Exeter, Rhode Island
Fifteen Years Later
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
I brush wet dirt from the skull's damaged eye socket and wonder if my sister is dead.
The thought is an old habit. Normally, I barely notice; the fear is like a clear film that floats past my eye to be blinked away and forgotten.
Footsteps crunch to draw me away from worries about my only sister, Emma Lou, in rural Oklahoma. My focus returns to this hilltop near the Sandy Brook hiking loop in Rhode Island. Where I stand is not an area for hikers. I am on Narragansett Native land, which means I need to hurry to preserve the scene from whoever is headed this way.
I drop the toothbrush caked in mud and hustle to my backpack. I open the bag as I hear the snap of someone moving past the yellow caution tape I used to lock down the site yesterday evening.
Grabbing a soft cotton sheet from my bag, I fling it into the air to cover the entire skeleton I excavated from the earth this morning. An air pocket floats beneath the sheet as if the bones are trying to rise and leave the shallow grave.
I narrow my eyes to see who's coming over the hill. I half wave, relieved, at the sight of a familiar too-thin face with neat brown hair. He's in his usual loose jeans and starched yellow polo with a tribal seal stitched on the pocket.
"You pretty far along, Syd?" asks Ellis Reed, the Narragansett Tribal Historic Preservation Officer I work with the most. "Coroner won't like it."
"They're short-staffed and sending an intern." I don't hide my annoyance as I toss him a can of bug spray. "Starting before dawn means some college kid won't screw up our chances of an ID on the remains." I pause and decide to stick to this half truth. Sharing that I'm in a hurry and meeting my wife in a couple of hours for an appointment will only lead to more questions.
"Kutaputush." Ellis says thanks in Narragansett, then coats himself with a thick layer of spray. These damp woods will have mosquitoes already out for blood. He tosses the can onto the ground and then crosses his arms as he stares down at what brought us here. "Appreciate the sheet."
Not that I need to explain as much to Ellis, but it should be common practice to cover remains. To treat the dead with respect and not as a spectacle. Especially bones like these, uncovered by accident, because they were never meant to be found.
"Can I take a look?" he asks.
"I didn't wait. I'm almost done," I warn as I retie my short black hair at the nape of my neck.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA, says I shouldn't have excavated until Ellis, as the tribal representative, and the coroner showed. But my new boss works from the BIA headquarters, one thousand miles away, and from what I've heard about her, she wouldn't let an intern screw up her dig site either. Not that I asked.
I lift the sheet straight into the air and ball the fabric into my arms with a sniff of the fancy detergent my wife likes. She was softly snoring this morning when I gave up on sleep and came back here with my headlamp and excavation equipment. After two days of finding nothing of significance in my geological survey of the area, I was shocked to strike bone. With the last rays of sunlight at my back, I made the call to Ellis.
He blows out a long breath. "I'm glad you found her."
I nod once and follow his gaze to where I've brushed away the layers of earth around the delicate bones still wearing a dirty white dress. The arms and legs are fanned out like she was making a snow angel.
I'm lucky to work with Ellis because he treats me with respect, something the BIA hasn't traditionally given to tribal leaders like him. He could see me as just the BIA, the oldest bureau in the government. Created by the Department of War to exterminate Native people, culture, and ways of life across this "new" country "discovered" by men like Columbus and colonized by Pilgrims and founding fathers, despite the tens of thousands of years of Native life that preceded them.
The modern charge of the BIA is different, of course, but the bad blood rightfully remains. The culture at the BIA is changing, so there are more of us who see our job in a new way, especially since it's personal to me. I've never shared this with Ellis, but I'm Native, too. Cherokee from Oklahoma out here on Narragansett land in Rhode Island. But I look white, and I refuse to be the white woman who brings up her Cherokee heritage when it's convenient, selectively dropping it into a conversation with people who live Native life every day.
As part of a new generation in the agency-and Native myself-I do my best to make inroads with tribes and show that I'm here to help, not harm. But there's three hundred years of terrible history that tells another story.
I also greatly respect Ellis as a tribal leader who must live in two worlds. The need to preserve the past but also continue building the tribe's future through what's allowed by the government. He must find some version of balance between what the tribe needs to continue existing-language, land base, culture, medicine-and what the government will agree to give.
My role as an archeologist is simpler. I see myself as a midwife to the past for the future. To support the tribes by advocating for what they need to continue traditions that honor their thousands of years of history as they carry this knowledge into the future.
"Syd? Did you hear me?"
He clears his throat. "Small cranium size."
I focus back on the bones between us. "Even without the dress, the narrow ridges of the eyebrows suggest female to me."
He crouches near the feet. "What's the stratigraphy?"
I almost grin at his question, which shows his knowledge extends well beyond what's needed for his job title. It's something I immediately respected in him when we first met after I took this job five years ago. I like to think he appreciates it in me, too. Neither of us is a fan of the status quo, especially not when it comes to justice.
"The same layer of earth," I say. "Two feet four inches deep, except the skull and feet were three inches higher on each side."
"Shallow grave dug fast," he says with a sigh. "What do you make of the skull fracture?"
A memory of Emma Lou in a screaming fight with her ex-boyfriend floats past, but I return focus. I want to step beyond the status quo of my job, too. To not let my sister and all her problems distract me from justice.
I drop to my knees and return to the position I was in right before he arrived, toothbrush and all. I take away a few more layers of mud on the right eye socket, where the fracture begins. "There's a section of avulsed bone on the right cheek." I pause as Ellis squats next to me, and I point out where the face was cut, starting at the left eye socket. "The trauma extends from the inferior orbital border under the eye socket to the left canine tooth root."
He tightens his lips like a flinch. "Stabbed in the face."
