a pushing match—but the sister had fled. I remained in the car while Sage spoke to the man, the workers eyeing us warily. Then Sage and the man waved goodbye, and we headed back north.


“He’s a bad alcoholic,” Sage told me. “He started getting his oil money last summer, and that’s when things got really bad. His wife was getting him drunk, taking his pills. The whole family has been fighting over money since they leased their lots to a company to house oil workers. They’re pain pill users. Hydrocodone. Valium.”

It had begun to rain. We turned west and crossed the bridge. Sage pointed to his landmarks: a café where he detained two undocumented workers and had them deported; a street where he found a white sex offender with shotguns stashed in his trunk; the ditch where a truck hauling contaminated water tipped, spilling 1,200 gallons; the yard where Sage chased two white roughnecks after they assaulted a Native woman; the house where he kicked in a door too late, where a tribal member died of an overdose.

On the main road, Sage stopped an SUV with Wyoming plates for going sixty-five in a forty-miles-per-hour zone. Although tribal police have no criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians, they can ticket reckless drivers. It was the only legal power the tribe had over non-Indians, and the records did not carry off the reservation. “Forty dollars, no points,” Sage announced when he returned. “When I tell them that, they’re pretty happy. This guy asked, ‘Will I get in trouble if I don’t pay?’ I said, ‘You won’t really get in trouble, but we’ll have you on record if you get stopped again.’ ”

I thought of the mechanics I met in the casino parking lot more than a year ago. You can do anything short of killing somebody. What they had said was not technically true—cases that fell outside tribal and federal jurisdiction belonged to the state—but several tribal officers had told me that crimes committed by non-Indians on Fort Berthold were a low priority for deputies and sheriffs, who were already overworked by the oil boom outside reservation borders. Each county overlapping Fort Berthold had only one or two deputies stationed there. If an incident required a deputy, he could take hours to arrive due to the volume of calls he received and the reservation’s enormity. The sheriff of one county admitted to me that his deputies often escorted non-Indian drunk drivers home instead of arresting and delivering them to county jails, which were far away and often full. If jurisdiction was ever in question, getting the right officers on the scene could take a while. “Time is sensitive,” a tribal criminal investigator told me. Sometimes it was the difference between finding a perpetrator of a crime or having no evidence at all.


Fort Berthold, like many reservations, already had a long history of crimes slipping through jurisdictional cracks. According to a report issued by the Indian Law and Order Commission, “When Congress and the Administration ask why the crime rate is so high in Indian country, they need look no further than the archaic system in place, in which Federal and State authority displaces Tribal authority and often makes Tribal law enforcement meaningless.” Now tribal officers told me that the boom had exacerbated the problem and that the tribe’s lack of jurisdiction over non-Indians had created a culture of lawlessness. Most could recount being told by an oil worker, “You can’t do anything to me.” According to Sadie Young Bird, director of the tribe’s domestic violence unit, rates of violence against women were rising. Recently, three oil workers had offered a tribal member a ride home from the bar in New Town, driven her to a remote area, raped her, and left her on the road. They returned several times and, each time, raped her again. The woman survived, but finding these men would be difficult. Once, when Young Bird visited a man camp to check on a domestic violence victim, the manager told her women were not allowed there. “Perpetrators think they can’t be touched,” she told me. “They’re invincible.”

Regardless of the effort to prosecute more crimes on Fort Berthold, no one I spoke to could deny that the crime rate had risen with the boom or that the violence had turned inward. In 2012, the tribal police reported more fatal accidents, sexual assaults, domestic disputes, gun threats, and human trafficking incidents among tribal members than in any year prior. According to the police chief, since the reservation population had, by some estimates, tripled with the boom, the tribe needed forty officers, and yet the department struggled to retain them and rarely employed more than thirteen at one time. Affordable housing was hard to come by, and some officers lived in their cars. Sage told me that most did not stay long in the job, forced so often into taking double shifts. Several had quit; one committed suicide. The longest-serving officer had been in the department for five years. His name was Nathan Sanchez, and he was twenty-five years old.


