The Heart Still Stands
Red Fawn Fallis found love and purpose on a Dakota prairie. She thought it would save her life. Instead, she went to prison.
A statue of a pioneer family stands in front of the state capitol building in Bismarck, North Dakota. A mother cradles a baby, a son leans against a wagon wheel, and a father peers into the distance. The monument represents the settlers who built lives on the banks of the Missouri River after staking their claim to land occupied for centuries by the Mandan Indian tribe. The descendants of white pioneers now spend their days in Bismarck’s banks and office buildings, pool halls and bingo parlors, Chinese buffets and five-and-dimes. Americana is ubiquitous here. Many trucks and Harley-Davidsons cruising the city’s streets are emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes.
The Burleigh Morton County Detention Center, a concrete complex next to a field of heat-withered grass, flies the flag, too. On a July morning in 2018, I drove there to interview a prisoner whose story is uniquely American, though perhaps not in the way many North Dakotans like to think of the word. Her name is Red Fawn Fallis, and her 2016 arrest was the kind of dramatic incident that splashes across the media and is replaced just as quickly—a story of limited interest to most people, but a crisis for those affected by it. In Indian country, including much of North Dakota, this pattern is all too familiar.
Fallis is a member of the Oglala, one of seven bands of the Lakota Sioux. In photos that I’d seen she was striking, with a steady gaze, a sweep of black hair, and a closed-mouth smile that suggested she knew something others didn’t. A tattoo of a galloping horse covered the left side of her neck. At the jail, a clerk directed me to a back room, where a row of stiff plastic chairs faced what looked like pay phones with video screens. When one of the screens crackled on and Fallis’s face appeared, she looked different. She wore an orange jumpsuit and had tired, swollen eyes; she seemed worn out by the 21 months she’d spent in custody. When she spoke, her voice was soft but certain. She was sure of the story she wanted to tell.
I asked her to take me back to October 2016, to the day she was accused of firing a gun at a police officer. Instead, she began a few months earlier, when she met a man named Heath Harmon. As she said his name—Heath—her tongue stuck between her teeth for an instant, as if encountering a bone. Harmon had stopped Fallis short the moment she met him, with his clean-cut good looks and his offer to help as she and thousands of other protesters fought the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. She’d fallen in love—the foolhardy, let’s-not-wait kind, full of promises and gifts. “Flowers, the whole nine yards,” Fallis said. She shifted in her chair and continued. “I’ve always believed in love. I still do.”
There was no way to understand Fallis’s incarceration without first understanding her love for Harmon. And there was no way to understand that without going back even further, to the first love Fallis ever received.
Fallis was born tiny and early in 1979, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a poor, windswept community in South Dakota. Her mother, an alcoholic, gave Fallis to a cousin, hoping the little girl would have a better life. The cousin was Troy Lynn Yellow Wood, a broad-shouldered woman with dark hair and a patch of silver. She had two children already and welcomed Fallis as her own.
Yellow Wood, who lived in Denver, was a force in the American Indian Movement, an activist group founded in 1968 to fight for indigenous rights. In its early days, AIM was dominated by men, but Yellow Wood made herself known. She had an open heart and an open home, a sturdy one-story brick house with extra room. She gave acquaintances money when they needed help getting on their feet and offered AIM activists and single mothers a place to crash. She lived like a single mother herself, in a relationship with a man who drove trucks and only came around every once in a while.
From an early age, Fallis was outgoing and mischievous. She liked playing pranks on her adoptive mother, doing impressions, and imitating scenes from movies. She developed a big heart like Yellow Wood’s. Once, she tried to collect winter coats for people in Ethiopia, until she learned that Ethiopia was a tropical country and people there didn’t often need coats.
Fallis accompanied Yellow Wood to important indigenous ceremonies, including the sweat lodge, or inipi, and the sun dance, a sacred, closely guarded ritual. The U.S. government had outlawed the dance in the late 19th century as part of a widespread effort to erase Native culture. The ritual wasn’t openly practiced until the passage of the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which guaranteed the right of Native people to express their beliefs.
Yellow Wood wanted Fallis to be connected to her ancestors’ traditions, including their spirit of defiance. The Oglala Lakota were the people of Crazy Horse, the legendary leader who helped his people win the Battle of the Little Bighorn—or the Battle of the Greasy Grass, as the Lakota call it—against the Seventh Cavalry, led by George Armstrong Custer, in 1876. (Crazy Horse was killed the next year, bayoneted in the back by a U.S. soldier.) Yellow Wood took Fallis to AIM events, where people delivered fiery speeches about broken treaties and failed government policies. Fallis grew up hearing about the dramatic 71-day standoff between Native activists and federal agents in 1973 at Wounded Knee. When she was just six, she marched at the front of an AIM rally in Denver attended by thousands of people. Sometimes her political awareness led to problems at school, like the time a teacher told her class that Christopher Columbus had discovered America and Fallis was sent to the principal’s office for insisting otherwise.
By the time Fallis was 14, she’d started seeing a counselor, a kindly, soft-spoken man who knew a lot about the challenges Native children often face—high rates of ADHD and fetal alcohol syndrome, for instance, but mostly trauma, the intergenerational kind that passes through families and communities as if they’re rows of dominoes. Fallis kept a dream journal and shared it with her counselor. Once, she dreamed that she was caught up in a swirling vortex, headed for destruction. She thought it represented the sad fact that all her friends were starting to use hard drugs and get into trouble. She understood why. Home life could be hard. For all her generosity, Yellow Wood was in an abusive relationship with a man who drank. She worked all day, and strangers cycled through her house. When Fallis was nine, she was abused in an incident she still can’t bear to talk about. The counselor believed it left her with post-traumatic stress disorder. Other Native kids whom Fallis knew faced similar struggles. “We couldn’t help but be interested by the streets,” she said.
Fallis fell for bad men. Her first boyfriend beat her. People said his spirit was tormented, and she broke it off. He killed his next girlfriend and himself, leaving Fallis to wonder if she could have done something to help or stop him. She began dating another man, wooed by his charisma, and learned that he was a member of a gang. Yellow Wood worried that he might kill Fallis; he’d already left her with bruises. Without a stable father figure or a good model of a romantic relationship, though, Fallis justified staying with him. “It helped me to say, ‘That stuff happens in relationships,’” she said.