"There's only blood splatter along the left shoulder." I motion to the small spot I'd noticed when inspecting the dress. "Her assailant-let's take a wild guess and assume he-could have grabbed her from behind and stabbed her as he held her. I didn't see any more trauma, though, so this was the only injury by the knife. But that wouldn't necessarily kill her."
"You can tell all that?"
"Best guess," I say, because that's all I can do with the constraints of time, money, and going gray before seeing any lab results. Plus, I'm not a forensic archeologist, a specialist in excavating crime scenes. I studied it in school, extensively, but kept returning to the land and culture over labs and bones-to honor indigenous history and support projects that make the future possible.
Ellis rubs under his eyes, as if he wishes there was more available than guesses. "Keep going, please," he says with a weariness I understand. This is not an average day.
I fumble with the flashlight in my pocket but manage to click it on. The sun is only starting to rise, and we need more light to properly examine the neck bones. "This break indicates a laryngeal fracture. The attacker probably stood on her neck until she suffocated or bled to death."
Ellis blows out a long breath. "How old do you think?"
"Late teens, early twenties."
"Just the right age to disappear." He scrapes his knuckles under his clean-shaven chin. "What about the dress?"
"Machine stiches. No tag on any seams or initials sewn inside."
"We're not that lucky."
"Well, I wouldn't say that." I reach over to a brown paper bag holding our only clue. I use my pencil to lift out a pink plastic quartz Swatch watch. "Looks like something from the eighties."
"Yeah," he says with the lightness of memory in his voice. "My sister and her friends had Swatches like that when they were teenagers. Probably 'eighty-five."
Trends in teenage culture are fascinating, no matter the decade, but I stay on topic. "Approximate year of death would help. We can see if there are any missing women in the national database."
"There were plenty of women that went missing back then," he says. "Maybe ran off, maybe not. Few reported, though."
There's no need for me to say what comes next in his reasoning. Even if someone did report it to the police, it's unlikely anything would be done, let alone actually filing a report or contacting the FBI, which has jurisdiction over reservation land.
I ease the watch back into the paper bag and set it aside. I doubt there's a print, and if there is we won't know for a year. Maybe more. Not for old bones on Native land.
As the BIA's regional archeologist, I may not have legal jurisdiction to actually investigate-that's usually a tribal officer's job-but these bones were found by me on land that I'm responsible for. That's an obligation extending beyond man's laws into the laws of nature, which I've always respected. I can at least help by doing as much legwork as possible to bring a name to the remains and answers to the family.
"I'll get started with a missing person report first thing," I say, though I don't hide the tone of my voice that suggests it's a waste of time. The FBI manages Native land, but missing Native women and girls don't typically garner their precious attention and resources. "She deserves us trying, at least."
I stare at the blood splatter on the white dress and worry again about Emma Lou. I remember her the last time I was home. No one had warned me she was using again. I found her strung out in our family's living room, under a picture our mom bought at a Quapaw tribe powwow called Madonna of the Plains. A Native woman in a buckskin dress gazing bravely into the distance as she holds tight her baby in a cradleboard.
I've often thought I carry my worry for Sister the same way, strapped to my back, but all burden, no blessing.
The worry grew heavier with Emma Lou's parade of boyfriends with short tempers who were well trained in tearful apologies. But that was nothing to the drugs. My mom had her dismissive attitude and Baptist prayer circle, and my dad had his avoidance. It always fell to me to actually find Emma Lou and bring her home, full of more drugs than sense. Then she'd do it again. And again. The worry grew too large, and if I had kept going back home to Picher, it would have broken us both.
The wind unfolds in a gust that rattles the silent acres of trees around us. Chills spread along my arms, and I wish I didn't hear my grandmother's words, but I do: This wind is a messenger. There will be news from Unetlanvhi.
I'm in no mood to search for signs of the Great Spirit. I'm fighting the idea of Emma Lou's death taking root. As if my grandmother's god is saying this time the worry of failing to save my sister will not painlessly float past my eye.
"The intern is here," Ellis says as a van bumps along the narrow path.
The wheels spin deep tracks in the spring mud and crush the plants and few wildflowers edging the trail. I already don't like this intern, and I haven't even met him yet.
I dig the toe of my boot into the mud and try to release the worry for Emma Lou. I swore I was done when I said goodbye to Sister three years ago in a hospital bed. I haven't returned to Oklahoma since. Instead I am here seeking justice and peace for what's been hidden in the earth.
"Let's go," I say, relieved at the kick of anger instead of helpless fear. "That intern sure as hell isn't going to screw up my scene."
The coroner's van jerks to a sudden stop as if striking an invisible tree. The driver's-side door flies open, and a tall kid dressed head to toe in blue scrubs, a medical apron, and a surgical cap nearly falls to the ground. He takes only a few steps before he starts flailing his arms and yelling. "You already started?!"
In that second, I am justified in my choice to dig alone, even if it's breaking regulations set long ago. I glance at Ellis, then back to the kid. "I'm the one digging. We start when I say."
"I wanted to do it," he says with a whine in his voice. "You were supposed to wait!"
"Wait for the coroner." I cross my arms. "You're an intern."
"I represent the coroner, thank you very much." He leans forward and jams his balled fists onto his hips. There's something maternal in the pose. I almost smile, guessing his mother probably uses the same one.
"Let's try this again. I'm Ellis Reed from the Narragansett tribal office," he says kindly, and steps toward the kid with a wave. "This is Syd Walker, archeologist from BIA. There's plenty to do."
"This dig is for my senior thesis." The kid's eyes go wide and honestly look gleeful when he glances at the skeleton. "I have to know everything."
Copyright © 2023 by Vanessa Lillie. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.