Most mornings last year, John Red Cloud would rise before daybreak in his home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in southwest South Dakota. He’d walk to the porch of his house and peer out at the shadows of undulating, grassy hills in the distance. Eventually, dawn would spread across the reservation, illuminating the ancestral land where Red Cloud had been born and raised and now was rebuild­ing his life. On those mornings, Red Cloud stretched his arms skyward and gave thanks to his creator.

After spending nearly 12 years of his life locked up in Colorado prisons and another six months on parole in the Centennial State, he’d finally been allowed to return home. There had been times when he’d questioned whether that would actually be possible. In 2010, at the age of 31, he’d drunkenly sexually assaulted his then common-law wife at a home they’d shared in Boulder County. Months later, Red Cloud was convicted of Class 4 assault and Class 3 sexual assault in the context of domestic violence and was sentenced under a little-known, decades-old Colorado law that imposes potential life sentences on certain sexual offenders. Six parole hearings later, in July 2022, he was released. Six months after that, he was back in Pine Ridge.

He’d returned home a different man. Sober since his arrest, he’d now slipped into a pleasingly mundane, clear-headed version of domesticity on the reservation. He’d begun the difficult process of rebuilding relationships with his four kids, all of whom had lived with him before he’d been sent to prison. He’d apologized to his former wife, who later wrote a letter supportive of Red Cloud to a Colorado parole board. Red Cloud reconnected with three of his brothers and his father. He started dating a woman from his childhood—a Lakota Sioux, like him.

The then 44-year-old also became the managing director of Red Cloud Renewable, a nonprofit energy and workforce development company his father had founded nearly a quarter-century earlier. In roughly a year, Red Cloud had secured more than $3 million in combined U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Environmental Protection Agency funding. “People see what we’re doing in Indian Country and they’re really able to believe and see…a reflection of themselves,” Red Cloud told the DOE in a Q&A piece that appears on the agency’s website under the headline “Indian Energy Champions.”

John Red Cloud hiking near Lyons in 2022. Photo courtesy of Stephen Kane

The largest DOE grant the nonprofit received helped fund a program named Bridging Renewable Industry Divides In Gender Equality, or BRIDGE. Touted by Red Cloud Renewable as a “pioneering workforce development initiative,” the program was a five-week, in-person training session for Native American women to learn the intricacies of solar energy system installation, followed by eight months of mentoring as the trainees entered the renewables labor force. Priority—and free daycare—was given to Indigenous women with children. BRIDGE, Red Cloud says, is among his greatest achievements—and a bit of repentance for his past. “I know it can’t erase what I’ve done,” he says. “But maybe I could do something to help a woman who needs it. Maybe this could change some women’s lives forever.”

Red Cloud is, as his father, Henry, often says, blessed with the ability to “walk in both worlds.” On nights and weekends following his release, he attended powwows and played in a traveling drum circle that included two of his brothers. On weekdays, he wrote grant applications, mingled with mostly white, wealthy philanthropists, and sought advice from solar experts across the country. One day, he’d visit the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado; the next, he’d be driving the reservation’s dirt roads in his SUV with his girlfriend, Betty Watters, as they worked to explain the things Red Cloud Renewable could do—winterize houses and transition homes to solar energy, for example—to help residents.

After he’d returned to the reservation, Red Cloud had registered as a sex offender and met regularly with his parole officer in Rapid City, an hour’s drive north of his home on Pine Ridge. On the afternoon of October 2, 2023, as part of the conditions of his “lifetime supervision” from Colorado, Red Cloud and Watters went to Rapid City so he could meet with a polygraph examiner. Polygraphs were a mandated part of the interstate compact transfer when Red Cloud moved from Colorado to South Dakota during his parole.

Watters had been waiting in the passenger’s seat of Red Cloud’s SUV for about an hour when she spotted her boyfriend being led out a side door in handcuffs. Watters jumped out of the vehicle. “What’s going on?” she yelled and ran toward Red Cloud.

“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll figure this out.”

I met Red Cloud in late January of this year, on the night before he was to be transferred from the Boulder County Jail to one of Colorado’s prisons. Red Cloud didn’t yet know where he’d be moved, nor did he know if he’d ever be able to return to Pine Ridge again.

Gail Johnson, a nationally recognized defense attorney from Boulder who specializes in what she believes to be wrongful convictions, represents Red Cloud. She’d been working on his case since November 2023. In her retelling of his story, Red Cloud is a victim of a sexual offender system that is not only outdated but also doesn’t seem particularly interested in actual justice or rehabilitation.

