The Trap House-Busting Vigilante of Pine Ridge Reservation
In winter the candy-red stripes of the prehistoric Badlands buttes and spires are cloaked in snow, cattle huddle close against the wind in deep gulches, and on KILI Radio, the first American Indian–owned station in the country, the DJ narrates a litany of school delays and closings all over the 3,500 square miles that make up South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. “If you didn’t know, now you know! It’s gonna be cold, cold, cold,” he says, his voice dropping to a bass note. “Hope you got a fire going over there, wherever you are, something warm to drink ...” Along Highway 18 near Oglala, homemade memorials decorated with artificial flowers and laminated photographs line the roadside at heartbreakingly frequent intervals.
In the small town of Pine Ridge, dogs dart carefree across potholed and pitted streets, sometimes followed by children in twos and threes, who wear their hoods up and coats slung long and low, heads hatless and hands unmittened. By evening the town will go mostly quiet, save for one last basketball game before the real cold comes tomorrow, save for the stream of cars and trucks that pull up to the neon oasis of Big Bat’s gas station. In silvery daylight cars whip up blurs of snow in their wake and vanish into the horizon. It is impossible to tell which of these houses and trailers is safe and which is a place where a teenage girl might be hiding out. Somewhere here, Julie Richards’s daughter is missing.
It is a Tuesday in February, and inside Richards’s trailer the oven door is thrown open for warmth; the temperature is 26 below with wind chill. We are talking about Richards’s 15-year-old daughter, whom we will call Kayla, the youngest of Richards’s four children. Kayla has not been home in six days. She could be less than a mile away, her mother says; could be more. Richards has no idea if her daughter is safe, or how quickly that sense of safety could shift. She has had one message from her in almost a week, a promise to return home that came and went.
Richards believes her daughter is high on crystal meth, that perhaps in all these days she’s been gone, she has not slept. The family’s four dogs cluster at Richards’s feet; her favorite, an expressive bulldog named LaLa, burrows next to her on the sofa bed where she smokes, rechecks her phone, and looks out the window of her trailer. In three days, Richards is due to travel to Montana to speak at an awareness walk on behalf of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Most of the time Richards is fighting for other peoples’ kids; she is the founder of the grassroots organization Mothers Against Meth Alliance (MAMA). This week, she’s looking out for her own.
A heartfelt status update Richards posted on Facebook a day earlier seeking information about Kayla’s whereabouts has been shared more than 60 times—“went viral,” she says. Richards has an enveloping laugh that she can summon even in crisis, a voice that veers between girlish and husky. She is 46 years old, short in stature and strong and broad in body, a few wavy wisps and silver strands unraveling from her dark hair, which is pulled back in a long ponytail. Because her gaze is otherwise clear and direct, upon meeting her you immediately notice that she is blind in one eye. For years, Richards says, she was physically abused by her ex-husband. Tattoos run down her arms, and her presence is simultaneously formidable and warm, evidence of a person who must frequently navigate a difficult, ever-changing course between toughness and love. More often than not, they are one and the same.
For Julz, each of these efforts is deeply connected, part of a larger, relentless war against meth and for the earth
On her phone she shows me the comments and emoji hearts and teardrops in reply to her post about Kayla. Texts and DMs flash too, from people who are in similar predicaments. They message from down the road, from elsewhere on Pine Ridge or on the Rosebud and Cheyenne River reservations in South Dakota; from Montana; from Florida, at all times of day and night, asking the woman they know as Mama Julz for help.
Julie Richards, who is Oglala Lakota and grew up on Pine Ridge, has been called Julz as long as she can remember, and Mama Julz since she started MAMA six years ago. Practically everyone calls her this: her grandkids; the leaders of the Oglala Sioux tribe, whose headquarters are a mile away; the people who invite her to speak at their rallies; the local meth dealers she used to call out by name on social media until they started breaking her car windows and, once, held a gun to her head; and the fellow water protectors and land defenders she meets through anti-fracking and anti-pipeline campaigns all over the country. Her own kids call her Mama.
