Each month, behind the wheel of my 2002 Toyota, which runs better on the inside than it looks like it might from the outside, I take a 221 mile drive, past teeming lakes, clustering trees, and any number of big box stores, to Sandstone Federal Correctional Institution in Sandstone, Minnesota.
Or I used to, before the COVID-19 pandemic and the moratorium on public visitation.
Rattler, also known as Michael Markus, lives there, along with roughly 1,155 other imprisoned men. I met him during the Standing Rock Water Protector movement, or revolution as he calls it. Rattler served as Akicita, an honored Lakota role of peace-protection and conflict de-escalation. He took the name Rattler when he served as Akicita at Oceti Sakowin Camp. Like Rattler, Little Feather and Angry Bird also served as Akicita.
Dion, the youngest of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) Political Prisoners, who celebrated his 21st birthday in prison, didn’t directly serve as Akicita, but he was associated with Akicita, and for this he was also charged.
In a separate and complicated scenario, RedFawn, like countless other Water Protectors, fell in love at camp. Unfortunately, her love story ended in prison time and, to quote her support committee, entrapment [i].
All told, the five NoDAPL Political Prisoners – Rattler, Little Feather, Angry Bird, Dion, and RedFawn – are Indigenous people who were targeted by the U.S. government for engaging in an Indigenous-led struggle to preserve Indigenous ways of life – on Indigenous land. The pipeline and the vast security forces, from private to state to countless enlisted localities, should never have been there.
While Energy Transfer Partners still insists that the pipeline project is not blatantly racist and unjust, because it does not cross Standing Rock [ii] – that could only be true, or be seen to be true, because of other blatant injustices. Regular violations by colonial governments and corporations have steadily shrunk the boundaries of the Great Lakota/Dakota/Nakota (Sioux) Nation, as established by the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868 [iii]. According to these treaties, as well as others, DAPL crosses all over Indigenous lands.
A descendent of White settler-colonialism [iv] myself, I also cross Indigenous lands – Lakota, Dakota, Hidatsa, Anishinaabe, and more – as I journey to Sandstone FCI.
It’s a minimum-security facility not too far from the Kettle River and the sandstone ridges, which that meandering, copper river has helped to create. The prison sits, just about dead center, in aptly named Pine County. Last fall, I saw sandhill cranes for the first time in my life, there on the Sandstone campus.
The sandhill cranes, the river, and the rest of Pine County are separated from the men of Sandstone FCI by a double row of massive fencing and untold lengths of spiraled razor wire. The first time I visited Rattler, having just been granted visitation privileges, eight long months and three frustrating visitor applications after he was admitted, I stopped to snap a few pictures from the scrappy, front patch of lawn.
I was inspired by Leoyla Cowboy who had recently shared a selfie from the outside of USP Hazelton in West Virginia, where Little Feather, her beloved spouse, was doing time. That selfie, even with the copious razored fencing of Hazelton in the background, had been strangely comforting to the rest of us – the loved ones who had become loved ones through our resistance to the pipeline and the violence it brought to us.
I thought Rattler’s loved ones, his new spouse especially, might be just as comforted by a Sandstone selfie – fencing, razor wire, and scrappy patches of grass notwithstanding.
But a female guard, twice my size in muscles and bullet-proof padding, burst from the solid door. “Are you a visitor?” I nodded and tucked my phone away. “What are you doing? Are you taking pictures?” As I mumbled something about the rest of Rattler’s family maybe wanting to see where he’s living now, she interrupted, “You’d better not be taking pictures of our fence, or you’ll never visit here again.” I didn’t love this exchange.
But as far as harassment by armed authorities goes, it was nothing. I wasn’t threatened with the loss of my life, just the loss of a life-giving experience – and the loss of a life-giving experience for a loved one on the inside. If he were isolated from one visitor in a short list of authorized visitors, he would be exponentially more isolated from life on the outside.