Red Cloud was sitting in jail based on the polygraph he’d failed in South Dakota. After the exam, his attorney says, the interviewer asked Red Cloud whether he’d spent time in the company of children. Red Cloud allegedly answered that he’d attended ceremonial sweat lodges with his brothers and other family members, some of whom allowed their minor children to attend. Under the terms of his parole in Colorado, Red Cloud was allowed to spend time with family, regardless of age; however, South Dakota officials had said he could not be around minors. Law enforcement officers placed him in handcuffs after the disclosure.

He spent nearly two months in a South Dakota jail cell before officials transferred Red Cloud to Boulder County in December 2023. In early February, he had a parole revocation hearing. During the meeting, the administrative hearing officer proudly declared himself 27 percent Native American before ruling Red Cloud had technically violated the terms of his parole and would be returned to prison, perhaps forever, as a result of Colorado’s indeterminate sentencing law.

Mandated by state statute in 1998, the law imposes a minimum-to-indeterminate sentence for many felony sex offenders in the state. (Whether a person gets an indeterminate versus a fixed sentence is often affected by the severity of the offense, provisions of specific laws, and prosecutors’ willingness to consider plea bargains.) The 1998 law was Colorado’s response to a series of headline-grabbing child murder cases across the country, perhaps the most famous of which involved a New Jersey seven-year-old named Megan Kanka, who was raped and murdered by a neighbor with two previous sex assault convictions against young girls. Megan’s Law, which requires law enforcement to make information about registered sex offenders publicly available, was subsequently passed at the federal level in 1996. “You hear the words ‘sex offender’ and your mind automatically goes to the worst places,” says David S. Prescott, a past president of the Association for the Treatment & Prevention of Sexual Abuse who has written 17 books on understanding, assessing, and treating people who have sexually abused as well as preventing recidivism. “In fact, like anything, there’s a varying degree to the offense and the offender. But society has decided to lump them all together and then throw those people away.”

Indeterminate sentencing—which is employed in Colorado and a handful of other states—contrasts with the law in a number of states, which imposes what’s called a “civil commitment” for convicted sex offenders. Under civil commitment, offenders receive defined sentences but can be kept in prison if there is “clear and convincing” evidence that the inmate is still a danger to the community. Civil commitments were unsuccessfully challenged at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010.

Indeterminate sentencing has received considerably less attention. Challenges to the constitutionality of the practice have never reached the Supreme Court; however, in 2021, a Colorado appeals court rejected claims from a man convicted of a sexual offense who argued that his constitutional rights were violated when he received an indeterminate sentence.

After Red Cloud’s conviction, he arrived in 2010 to begin an eight-years-to-life indeterminate sentence at Colorado’s Sterling Correctional Facility, which did not offer sex offender therapy, a mandated part of Colorado’s Sex Offender Treatment and Monitoring Program (SOTMP). The program’s guidelines require that inmates admit to details of their crimes, undergo years of in-prison therapy sessions, and submit to polygraphs as a way to determine their sexual histories. If sexual offenders meet the program’s criteria, they will, in theory, ultimately be paroled and transferred to lifetime supervision in a community.

Although nearly 1,700 sex offenders in Colorado fall under the indeterminate sentencing umbrella, SOTMP can only complete treatment of 160 people per year. That discrepancy has created a backlog that forces inmates who need therapy to languish past their minimum sentences before receiving treatment. State officials say low wages and remote prison locations make it difficult to recruit and retain certified therapists; critics say the program misunderstands sexual offenders and uses a one-size-fits-all treatment method that oftentimes does more harm than good.

Laurie Kepros, the director of sexual litigation for the Colorado Office of the State Public Defender, explains that in Colorado’s system, many of the most violent sexual predators receive fixed sentences. “The whole scheme fails to match the most intense interventions to the highest-risk individuals. You can have someone who stalks women, who attacks them, who never admits to the crimes, who hasn’t gotten a day’s worth of treatment, but then that person reaches the end of their sentence and has to be let out,” Kepros says. “Then you get someone who has a two-years-to-indeterminate, but the backlog is so great that you’re never serving the minimum, and now it feels like you’re in a de facto life sentence.”