One afternoon in 2003, Fallis and her boyfriend were driving to a 7-Eleven, and a car wouldn’t let them pass. According to a police statement, her boyfriend argued with the car’s driver, then pulled out a pistol and fired at him. The man was wounded, and Fallis pled guilty to being an accessory to a crime, a felony. She served 30 months on probation. The relationship ended.
Fallis then met a man with a hard-set jaw and closely shorn hair. They got married when Fallis was in her twenties. She was open with him, even telling him about the trauma she’d faced as a child, which felt like a heavy stone lodged deep inside her. The night after she shared the story, she dreamed that a friend took her away on horseback—they galloped off with stars at their heels. It inspired the tattoo on her neck.
Her husband turned out to be unpredictable, like the rest of the men in her life, and she left him. She wondered why the same thing kept happening to her. She didn’t want to be a woman who cycled through toxic relationships.
Then Fallis learned that Yellow Wood was dying of cancer. She set aside her troubled romantic life and moved in with her adoptive mother. She offered to look after Neiamiah, one of Yellow Wood’s great-grandsons, who was wild and playful like Fallis had been as a child. Yellow Wood stared death in the face and said that she wasn’t afraid.
Not long after Yellow Wood died in June 2016, a friend called Fallis and told her that people were protesting the construction of an oil pipeline in North Dakota. Fallis knew that if Yellow Wood were alive, she would have gone. Fallis threw some clothes in a bag and left within the hour. Family members would join her later. A double rainbow appeared behind her car as she drove north from Colorado, heading toward the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. It seemed like a sign.
Standing Rock is one of the largest reservations in America, covering roughly a million acres of land and straddling the border between the Dakotas. When Fallis arrived, she found people camped out on the vast prairie in tepees, sleeping bags, and tents. Their only neighbors were a herd of bison, their only view the Missouri River and the open sky. Their goal was to halt construction of the $3.8 billion pipeline, which would carry oil from the Bakken and Three Forks fields of North Dakota to central Illinois, a distance of some 1,200 miles.
To many Native Americans, the Dakota Access Pipeline was a nightmare foretold: An old Lakota prophecy had warned of a black snake that would enter the earth, poison its water, and destroy the world. Protesters feared that the pipeline would contaminate the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux. Because it would traverse unceded land—territory that was never granted to the United States by treaty—it might also desecrate sacred sites, including ancient burial grounds.
Demonstrators were up against a conglomerate led by Energy Transfer Partners, a Dallas-based company worth tens of billions of dollars, as well as law enforcement and private security forces. When they first set up camp, in April 2016, the protesters had no visibility or political clout. What they lacked in might, however, they made up for with willpower. They demanded that the Army Corps of Engineers consult the Sioux before giving the final go-ahead for Energy Transfer Partners to break ground. The tribe filed suit against the Corps, asking for a temporary injunction that would stop the project. (A district court judge denied the motion.) Native youth started an online petition that attracted more than 150,000 signatures. A group of them ran 2,000 miles from North Dakota to Washington, D.C., to deliver the document to lawmakers.
Then Standing Rock went viral, evolving from a protest into a movement. Using the hashtag #NoDAPL, demonstrators calling themselves water protectors invited other Native Americans and their allies to North Dakota. Over the summer of 2016, the number of protesters exploded into the hundreds, then thousands; people bedded down in a network of camps that spun off from the original one. Participants streamed demonstrations on Facebook Live and other platforms. Celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio and Rosario Dawson voiced their support for Standing Rock’s goals.
Spirituality was central to camp life. Native prayers were spoken at every meal. Protesters held pipe ceremonies and other rites to invoke divine protection of the Sioux’s water. Sweat lodges made of canvas and red willow branches popped up on the prairie.
When she first saw Fallis at camp, Phyllis Young, an AIM member and a leader at Standing Rock, was shocked. Young had been one of Yellow Wood’s close friends, and Fallis was her niece. (Among the Lakota, some familial relationships are chosen and considered at least as strong as a blood bond.) Young knew how much Fallis, then 37, had endured in her life. Fallis slipped a necklace of Yellow Wood’s over Young’s head. “She’s not here, so I’m here. I’m here to stand beside you,” Young recalled Fallis saying. The women hugged for a long time.
Young is a no-nonsense Native elder who often inspires deference in younger activists. Fallis, though, was comfortable making demands. She asked Young to help her procure supplies—Band-Aids and washcloths, for instance—for the children at camp. Fallis borrowed an ATV and became a fixture on the red four-wheeler, delivering packages and shuttling people to and from demonstrations. She also worked security, keeping an eye out for guns, alcohol, and drugs, which elders had banned at Standing Rock. “I learned how to rough it. I helped everywhere I could—in the kitchen, with donations, unloading firewood,” Fallis said. “Every night we went to sleep with the sound of prayers on the microphone, and every morning we woke up to them. At camp you carry that beauty within you.”
Life wasn’t trouble-free, particularly as the ranks of protesters swelled. Camp could be noisy, even chaotic. Respites were as hard to come by as showers. More worryingly, in the late summer police sent to monitor Standing Rock began to crack down on demonstrators. They arrested people on charges like criminal trespassing. Fallis used the ATV to transport injured water protectors away from encounters with cops.
One day, Fallis was put in plastic handcuffs and charged with disorderly conduct. She claimed that she was just pouring water onto dirt as part of a protest. When the police released her from custody, she went back to camp, where she felt newly vulnerable. Then Heath Harmon arrived.
The weather on the Great Plains can be extreme. Too hot, too dry, too windy, too wet. It was often that way at camp—too much of something. But Fallis and Harmon met under clear, sunny skies on August 17, 2016.
The previous day, Harmon’s brother, Chad, had married Phyllis Young’s daughter at the Morton County courthouse near Bismarck. To outsiders the match was an odd one, given that Chad was a police officer with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was frequently at odds with AIM, and Young’s family was prominent in the movement. The ceremony was small and unadorned. Harmon, with the good looks and affability to suggest he didn’t mind being single at 44, served as a witness. Fallis, busy at camp, didn’t attend.
