I am an enrolled Native American member from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in Mandaree, ND. My people are the Hidatsa. Missing Murdered Indigent Women is a huge problem for all Native people. I wanted to create a character to fight back against the backdrop of our tribe’s history.
The sun began to rise over the prairie when a hand clawed up out of the ground, pushing aside a nearby corpse. The hand was that of a teenaged girl, bloodied and bruised, her clothes ripped and dirty, one shoe missing, hair tangled and muddy.
Only her face survived the mud, as she was put in her early grave face-down, with head bowed. She tried to move as the dirt rolled off her back. The effort exhausted her. She raised her head slightly; soil fell off the back of her head.
A hand mark of bright red paint covered her face just below her nose. The thumbprint extended to her cheek’s left side, the four fingers covered her mouth to the right cheek. The handprint also included some blood, but not her own. She closed her eyes and blacked out. Any breath she could have taken would’ve filled her lungs with dirt, and the small pocket of air where she lay would’ve quickly run out.
A muddy blue heeler dog stood at attention, looking back and forth between the teenager’s corpse and an old Native American woman who stood over the hole with a shovel.
The old woman spoke to the dog: “Good boy, Blue. You found them.”
The woman looked to the sun rising in the East, warm on her face with the wind at her back. Her hair moved back and forth with the wind. She lit a sage bundle, picked up an eagle-feather fan, and began softly singing a prayer in Hidatsa as she swept the fan through the smoke. The smoke collected on the edges of the eagle feathers and made a clean jet trail that dissolved in the wind.
Ada Roadmaker slipped between consciousness and death. She thought she might be dreaming, but then the pain would come back to remind her she was awake—and if she was awake, she was probably still alive, though barely.
She remembered a fight with her father. She lived on the Rez with her father in a small and battered two-bedroom house with torn screens and crumbling porch steps and window frames. The home at one time was painted white but now showed its age with silvery wood underneath. Broken-down vehicles rusted and permanently parked in the yard with un-mowed grass growing around them. Somehow these Rez cars matched the home.
Last night he was drunk, again, and screaming from the other room about the dinner she’d made. But it was hard to make a meal out of the few groceries he brought home. He always seemed to have enough money for his cheap, generic beer—white cans emblazoned with black lettered “BEER” littered the yard—but he complained about the expense of food.
He always started by yelling at her.
“Ada, make yourself some dinner!”
She said she wasn’t hungry. The fight followed the same pattern. Eventually, her dad sat at the kitchen table, mumbling about how she was just like her mom, bobbing his head as if agreeing with himself. Words and phrases floated up from the slurred stream: “Worthless…Send her to school, and she eats the books…She can’t even cook her dinner… house is always a mess.”
She finally snapped back at him: “You’re drunk. I’m going to my room. Leave me alone.”
Five minutes later, he broke through her door, screaming obscenities about her mom, who left a year ago. “You are a worthless piece of shit! You have ruined my life and Ada’s!” he yelled as if her mom were there to hear it.
“What are you talking about? Go away. You’re drunk. Go sleep it off.”
“You are going to respect me in my house!” he shouted and charged at her, grabbing her by the shoulders and throwing her against the wall, then clasping her by the throat and lifting her off the ground.
“Fucking bitch,” he snarled.
She clawed at his hands, tears streaming down her face. Her pulse pounded in her ears. She locked onto one of his fingers and pulled backward, a whiff of his sour breath in her face. His eyes were the eyes of a stranger—unknowing and unknown.
“Daddy! Jesus Christ, Daddy, it’s me!” She struggled to get out words, any words. “Dad, dad, dad, it’s me! I’m your daughter. Mom’s gone, Dad! It’s just me.”
She couldn’t breathe. Suddenly, his eyes locked with hers, and he released her neck. She dropped to the ground.
“Oh God… what have I done? Ada, I’m sorry…” he mumbled incoherently, running his hands over his face and through his hair before stumbling away, frustrated.
Ada threw her clothes into a bag, retrieved her money from its hiding place, and grabbed her coat. She glanced at her mother’s wedding ring on the nightstand. He had given it to her in a fit of regret after another drunken night.