It took years before Red Cloud began his SOTMP-mandated treatment. When he did, he was made to sit through therapy sessions alongside the most dangerous sex offenders, despite the fact that he was never classified as a sexually violent predator. “I was placed in treatment with men who had done unspeakable things to children,” he says. “They talked so casually about what they’d done; it was disgusting. That is not who I am, and that isn’t something I would ever do to someone.”

Red Cloud spoke softly as he sat at a table in one of the Boulder County Jail’s interview rooms. He thought back to a few weeks earlier, when Boulder County deputies picked him up from the jail in South Dakota. As he passed through a corner of the Pine Ridge reservation in the back of a patrol car, Red Cloud couldn’t take his eyes off the Black Hills. “I watched until they disappeared,” he says. “I knew I would probably never see them again.”

Red Cloud had grown up poor on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is to say he grew up like almost every person there. Pine Ridge is among the largest reservations in the United States and has a per capita income of less than $9,000 annually. School buses filled with children still drive past the killing fields of Wounded Knee, where more than 150 Lakota Sioux were murdered by the U.S. Army in 1890.

black and white artwork
Chief Red Cloud around 1900. Photo by Angel White Eyes

When Red Cloud was born, his grandmother washed his tiny body and gave him a sip of water from nearby White Clay Creek, forever linking him to the land. Red Cloud’s mother left the family when he was six and returned only intermittently. The young boy, a descendant of the revered Oglala Lakota warrior Chief Red Cloud, learned the Lakota language from his grandmother. Chief Red Cloud led post–Civil War battles against the American military and orchestrated the U.S. Army’s first defeat at the hands of an all-Native force. While children in other parts of the country talked about George Washington and his felled cherry tree, Red Cloud learned about the Dawes Act, which gave the federal government the right to break up tribal lands.

Growing up, Red Cloud was close with his grandmother, who made rabbit stew and performed traditional ceremonies at her cabin next to the creek. “All my friends thought she was hardcore,” Red Cloud says. He was brought up “in the old ways,” his father says. “My son knew from the beginning of his life what it meant to be from this place. That never left him.”

When Red Cloud killed his first elk as a boy, his father smeared the animal’s blood on his son’s face. He attended tribal events, learned to play the drum, and sang the songs his ancestors had sung for centuries. He attended the Red Cloud Indian School, a Jesuit school on the reservation that educated tribal children from kindergarten through high school. He graduated near the top of his class and secured a scholarship to attend the University of San Diego, a rarity among Pine Ridge adolescents. After earning a bachelor’s degree in history, Red Cloud returned to the reservation to teach the subject, then worked for the Indian Health Services in Pine Ridge and later raised money for the American Indian College Fund, a Denver-based nonprofit.

Red Cloud, his wife, and their four children had moved into a home in Lafayette. They wanted a place adjacent to wide-open spaces that also had good schools nearby for the kids. Throughout their time in Colorado, though, the couple’s relationship was strained. Early on the morning of January 15, 2010, Red Cloud and his wife got into an argument. An intoxicated Red Cloud forced oral and vaginal sex on her, while at least one of the couple’s crying children was in the same room. During the assault, according to the police report, Red Cloud repeatedly choked the woman. His wife said that at one point, Red Cloud told her, “Bitch, you’re gonna die.”

“I will always remember my arrest, and I’m thankful for what I got in therapy,” Red Cloud says. “To understand triggers in my life and what I did and how I can prevent that from happening. I’m sober, and I’ve worked hard at that. It’s important to who I am. At the same time, how do I atone for what I did? How do I make it better?”

Part of that atonement, he thought, could come from returning to the reservation, where he was determined to be a model parolee. He attended regular sex offender therapy sessions and paid out of pocket for the state-mandated polygraph testing.

For decades, polygraph tests were considered critical pieces of evidence in courtrooms, but that began to change as more research on the practice emerged. Critics argue there’s no evidence that the physiological measurements taken during polygraphs—from heart rate to breathing rate—are useful in determining anything. Detractors also contend that there’s no way to know if the readings suggest a subject is being truthful or deceptive and that they could just as easily indicate that a person is anxious.

A 1983 report by the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment led to a nationwide ban on private employers using polygraphs on employees; 15 years later, in 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against using polygraphs in some federal courts because there was “simply no consensus” on their reliability. In 2003, the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, published a report that, in part, said “almost a century of research” provided “little basis for the expectation that a polygraph test could have extremely high accuracy.”