After the ceremony, the two families celebrated together at a restaurant, where Harmon talked with John Reyna, the bride’s brother, about hunting and the outdoors. Eventually, the conversation shifted to the pipeline. Everyone in Bismarck was talking about it. Harmon was taking college classes in preparation for working in the oil industry, and he had questions about the protests. Wouldn’t a pipeline create jobs and bolster the economy? Reyna, a tranquil, sturdily built man, invited Harmon to camp to see it for himself.
As Harmon drove south from Bismarck along Highway 1806, which follows the curves of the Missouri River, the city’s bland buildings and manicured lawns gave way to rolling hills and steep buttes. Eventually, the main resistance camp, Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires), came into view: a sea of tepees, tents, cars, and people. Sage and sweetgrass burned. Horses pawed at the ground in makeshift pens. Signs reading “Mni Wiconi” (Water Is Life) were everywhere.
Shortly after his arrival, Harmon met Fallis. She was charmed by the newcomer. Harmon was trim and muscular. He kept his shirt neatly tucked into his khaki pants and wore glasses and a baseball cap, giving him the look of a young suburban dad. He wasn’t wearing a ring.
“Who are you?” Fallis asked, flirting a little.
Harmon told her he was also Native, raised on land that sat above rich oil reserves on the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota. He’d since moved to the Bismarck area, where he lived with his mother. Reservation roots, city upbringing—just like Fallis. She watched as Harmon made himself useful unloading firewood from a truck. “It was so nice that someone was willing to be helpful. Not just to me, but everybody,” she said.
That night she and Harmon went together to a concert at camp. Afterward they walked alone on the prairie. Like Fallis, Harmon understood how it felt when life didn’t go as planned: He’d been married and divorced. He’d had a drinking problem and was now sober. Unlike other men Fallis knew, he seemed to have matured from his experiences.
After their first encounter, Harmon began making regular trips from his home to camp. Fallis loved when he cracked up at her jokes and told her he liked her smile as much as her wit. He didn’t participate in the demonstrations against the pipeline, but he listened attentively when Fallis talked about why the fight mattered so much. He offered to bring her to the city to shower and do her laundry.
Fallis felt like she should resist his interest, worrying that it was too much too soon. But every time she backed off, according to several of her friends, Harmon would show up at camp with a gift: a beaded purse, boots, a sweater, a single rose. One friend remembered a day when Harmon played a wooden flute long used in Native courtship. It emitted a haunting sound. “I thought, OK, I have not heard a man play a flute in a really long time,” the friend said. “He was totally setting the bar for everyone.”
Most important to Fallis, Harmon won over her family. One of her aunts said that it was like she’d won the jackpot, because Harmon was so generous and kind. An uncle was overjoyed that she’d found someone who treated her with respect.
Fallis decided to let Harmon in. When he called her “baby,” she said it back. Soon they were sleeping in the same tent. One day, Fallis showed Phyllis Young a diamond ring on her finger. She said that she and Harmon were engaged. In a girlish, exuberant voice, Fallis announced, “Auntie, I’m in love.”
Not everyone was enamored with Harmon. Karen Antelope, a woman with salt-and-pepper hair and blue-lined eyes, didn’t trust him from the start. She and Fallis had met at camp when Fallis asked her for a cigarette. Fallis introduced herself and her heritage, hollering, “Lelelelele!”—a Lakota cry. “Gee, you’re a feisty Oglala aren’t you?” Antelope replied, laughing. The women became inseparable after that.
Antelope thought Fallis seemed insecure when Harmon was around. Harmon, meanwhile, clung to Fallis like a burr on a shoe. Antelope was suspicious of Harmon’s constant gift giving. After a friend joked that Harmon should give Fallis’s family horses and a saddle if the relationship was serious—an old Sioux custom—he came to camp with a beaver-pelt hat and high-back saddle for one of Fallis’s relatives.
Antelope grew more concerned about Harmon when he issued warnings. In September 2016, he began to tell Fallis that she was in danger. By then camp was swollen with people. A district court judge had recently denied the Sioux’s request to halt the pipeline project, and Energy Transfer Partners was preparing to start its work. Water protectors were taking more desperate measures: setting up road blockades, chaining themselves to construction machinery. Police came to demonstrations dressed in riot gear and made dozens of arrests. North Dakota’s governor activated the National Guard, and protesters could hear a surveillance helicopter buzzing overhead all day. In one dramatic incident, private security firms hired by Energy Transfer Partners deployed guard dogs and pepper spray on demonstrators, leading to several injuries. Security at camp was deteriorating, Harmon allegedly told Fallis. She needed to protect herself.
Fallis saw the change at camp as well as anyone. When she’d first arrived in August, she’d been friendly with the police, offering them tobacco and joking around. In September, she was arrested a second time while protesting. In her recollection, plastic handcuffs were pulled so tightly around her wrists that they went numb. She heard officers shouting at female protesters, telling them they were stupid for bringing children to camp. Fallis felt differently. This is how you teach your children to stand up for what’s right, she thought.
At Harmon’s urging, she agreed to move to a quieter part of camp, where one of her relatives had a trailer. Soon after, according to Fallis, Harmon began offering to help with the resistance. Until then he’d been a bystander, supporting Fallis from the wings. Now he seemed to want to get involved. Fallis found it strange when he suggested risky actions. One day, Harmon offered to drive Fallis and two friends on a reconnaissance trip along the pipeline’s planned path. Mia Sage Stevens, who was in the truck, remembered Harmon suggesting that the women tear up the flags that marked the route—the sort of behavior that might draw backlash from the police or private security. “He said we could do it at nighttime, and we just blew it off,” Stevens said.
Then came the suggestion that Fallis and her friends arm themselves. Karen Antelope remembered Harmon approaching her one day as she was repairing a fence and saying, “We gotta secure our territory here.” He offered to bring metal poles to bolster the fence—along with ammunition.
Harmon brought up the subject again, Antelope claimed, after she mentioned a security guard who’d raced around camp in a vehicle, scaring her. Antelope recalled Harmon suggesting that he provide her and Fallis with weapons. “It made me wonder why he was so gung ho with guns,” Antelope said.
Harmon’s radical turn worried Fallis, too. What was motivating him? He used to give her flowers and play love songs; now he showed up with items like a gas mask and a bulletproof vest, saying that she needed to protect herself. When Harmon first told her she should have a gun, she was unnerved.
