“When I was growing up I used to hear from non-Indians telling us that we are lazy and we are no good.”
Lester Killsontop and his brother Vern are serving two consecutive life sentences, plus 40 years, in Montana State Prison for the kidnap and murder of a white man from Miles City, Montana. The brothers were originally sentenced to death, but that sentence was later overturned. Lester spoke with our reporters about his life.
Could you tell us something about how you grew up?
I grew up on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. I lived with my family first, but we didn’t have a very good relationship; my parents were alcoholics. I had a rough time going to school, because first I didn’t understand English, my first language was Cheyenne. My parents had only part-time temporary jobs. I went to live with some foster parents in Washington, I was like 13. Our mother couldn’t really take care of us because she was drinking and she was dying of cancer.
I have seven brothers and sisters; we each went to a different family. In summer we would go back on res. In the foster family they were strict on me. They were strict on me but they weren’t strict on their kids. They were Mormons. Then I stayed with another foster family for about three months, and then I went back to Montana.
What did you do back on reservation?
I tried to finish the school. My dad wasn’t around and my mom passed away when I was 14. I was on my own then. I had my sister’s family, but they didn’t really care.
We are trying to discover if Indians are treated differently by police, by courts and the corrections system than non-Indians. Do you have any idea if that is the case, or do you have other experience with anything like that?
I think that the State of Montana ain’t fair with Native American’s justice system. The sentences they give us – they give us more harsher sentences than they give to non-Indians. Like they gave to me and my brother. Since I’ve been here, I have seen a lot of white people that got smaller sentences for the same things than Native Americans.
What was your sentence?
My sentence was for deliberate homicide, robbery, kidnapping. I was sent to death. Montana’s court gave me two lifes after seven years of waiting.
Why was your death sentenced overturned?
What I’ve read was the state didn’t have enough evidence. They couldn’t give me a life sentence. They kind of wanted to do that, I think because I’m native.
What is it like to hear the death sentence. Did you expect it?
Kind of. Even the people around the town wanted to kill us. My trial was therefore moved.
Do you think that police treat Native people differently? Have you ever felt that they stop Indians more than non-Indians?
Yeah. When I was growing up I used to hear from the non-Indians telling us that we are lazy and we are no good.
Do you practice a religion?
Actually I practice Christianity and I come to the sweat house, too.
Are they pretty good about allowing you to follow tradition here in prison?
Not really. There is a lot of things they stopped us from doing, stuff like doing Native things in our rooms. I don’t know why, they say it’s their policy. Some people burn sage, and sage sometimes smells like marijuana.
When you had your trial, did you have a public defender?
Yes, I had two, one was good, the other one wasn’t that good. Public defenders like to just sit down, you know. The first one had to leave the area, because the victim’s family was threatening him outside the trial.
Do you think you were treated fairly by the court and the jury?
No, not really. There is a lot of racism in it. In the State of Montana you are supposed to have some Natives and blacks within your jury, kind of mixture of people, but mine was only non-Indians. I told you they gave me life, the jury didn’t sentence me to die, two weeks later the judge sentenced me to die. “I overrule the jury and sentence you to die,” he said.
Can you talk about why you think there are a lot of Indians in the prisons?
On the res there is a lot of unemployment. Lot of people go off the res and look for jobs, and because they are natives, they can’t get hired. And because they can’t, because the white people won’t hire them, they go and do crimes, drugs and stuff.
Do you feel that this is what happened in your life?
In my life? In my life I was finding part time jobs here and there. I pretty much stayed out of trouble. I was spending most of my time with natives at that time. And it was this certain girl that got me into trouble.
Would have done anything differently in your life?
I would go back to school, which I was thinking about before. Carpentering or something.
What do you think needs to happen to help Native people to stay out of prison?
I don’t know, I haven’t been out for twenty years, so I don’t know what is going on. Jobs on the res. Sometimes I wasn’t hired – maybe because I am Native, maybe because I didn’t have enough skills.
Are you bored here?
Yes. I try to keep myself busy in a furniture shop. I used to make jewelry from silver and turquoise, but they wouldn’t let me to keep the tools. I would like to see more Native stuff going on in the prison, that would help the youngsters here, who grew up in the cities to learn more about their culture, which they heard a lot about a lot but never went through it. They just went through a lot of crap. So I wanted to set up a Native group, but they wouldn’t let us, we had to have some kind of sponsor or officer in an administration with so many signatures and stuff. To me this is racism. We also had to go through a lot of stuff just to get the sweat house running, just to get wood and rocks. They try to stop a lot of things we try to do.
Do you have many visitors?
I used to, but they have changed the policy, now they have to fill some new visiting forms. And my dad is very old and can’t drive, so I don’t get that many visits lately.