Yet polygraphs continue to be used as part of the terms of sexual offenders’ paroles. In Colorado, polygraphs have been mandated as part of the state’s Sex Offender Management Board (SOMB) protocol since the 1990s. “The use of the polygraph in sex offender management is essentially a U.S.-only phenomenon, and Colorado has certainly been the jurisdiction to lead the charge,” says Robin J. Wilson, a psychologist and an international expert on support and accountability for sex offenders. “The problem is that there has been no clear evidence that it actually assists that risk management process. More recent research has actually suggested that use of the polygraph might lead to poorer outcomes. Perhaps the best rationale I’ve heard for its use is, It works because they think it does. That’s not exactly science.”

The truth was that because of Red Cloud’s indeterminate sentencing, he felt less and less free each day after being released from prison in 2022. “It’s like they were just waiting for him to mess up,” says Stephen Kane, a solar energy consultant who worked with Red Cloud’s father and let Red Cloud live in a house on his property in Larimer County after he’d been paroled. Though he’d never been accused of an offense against a child, Red Cloud had to map out his daily drives to ensure he wouldn’t pass a school. If he wanted a McDonald’s burger, he had to check if there was an indoor playground where kids might congregate.

After about three months on parole in Colorado, he applied for an interstate compact transfer that would allow him to return to South Dakota. When the transfer came through a few weeks later, Red Cloud packed and left the next morning. Once he arrived in Pine Ridge, his father set him up with an office in the Red Cloud Renewable compound. He began drumming again, and he delighted in speaking Lakota with people who were fluent in the language. He rekindled a relationship with Watters, whom he’d met decades earlier, when they were kids, and had had regular phone contact with while he was in prison. “I don’t see him like that; nobody does at all,” Watters says. “There’s no harm in him. I know his heart.”

While Red Cloud was waiting in Boulder County Jail for his parole revocation hearing this past March, state Senator Julie Gonzales was working on a bill to change the way in which Colorado handles sex offenders. Gonzales, who was born on Arizona’s San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation and earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University, won her seat five years earlier after running on a progressive platform that focused heavily on social justice and judicial reforms. As the state Senate Judiciary Committee chair, she drafted Senate Bill 24-118, which would put an end to indeterminate sentencing in many cases and replace it with fixed sentencing guidelines. The bill also included what she called “more robust” therapies for inmates and parolees.

In late winter, Gonzales met with a liaison for the state’s Department of Public Safety who told her the department was opposing the bill. It was hardly a surprise. A similar bill Gonzales crafted the previous year failed to make it out of the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee. After battling Colorado’s powerful SOMB—which controls treatment standards for people already convicted of sex crimes and has regularly fought against ending indeterminate sentencing—Gonzales knew even the smallest changes to sex offender legislation would get pushback from both sides of the political aisle. “But no one is coming with a solution,” she says. “Nowhere else in our statutes do we have indeterminate sentencing available. We have people in this state who have been convicted of murder who do not receive indeterminate sentences.” To Gonzales, who represents west Denver, the proposed bill wasn’t just a civil rights issue. It was also a broadside against SOMB’s credibility.

Gonzales says she has attended SOMB hearings over the years in which she thought the board failed to offer suggestions on how sentencing, prison therapies, and parole supports could be offered in ways that “acknowledged the harm these people had done while also figuring out a path forward to rehabilitation.” Instead, she adds, “We have meetings where people throw up their hands, say it is a tough issue, and then nothing changes.”

To underscore the point, Gonzales pulled out a binder from behind her desk that included printed slides from previous SOMB hearings. She read one of the pages: “And summary in conclusion, problem for some indeterminately sentenced inmates to access treatment prior to parole eligibility date…. Hope to show measurable progress on this issue. SOMB and DOC [Department of Corrections] committed to continuing to work on this issue.” Gonzales laughed and shook her head. “That’s the summary and the conclusion to an issue that’s very serious,” she says, “and all they say is, ‘We’re doing some stuff.’ ”

In mid-April, Gonzales’ bill failed on a 3-2 vote in committee. “This is an issue that needs to be solved or changed in Colorado and negotiated,” state Senator Dylan Roberts, a Democrat and the Judiciary Committee’s vice chair, said. “That is very clear…. This [current system] is not exactly the system that Colorado needs or deserves.”