“What are we going to do with guns here?” Fallis asked.
“You can bury them,” she remembered Harmon replying.
“I’m a felon. I can’t have guns around,” she said, referring to her 2003 conviction.
Antelope saw the new version of Harmon as pushy. He and Fallis “fought all the time, argued all the time,” Antelope said, “because she talked to everybody, many of them males, and he didn’t like that at all.” In a way, his behavior didn’t surprise Fallis: Of course their love had been too good to be true. Of course she hadn’t hit the romance jackpot. The progression of their relationship was typical of every bond she’d ever had with men. By October, Fallis was considering breaking things off.
She became more convinced that it might be time to move on as she got to know an activist and musician named Cempoalli Twenny, who’d dropped everything in Los Angeles, where he lived, to come to Standing Rock. Twenny wore a goatee and dreadlocks and made reggae-inflected music. He was a longtime advocate for Native rights and saw connections between the pipeline protests and other social struggles. He often played his guitar at camp, and he shared events from Standing Rock on social media.
Still, when Harmon’s birthday arrived in mid-October, Fallis tried to salvage what they had. She baked a cake and threw a party, but the mood at the gathering was tense. Around the same time, Fallis and Harmon fought at his mother’s home, a suburban split-level. Harmon’s brother, Chad, was there, and he chided Harmon for bringing Fallis to the house.
“Why don’t you tell her the real reason you’re at camp?” he asked.
When Fallis asked Harmon what his brother meant, he brushed her off. He said Chad was just accusing him of being at camp to “chase tail.” Fallis wondered if Harmon was telling the truth. She’d been taught never to lie. Lying was what the government did. It wasn’t something that should happen between lovers.
On October 27, Fallis went for an early dinner at a steakhouse with Harmon and his mother. She didn’t feel like having a good time. Things with Harmon were still rough, and it was Yellow Wood’s birthday, the first since her death. After the meal, Fallis checked her phone and saw worrying messages and posts. “No more excuses get to Standing Rock now,” one read. “The next seven generations are depending on you.”
Twenny, the musician Fallis admired, was live-streaming a demonstration that had just started at camp. “We’re being surrounded,” he said, turning the camera from his face to take in what was happening around him. Some 300 police officers had arrived wearing riot gear and carrying guns and batons. Armored vehicles rolled in behind them. They had instructions to clear out demonstrators along Highway 1806 who were directly in the pipeline’s path, which law enforcement considered a safety issue. “They have loaded guns, they have live ammunition,” Twenny said. “It’s time to rise up.… Pray hard, stand strong, this is ground zero, this is treaty land, this is our land.”
Fallis felt a sharp stab of guilt and panic as she scrolled through the news. The whole point of coming to Standing Rock was to honor her mother. Now, on the most critical day of the fight, she wasn’t there. She told Harmon they had to get to camp right away.
They sped south to Standing Rock and stopped at the trailer where they’d been staying. Fallis grabbed a fire extinguisher and gas mask in case fires broke out or the police used pepper spray. She put on a camouflage baseball cap, shouldered a backpack, and told Harmon she’d ride her ATV over to where the eviction was happening. Harmon agreed to drive a pickup and meet her there. Just before she left, Fallis later alleged, Harmon told her to take a large black and gray jacket. She was wearing a coat already, but he insisted that she needed another one to keep warm while zipping through the autumn chill on her four-wheeler.
As she rode, Fallis noticed that the coat felt lopsided. It was heavier on one side than the other. There was something in one of the pockets.
That something was Harmon’s Ruger LCR, a .38 Special revolver so compact that firearms websites regularly vote it among the best guns for concealed carry. It weighs about a pound when loaded. According to Fallis, she found the gun when she put her hand in the pocket. In a split-second decision, she decided to leave the weapon where it was, rather than dispose of it before encountering police.
By the time Fallis arrived, the battalion of officers had already swept through camp, shouting “Time’s up!” as they ripped tents from the ground and made arrests. A private guard, chased by protestors into a pond, stood in the water brandishing an assault rifle. Fallis could see that a barricade the water protectors had set up to prevent police from gaining ground was in flames. Someone told her that a demonstrator on a horse had been shot; it wasn’t clear if he’d been hit with rubber bullets or real ones. Fallis, who’d found it difficult to show emotion even when Yellow Wood died, began to cry. She looked around for Harmon but couldn’t find him.
What happened next was chaotic, and Fallis’s memory of it is hazy. So are the recollections of other people who were there. Several videos of the incident, shot by bystanders and police, are the best evidence of what occurred. Fallis dismounted her ATV and approached a row of police near the highway, shouting through her gas mask. The officers stood in position to block protesters. Six armored vehicles, some with doors open like wings, were parked nearby. The yellow prairie stretched into the distance. Fallis’s words are mostly inaudible in the videos, but her tone and body language make it clear that she’s angry. She later remembered shouting, “You should be ashamed of protecting the pipeline instead of the water.” She pointed accusingly at the police.
Other protestors sang traditional songs or lambasted the cops. Young, Fallis’s aunt, watched the standoff. Neither she nor Fallis saw Harmon arrive in his truck. He parked away from the scene and walked in a wide arc across the highway.
About three minutes after she began chastising police, Fallis turned away from them. An officer tackled her from behind. She fell to the ground, landing on her back. Heavily armed police tried to flip her over onto her stomach. Other officers moved in to surround the arrest, making it hard for bystanders to see what was going on. “I remember a scuffle,” Fallis told me. “My gas mask was pulled off.” Her mind turned to the revolver in her pocket. “I thought, Crap, I’m a felon, and I’m with a gun,” she recalled.
One video shows a protester asking why the police were using such force on a small woman. Fallis, five feet three inches and 135 pounds, tried to wriggle out from under the men’s weight. Officers pulled on her arms, struggling to get her wrists into plastic handcuffs. Fallis pulled back. She kicked her legs. She contorted her body.
Somewhere near the ground, there were three rapid sounds: pop, pop, pop. They came from Harmon’s revolver.