That’s why I didn’t speak up, keep my camera in hand, or make any gesture that could imply I was doing those things. As harmless as this experience turned out to be, it stays with me now because of how it troubles, ever so slightly, my White, settler-colonial identity – an identity which has always depended upon the consent of other Whites to maintain.
Also a White person, the guard had the prerogative, in that moment by the door, to treat me like a quasi-prisoner, a proximal prisoner, an outsider to White settler-colonialism, because of my proximity to a prisoner and the imprisoned role itself. My ancestors must have experienced many moments like these.
If they were anything like the European immigrants of history, my Scottish, German, and Irish ancestors (to name a few) fought, sometimes literally, to be admitted into Whiteness, into the in-group of colonialism here in the U.S. – in order to be free from, or at least more free from, injustice.
But they were rarely certain, rarely secure, in this hoped-for state of insulation against economic and existential suffering. Using the Doctrine of Discovery in the 1400s, colonizers first claimed primacy because of their Christianity [v]. As increasing numbers of colonized peoples adopted a Christian orientation, colonizers claimed primacy largely because of their Anglo-Saxon identity [vi]. Then, in the 1700s and 1800s, increasing numbers of light-skinned immigrants resisted colonial powers by joining Black people and Indigenous people in revolts like Gabriel’s Rebellion. So colonizers extended primacy to other light-skinned groups – to disturb affinities among the poor of many colors, and, just as importantly, to find overseers for their slavery plantations and settlers for their land claims [vii].
But each new wave of light-skinned immigrants to the U.S. – Scottish, German, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Eastern European, and more – was (and is) at first excluded from the sanctity of White identity. Their economic usefulness had (and has) to be shown [viii].
Then, even after it’s been established, Whiteness isn’t always easy to maintain. After scores of Irish immigrants escaped the Great Famine of the 1840s, they, as was the custom in this country, were originally scorned by other light-skinned Americans. Then, before the Civil War, having quickly learned the advantages of Whiteness, a group of Irish-American dock workers in New York City attempted to push German-Americans out of dock working jobs, claiming Germans were a different color, and campaigning for an “all-white waterfront” [ix].
Whiteness, then and now, is a slippery device. Whiteness, then and now, comes at a cost – what W.E.B. Du Bois termed the “wages of whiteness” [x].
As traumatized peoples from Europe, fleeing hunger, abuse, and environmental degradation, my ancestors’ best hope seemed to be to rid themselves of their proximities – 1. To their own history of land and cultural loss. 2. To their own history as indentured servants and slaves. 3. To the like realities of those who could not dwell behind a mask of White.
To be White, my ancestors gave up their own histories, covered their own pain, and shifted, to a greater or lesser extent, their historical suffering onto the more recently colonized peoples of Africa and this continent – in order to be safe [xi]. Or at least to be less in danger.
Even today, a “safe neighborhood” is often code for a predominantly White neighborhood – regardless how much domestic violence, child abuse, and emotional suffering happens within; regardless, in fact, how unsafe such a neighborhood, like the Retreat at Twin Lakes, might be for Trayvon Martin.
In my own childhood, growing up on an all-White block, a cul-de-sac shaped like an elongated button mushroom, adults in the neighborhood would have called the place safe.
We kids could play in the cul-de-sac, dawn ‘til dusk.
My best friend Dana and I would squeeze our two, wiry bodies onto her bicycle built for one, singing for all the world to hear, if they wanted to.
The other kids loved to hold races, from up the street by Shawn’s house all the way down to Amy’s.
Some kids played cops and robbers. The bad guys were the robbers, of course, always getting their wrists tied up in Jeff and Greg’s garage.
When the real police drove by, that’s all they did – drive by – on the bigger street, called Gettysburg Drive, which our cul-de-sac emerged from.
The only time I even remember a firetruck was a mid-summer block party – the firetruck clambering with grade-school bodies that had taken a break, for a time, from bicycling, and racing, and sending each other to jail.
The only guns I saw there, on my cul-de-sac, were the ones that waited, side by side, in my dad’s bedroom closet, or came out for cleaning and greasing on my parents’ queen-size bed.