I rode along with Sanchez a few times in the weeks I spent with the department. He was Latino, from Indiana, engaged to a tribal member with whom he had two kids. He had tattooed forearms and hair cut so short I could see the damp of his scalp. He seemed tired, nervous, the first night I rode with him, flicking a cigarette between his thumb and forefinger as I stared quietly out the window. The ditches alongside the road were littered with plastic bags that tossed in the wind and caught on pasture fences, and with bloated carcasses of unlucky deer. “Do you swim in the lake?” I asked Sanchez as we neared the bridge.

He shook his head. “This lake still has tombs down there,” he said. “You know they didn’t have time to relocate their dead? Swimming in a liquid tomb, no thanks.”

The reservation felt sleepy that evening, like we were waiting for something to begin. We crossed the lake and turned at the casino. By the shore was a tackle shop, some pavilions, and a campground—a few hundred tents and trailers tucked into the trees. I had been here only a few times since my encounter with the mechanics. The trailers were gone from the casino lot, but along the grassy banks of the lake were more shelters than there had been before. Men cooked dinner on outdoor grills, nodding as we passed. Most of the shelters looked empty, their inhabitants, I assumed, at work.

As the sun set, we left the campground and drove to New Town. Streetlights cast the buildings in dull yellow. We wound through a neighborhood where the houses all looked the same; and around the Northern Lights building, which was quiet except for a man turning doughnuts in the parking lot. We had heard the squeal of his tires from a distance, but when we arrived, his car was still, and the man—eyes bloodshot, alert—was smoking a cigarette in the passenger seat.


Sanchez received only one call that night, a domestic dispute at Prairie Winds, a trailer park in New Town located behind the railroad tracks. The tribal police often responded to calls in the park, since some residents there struggled with addiction, but lately there had been more calls than usual. The residents were stressed, Sanchez explained; all of them would soon be evicted. The owner of the park had sold it to a man who planned to build houses for oil workers and employees of a local energy company. Tribal members had protested, marching in the streets with signs that read RELOCATION ENDED IN THE ’70S. In response, the council had invested $2 million in a park east of town. The new site had no water or electricity yet, and residents had only a month before they would have to move.

We circled New Town until midnight and then lingered outside a bar on the main street. A woman in a silver skirt waited by the door. Sanchez had pointed her out earlier, spotting her by her house. He believed she was a sex worker, and when I asked why he thought this, he explained, “I work eighty-some hours a week, and I sit in front of these bars every night. I know that this night she left with that guy, and last night she left with this guy, and then the night before—” Sanchez hedged. “I know that doesn’t prove anything,” he said, but sometimes, in his patrol car, women admitted they were sex workers. Sanchez had noticed other signs as well: a man who hurried women into a car when police drove near; women captured on the casino security cameras moving in and out of hotel rooms; meth addicts whom investigators suspected of trading sex for drugs in the man camps; girls who arrived at school with new iPods and jewelry. On a reservation where everyone once knew everyone, noticing was easy. “I know these girls,” Sanchez told me. “I know their parents, and I know for a fact that their parents cannot afford to buy them these things.”


The tragedies these officers tended to often involved their own relatives. “I ask them, ‘Are you using clean needles? Did you get tested for hep C?’ ” one officer, Dawn White, told me as I rode along with her one evening. “There are quite a few who cry in the backseat and tell me all about their addictions. It’s hard. How I rationalize it: If I have to put them in jail to save their life, I’ll do it.” Sometimes, parents begged her to arrest their children. “They’ll say, ‘Arrest them, Dawn, because I don’t want to bury them.’ ”

It was the middle of July, and we were driving to the powwow in White Shield. White was in her early thirties with radiant skin and slick black hair drawn into a bun. She had been talkative when I met her at the station, but as we drove along the edge of the lake, she quieted. The radio filled our silences. A man was having a stroke; a couple was fighting in a parking lot. The dispatcher had a drowsy voice. The calls were meant for another officer, and I sensed White wasn’t listening.

