Montana is a
land of beautiful scenery, but we were not there for the ambiance. We
crossed railroad tracks, passed a decrepit grain silo & abandoned
trucks. The flat, open badlands stretched on that rainsoaked day to the
prison's front gates.
Vern Kills On
Top stepped out of the shadows at the end of his cellblock & shuffled
forward, arms & legs hobbled by chains. As he came closer I could make
out Indian features: round face, broad nose, raven-colored hair.
culture clashes with contemporary society; outsiders are invariably
suspect. From the moment he entered the cramped, makeshift canteen to
the end of our visit hours later, Vern Kills On Top had little to say. I
am rarely at ease when I meet residents of death row, & Vern made no
effort to make it easier. His eyes darted around the dirty little room,
following intently every move we made. When my assistant, Ken MacEwen,
walked behind him, Vern's head swiveled like an owl's. Everything
I tried to coax
Vern by relating childhood experiences-summer on the farm riding horses.
He matched me experience for experience, but never relaxed & opened up.
I never did figure out whether it was his indigenous side or his prison
facade that was frustrating me.
Slowly, something began to change. Though the only voice I heard was
Courtney Bent's, each hush became a kind of speech. By his silence, he
told me about the chasm between us. The silence was his message.
Slowly I began
to understand, or at least make some sense of it. Prison had reduced
Vern's voice to a single note-suspicion. Native Americans have always
been wary of photographs; maybe their suspicions are well founded. I
respected the cultural distance. We had to piece together whatever
fragments he involuntarily revealed.
Courtney was so
taken with Cheyenne lore that she asked the authorities if they could
bring Vern back, so we could record his dialect. Vern was as surprised
as we were when permission was granted. Self-consciously, he spoke the
beautiful Cheyenne words into our microphone.
We walked out of
Vern's windowless night. He was our last inmate; the project was "done."