Police arrested more than 140 people that day. The charges filed by the state of North Dakota against Fallis were by far the most serious, including preventing arrest, carrying a concealed weapon, criminal conspiracy to endanger by fire, engaging in a riot, and attempted murder. On October 31, four days after the protest, Fallis called Harmon from the Burleigh Morton County Detention Center. It was the first of more than two dozen recorded calls between them.
“Hi,” Fallis greeted him uncertainly. She said that she hadn’t seen the news in lockup and didn’t know what people were saying about her. Quietly, Harmon told Fallis that she’d made headlines on the East Coast.
“Like world news?” Fallis asked, her voice rising in panic. “Like national news?”
“Yeah,” Harmon said. At least one story included her mugshot, an awful photo: face puffy, eyes half closed, hair a mess. Harmon joked that it looked like someone had beaten her up. Fallis let out a wild, uncomfortable laugh. When Harmon began reading the article to her, she sobered.
The story reported that she’d fired three shots at police deputies as they tried to move illegal occupiers off private land. It quoted Fallis telling officers afterward that they were lucky she hadn’t shot them. The man who’d tackled her, Thadius Schmit, a cop from South Dakota, said that he’d arrested Fallis for “being an instigator and acting disorderly.” Although no one was hurt when the gun went off, the state’s criminal complaint against Fallis alleged that she’d been trying to kill an officer.
“Oh, my God, they said that I shot at the cops?” Fallis asked Harmon. She was angry now. In her telling, the gun had gone off by accident in the struggle with officers. She couldn’t remember if her hand had been in her pocket or not. She’d been restrained on the ground when the gun fired—how could she have aimed at anyone? “They are so fucking full of shit,” she said.
Harmon tried to keep reading, but she interrupted him. “I’ve heard enough, I’m disgusted, I don’t care,” she said. “They’re just going to fucking make an example out of me.”
Harmon was silent. He said nothing about witnessing her arrest.
“You’re free to walk at any time,” Fallis told him. “I probably would.”
A voice announced over the line that their time was almost up.
“I love you,” Harmon said.
On November 9, Fallis called Harmon again. She was confused. That day she’d learned that she was facing an additional charge—theft of property—because Harmon had reported his revolver stolen the day after her arrest. He’d told police that the weapon had gone missing from his mother’s house sometime in the past few weeks.
“You know that charge I caught today made my shit like ten times worse,” Fallis said.
“I can imagine,” Harmon replied.
“I’m not going to take responsibility for something I didn’t do,” she said. “I don’t know how to feel. I’m, like, over here fucking, like, wanting to fucking die of a broken heart, because I don’t know what the fuck is real or what isn’t anymore.”
Harmon paused before answering. “I’ll make it right,” he said.
The next day, Fallis called Harmon again. She asked why he hadn’t retracted the theft report yet. She was no longer upset; she was furious. Harmon tried to calm her down and said he’d talk to the police soon.
“If you’re not going to fucking tell the truth, then I will, about everything,” Fallis told him.
“Hey, I’m telling you the truth,” Harmon said.
“If you’re not going to tell them the truth about me,” Fallis continued, “and the fact that I didn’t take that from you”—meaning the gun.
Harmon told her that he couldn’t discuss the gun over the phone for legal reasons.
“It’s not OK, because there’s a lot at stake here,” Fallis said through tears. “My life.”
The call cut off.
Over the next few days, Fallis phoned Harmon several more times. In some conversations, he told her that he was sorry and that he loved her. Fallis seemed to believe him. In others, she pressed him. Had he made the report to hurt her? Or to save his own skin when he realized that a gun licensed to him had gone off during the arrest? It didn’t make sense to her. Harmon was taciturn, occasionally reassuring Fallis.
In early December, after Fallis had been in jail for more than a month, Harmon finally met with law enforcement. He didn’t try to exonerate Fallis, however. Harmon said that he’d kept the gun at camp and Fallis had known exactly where it was. He said that she’d loaded up a backpack before driving her ATV to the raid and hadn’t wanted him to look inside. Harmon described Fallis as having an “attitude” the day of the eviction. He said that she’d talked about “going to see [her] mother.”
As for the gun being stolen, Harmon admitted that that was a lie. It wasn’t the only one he’d told in recent months. For most of his relationship with Fallis, Harmon had been working as a paid FBI informant.
Harmon became a confidential source in August 2016. According to documents obtained by Fallis’s lawyers and first reported by The Intercept, Harmon’s task was “to collect information regarding potential violence, weapons, and criminal activity” at Standing Rock. Over the course of two months, he met or spoke with FBI agents at least half a dozen times and reported to his handlers that he’d developed a “sub-source” named Red Fawn, who told him that Native elders were opposed to belligerent actions against the pipeline. On August 22, Harmon estimated that less than 5 percent of the people he’d encountered were “aggressive” and said that he’d seen no firearms, explosives, or fireworks at camp.
The previous week, Morton County sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier had stated publicly that his office had received reports of guns fired at Standing Rock. Water protectors maintained that this wasn’t true. Kirchmeier declined to comment for this story, but Cecily Fong, a spokesperson for the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services, told me that law enforcement had been concerned about potential violence, including “protesters trespassing, marauding around the countryside, killing livestock.” (Fong has since left the department. The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association has stated that it wasn’t aware of any connections between protesters and attacks on farm animals.)
Still, Harmon’s reports focused heavily on the issue of weapons, as though they might turn up if law enforcement willed them to. He mentioned guns to the FBI at least four separate times, though he never claimed to have actually seen one. He also talked about members of AIM, including Phyllis Young. In late August, Harmon said that he’d observed Young addressing protestors and that he’d learned the type of car she was said to drive. An FBI agent wrote in a report, “The CHS [confidential human source] has a family connection as well as direct access to Phyllis Young and her close family and is well-suited to continue coverage of her activities and involvement with the anti-pipeline movement.”
Three weeks before the police raid and Fallis’s arrest, the FBI took Harmon off the books as an informant. According to an unclassified document, Harmon requested termination. The reporting agent noted that he would recommend Harmon as a source again. The FBI paid him $2,000 for his services. (The bureau declined to comment for this story.)
Fallis learned of Harmon’s affiliation while she was in jail. After all the phone calls, all of Harmon’s pledges that he’d make things right, Fallis got the truth from her lawyers.
