Steven Markusen

The Warrior

“This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

—Chief Seattle, Squamish 1854

He walks toward me across the prison compound. You can tell a lot about a man by the way he walks. He carries himself ramrod straight, radiating power and confidence. His movement is fluid with the relaxed grace of a mountain lion. As he draws closer, I see twin lightning bolt tattoos down the left side of his face from brow to chin. He makes eye contact, gives a respectful nod, and passes. Without realizing, I tensed up. I exhale and relax. This is the story of a warrior who against all odds changed his life, and hopes to change the lives of his people.

His nickname is M-town, a Native American from Red Lake Indian Reservation, Minnesota. The lightning bolts symbolize a warrior willing to fight and die for his people. To the left, and paralleling the bolts, are seven blue dots representing the Ojibwa Grandfather Principles: wisdom, respect, courage, honesty, truth, humility and love. His finely featured face with small nose, pointed chin, and high cheekbones reveal his French Canadian and Native American Heritage. His head shaved, neatly trimmed goatee frames his mouth. Brown eyes, almost black, shine with intelligence. Tattooed on the top of his head is a Mohawk, “agichidaa”: the warrior; on the back of his head is his war shield surrounded by two eagles, “gana”, for protection in battle. Above his right eye is a symbol of his people: the Ojibwa, one of the larger woodland Native American Nations.

In 2009, sentenced to a 20 year term for drug law violations M-town found himself in the medium security Federal Prison at Oxford, Wisconsin: a melting pot of violent offenders and gang members where leaders with strong personalities used other inmates as pawns; a place where you always watched your back and your mouth.

Facing a long sentence, M-town needed to make a name for himself. He emerged as one of the leaders of the Native American Brotherhood. Every day the inmates marched into the prison yard where potential violence lurked. A struggle emerged for power and control between M-town’s Native American Brotherhood and a gang of Native Americans led by a five-time convicted rapist serving a twenty five year sentence. War broke out in the yard when M-town drew the leader away from his gang and attacked. Eleven members of the Brotherhood fought fourteen members of the rival gang. M-town and the Brotherhood crushed their rivals, but at a cost.

M-town grew up on the Red Lake Indian Reservation in Northern Minnesota, the most poverty-stricken and crime-ridden reservation in Minnesota. He was the oldest of five brothers, two of which died within 90 days of childbirth. He grew up in a crime family. His earliest memory, at two years old, was pulling himself up to the top of the kitchen table seeing guns and a pile of marijuana. His father never told him and his brothers he loved them. M-town’s father grew up hating his father who beat him, his brothers, and his mother almost to death. When he was young, M-town was a momma’s boy, but that relationship changed growing into manhood. He felt his mom hated him. She said, “I wish you were never born,” or “I wish you were dead.” This cycle of violence and abuse was not unique to M-town’s family, but repeated over multi-generations of Native Americans and reservations across our country. Understanding requires a lesson in Native American history.

In 1879, Captain Richard Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania to “civilize” Native American children. Pratt held the conviction and wrote, “Indian cultures were worthless relics which must be destroyed.” The Carlisle Indian School became a model for other institutions around the country. By 1900, there were more than 300 Indian Schools across the country with a combined enrollment of 22,000 representing ten percent of the Native American population.

Children age six to eighteen were forcibly taken from their homes. At school they received “American” names. The boy’s long hair was cut—a traumatic experience. They were forced to wear uniforms, adapt to a strict military regime, forbidden to speak their native language, and discouraged from mentioning their background. Their diet was drastically changed and abuse, both sexual and physical, was rampant. A bounty was placed on children who escaped. When captured and returned, they were severely punished. In the original Carlisle Indian School, half the young children died within the first three years.

It does not take a psychologist to realize this experience in social engineering was crippling. Children learned to despise everything they held dear: parents, relations, culture, the white teachers that daily tormented them, and most importantly, themselves. No wonder thousands of Native Americans sunk into apathy, alcoholism, and despair creating cycles of abuse, dependency and self-destructive behavior.