She crawled over the bed to the phone and called a friend.
Packed and ready to go, she walked down the hall. He was at the table face down in a bowl of tomato soup. He might drown, she thought and moved his head out of the bowl and gently onto the table.
“I’m leaving, and I’m not coming back.”
“Go ahead and leave,” he slurred, “just like your fucking mother!” Soup dripped from his face down his neck.
The night air was cool. As she shrugged into her light jacket, she saw a new scar on her arm.
Her people, the Hidatsa from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, were famous for their ability to hunt eagles for their feathers. In his prime, her dad was a great eagle hunter for the tribe. He took great pride in his skill and wanted to pass it on to his son. She had heard him say this to her mom during one drunken argument. She tried hard to be the son he never had.
Hundreds of years ago, other tribes came from far and wide to trade for these feathers. The Hidatsa learned long ago to dig holes in the ground and cover themselves with a mat made of sticks and grass.
When the eagles came, the eagle hunter inside the trap would reach up and grab the bird’s tail feathers to capture them. Her dad may have been a drunk, but her tribe admired his eagle-hunting and respected him for that.
She watched her dad teach her male cousins the rituals of eagle-hunting and how to dig the pits and set the traps. She also saw how her dad spent more time with these boys than with her. No matter how much she begged or cried for him to teach her, he refused.
“Girls can’t be eagle-hunters,” he told her. “It’s too dangerous.”
But that didn’t mean she couldn’t go along and watch. Her dad liked her around when he went off to teach the ceremony. He would stop off at the store, get a cheap case of beer, and then ice it down in a cooler. As the day wore on, the heat and dust made him thirsty.
“Ada,” he would say, “fetch your old man a beer.”
And she would run back to the truck. She didn’t mind. She was glad to be able to watch and to be with her dad.
A good eagle pit should be about five feet square, he would explain to the boys, and three-and-a-half or four feet deep, permitting the eagle-catcher to sit with his head free of the cover. Pits could be on either side of the Missouri River, but always on bluffs that faced west because eagles always came down on a west wind.
Once, an old blind man who had been listening to the eagle-catcher lessons told Ada in a low voice that the key was to think like an eagle. “Ask yourself, where would you fly or where would you hunt? Which way is the wind blowing so you won’t have to flap your wings too much?”
Ada tried to tell the boys what the old man said.
“That’s bullshit,” they laughed. “The eagles are sight predators and come for the food. They see the food and take it. Who told you that?” Ada thought it rude for the boys to ignore the old man’s advice, but she didn’t say anything.
The old man went back to his whittling. Her dad and the boys went off to work on their pits.
“It sure is hot,” the old man said.
“Would you like a beer, grandfather?” she asked. All old men were “grandfather” to Ada.
He said he would, and she ran off to get him one. When she got back, the old man popped it open and enjoyed its coolness in the hot sun. He showed her how to make a hole in a stick and carve out a whistle. Around the whistle opening, he said he liked to carve an animal’s head.
“Here, I will show you a rabbit,” he said while finishing his beer.
“Would you like another one, grandfather?”
But when she got back, he was gone. The finished whistle sat on his stump with a rabbit’s head carved around the opening. In the distance, she could see a lone coyote hunting along the ridge, jumping up and pouncing on the ground. She blew softly through the whistle. Then she saw rabbit ears above the grass, and a rabbit popped up to look at her.
When Ada was eight years old, she clambered down into an eagle pit that no one used. She baited the grass mat above her and waited. At first, she kept still telling herself stories in her head, but she began to doubt herself as the hours passed. Girls were not eagle-catchers. What was she doing? She wanted to quit. She decided she would count to 100, and then she would go home. One hundred came and went. Her legs ached, and her knees hurt.
She was about to give up when she heard a screech followed by a rush of wings. The sticks rattled above her.
She peered up through a hole and saw a bald eagle. It looked left then right. Then, it took a high step out onto the mat. She saw it walk over her head, and the tail feathers were right in front of her. With a rush, she reached up with her right hand and jerked.
The great bird shrieked and came down on top of her. The pit’s old cottonwood branches were dry rotted and broke all around her. The eagle pecked at her but couldn’t get to her through the sticks and grass.