“When I come to White Shield, I just feel so happy and calm,” she said. “You look out there, and there’s no blowtorches, no rigs, no trucks.” The road curved west and south again and climbed a hill that sloped toward the lake. At the top of the hill, a church appeared—first a steeple and then a roof, and windows and steps, and a grove of pines sheltering a cemetery. White stopped the car, and for a moment we sat looking at the church. It had been carried up from the bottomlands, she said. Her elders remembered attending services before the flood. Now it was weathered, sky showing through. I considered suggesting we go inside, but White got a call—a reckless driver on the road near the powwow—and we continued south.

The fields were blooming yellow. Buildings appeared amid some trees, and then came the sound of drums, low and tinny in the distance.

We did not stay long at the powwow but rode slowly around the outer circle. It was a flash of color, men whirling across a green, glowing turf. White chatted with a cousin, asked a boy to pick up his candy wrapper. Then we left the grounds and turned north.


We made one more stop that night in White Shield, at a house set nakedly in a field. The family living in the house had a twenty-eight-year-old son who overdosed and died a week earlier while riding around with his cousins. I waited in the car as White approached the house. A woman came onto the porch and embraced White. The sun cast the porch in shadow so that I could not see the woman’s eyes, though I knew that she was crying. Then another woman emerged, nodded to White, and took off in the direction of the sun, on a path cut through high grass. A dog trotted after her. There were many dogs around, and birds on the power lines, and old cars with grass grown up between the wheels, circles mowed around them.

The door opened once more. This time it was a girl, nineteen, I guessed. She wore a U.S. Navy T-shirt, her shorts baggy, her hair in a ponytail. She had seen me from inside the house and approached with her eyes pointed toward the powwow grounds. “Are these your cousins?” I said, nodding to the parked cars.

“A bunch of killers,” she said. “He was dying, and they didn’t do nothing. Just kept driving, then took him to the house when he was already blue.”

The girl cursed quietly, resting her forearms on the window frame, and together we surveyed the porch. The woman was no longer crying but talking in whispers to White, who had a hand on a hip and, with the other, wiped sweat from her brow.


THE ATLANTIC PUBLISHED my article in February 2013 under the title “On Indian Land, Criminals Can Get Away with Almost Anything.” It began with an anecdote about a white teenage girl who followed her father from Texas to the Bakken. He refused to let her stay with him, so she wound up in Prairie Winds, the trailer park, living with a friend. One night at a bar in New Town, she met an oil worker who bought her drinks and took her to his camper. She would remember some men and a woman were having sex, and they raped her. Officer Sanchez found the girl that night, scrambling out of a ditch near a man camp. He wrapped her in a blanket and took her to the tribal police station, where an investigator, Angela Cummings, interviewed her. The girl could not remember the races of her rapists. First she said yes when Cummings asked if they were Native; then she corrected herself, believing they were white and Latino. If the latter was true, neither tribal nor federal officials had jurisdiction in the case. Cummings called a county deputy, who took the girl off the reservation.


Days after the story ran, I got a call from Steve Kelly, the former tribal lawyer and the owner of Trustland Oilfield Services. We had never spoken before, but he had found my number because he was troubled by a paragraph in the Atlantic piece in which I noted that the man camp where the teenager had been raped was located behind the Trustland offices. He had no connection to the man camp, he said, and hoped I would clarify this in the online story. He worried my mention of Trustland had been “something political.” I assured him it was nothing political, though I was curious what politics he was referring to. “I can’t compete with the chairman,” he said, explaining that Tex Hall’s outfit, Maheshu Energy, was “fronting” for a white-owned company. Kelly knew quite a bit about the politics of the reservation and was glad to help with my next story, he said. I thanked him, promised to make the clarification, and then hung up the phone.

In the months after I reported for the article, crime on the reservation escalated. A man who had come to Fort Berthold for the boom stabbed a tribal member to death; the victim was Officer Sage’s younger brother. Then Kalcie Eagle, the son of a councilman, broke into a house in New Town and shot a white woman and her three grandchildren. Mike Marchus, the Bureau of Criminal Investigations agent in Minot, photographed the crime scene and later would tell me it was the most difficult case he ever worked. Eagle killed the grandmother first; and then two boys, thirteen and six; and a girl, ten, who was in the bathtub. Sanchez and another officer tracked Eagle to Parshall, where Eagle brandished a knife and slit his own throat.