On September 5, 2016, Julz became the first woman in the Standing Rock Sioux–led fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline to lock herself to construction equipment, stopping work that day. “I did it to take a stand against meth,” she says. Jerica, JonJon, and Kayla, her three youngest children, had all joined her there, as they frequently do at MAMA rallies, and Mothers Against Meth Alliance was spray-painted on the blue Chevy short-bed truck she parked at the resistance camps. She says the truck was later impounded by the Morton County, North Dakota, police: “They kidnapped my war pony!”
After Standing Rock, Julz drove across the country, taking MAMA’s message of the meth epidemic in Native American communities with her. Last fall she and Kayla spent several weeks working with the people at L’eau Est La Vie resistance camp in Louisiana, fighting the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. Julz says that she and two other activists received felony charges under Louisiana’s anti-pipeline protest law, after they chained and locked themselves to a construction crane to stop work along the route, wearing red in honor of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in the United States and Canada.
For Julz, each of these efforts is deeply connected, part of a larger, relentless war against meth and for the earth. The same forces of colonialism and capitalism that created the drug trade and the destruction of our climate have also been battling her people, and all of this is a fight that is both public and intensely personal, born out of the firsthand experiences of her family. I had traveled halfway across the country to meet Julz, to see MAMA at work. I had not expected to see how close her fight hits home. In Pine Ridge, the front lines are on her doorstep, and they are vibrating in the palm of her hand.
After school, Julz’s two youngest grandchildren, whom we will call Imogene and Jonas, run into the living room and toss down their backpacks. They share the three-bedroom trailer with their 11-year-old brother, whom we will call Little E., as well as Julz’s mother, Francine, a retired teacher; Julz’s brother Charlie; and two of Julz’s daughters, Kayla and Jerica. That’s four generations, four dogs, and a cat who rarely ventures out of Francine’s room. Until yesterday, when he went to stay with his girlfriend in nearby Wounded Knee, Julz’s son, JonJon, slept in a camper parked outside. Now Charlie is taking that over. Charlie multitasks, fixing up his new space, whisking about the kitchen, wiping down countertops and throwing a chicken in the sink to defrost for everyone’s dinner.
“You hear from her?” Francine asks. She searches her daughter’s face with concern, though she knows the answer. Imogene and Jonas wrestle with the dogs, making a loud, happy tangle of kid and fur on the living room floor and eventually settle back with Little E. in front of a big-screen game of Grand Theft Auto. It’s too cold to play outside, so cold that school is canceled for the next two days, and the cable is out, so a game of Grand Theft Auto becomes an hours-, days-long marathon, an endless drone of car chases and explosions forming a surreal echo of the adult conversations in the room. Sometimes the game’s soundtrack enters Julz’s dreams. “The other night, I was laying here about to fall asleep and I heard someone say, ‘Let’s go bust up that meth lab!’” she says. “And I jumped up right out of bed. I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s go!’”
What Julz calls the “vigilante” aspect of MAMA’s work involves going out on community patrols, looking for trap houses, searching for people who need help. Her home has functioned, she says, as a kind of informal detox facility, where she could take girls in who wanted to get off of drugs, and let them sleep and eat home-cooked food. Currently she does this when friends with cars are willing and available—her last vehicle died. Also on hold: the trailer’s third bedroom, now occupied by her mother, formerly used by MAMA as a rotating safe house for women. “My girls have friends who haven’t eaten for days, so they’ll cook for them, or I let them come and shower, or wash clothes,” Julz explains. “I have to totally trust them, like totally, because they’ve brought meth in here before. I make them accountable, even if they’re high. It’s hard, being a mother and having your kid addicted to meth. I was in denial for so long.”