Sharp talons found her left arm and pierced her skin, then her muscle, glancing off the bone beneath it and coming out the other side. She screamed.
She heard her dad yelling and running toward her. The bird let her go and flapped its massive wings to get free of the pit. It dipped its head and pushed hard with its wings, leaping up and off. It caught the wind and glided out across the river.
Her dad found her and cussed up a storm. He pulled her free and tended to her arm. She would need stitches, but she wasn’t crying. She held up her right hand and smiled.
“Look! Two eagle feathers!”
Ada got out of Carrie’s car and followed her into her neatly mowed, turquoise-painted house with its bright, white trim. There were no beat-up, dead cars in the yard like there were almost everywhere else on the reservation.
Carrie’s family was watching TV and barely acknowledged her. They exchanged a few nods to say hello, and she descended into the basement where Carrie had her room and bathroom.
They stood in front of the bathroom mirror, putting on makeup. Ada, lean and muscular, stood more than a head taller than Carrie— which was why she was the center for her high school girls’ basketball team. Carrie, who was only 5-foot-2, was a point guard.
She watched her friend slathering on foundation and said, for the hundredth time, “You don’t need so much of that.”
“I do. I don’t have your skin.”
It might have been true. Still, Carrie had beautiful almond-shaped eyes with long eyelashes that made Ada envious.
“Good thing she’s got a pretty face,” Ada’s dad had once said after Carrie had dropped her off, “Because she’s already getting fat like her mother.”
The memory made Ada feel terrible, and she hurried to say, “We’re going to cover it with face paint, anyway.”
Carrie’s parents didn’t want her out running around the Rez at night, so the girls planned to say they were going to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Fundraiser. That meant donning the red handprint that was the group’s emblem.
Carrie brought out the red face paint, and Ada spread it out on her entire palm and fingers and stared into the mirror. She carefully placed her hand across her mouth and left its print across the lower half of her face.
“What do you think?”
The girls sat in the community center listening to a middle-aged woman quote statistics. For both the U.S. and Canada, violence against women had reached crisis levels. In the U.S., Native American women were more than twice as likely to experience violence than any other demographic. One out of three Native women were victims of sexual assault, and non-Natives would perpetrate 67 per cent of these acts.
Native victims of sexual assault most often reported that the attack involved an offender of a different race. About ninety per cent of Native American victims of rape or sexual assault had non-Native assailants. Native women were the most likely of all victims to indicate that the offender was drinking at the time.
No shit, Ada thought and whispered to Carrie, “Let’s go.”
They set out for a man camp where there was supposed to be a party that night.
Men had come from all over the world to find work when the oil rush struck North Dakota. Carrie’s Dad often grumbled that there was little for them to do but look for trouble, and he might have been right because the “man camps” where they lived were nothing more than sparse barracks with few options for entertainment.
So that is where they went—the Firewater Man Camp. Ada remembered going in a side door down a hallway. Everything looked the same, every entrance, every door, every hallway. They knocked on a door that opened to a party—a dark room with LED lights strung along the walls. A nice-looking white guy named Cody handed her a beer in a red Solo cup and asked her why she had the red handprint on her face.
Her dad had always preached about opening your own beers. Never take a drink from someone where you didn’t see it made or poured. The problem was, everyone was drinking from a keg. Carrie looked at her over the rim of her Solo cup and fluttered her eyelashes. Cody remarked on how long they were.
Ada felt weird. One beer doesn’t give you the spins, but something was wrong. She asked where the bathroom was, and Cody said he’d show them. She staggered down the hall after him. Then, she was lying on a bed. There was a man, and then another one, and another. She heard them talking and laughing.
She felt sick as they moved over her, inside her. She heard Carrie crying and begging someone, “Stop, please, please stop.”
She couldn’t move.
She saw Carrie claw at the man on top of her, pinching his cheek with her thumb and forefingers. Pushing down hard, Carrie drew blood. Ada remembered the eagle that had ripped her arm all those years ago. The man screamed. Carrie’s long, acrylic fingernails had broken off and stuck out from his face like porcupine quills. He smashed a Jack Daniel’s bottle across Carrie’s face.