Out on the street, we were safe, relatively safe.
In the secrecy of our homes, though, where no one else could see, our bodies – too many of our bodies, anyway – faced something other than safety. As I remember the ways many of us children lived, behind our masks of White, I can scarcely pick my heart up off the mushroom-shaped street.
There was one particular evening, way past dark, cloudy, not much of a moon.
It was early Spring, I’d say, though the season has escaped me.
I bolted, as if tossed by the hand of God, from the living room to the front lawn.
The thing I had just witnessed left me severed from my sanity.
So I made noise, plenty of noise, plenty of wounded, animal noise.
But no one came out to help me.
No one checked in at our house, or gave my folks a call, or summoned the local police, which would have been the custom when noisy trouble was unfolding.
What must our neighbors have been thinking?
What did it mean, in that moment, to live on a safe street? What did it mean, in that moment, to come from a mushroom-like cul-de-sac?
What did it mean to be settlers and colonials?
To be White?
I was taught, though no one ever said it out loud, that being White means – 1. We’re protected. 2. The danger is non-Whites. 3. Other Whites don’t harm us. Even when they do. Because that’s what it means to be White.
Maybe, as a child, as a descendant of settler-colonialism, I longed, like my ancestors did, for the safety they came here to find.
Maybe, as White people, we are still afraid, still struggling to find that safety – in the very form and function of our identity.
Maybe that’s what places like Sandstone FCI, USP Hazelton, the new Burleigh-Morton Detention Center are meant to guarantee.
Freedom from the suffering that only “they” can cause.
Because us-ness is the thing that makes us safe.
And yet – Our us-ness doesn’t save us. Enough. Our us-ness doesn’t protect us. Enough.
My ancestors fought to be White, to be “us,” to be welcomed within colonialism – Not because “us” was so loving and so welcoming – But precisely because “us” was not. By being “us,” by fighting to be White, by disavowing “them,” my ancestors sought protection, assimilation, ingratiation. The deepest reason we White people long to be “us” – Is not what “they,” those with lesser might, could do to “us” – But what “us,” by definition, does to “them” – And what suffering we’d endure, if we failed to be “us.”
Sometimes, the gates around the communities – the walls along the borders – keep “them” out. Sometimes, the razor-wire fencing around the prisons keeps “them” in. Either way, the premise is: we’re safe among our kind –
The “us,” the settlers, the colonials, the good ones, the Whites.
But what if our experience tells us otherwise?
What if our own proximity to Whiteness tells us otherwise?
And what if we don’t stick with our own us-ness, our own kind?
As a regular visitor at Sandstone FCI, I can’t help noticing that the visitation room – a squat, low-ceilinged spot that feels like a deep, down basement – is one of the most culturally and ethnically integrated places that I experience in my regular, North Dakota life. The only place more integrated, in recent memory, has been the Water Protector camps and the Water Protector happenings that have followed.
Certainly, I’m still a descendant of settler-colonialism when I’m at Sandstone FCI.
I don’t become Black, and I don’t become Indigenous, the two most prevalent backgrounds of people I see there – along with White.
But when I arrive at the prison, as a visitor of a prisoner, I am situated, for a time, on the other side of the fence. While I may not be an enemy of the empire, not a person in a cage herself – I’m also not a friend of the empire, not a person with a key, a gun, or, in those moments, a voice.
For those moments, if rare others, I feel my Whiteness slipping.
While I am not “them,” I’m also not fully “us.”
My proximity to prisoners disrupts the White identity that my ancestors struggled so hard – oppressed so hard – to make for me. My ancestors, fleeing Europe, hoped to free me from such a prison, from having loved ones in exactly this kind of place.
But the NoDAPL Political Prisoners are not my first loved ones to do time.
A handful of years ago, a 20-something year-old relative, a descendant of White settler-colonialism himself, joined 2,000 other sex offenders on his state’s registry.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. He wasn’t supposed to meet the local police at a local motel, believing he was meeting a local teen.