Her first reaction was denial. She loved Harmon, and he’d been an ally of the water protectors. She’d grown up hearing from Yellow Wood about the surveillance and infiltration tactics the FBI used in the 1960s and ’70s, when it kept close watch over AIM as part of Cointelpro, a project that targeted dissident groups across the country. Fallis also knew that the trauma caused by FBI activity could lead to paranoia. In 1975, an activist named Anna Mae Aquash had been murdered by other AIM members over rumors that she was an informant. (Yellow Wood was one of the last people to see Aquash alive, because Aquash was using her home as a safe house.) Was Fallis misunderstanding or making assumptions about what Harmon had done?
Soon, though, the hurtful, dizzying truth clicked in. A flood of troubling details—maybe signs that she’d missed—washed over Fallis. Harmon’s many evasions. The guns he wanted to bring her. That question from his brother: “Why don’t you tell her the real reason you’re at camp?”
Soon after Fallis learned he’d been an informant, Harmon came to the jail for a visit. He drove with one of Fallis’s aunts, a woman named Theresa Burns. When Burns was ushered in to see Fallis, Harmon was told he couldn’t come. Confused, Burns asked Fallis when they were face-to-face what was going on. Burns remembered Fallis saying she was “freaking out” because she’d just learned that Harmon worked for the FBI. She didn’t want him anywhere near her.
“I have to ride back with him,” Burns said. “I’m scared.”
“Auntie, how do you think I feel?” Fallis asked.
Burns claimed that, after the visit, she confronted Harmon in the car. She asked why he’d set up her niece. According to Burns, Harmon began to cry. “What did you do? Did you plant it on her?” Burns asked, referring to the gun. Harmon said no, and that he’d told the police things about Fallis when their questioning began to scare him. Burns’s head spun. She was a longtime AIM activist, but she’d never heard of anything like this.
She told Harmon that she believed he’d planted the gun. According to Burns, Harmon didn’t reply. She described the remainder of the ride as “chilling.”
Fallis’s other family and friends found out about Harmon soon after that. Karen Antelope was so upset, she couldn’t bring herself to watch the video of Fallis’s arrest. John Reyna felt both betrayed and responsible, because he was the one who’d invited Harmon to camp for the first time. Young, who’d seen men hurt Fallis before, felt only disdain. “He threw her to the wolves,” she said.
Fallis vowed never to see or speak to Harmon again. He was the one who needed help and prayers, she told herself. He’d taken money in exchange for lies and used a woman he claimed to love. She, on the other hand, was Oglala. As she’d once told Harmon in a phone conversation, “I’ll stand proud, like a buffalo. I’ll stand and face the storm.”
In late 2016, the federal government denied Energy Transfer Partners a permit to drill under the Missouri River, effectively stalling the pipeline until President Barack Obama left office. Around the same time, North Dakota dropped its case against Fallis to clear the way for federal charges, including civil disorder, possession of a firearm and ammunition by a convicted felon, and discharge of a firearm in relation to a felony crime of violence. The last charge carried a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years. The maximum penalty was life behind bars.
Fallis put on a good face. News of her predicament was spreading over social media into the wider #NoDAPL movement. Family and friends, with the help of other Standing Rock activists, launched a Free Red Fawn campaign, and some 30,000 people would eventually join its Facebook page. “I’ve been getting messages about a lot of you being concerned and worried,” Fallis wrote on her personal account in January 2017. “I wanted to let you know that I stand strong, I stay in prayer, and I never falter from my beliefs as a protector of all things sacred.”
Supporters held fundraisers in Denver and Los Angeles to help pay her legal fees. Celebrities, including actors Mark Ruffalo and Shailene Woodley, spoke out in support of Fallis. A petition on Change.org to drop all charges against her drew more than 20,000 signatures. Some of Fallis’s supporters tried to track down Harmon, without success. He was no longer living at his mother’s house outside Bismarck, and none of his old phone numbers worked. In lieu of confronting him in person, people dug up information: Harmon had once been arrested for criminal mischief. His alcoholism had led to four DUIs in seven years. He’d racked up charges for driving with a suspended license.
Supporters began referring to Fallis as a new Leonard Peltier, referencing the AIM activist sentenced in 1977 to two consecutive life terms for shooting federal agents on the Pine Ridge reservation, where Fallis was born. Many believed Peltier was framed, especially after journalist Peter Matthiessen published his 1983 book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which alleged government misconduct in the case. Bruce Ellison, Peltier’s lawyer, came out of semiretirement to defend Fallis. A white Jewish man from New York, Ellison had decades of experience with Native clients, and if there was one thing he’d learned in that time, it was that the government thought it could get away with more in Indian country. “I believe that Red Fawn was set up that day to be arrested as a water protector with a gun,” he told me. “Law enforcement had been screaming about that in court and in the media, that water protectors were armed and had explosives, and yet no one had been arrested with a gun.”
In the pretrial process throughout 2017, Fallis’s legal team argued that law enforcement had had no probable cause to arrest her, because she’d merely been exercising her First Amendment rights. They pointed out that the gun belonged to Harmon, as did the coat Fallis was wearing when she was restrained by police. (According to Harmon, the coat belonged to Fallis, and he didn’t tell her to wear it the day of her arrest.) Her lawyers said that she hadn’t intentionally pulled the revolver’s trigger; how it went off was a mystery.
The prosecution, meanwhile, argued that she had meant to fire the gun and that in doing so she’d endangered lives. Police officers present at her arrest wrote in reports that, after the gun went off, Fallis laughed and said things like “All pigs deserve to die” and “If I wanted to kill you, I would have shot you in the head.” Fallis described these accusations as “totally false.” If it sounded like she was laughing, it was only because she was gasping for air after her gas mask was yanked off.
Officers’ statements sometimes conflicted. One said that after the shots rang out, he took the gun from Fallis’s left hand. Another said he saw the gun seized from her right hand. A third said the gun was loose on the ground. Three videos—one taken by a security drone, one shot by a bystander, and another recorded by cops on the scene—do not show Fallis firing the weapon.