When I heard the news, I remembered Eagle from the summer. I had been with Officer Sage at a Marathon Oil facility—an alarm gone haywire—when a call came and we sped through open pasture, yellow with rapeseed, to New Town. Sage had walked slowly toward the house. The councilman answered the door. It was the councilman who had called the police; he had been calling often, lately. Eagle was addicted to meth and could be violent when he was high, but that evening he was docile and let Sage escort him outside. This was all I saw of Eagle, pale and sweating as he passed through our headlights. I remember he squeezed his eyes shut before vanishing into the dark of another police car.


In the months following the murders, the tribal community struggled to make sense of them. Tex Hall, in the Washington Post, called Eagle’s crime the “worst tragedy” on the reservation in his memory. The horror was made larger by how well people had known both Eagle and the victims. A woman I contacted when I heard the news had seen the grandmother just days before she died. People were more reluctant to speak of Eagle, perhaps out of respect for his parents. His father drowned in the lake soon afterward, and fewer spoke about that. Those who did speak seemed to fall on one of two sides: Either Eagle had always been troubled, enabled by his own family, perhaps even destined for violence; or drugs had changed him in awful, unnatural ways. In this second telling, the boom was a coconspirator, having made meth, as Sanchez put it, “as easy to find as a gallon of milk.”

In November 2012, the same month Eagle murdered the family, the tribe earned almost $10 million in oil royalties and production taxes. By the end of the next year, this figure would double as the tribe’s total earnings since the beginning of the boom approached a billion dollars. The tribe did not make its expenditures public, but some of my sources grumbled that little of this money had yet been spent on social services or public safety. Millions of dollars would go toward expanding the casino, while the domestic violence unit would continue to be housed in a single-wide trailer across the street.

Still, the murders had an effect. In December 2012, the tribe asked federal authorities to determine where Eagle’s meth had come from, which led them to Michael Smith, a white man from Colorado living on the reservation. One morning that winter, the New Town police attempted to arrest Smith, who barricaded himself inside a house and for twenty-four hours would not come out. The house belonged to a tribal member trapped inside. She was addicted to heroin—Smith, her dealer. When night passed and neither emerged, police hired a front-end loader to tear a wall off the house. The woman and Smith were arrested, and it was decided that day by the tribal council that the drug situation had gotten out of hand. Hall called an emergency meeting and recruited tribal members to serve on a drug task force.


On March 27, 2013, Timothy Purdon, the North Dakota U.S. attorney, charged Smith and twenty-one others, including twelve members of the tribe, with conspiracy to distribute meth and heroin. Investigators had traced the drugs sold on Fort Berthold to Chicago, Minneapolis, and Southern California, where two brothers were the conduits between Mexico and North Dakota. The next year, Purdon would indict sixty others for trafficking drugs on the reservation.

Tribal officers and social workers told me they were grateful for the federal help, but if the arrests made a difference, it hardly showed. At the end of 2013, the task force would assemble data from tribal departments into a report: Three years earlier, 30 percent of the crimes committed on the reservation had been drug-related; now, the number was 60 percent. Three years earlier, 69 percent of domestic violence cases had been drug-related; now, the number was 100 percent. Since 2010, all cases filed with the tribe’s Children and Family Services had been drug-related, and the number of cases had tripled over three years. Ninety percent of the health center budget was being spent on drug-related cases. Hepatitis C had spread among tribal members, with 10 percent of health center clients testing positive, a quarter of them pregnant. Children as young as eight years old had been admitted to the juvenile justice center showing signs of heroin and meth use. Meanwhile, rates of domestic and sexual assault were rising, according to Sadie Young Bird, the director of the domestic violence unit. The unit would counsel more victims in 2013 than in any year prior. Ninety-six percent of these cases would involve alcohol and drugs.


“When the boom’s over, what’s it going to be like here?” Young Bird had asked me. She guessed: “They’re not going to take their trailers with them. It’ll just be deserted, with a lot of broken people.”