“Jesus, Billy, I think you killed her.”
“Ain’t no squaw gonna scratch me, Cody. Get rid of them.”
Ada struggled to move, but nothing worked, and for a second, she saw a bottle swinging at her, heard a crunch, and felt a blinding pain in the side of her head.
The old woman spoke words in Hidatsa that Ada couldn’t understand. The prayer chant wound on, and smoke rolled through the smudge fan. She tried to talk to the woman, but the woman didn’t hear her. She yelled as loud as she could. Still, the old woman did not respond.
The woman was praying for help.
“Red Hand Woman, please help us, come to us and see our suffering. Fight these men and protect our people.”
Ada stood up as if someone had pulled her up, and she saw her hand poking out of the ground. She recognized her mom’s wedding ring. She saw her face with the red handprint across it.
Cody and Billy walked into the Firewater Man Camp’s cafeteria on a Friday afternoon. The handwritten sign on the door said Indian Taco Night. They wore white hard hats with a company logo for Ruffneck Drillers. Grime covered their overalls. Their hands were blackened from grease and were even darker under their fingernails.
The signs at the door said Clean Your Boots, No Overalls, No Alcohol, and No Smoking. Each man made a boot trail of mud tracks across the floor; each held an open beer and a lit cigarette. They grabbed a tray and utensils. Neither of them noticed the older woman serving their food.
“What are we doing tonight, Billy?” Cody asked, scratching his chin where a scraggly goatee clung to life.
“Same as always,” Billy said, flipping the stub of his cig onto the floor. “Get wasted and find some ass.”
“Think we’ll get laid?”
“Don’t we always.”
Billy was naked and flat on his back. His head pounded, and his body felt like it was still asleep. He struggled to open his eyes, but his eyelids stuck together.
He heard Cody screaming, and he moved the skin under his nose up and down until an eyelid popped open. The sun was rising. He was out on the prairie, in a hole of some sort. Grass and sticks poked into him.
Cody was beside him. He was naked as well, his wrists and ankles zip-tied. Ropes tied to stakes stretched tightly over him, holding him down. Cody’s scream was petering out into a sort of gasping moan. His mutilated genitals were cut into strips and covered in blood.
And then he saw a woman dressed in blue jeans and black boots. She wore a denim jacket with a dark blouse. Her hair pulled back in twin braids. Solid white paint covered the top half of her face, ending in a straight line just under her nose. Black paint completely covered her jaw, extending down her neck. On top of that was a red hand mark.
Billy had seen this mark before, but this red handprint looked like real blood. She didn’t seem wounded. Where did she get the blood?
She moved toward him, not looking at him. He felt a tug at his scrotum, no pain, just a light pull.
She took out a vial. Billy recognized it immediately. It was the one he kept in his room. She walked over and put four drops into Cody’s mouth and then four more into his.
“The sun is rising, warm on your face, with the wind at you,” she said slowly and clearly, her dark eyes narrowed. “It’s going to be a beautiful day. What more could you ask for?”
Cody was crying and begging her, “Please, please, stop. Please let us go.”
Instead, she took from her jacket two whistles. One whistle had a carving of a rabbit head, and the other was of a coyote. At each end was a hole to blow through. She duct-taped the whistles to their mouths and continued behind their heads. Each man’s exhaled breath produced a noise like an animal dying.
“Don’t breathe too hard, or you will attract the coyotes,” she said as she covered them with sticks and grass. Soon the pit looked like any other place on the prairie.
Cody’s whistle was loud as he gasped in pain.
Minutes passed, and Billy saw movement. Something was above him, moving across the grass. A rabbit’s head came into view and peered down into the hole. Cody’s whistle screamed out, and the rabbit sprinted away.
Then, a much bigger shape came across the hole as a coyote lunged after the rabbit. Cody’s whistle screamed, and the coyote circled the pit a few times, drawn by the smell of blood, but making sure it was safe to feed on whatever was in the hole. Eventually, he darted in, tore at Cody’s groin, and leaped out.
Cody’s whistle had stopped.
Billy looked west through a hole in the grass. In the distance, he saw an eagle floating toward him on the wind.