Ellison was concerned that the government wasn’t sharing everything it knew about Harmon. The FBI sometimes gave informants a long leash to lead people to commit crimes. Honeypot schemes weren’t unheard of. Ellison found it suspicious that law enforcement had included Fallis in a chart of #NoDAPL activists of concern, created nearly two months before her arrest and not long after she and Harmon met. Ellison didn’t think Harmon’s description of Fallis’s behavior and comments before the eviction raid could be trusted. Harmon had lied to authorities at least once, about the gun being stolen. What would stop him from doing so again?
Fallis’s family agreed. “Those intelligence agencies knew who Red Fawn was, they knew who her mother was, they knew who her family was, and they knew their connections to the American Indian Movement,” said Glenn Morris, Fallis’s uncle. He believed that law enforcement had tried to identify Standing Rock’s leadership in order to neutralize it.
As Fallis’s January 2018 trial approached, it was clear that potential jury members might not see the case that way. At least 91 percent of Bismarck’s population is white, and many residents were opposed to the #NoDAPL demonstrations. A survey from the National Jury Project showed that the vast majority of eligible residents had already decided that arrested water protectors were guilty. Non-Native people sometimes referred to the protests as “the event,” their voices dropping low when they said it. An owner of a country-music bar near Standing Rock told me that his white customers no longer went to the reservation’s casino. A neighbor of Harmon’s mother said that law enforcement had held their temper at camp, but she couldn’t say the same for the other side.
Fallis’s lawyers petitioned the court to move the trial out of state. A judge instead allowed a change of location to Fargo, three hours east of Bismarck. Fallis’s lawyers argued that the jury pool would be similar, and as the trial date approached, Fallis grew nervous. Since October 2017, she’d been in a halfway house. It was better than jail; she could see the outside world, at least. But what if a jury put her away for life? Fighting to prove her innocence, she worried, might not be worth that risk.
The prosecution offered her a plea deal in which her most serious charge—firing the gun—would be dropped if she took responsibility for possessing a weapon as a felon and for the civil disorder charge. The government would recommend no more than seven years in prison. On January 18, 2018, a few days before Fallis was due to appear in court to give the prosecution her answer, she signed out of the halfway house to attend an adult-education program. She never showed up in class. When she returned to the house, it was a half hour after she was due to return. Fallis went back to jail.
Her family learned that she’d skipped class to be with Cempoalli Twenny, the musician from Standing Rock. Since Fallis’s arrest, Twenny had been championing her cause, pledging on social media that he wouldn’t stop saying her name until she was free. He’d also begun calling her as often as he could. Unlike Harmon and other men Fallis had dated, Twenny didn’t shower her with compliments, gifts, or promises. He listened quietly when she spoke and reminded her that each day was a new day. If she got upset or angry, he told her to pray. “He’s brought me so much kindness and unconditional love,” Fallis told me.
Fallis had needed to talk about the plea deal with someone she trusted. She’d chosen Twenny. The following Monday, Fallis appeared in court. She’d come to the only decision that made sense to her. The judge asked if she pled guilty. A long silence followed. Finally, Fallis answered, “Yes.”
Fallis’s sentencing was scheduled for June 25, 2018, the anniversary of the Battle of the Greasy Grass. Per the plea agreement, the prosecutors recommended a cap of seven years in prison, but the judge could go higher. Fallis’s team thought she would get at least three to five years.
The day of the hearing, her supporters gathered at a downtown Bismarck hotel. From there they planned to go together to the courthouse. They were fidgety with anticipation. Fallis’s aunts and uncles came, along with her sisters and friends. Neiamiah, Yellow Wood’s great-grandson, wore a “Free Red Fawn” T-shirt that featured a photo of Fallis, her fist raised. Twenny stood in the back of the room wearing a denim vest with “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” stitched onto it. He had a newly inked tattoo on his hand: Red Fawn’s name.
Ellison arrived with bad news. The judge in the case was sick, and sentencing would be delayed. Twenny made a video call to Fallis in jail. He handed the phone to Neiamiah, who said “I love you” in a whisper. “I love you,” Fallis whispered back. Neiamiah flipped the phone’s camera around to show her everyone who was there.
“I’m kind of all talked out,” Fallis told the crowd, then took a deep breath. “I’m an Oglala Sioux Lakota,” she continued. “So I’m born free, I live free, and I’ll die free.” She ended with the old Lakota cry—lelelele!—and much of the room joined in.
Fallis was sentenced a few weeks later, on July 11, 2018, in Bismarck’s federal courthouse. When she arrived, she was shackled at her wrists and dressed in a traditional ribbon skirt decorated with sunflowers, her mother’s favorite. The defense asked for leniency, pointing out that President Donald Trump had recently pardoned two white cattle ranchers in Oregon who’d set fires that spread to government land. It called four witnesses, a last-ditch attempt to sway the judge to hand down less prison time. A neurophysiologist testified that if Fallis had had her hand on the gun, she might have accidentally discharged it in a reactive grip response to how the officers had pulled on her arms. Fallis’s childhood psychologist, to whom she’d showed her dream journal, spoke of her history of trauma and domestic violence, which left her vulnerable to further abuse and manipulation. Glenn Morris testified that the case wasn’t just about Fallis—it was about her community, too. “It’s often not the big traumas that affect us. It’s the million everyday things,” Morris said. “Being ridiculed for her name because she’s a Native woman, and on Columbus Day. Being told there was a war and she lost and everyone else won and get over it. Well, she’s not going to get over it. She has this history in her heart and in her blood.”
Fallis had the opportunity to speak. “I came to North Dakota in August 2016 with a good heart and a good mind after watching my mom battle cancer and battle life,” she said. “After her death, I wanted to move forward in a positive light. I helped anyone at camp that I could. It started a new chapter. And then the circumstances of Heath Harmon.”
It was the only time his name was mentioned in the hearing. Fallis said that she wouldn’t be sitting in the courtroom that day if it weren’t for him.
Judge Daniel Hovland sighed as he surveyed the room. “I’m not going to go down the path of trying to determine Ms. Fallis’s intent in the midst of the chaos,” he said. He called her supporters’ campaign for her release “much ado about nothing.” Then he announced Fallis’s sentence: 57 months in federal prison, minus time served.
The prosecutors nodded, satisfied with the verdict. Ellison bowed his head, knowing it was the best he could expect.