The issues with sex offender treatment and rehabilitation in Colorado go back at least a decade. In 2013, a report by Central Coast Clinical and Forensic Psychology Services for Colorado’s Division of Clinical Services criticized the way Colorado’s SOTMP handled sex offenders. Not only did the report question “the fairness and appropriateness of the indeterminate sentence/lifetime supervision plan,” but it also noted that the system often worked in secrecy, was vague about its goals for rehabilitation, and served as a sentencing black hole that hurt the chances for meaningful therapies among offenders. “The lack of clarity about release expectations,” the report reads, “and the ‘moving yardstick’ undermine motivation and engender bias and misuse of power by release decision maker.”

Wilson, the sex offender psychologist, says state boards, such as SOMB, sometimes rely on outdated data and junk science to impose heavy restrictions on offenders like Red Cloud without realizing the damage it’s doing to the person’s recovery. (A spokesperson for Colorado’s Division of Criminal Justice declined to make Chris Lobanov-Rostovsky, SOMB’s program manager, available for an interview.) Indeterminate sentences, and the lifetime supervision that often follows, “just isn’t effective,” Wilson says. “Generally, the whole idea of trying to hold people accountable for the worst thing they ever did on the worst day of their life and the worst moment that they’ve ever experienced isn’t the best way toward treatment. There’s no evidence to suggest these sentences actually accomplish anything.”

In the case of an offense such as Red Cloud’s, proponents of the current system argue there’s a high level of “crossover”—that is, an adult who offends against an adult is equally likely to then offend against a child. But Kepros, of the state public defender’s office, says, “There’s absolutely no evidence on any of this, because no one in this country is studying the issue.”

As part of the post-conviction process in the Centennial State, every convicted sex offender must undergo evaluations that are intended to determine sexual interests, which Kepros says should act as a road map for future treatments. Instead, she says, “We’re spending all this money on testing for these kinds of things, and then we ignore it and then say everyone has the same rules. We’re giving a one-size-fits-all form of treatment to people who need to be evaluated and treated as individuals. Ultimately, the system is failing everyone.”

One day while on parole, Red Cloud went to a Department of Motor Vehicles office in Larimer County to renew his driver’s license. A young girl was running outside the building while her mother talked to someone. While the mother was distracted, Red Cloud remembers, the girl fell to the ground in front of him and started crying. He wanted to reach out and comfort her, but he was concerned about violating the conditions of his parole. “Imagine seeing a young child in pain and doing nothing to help,” he says. “Think about what that does to a person.” After the incident, Red Cloud says he raised a hypothetical scenario with a treatment provider: If he saw a child alone and drowning, what should he do? According to Red Cloud, the provider told him he should let the child drown.

Red Cloud participated in extensive group therapy sessions in Fort Collins after his 2022 release. He cleared the required polygraphs, and his treatment also included an evaluation of the 2010 assault on his wife. He submitted to sex history exams and discussed the neuroscience of emotions, among other things. “He attends his scheduled sessions, pays attention to the content of the discussion, and provides good feedback to those in his group,” his therapist, Cheri Fisher, wrote in a review of his treatment.

So when Red Cloud failed a series of polygraphs in South Dakota in 2023, his parole officer was confounded. Red Cloud “has not shown any high-risk behaviors, is on time, attends groups, and seems to have everything in line,” Jason Kaufman, Red Cloud’s parole officer in Rapid City, wrote to a parole agent. By late July 2023, Red Cloud had been ordered to wear a GPS ankle bracelet and was given more strict limitations on where he could travel. (Red Cloud previously had received approval to travel to DOE events.)

By the fall of 2023, Red Cloud had failed three exams—all on questions about whether he was sexually attracted to minors. During one of his polygraphs, Red Cloud told the polygrapher that he was tired of the questions about his potential interest in minor children. “Whenever I get asked these questions, I really get offended,” Red Cloud told the polygrapher in July 2023, according to a transcript of the examination. “Like permanent indignation. Are you serious? By what stretch of the imagination are you going to ask me if I’m, like, going around sexualizing children? Give me a break.”

Kaufman wrote to South Dakota’s Sex Offender Management Program and said he was skeptical of the polygraph’s accuracy. Not only had Red Cloud never admitted to sexual contact with minors, Kaufman wrote, but he also “has passed a sexual history [polygraph] and has no hands on offending with minors, and he was allowed to have contact with his children while parolled [sic] in CO…. I briefly spoke with [the polygrapher] on the phone, and the consensus was that he clearly failed, but there is not a credible concern, and John is clearly aggravated about being asked about sexual contact with minors, which may be causing a false positive in terms of the reaction.”