Six years ago, Julz got a call from Francine. Julz’s oldest daughter, Jerene, and Jerene’s boyfriend had been locked inside their room for days, Francine said, not answering her knocks. She wasn’t sure they were alive. When Julz showed up, saying she’d call the police, Jerene escaped through a window. A shaky pattern emerged: Julz’s daughter would come home, sleep, eat, visit her kids, and then, after a few days, relapse and disappear, sometimes leaving for weeks at a time. She tried multiple treatment programs, was arrested on charges of possession. (In South Dakota, possession by ingestion can be considered a felony.) Jerene, now 29, is currently incarcerated at South Dakota Women’s Prison in Pierre and is due to be released in June.
“My daughter is still lost in the meth world,” Julz wrote three years ago on MAMA’s website. Perhaps MAMA’s most effective form of advocacy is Julz’s willingness to admit how thin the line is between recovery and addiction, that no matter how forceful and public your war against drugs, there’s no guarantee your own family is safe from them. This makes her fight bolder, braver, and undoubtedly tougher.
Jerica is 22, seven years younger than her sister Jerene, seven years older than her sister Kayla. She comes home talking in a rush about her classes this semester at Oglala Lakota College, the local tribal college in town where she’s working toward a nursing degree. She’s one of the best students in her Lakota class, she says. In late March, she plans to go to Florida for a Greenpeace direct action camp. There’s a visceral rift evident within Jerica: a brighter future beckons, but the present keeps pulling her toward more immediate thrills. She twirls her fingers through her hair, excited and fragile. “She’s struggling,” Julz says. Jerica lights a cigarette from her mother’s pack, exhales, the smoke mingling with that of Julz’s cigarette. She stares out the window as Julz continues. “She’s trying, but it’s hard for her. She deleted her Facebook so they can’t get to her.” “They” meaning friends who do meth.
Taped on the walls of the bedroom that Jerica normally shares with Kayla are pictures of Kayla and her best friend, Te’Ca Lynn Clifford, making selfie pouts for the camera, being 12-year-old girls; and photographs of Kayla at the handmade memorial that marks Te’Ca’s gravesite in Kyle, an hour away. Te’Ca was 13 when, in July 2016, she was shot and killed on the streets of Pine Ridge by a 27-year-old man high and delusional on meth. Her murder, which took place during a spike of meth-related violence in the area, was the kind of cruel death felt all over the reservation, but Kayla took it especially hard.
‘We made it so far just so we can lose everybody. I hate meth and what it does to my people.’
Jerica was close to Te’Ca’s older sister, Tashiana, who is also now deceased, a promising young basketball player who committed suicide less than a year before Te’Ca’s death. “On the day she died, college basketball scouts were trying to get ahold of her,” Jerica says. “If I think about it all too much, I mizz out too.” “Mizz” meaning miserable.
Later, Jerica texts me. She talks about her friend Tierra Swift Bird, who used to help Julz at MAMA rallies but died of an overdose in May 2017, and Tierra’s cousin Francisco, who committed suicide in 2015. “It didn’t just affect me, it affected our whole school,” Jerica writes. “We made it so far just so we can lose everybody. I hate meth and what it does to my people … I couldn’t believe I did what I always said I wouldn’t do, but I don’t dwell on it, just slowly distancing myself and focusing on my education to help my people. I been on the front line since I was 14.” She signs each of her texts “Yours Truly.”
Before Julz started MAMA, in her late 30s, she spent an intoxicated year living on the streets of Whiteclay, Nebraska, an unincorporated community, not so much a place as a cruel and deliberate irony. The Whiteclay Extension was originally a 50-square-mile buffer zone created in 1882 to protect Pine Ridge against white peddlers selling alcohol. (The sale of alcohol is banned on the reservation.) But in 1904, when President Theodore Roosevelt returned all but one square mile to the public domain, dealers moved in, and for more than a century, Whiteclay existed largely as an alcohol trading post, a border town where people drank to numb their desperation, slumped against storefronts and passed out on the sidewalk. People called it the skid row of the Plains. As recently as 2015, its four beer stores sold more than 3.5 million cans of the beverage annually, and in 2017, after years of Lakota-led protests, the stores were ordered closed by the Nebraska Liquor Commission due to inadequate law enforcement in the area. (That decision was upheld by the Nebraska Supreme Court.) Julz calls Whiteclay genocidal. But for a brief while she also called it her escape.