By the time Fallis was sentenced, oil was already flowing through the Dakota Access Pipeline. Mere days after taking office in January 2017, Trump had signed an executive memorandum to move forward with the project. The Sioux asked a district court for a restraining order to block construction, but the request was denied. The Army Corps of Engineers never completed a full environmental review of the project. It was an undeniable defeat for the protestors.
At Standing Rock, many of the water protectors—freezing, angry, and exhausted—packed up and went home. Those who remained eventually burned what was left of camp. They hoped the tall fires, at least, would symbolize their defiance. Stragglers were forcibly removed by law enforcement, and by the summer of 2017, some protesters had reassembled at other pipeline fights in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana.
Harmon moved on, too. For seven months while I reported this story, he was a ghost. Phone numbers were disconnected, an email address was inactive, and he seemed to have no presence on social media. His lawyer didn’t respond to any of my phone calls. Word that he’d left Bismarck and gotten a job in oil fields led to stops across North Dakota at derricks and workers’ camps, but no one seemed to know his name.
A public-records search got a hit in Billings, Montana, where Harmon had reported his address at an apartment complex. When I got to the city in the middle of winter, the snow was thick and deep, blanketing everything in an eerie quiet. Harmon no longer lived at the address I’d found. At the Billings Police Department, I learned that he had a record—not for a crime he’d committed, but for one he’d reported. In July 2018, a few days after Fallis was sentenced in North Dakota, Harmon had called the cops because he’d found a child wandering the streets with no parents around. The address for him listed on the report was different than the one online. It led me to a tan house with wind chimes and a box of dog food on the porch. No one answered the bell, and a neighbor told me that Harmon was long gone.
A few weeks later, out of the blue, Harmon called me. He talked slowly and was tentative at first. He told me he wanted to set the record straight. He was trying to start a new relationship, and the woman didn’t want to date him after reading the negative media coverage of his involvement with Fallis and the FBI. He called while on a long drive from Bismarck to Wyoming, where the woman lived and where he hoped to win her over. We talked for nearly two hours.
He told me about how he’d wanted to be a Navy SEAL but was discharged from the Army due to an injury, cutting his career short. He’d worked a host of jobs: as a carpenter, doing construction, in oil fields. When the pipeline protests started, he was interested in collecting intelligence for law enforcement because he “didn’t want anybody to get hurt.” He explained that he’d believed in the protestors’ cause but was worried about potential violence, so he’d asked his brother for a number to contact the FBI. (When reached by phone, Chad Harmon said he didn’t give his brother a phone number for the bureau and didn’t help him get the informant job.)
Confirming the contents of the FBI documents I’d read, Harmon described his assignment as looking out for firearms, drugs, and criminal behavior at camp. He denied suggesting that Fallis and her friends destroy flags along the pipeline’s path. He said that he and Fallis were attracted to each other but that the relationship was never romantic. He had excuses for each act that might be construed as expressing serious interest in her: The saddle wasn’t a gift symbolizing his commitment to Fallis, it was just something he wanted her grandfather to have. He’d always liked to play the traditional wooden flute. And the ring—the one that Fallis had told Phyllis Young signified her engagement—was just plastic.
Harmon also said that he’d never told Fallis he loved her. I pointed out that in the jail phone recordings, he says “I love you” multiple times. There was a long silence. I could hear rain and the windshield wipers on Harmon’s car. “Love is a broad, broad word,” he finally said. “I was caught up in the moment, and I didn’t really mean it.”
He claimed that he’d never used his relationship with Fallis to help his work as an informant, but he admitted that he’d talked to the FBI about her, warning agents of her family’s AIM connections. He said that he quit being a confidential source when it made him uneasy; the Standing Rock protesters wouldn’t look kindly on a snitch. As for the gun, Harmon said he’d brought it to camp to protect himself and Fallis.
“How did she get the gun on the day of the raid?” I asked.
Another long pause.
“I don’t know, grabbed it,” he eventually said. “She knew where it was. I didn’t see her take it, but after I heard the shooting I put two and two together.”
As for his shifting story about the gun, he told me he’d lied about the weapon being stolen because he was afraid of being blamed for the shooting. He felt no responsibility for Fallis being in prison—she’d brought that upon herself.
“I think she had that plan to kill a police officer,” he said.
Harmon saw himself as a victim of media coverage that portrayed him as a traitor to Fallis and his culture. He paused and sniffed, as if he were about to cry. “This follows me around,” he said, “and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Soon after, we hung up.
The next morning, Harmon called me again. His talk with the woman in Wyoming had gone well enough, and he wanted me to forget everything he’d said. He told me that he’d made a mistake in talking. “It’s been like a shit storm all the way around,” Harmon said. “My trust in anyone is zero now.”
After Fallis was sentenced, she was scheduled to move to FMC Carswell, a federal women’s prison in Fort Worth, Texas, that housed nearly two thousand inmates. When I talked to her before the transfer, she seemed upbeat. Fort Worth was far from her family and friends but also from Bismarck, and she was grateful for that. She’d heard that the prison held other indigenous inmates, and she was excited to meet them. She said that she’d maintain her traditions behind bars, the way Yellow Wood would have wanted her to. She was going to become fluent in the Lakota tongue. Maybe she’d try to write a book about the struggles of Native American women—specifically, how men so often treat them like objects. “All I can speak on is my truth,” she said.
She told me about the vivid dreams she’d been having, just like when she was a kid. In one, the first man she ever dated came back to apologize for abusing her. He and Fallis sat across from each other at a table, then Yellow Wood came in and told him it was time to go. “That was a really beautiful dream,” Fallis said. “That relationship shaped a lot of my life with men.”
Once Fallis got to Carswell, I wrote to her several times but didn’t hear back. The only person in regular touch with her was Twenny. He called her in prison almost daily. On his Facebook page, he wrote that each new day was one closer to her release. During a visit in December 2018, they talked through monitors for 45 minutes before Twenny had to leave.
Just before Fallis’s 40th birthday the following February, she was put in administrative segregation. Twenny told me that the move was due to a prison scuffle. I asked him if he was worried, and he gave a small laugh. “Well, she won,” he said.
He told me Fallis was a beautiful soul and that he was confident they’d be together when she was released, which was then 774 days away. He told me how much he loved her.