In first grade, M-town met Pinkie. Later in life, they became best friends. By the time M-town was 14, his parents had divorced. His mom couldn’t handle him so he moved in with Pinkie’s family. Pinkie’s mom showed him love and affection, but it was not enough to change his life. M-town brought his gangster ways into Pinkie’s life and influenced him in a negative way. After high school, M-town married his high school sweetheart. When M-town first went to prison she had an affair with Pinkie. When Pinkie was locked up, M-town slept with Pinkie’s ex-girlfriend evening the score; a cycle of love-trust-betrayal.

Separated by three years, M-town was “soul mates” with his younger brother nicknamed Poe. When Poe turned eighteen he received a sum of money from the reservation. He purchased a Springfield Arms, 1911 style, 45 caliber handgun. Poe was a wildcat, respected, but feared. He would shoot his gun into the ceiling at parties, the booming clap of the 45 silencing the room. He pointed his gun at people’s feet making them dance.

One night at his dad’s house, M-town and Poe were drinking and drugging. Poe wanted to go to a party at the west end of Red Lake; M-town decided to go home, sober up, and be with his wife and kids. Before he left, M-town told his dad to hide Poe’s gun. Later, Poe called him, drunk—it was the last time they talked. The next call was from his cousin—Poe shot himself. M-town was in shock as he drove from east Red Lake to the party. He was met on the way by his friends and youngest brother. M-town was the general, his troops surrounded him, his cousin crying, “I am sorry.” M-town went to the hospital, an FBI agent told him to leave. He walked into the forest, put his arm on a tree, head against his arm, and cried.

At the party, Poe had been menacing people with his gun. He removed the magazine from the handgun, cocked it, put the barrel to his head and pulled the trigger. There was a round in the chamber.

Poe, still alive, was transferred to the hospital in Grand Forks, North Dakota. M-town drove there with his wife and cousin. On the drive, a brilliant meteor shower lit the night sky. At the hospital, the nurse said, “your brother is not going to make it.” M-town slipped into the room.  Poe was sitting up, bandaged head, one eye all bloody from popping out of his head, tubes down his throat and attached to his arms. M-town laid his head on his chest listening to a faint heartbeat. “I love you.” he said. Then he screamed, “get up!” He pounded on his chest again crying out, “Get up.” He dropped to his knees crying. He rose, pushed his way through family and friends, and walked out the door.

Poe had a traditional funeral. For four cold days in December, a ceremonial fire burned outside the Red Lake community center. M-town was drinking, snorting coke and arguing with his dad. M-town said, “Why did you give him the gun? I told you to keep it hidden.” He hit his father in the face. Realizing his mistake, he ran, but his father chased, tackled him, and held him on the ground breaking his little finger. The next day his dad, with one black eye, came to his M-town’s house and apologized. M-town apologized in-turn. They smoked weed and buried Poe in his father’s yard.

M-town was angry. Every relationship he valued turned against him. His life filled with betrayal, dishonesty, abuse, and disloyalty. He could not forgive or forget. He stopped loving and turned to hate. He was arrested and charged with possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute. Convicted, he was sentenced to three years in Federal Prison in Sandstone, Minnesota. He was 21 years old.

While in prison, Pinkie’s ex-girlfriend, now the mother of M-town’s child, and one of his drug couriers, was found murdered; strung up in her home to look like a suicide. M-town was released from prison in 2004, but a parole violation sent him back. After four months, he was released, determined to change his life. He remarried, quit drinking, and took a job in marketing complete with suit, tie, and briefcase. He worked hard at building a business, but it did not last. He started drinking and fell back into his criminal ways.

By now, the U.S. government identified M-town as a drug king-pin. The FBI, ATF, and DEA went after him: raids, set-ups, informants wearing wires. They closed in drawing the noose tight.

During this time, M-town’s mother reached out, inviting him to join her in a sweat lodge ceremony, an Ojibwa tradition of forgiveness and healing. M-town told her she was crazy, she pleaded with him, his wife said go. M-town relented, brought his wife and son, and met his mom and a medicine man at the sweat lodge. They reconciled; a new beginning.