Julz is a survivor of sexual and physical abuse that began when she was just a child. She became a mother when she was 15; at 19, she started using cocaine, which she was hooked on for a dozen years. She went to college, studied nursing, and got married when she was 22, before completing her degree. “I was married for 17 years and he used to beat the crap out of me,” she says. “The last time, he almost killed me.” We are standing outside her trailer just before sunset, as the sky begins to lighten for the first time in days and Julz is telling me how she gathered the strength to leave her husband. Afterward, she says, she was lost. Eventually she ended up in Whiteclay, with a friend who later became a boyfriend. When her car broke down there, they decided to remain with it. Her descriptions of those early days are jarringly romantic. “The first night I slept under the stars,” she says. She brought a mattress and a tarp; they set up camp near a stand of trees south of the bars among a group of fellow drinkers, drifting into a communal rhythm of constant inebriation.
Julz was evidently as charismatic in her drinking days as she is sober; she’d walk up and down the road, hustling change from friends and strangers passing through Whiteclay, earning $50, $100 a day. She bought beers and made sandwiches for her fellow alcoholics. She came home to Pine Ridge to shower, and on days that she earned as much as $200, she’d call and tell her kids she had cash for them. Francine, who was taking care of the children, repeatedly begged Julz to stop drinking and come home. Julz woke up one day, she says, and thought, What am I doing here?
There is a grocery store in Whiteclay and one café, and a used-car lot, and not much else. “That one used to have a badass mural on the side of it that said, ‘If we were all meant to be strong, we need to be strong together,’” Julz says one afternoon as we pass a brightly painted storefront. The shuttered bars give Whiteclay the look of a ghost town, a Wild West facade in the harsh winter sun. The trees that used to shade her little camp have been cut down.
Julz says she doesn’t miss drinking. She misses the people she drank with. “I’m still friends with them,” she says, “the ones who are still alive.” For a while, she had to stay away from her drinking friends; she only returned to Whiteclay to protest against the stores or to hand out food to locals. Another friend, Pete Fills the Pipe, whom Julz calls her uncle, helped guide her to sobriety. “He’d pick me up and drive me to sweat lodge,” Julz says. “I built myself back up through sweat.” She still goes to sweat every Sunday. “That’s my time to be with my ancestors,” she says. “I ask them to show me ways to help my people that week.”
Julz shows me a photo of a necklace made of eight human fingers strung on leather from a colorful bead coil; she explains that it is now located in the Smithsonian. “That’s my great-grandma Susie Shot in the Eye who collected those fingers,” she says. They are the fingers of Susie’s enemies, Julz adds, visibly stained with blood. “She fought in the Battle of Little Bighorn, and she was a medicine woman. Her husband was Chief Shot in the Eye because he lost an eye in that fight, and for every generation from then on, somebody in our family loses an eye, and this time it was me.” Another favorite image is a photo mash-up of herself in color and another great-grandmother in black-and-white, like two halves of the same woman, across generations.
Frequently, when Julz is asked to deliver a presentation, she will lecture on the troubling connection between meth addiction, oil extraction, and the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. In the boom years of oil production in North Dakota, from 2006 to around 2012, transient oil workers, most of them nonindigenous, were recruited to live and work in the “man camps” set up on resource-rich tribal lands. These created a familiar, age-old recipe of the working man far from home earning good money, and plenty of vice to spend it on, with little retribution for criminal behavior. If construction is allowed to resume on the Keystone XL Pipeline, it will run diagonally across South Dakota, abutting the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, and threading between the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations, bringing man camps, and potentially drugs, even closer to these tribal lands.
Though more than half of Native American women have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and are more likely to have been sexually assaulted by non-Native persons, non-Native men who assault Native women on reservations do so with virtual impunity. A 1978 Supreme Court decision, in a case where someone who wasn’t a member of a tribe assaulted a tribal police officer, ruled that “Indian tribal courts do not have inherent criminal jurisdiction to try and punish non-Indians.” According to the Government Accounting Office, federal prosecutors decline to prosecute up to two-thirds of the Indian country cases they get; still more assaults and disappearances go undocumented. “They’re raping our sisters,” Julz tells her audiences, “while they’re raping our Mother Earth.”