He did a terrible thing. Or he would have done a terrible thing, if that teenage girl had been a teenage girl and not an undercover cop.
He did a thing that, by definition, “us” does not do.
Is he “them” now, or still “us”?
Are we, his extended family, “them” now, or still “us”?
And what of our various ancestors who did what he wanted to do, who took bodies, who took from bodies, without repercussion – and called the taking something else?
That’s the colonial paradigm: To take land – and call the taking, civilization. To take freedom – and call the taking, an act of faith.
This is how I arrive.
These are my itchy, ancestral memories, as I travel among the cabins and lakes to Sandstone FCI.
On that first prison visit, Rattler and I sat face to face, hunched forward in our seats – part bench, part pew, part chair. Except for the matching uniforms (tan), except for volume of talking (much), you’d almost think we were visiting at an oversized, indoor bus stop.
In a one-gallon, Ziploc bag, I’d brought $40 in quarters for the various mismatched vending machines, which slumped along the exit wall. Under a sign, NO REFUNDS, printed on standard copy paper, half the machines didn’t function. The others didn’t disclose the various prices of their items. No meals were served in that room – except at the annual Powwow – so you had to buy lunch for your loved one. Rattler, like every prisoner, was barred from any contact with the vending machines, the microwave, or the money.
Everything prison-related seems to cost money.
There’s a copay to see the doctor. You have to buy soap, and shoes, and phone time. Even wiring money to prisoners’ commissaries costs extra money.
Dion, who used to do time at Sandstone before his release to a halfway house, had a job in the kitchen. He made 50 cents a day. One evening on the phone, we figured he had to work 14 days to afford one commissary pizza.
“It’s slavery,” we both said, even though, in 1863, enslaved peoples were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation – even though, in 1865, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery for good.
But there’s one clear exception to the 13th Amendment: “Punishment for a crime” [xii]. If you’ve been convicted of a crime, according to the U.S. Constitution, you can be made a slave. And it’s not just the wages.
When Little Feather and Leoyla wanted to have a legal marriage, with full benefits of the certificate, they chose a few places and times. They asked if I would conduct it, as I was vested with that colonial power. Since they’d been wedded in their hearts from the days of Oceti Sakowin camp, we liked to call the event their “re-wedding.”
But the re-wedding wasn’t allowed, not while he was in prison, or later, in the halfway house – because a colonial authority, not Little Feather himself, had the power to decide.
As Frederick Douglass said in 1845, “I didn’t know I was a slave until I found out I couldn’t do the things I wanted” [xiii].
Prison is the epitome of not doing the things you wanted.
Prison is the slavery of our age.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Little Feather in chains.
Or Rattler behind those fences.
Or Dion, and later RedFawn, behind the visitation glass.
Or Angry Bird, peering up at the judge on that elevated throne.
When the federal defendants – RedFawn, Little Feather, Rattler, Dion, and Angry Bird – first received their charges, they faced possible sentences, mandatory minimums, of 10 years and up.
So the Water Protector Legal Collective commissioned a poll. How likely was a fair jury? It turned out, roughly 85% of Bismarck-Mandan people believed Water Protectors were guilty, already [xiv].
So defendants petitioned the court for a change of venue. Could their trials be relocated to Fargo, maybe, where minds weren’t so made up?
The answer came back – no.
That’s when legal advisors made a difficult recommendation: Cut your losses. Take a plea. Do less time.
So each of the five NoDAPL defendants pled guilty to a lesser charge, felonious Civil Disorder, a category increasingly reserved for political resisters [xv]. Each plea was “non-cooperating,” meaning defendants would not provide evidence in other cases.
RedFawn, in the most extreme example, went from possible life imprisonment to a sentence of 57 months. In addition to Civil Disorder, brought against all the defendants, RedFawn’s plea included a more significant charge, related to the gun her former boyfriend, an FBI informant, had given her [xvi].
According to Daniel Hovland, the judge in each of these cases, 95% of federal defendants take plea deals [xvii]. This means 95% of people in the federal system –
Never have a trial.