In 2009, M-town was indicted by a grand jury, convicted of conspiracy to distribute illegal drugs and sentenced to 20 years in Federal Prison; a sentence later reduced to 14 years. He spent one last night, the day after Mother’s Day, with his wife. She hugged him and cried. He said, “I promise I will be back for you.” He said goodbye to his wife. He hasn’t seen his kids in eleven years.

After the gang war in the Oxford Prison yard, M-town, his gang, and his cousin, were sent to the SHU, Special Housing Unit, AKA the “hole.” In the hole, M-town had time to reflect. How did I end up here? Why did my two marriages fail? Why is my life filled with dishonesty and hatred? He met a Native American from Michigan who introduced him to a newsletter covering Native American issues. Prior to this point in his life, M-town didn’t identify with his Native American heritage, being more associated with the criminal life and gang culture. He wanted something more; he needed something to guide him, to help him from returning to the criminal lifestyle. He turned to the Ojibwa Grandfather Principles: wisdom, respect, courage, honesty, truth, humility, love. Over the next 15 months in the SHU, M-town rebuilt his code of behavior based on loving, forgiving, and accepting. 

The Federal Bureau of Prisons decided to make an example of M-town and his cousin sending them to the maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado. One step below a super-max facility, The SMU, Specialty Management Unit, was a cell with bed and toilet; meals handed through a slot in the door. In this tiny space, he was confined for 23 hours per day. This was home for the next 21 months.

His brother’s death set in motion a series of events that changed M-town’s life. Perhaps the meteor shower was a sign from the Great Spirit for a new beginning. He reconciled with his father, then his mother. Sent to prison and held accountable for his behavior, he awoke finding his culture and identity. He learned to love those he hated, respect those he disrespected, forgave those that betrayed him; and accept, rather than deny, what life has given him. Most importantly, he learned to love and forgive himself.

From the SMU, M-town was transferred to the U.S. Penitentiary at Florence. In 2014, he began the long journey home: first to Pekin, Illinois, then McKeen, Pennsylvania. At McKeen, the warrior spirit was tested. In the yard of the medium security prison, he met an old enemy from his gangster days. Both Native Americans, their hatred ran so deep they wanted to kill each other. Instead, they met on the track, talked it out, and agreed to bury the hatchet; a watershed event. From McKean, he made the long multi-day journey though fog shrouded Oklahoma City, up through Chicago, and crossed the border into Minnesota, overjoyed to see the state license plates of home.

In October of 2017, M-town arrived at Sandstone Federal Prison, his first low security facility in ten years. He spent 18 months at Sandstone and then transferred to the minimum security Duluth Federal Prison Camp. I got to know M-town at the gym, and through Toastmasters International.  M-town has completed The Toastmasters Competent Leader, Competent Communicator, and Leadership Excellence manuals within a year qualifying him as a Triple Crown recipient. I was able to attend his two most recent speeches where one of the group said, “M-town walks to the front of the room with a posture and stride that exudes confidence, poise, and command.”

I said, “your speech is passionate, reflective, and clear in message.” I often run into him in his office, which also serves as the dorm laundry, head bent, focused on writing. 

M-town’s dream is creating the Warrior Resurgence Project with the goal of teaching the Grandfather Principles and reawaking the Ojibwa cultural identity. Through ongoing workshops, he proposes to spread the message that his people’s problems are self-imposed and to break the cycle requires living by the principles of our ancestors. M-town has credibility. He has held every informal political office in his twelve years in prison: chief, warrior, liaison, and representative. He grew up in difficult circumstances and transformed himself from self-centered gangster to noble warrior. He has earned the right to speak for his people. In late summer of 2020, less than nine months away, M-town will finally go home. His story could fill book. It will be his choice what is written in the final chapters.

We all belong to the Earth and we are all connected. We need to recognize our interconnectedness—to understand when we harm another or the Earth, we harm ourselves.

Steven Markusen

Steve is a professional writer with articles published in national magazines and international literary journals, including Adelaide. He also enjoys public speaking on topics including commitment, motivation, creating healthy habits, and aging.

Steve is an expert rock and ice climber, backcountry skier, paraglider pilot, competitive cyclist. He has turned that passion into a career helping others achieve their life goals as a personal trainer and nutrition coach.

Leave a Reply