By 2016, the rate of meth use among American Indians was more than twice as high as that of any other group in the US.
In Congress there are two pieces of legislation that are attempting to address the issue. Savanna’s Act, named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old Spirit Lake tribal member who was eight months pregnant when she was murdered in North Dakota in 2017, has just been reintroduced in Congress by senators Lisa Murkowski and Catherine Cortez Masto. Senator Jon Tester of Montana, who brought Briana Lamb, an activist on behalf of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), as his guest to the delayed State of the Union address in January, proposed a bill to instigate a federal inquiry into the crisis. Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico, recently sworn in as one of the first two Native American women in Congress, has made the issue of MMIWG a central part of her platform. But for generations the crisis received little mainstream attention in the United States; like so many other symptoms of historical trauma, including alcohol and drug addiction, it is perpetuated to another generation.
Even before Jerica and eventually Kayla tried meth, Julz went to the Oglala Sioux Tribe for help. “I told them, meth is here. All the kids their age are into it,” she says. “And they had no program to fight it.” Hers is still the only organization in Pine Ridge dedicated to fighting the drug. In the early 2000s, when a crackdown on its ingredients made meth more difficult to obtain domestically, Mexican drug cartels stepped in, the Seattle Times reported; some specifically preyed on Indian reservations, using the Whiteclay stores as a kind of twisted business model. They chose isolated reservations where jurisdiction over crimes was complicated and law enforcement was sparse, giving out free samples of meth and turning customers into small-time meth dealers. By 2016, according to the National Congress of American Indians, the rate of meth use among American Indians was more than twice as high as that of any other group in the US, and crime rates on some reservations were five times the national average in 2014.
By the end of 2018, the Oglala Sioux Tribe police department had increased from just 24 officers to 54 assigned to the Pine Ridge Reservation, where the population is anywhere between 10,000 and 40,000 people. Favian Kennedy, director of Anpetu Luta Otipi, a tribal-run drug and alcohol residential and outpatient treatment center, calls meth a “serious and growing problem” on the reservation when I reach him at the center in Kyle. Anpetu Luta Otipi’s most recent data on the drug is now six years old, when more than 10 percent of adults on the reservation had tried meth. “We know that figure to be much higher now, and affecting young people too,” Kennedy says. A recent Colorado State University study found that illicit drug use by American Indian adolescents “increased substantially” between 2009 and 2012 and between 2016 and 2017, compared to that among other youths nationwide, and was “particularly troubling” when it came to cocaine, crystal meth, and non-LSD psychedelics—up to eight times higher.
Over the past few decades, when tribal social services have been kneecapped by underfunding and understaffing, a patchwork of grassroots groups led by individuals operating with few resources have risen up in an attempt to help residents. In February 1992, after a car wreck took the life of beloved high school champion basketball player SuAnne Big Crow, her mother, Chick, turned a former doll factory on Highway 18 into a youth center, with a replica of a ’50s diner and, later, a gym; it has had funding struggles in recent years. Out in Slim Butte, Bryan Deans, a Lakota permaculturist, hosts an annual convergence to teach traditional and permaculture building and farming practices to youth; in Whiteclay, Joel Pulliam, a ledger artist whose work has been exhibited in the Smithsonian, is among a group of local artists working to transform a former beer store into a mentor-run artist space.