Forfeit the right to appeal.
Lose the chance to have their story heard.
That’s the reason, one of the reasons, loved ones have formed the NoDAPL Political Prisoners Support Committee – so the story, which doesn’t end there, doesn’t have to end there.
Here’s RedFawn: “I stand in peace, in prayer, and in solidarity with our relatives through every struggle. Remember the strength and the lives of our ancestors. In the spirit on TasunkeWitko, protect all things sacred. Never give up, my strong heart relatives" [xviii].
Here’s Christina, Dion’s mom: “My son had a purpose. Water is life, that’s why he was there. Whatever he did to protect the water and the Water Protectors, he did out of love” [xix].
Here’s Angry Bird: “We need to come together as one – not as one better than the other – and to remember it’s going to take us all to help fix what we’re destroying. If not for us, then for our children and children’s children to live” [xx].
Here’s Rattler: “When I get out, quite honestly if the fight isn't over, I'm gonna jump right back in it, because it's the right thing to do, and it's where I belong. So when I get out, I've got your back” [xxi].
Here’s Little Feather: “Please let our people know that I love them, and I'm honored to be where I am at for them. I want our people to know also to never give up hope on our movement. Our struggle is only the beginning, and we need to remember that what we stood for and fight for are the essence of our movement” [xxii].
Just this past September, Little Feather and Leoyla did have their re-wedding.
We assembled down by the river – the same rolling river we had gathered to protect.
We wrapped them up in a star quilt, green as Mother Earth, blue as the wide Missouri.
Many loved ones, Little Feather, Leoyla, my daughter, trusted elders from Standing Rock nation – we made our prayers that day.
In many languages.
Some of us touched the water. All of us touched the earth.
We took pictures for the ones who couldn’t join us. We said blessings for the ones who couldn’t join us.
We called upon the ancestors – theirs, yours, mine.
We named a painful past.
We envisioned a sacred future, where all people have value, where all of life has value.
And maybe in that circle –
Maybe in that moment –
Maybe with one another –
We were free.
Karen Van Fossan, who recently relocated from Bismarck to Fargo, ND, is a minister ordained in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. She is an anti-racist activist, writer, and family matriarch to a boisterous family that has come together through unconventional means. Her awards include the Archibald Bush Artist Fellowship, the Arc of Justice Award, and the Prairie Peacemaker Award; she is currently working on a memoir
Endnotes and References
[i] From the RedFawn Support Committee at standwithredfawn.org.
[ii] Representatives of Energy Transfer Partners made this claim during a Public Service Committee hearing on November 13, 2019, in Linton, ND, regarding expansion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which Standing Rock nation opposed.
[iii] For maps and history related to the Fort Laramie Treaties, you can visit ndstudies.gov and search “Section 3: The Treaties of Fort Laramie, 1851 & 1868.”
[iv] Colonialism is a system of government and culture that is superimposed upon a place and a people and is extractive of both. Settler-colonialism relies upon individual and collective members of the colonial system to claim and occupy lands and other resources. White settler-colonialism preferences White people and relies upon White supremacy as a mechanism of colonialism.
[v] For a complete account of the Doctrine of Discovery and the use of Christianity as a mechanism of colonialism, read Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery by Steven T. Newcomb, published by Fulcrum Publishing in 2008.
[vi] For in-depth historical analysis of the development of Whiteness, please see The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter, published by W.W. Norton & Co. in 2010, as well as The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class by David R. Roediger, published by Verso in 2007.
[vii] Please see above.
[viii] Please see above.
[ix] This example comes from page 148 of The Wages of Whiteness.
[x] W.E.B. Du Bois coined this term in Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880, originally published 1935.
[xi] This history comes from The History of White People and The Wages of Whiteness.
[xii] The documentary, 13TH, directed by Ava DuVernay and released in 2016, provides an in-depth analysis of this history.
[xiii] This quote comes from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass, originally published in 1845.
[xiv] More information about this poll and process is available at waterprotectorlegal.org.