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From Yellow Bird, published this month by Random House. The book investigates a disappearance on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota and explores how the Yellow Bird family has dealt with the trauma of colonialization.

At times in her life, Lissa Yellow Bird had felt proud of her relatives’ successes and their piety. But now, suddenly, she found herself resenting 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 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.

The last time it happened, 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. His sisters Madeleine and Irene had gone out, and when they returned to the house, they found Chucky inside, still drunk. He lunged at Irene, 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.

“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,” she said—a place 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.”

“All right.”

“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.

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 a phone and kept her uncle on one line while she dialed relatives on the other. It was late; no one answered.

At five in the morning, her phone shut off.

She had made Chucky promise to call her again, to meet her for breakfast, but he did not call. 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.

Two days after her uncle’s body had been returned to the reservation, Lissa went by the hotel where her relative said Chucky had died. She stood at the door, thinking of her uncle’s body. She had been told that 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 side. 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.

Now two years had passed since Chucky had 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.


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February 2020