In the heart of Pine Ridge village, Yvonne DeCory and Eileen Janis function as overtime social workers, teachers, parenting coaches, grief counselors, and, on occasion, talent scouts. DeCory, a compact powerhouse of a woman, is known as Tiny or Tiny D. In 2002, she founded the BEAR (Be Excited About Reading) Project as a literacy program; two years later it morphed to include other social services, as suicides, car wrecks, and gang violence mounted on the reservation. Now part clothes warehouse, food pantry, after-school hangout, and book giveaway, the BEAR Project is run out of a donated basement space below the central post office in Pine Ridge. The BEAR kids perform skits and raps at schools on and off the reservation, teaching their peers to learn to cope with serious life issues. A second, practically unfathomable epidemic of youth suicide occurred on Pine Ridge in just four months, from December 2014 to March 2015, when more than 100 attempts were recorded and nine deaths occurred. If someone in the area attempts, DeCory and Janis are called on to support the victim’s family and community. They often bring Janis’s son Robert Waters to sing ceremonial honor songs. “Sometimes we can’t leave,” DeCory says, “because if it’s a youth, all their friends come, and all their friends, and all their friends.”
Crowdfunding is what is keeping Julz’s tiny organization alive; a current campaign has raised just under $400. “I think she needs some grants, some more people to help her,” says Julz’s friend Dot Tyon, who has called on MAMA for support for her son, who was killed nearly three years ago in a drunk-driving accident, and for her daughter, who has attempted five rounds of treatment for meth addiction (and completed three). “This drug takes their spirit, and you just kind of get tired,” she explains. “That’s where Julz comes in. I’d call her and vent.”
‘I’ve seen my mom beat up meth dealers.. They’re more scared of my mom than they are of the cops.’
A fair amount of what MAMA does seems to take place on Julz’s phone, and that makes its impact harder to quantify than the work of other organizations. A person might write to Julz because they want to get off meth, or because their cousin or their aunt or their father is on the drug and they don’t know how what to do. Ostensibly, if a person found their way to the MAMA website, which includes resources for family members of people on meth, or to MAMA’s Facebook page, which currently has a few more than 5,700 followers, they could probably also look up recovery resources in their own community.
It occurs to me that what Julz delivers is something beyond search results: the voice of a real human being, whose reply helps those seeking help to feel less alone. She receives and personally answers at least seven to ten queries a week, some conversations turning into extended dialogues.
“How are you going to put them down if you say you’re here to help?” Julz says at one point, when I ask about the stigma around meth addiction. “You gotta have empathy for this.” She doesn’t judge people who use meth, or their families, she says, because of the way her family has struggled with the drug too.
Outside the cold is sharp and the setting sun thins to an amber horizon line behind the Wounded Knee monument and memorial. I sit with Julz’s son, JonJon, inside a car with the heat running. It is a few days before JonJon’s 21st birthday. Three nights earlier, a neighbor who he calls family was high and intoxicated, and attempted to start a fight with him. In high school wrestling, his weight hovering around 275 pounds, JonJon competed in the heavyweight class; refusing to fight with this neighbor must have taken every ounce of his considerable strength. What stopped him was a future job on a farm in Northern California, where an aunt and uncle have offered him a place to live. He’s moved in with his girlfriend and her family in Wounded Knee while he waits to go west.
On the 20-minute drive to Wounded Knee, I had passed other memorials—a handmade shrine to a friend JonJon calls a cousin, Vinny Brewer, outside the SuAnne Big Crow Center. In 2017, Brewer was shot and killed outside a basketball tournament there by multiple members of a drug cartel from Colorado, allegedly to settle a drug score. JonJon watched the whole thing happen. “When I think about it and replay it, it was scary,” he says. “They pulled out AK-47s and not a single thing we could do about it but watch my cousin get his brains blown out.”
JonJon says he has never tried meth. “I watched it tear apart my sisters,” he says. “It ain’t a drug to play with.” He worries especially about Kayla. He remembers the middle school taunts—“Your mom’s a drunk, your mom’s a bum”—that rang through town when his mother was still drinking. But Julz passed on a legacy of redemption when she left Whiteclay at the start of JonJon’s freshman year. “My mom sobered up and proved everybody wrong, so I figured in high school, I’d try to do something with my life.”
At school he excelled in sports—football, track, wrestling; he was also part of the BEAR Project. In November 2016, during his senior year, he followed Julz to Standing Rock, where, to the disappointment of his wrestling coach, he remained for three months.
When he drove into camp the first time, Julz told him to imagine the Battle of Little Big Horn that their ancestors had fought. Even though he is now frustrated with Standing Rock’s nonviolent action approach, at the time, it was a place where he found peace. “It felt more like home than home,” he says. “I come from a warrior society that likes to take action. I’ve seen my mom beat up meth dealers. I’ve seen my mom straight-up ask a meth dealer why he’s selling meth and rip into him. They’re more scared of my mom than they are of the cops.”
After a week, sometime Wednesday night, Kayla comes home. She’d been up, as Julz suspected, for days. Kayla and Julz lay in Julz’s room on Thursday morning, talking. “She told me she wanted to stop. I told her that as long as I live I will fight this drug from taking her from me,” Julz says, her voice a mixture of exhaustion and relief.
In the morning, Julz leaves Kayla sleeping and goes into town to do errands; a friend has agreed to drive her to Butte, Montana, if they can start the first half of the ten-hour drive that afternoon. Walking into the tribal headquarters across the street, Julz jokes, “They’re probably going to ask me if I’m here to do a protest.” She stops by the Oglala Sioux Tribe accounting department to visit her friend Pete Fills the Pipe. On one wall of the building’s exterior are eight posters of faceless red silhouettes, representing eight women and girls on Pine Ridge who are still missing, some of whom have been gone for years. Say Her Name, the signs proclaim. As Julz heads back outside, a woman greets her in the halls. “Hey Julz! You getting ready to do a protest today?”
Julz laughs but looks tired as she walks away. In the passenger seat, she types a text to a MAMA volunteer who needs to use her as a reference. She says she doesn’t feel right leaving so soon after her own daughter has finally returned. The days have worn on her. She apologizes for being so emotional. She’s not usually like this, she says. She decides to write to the Band Against Meth in Montana organizer. Her own family will have to come first; no Montana trip today. The errands in town have occupied less than two hours. But when Julz returns home, she discovers that Kayla has disappeared again.
This time, Julz calls the police. This time, Julz herself finds Kayla in a trap house, where the police pick her up. “I don’t like to criminalize meth, but at least I know where she is,” Julz says the next morning, after another sleepless night. Both her stove and washing machine broke down yesterday; nothing seems to be working right, and yet, when I arrive to take her to check on visiting hours, Julz stands in the yard promising a friend that she’ll try to come help her fix the frozen pipes in her house later.
Kayla spends the night in a juvenile detox cell in Whiteclay, in the one-year-old Justice Center building. It is circular in shape, forming its own cycle of courts. Because Julz has a warrant for a prior offense, a speeding ticket, Francine goes in her stead. It’s the first time I’ve met Kayla, and it feels like an unfair way to be introduced to someone, especially a 15-year-old girl who sits behind a glass window at a table that resembles a classroom desk, where in a different reality she might be sitting today.
For someone addicted to meth, the idea of returning home requires a process of remapping.
When they see each other, Kayla and Francine start crying almost immediately. Kayla wears the short-sleeved burgundy uniform of the facility, bruises (or track marks) visible on her arms, her long hair twisted atop her head in a bun, polish chipping on her fingernails. For most of the allotted 15-minute visit, Kayla buries her face in her hands. Her thoughts appear to race between logic and emotion. She understands why Julz alerted the cops, she says. She doesn’t blame her, she says. She wants her mother. She wants to leave. I just want to go home, she repeats, over and over and over again.
Kayla, I think you should go back to school, her grandmother says gently. I want to go back to school, Kayla replies. I think you need to get help, you need to get treatment, her grandmother says. At first Kayla says she wants treatment too. Then she changes her mind. “I don’t want a rehab. I did that already,” she says. “Jail, treatment—it doesn’t work. It’s all on me. I just wanna go home.” Francine reminds her how crowded home is right now. How the stove and washer just broke. Kayla persists. “If I’m home, I won’t do anything else.”
A minute later she sounds less certain. “It’s everywhere,” Kayla says, meaning meth. “You can’t get away from it.” Then she changes the subject again, shuts down. She doesn’t want to talk anymore about Pine Ridge, about drugs there. “I don’t know about anyone else. I just need to get myself right,” she says, and hides her face again. For a minute, none of us on the other side of the glass knows what to say. I think of the pictures of Kayla on her bedroom wall, the selfies with her friends; of the pictures of Kayla stored in Julz’s phone, of her standing by Julz’s side at the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, at a march in Washington, D.C.
“Kayla, is that a new tattoo?” her grandmother ventures at last, breaking the silence. Kayla laughs, surprised out of her crying, shakes her head no. “I’ve had it a while,” she says quietly. Curling along her forearm is a tattoo of the name “Te’Ca Lynn.” The home she wants to return to, invoked so many times, has started to sound like an idea, a place that exists in a time when Te’Ca was alive too, before meth had riven either of their lives. It sounds like a fantasy. But replaying the scene a week later, I wonder if it isn’t also a little bit possible too.
I think about something Favian Kennedy told me when he detailed a key tenet of Anpetu Luta Otipi’s inpatient treatment. For someone addicted to meth, someone who can easily cite every current and former trap house in the neighborhood, the idea of returning home requires a process of remapping. “One thing we do that is pretty unique is reintroducing them into the world they came from before they go back, taking them on trips to alcohol- and drug-free events,” he says. “As a non–substance user, when I go out on the rez, I see the ranches, the horses and equestrian things, the powwow grounds, the things that are part of us. As users, they’ve learned to look at the dark side of their surroundings. What we try to do is retrain their eye, so they can see their community again.”
When visiting hours end, I circle through Whiteclay and back to Pine Ridge village, where people are lined up for a food giveaway sponsored by the BEAR Project. The temperatures are rising, the KILI DJ says, drolly: “We were at one degree and now it’s two! Stay tuned for the count-up.” Fields of dried sunflowers line the road to Wounded Knee, and in the Badlands beyond on the road to the airport in Rapid City, South Dakota, the scenery turns otherworldly again. On the air, a small chorus of older voices harmonizes live in Lakota. The song is “Amazing Grace.”
Nearly two weeks after she went missing, Kayla is sentenced to 45 days in a juvenile jail, with the option of leaving sooner if she can be transferred directly to a residential treatment program. The judge went light on her daughter, Julz says, because he wants her in rehab. Julz does too. She is working to get Kayla a place in a program, ideally one that’s at least a year long; either that or, after Kayla’s release, Julz will take her to live at her sister’s in California for a while. “When she gets away from here, when she was at Bayou Bridge, when she was in California, when she was at Standing Rock, she’s good,” Julz tells me over the phone a little over a week after our visit. “But she needs a real chance.”
Genuine excitement radiates in her voice as she tells me how Greenpeace has asked her to come serve as an energy healer at the direct action camp in Florida that Jerica is supposed to attend in March; as she mentions the EC3 energy conference where she’s been invited to speak in May in Los Angeles. She needs a new war pony, she says, to get to all the places MAMA needs to go.
But there’s a heaviness in her tenor too. “I can’t tell if I’m tired or sick or what,” she says. Neither of us had counted on my arriving in the midst of a family crisis, I remind her. She feels a little depleted each time she tells her story, she admits. Telling it and experiencing the emotions that come after are something she’s come to recognize as part of her own healing, as she tries to help her daughters join her on this cycle too.
I think about how again and again, whether locked to equipment on a pipeline site, or banging on the doors of a trap house, Julz has put her body on the line. It strikes me what a similarly brave and physical thing it is to offer up one’s actual story, how bodily it must also feel to transfer it, and her trust, to the ears of others who are too scared or ashamed to share their own.
In the first week of March, Julz did make it back to Montana, driving in a relative’s car through a blinding snowstorm to help rescue a MAMA ally who was in danger. At a gas station on the Crow reservation, Julz was recognized by a stranger. “Aren’t you that Oglala lady who fights meth?” the woman asked, and threw her arms around her.