Kaufman advised against retesting Red Cloud and added that an additional polygraph wasn’t likely to resolve the matter. “Normally, I push harder for a disclosure and assume the client is lying…. However, John has been extremely compliant and careful and this does not fit his risk profile or offending history.”

The polygrapher agreed with Kaufman’s assessment. “While I can’t say that [Red Cloud’s] exam results are a false positive, these are still screening exams that are not infallible,” the polygrapher, Phil Toft, wrote. Red Cloud, he added, “shouldn’t be terminated from any programs based solely on the polygraph results.”

Despite the correspondence, South Dakota mandated another polygraph, this time with a different polygrapher. Rather than tailoring that polygraph to the client—as mandated by Colorado’s SOMB standards—Red Cloud again was asked about his interest in sex with minors. Again, the examiner determined that Red Cloud was deceptive with his answers. At that point, Kaufman wrote South Dakota parole agent Taylor Santana, warning her on inferring too much from another failed polygraph. “It would be highly unlikely that a guy would have no history of child-offending, go through all the treatment and accountability he has, and then develop a new deviant interest,” Kaufman wrote.

Red Cloud underwent his fourth polygraph. During the post-test interview, he said he’d seen his minor relatives at a sweat lodge and was immediately arrested after the disclosure.

Kaufman learned of the arrest a day later. “It is unfortunate that this resulted in [Red Cloud] being taken into custody, as I do not think his conduct merited a revocation,” the parole officer later wrote to Red Cloud’s attorney in Colorado. “I do have some reservations on the polygraph use, etc., but that is simply not my decision, as I am not a DOC employee or a policy maker.”

Wilson argues that South Dakota—and, by association, Colorado—failed to acknowledge the role that culture played in Red Cloud’s recovery and reintroduction into society. A sweat lodge “was probably one of the only places he could feel like he’s a Native American,” says Wilson, who has also served on the board of the Association for the Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Abusers. “He was not allowed to be who he is in a program that’s supposed to be helping him be a better person.”

The regulations Red Cloud faced are “a complete paradox,” Wilson adds. “He is guilty of one crime, but he’s being treated for a different set of offenses than what he’s actually done. He wants to take responsibility for his behavior, but the criminal processing he was going through—the questions he’s being asked—are completely different than who he is and what he did. How is that effective treatment?”

One of the last things Red Cloud told me before he was transferred to prison was that he missed his girlfriend. He’d last seen Watters as he was being led away in handcuffs from the parole office in Rapid City. Watters is raven-haired, soft-spoken, and the divorced mother of several adult children. Red Cloud thought Watters had an uncommon ability to empathize, to listen and analyze, and to support. Watters saw Red Cloud as a superhero among his peers; he was the one, she says, “who was going to make something of himself.”

Roughly five years ago, Watters began to wonder where her childhood friend had gone; she hadn’t seen him around Pine Ridge for years. After learning he was in prison, she wrote Red Cloud a letter. He wrote back. Two letters became four, and four became eight. They began talking on the phone. She asked about the crime that had sent Red Cloud away. He said he was a changed man, that he wanted to prove that to everyone. “What happened, happened,” she says. “But that is not the John I know. It’s not the John anyone around here knows.”

She wrote a letter to the administrative hearing officer who oversaw Red Cloud’s parole hearing this past winter. She said that he was a good man, that years in prison had made him rethink his life, that he was doing well in the community, and that he should be allowed to return home. It didn’t matter. In early March, one month after Red Cloud’s parole revocation, his lawyer submitted an appeal of the revocation decision.

On March 28, Red Cloud’s appeal was denied. He would remain in prison awaiting another parole application interview in August.

man against white sky
Henry Red Cloud, John’s father, this past spring on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Photo by Angel White Eyes

One day in early March, Henry Red Cloud stood on a patio on the Red Cloud Renewable campus with a phone to his ear. A mural of a large, crouching warrior in a business suit—with a billowing red tie and two eagle feathers in his hair—graced a nearby trailer. Next to the image were the words “Hau Kola,” which translate to “Welcome, my friends.”

Henry paced as he talked on the phone. A work crew was putting together a series of domelike tiny homes on a piece of reservation land 30 miles away, and Henry wanted to make sure everything was running on time.

His schedule was packed, as usual. Henry needed updates on his son’s BRIDGE grant and on the next crop of Red Cloud Renewable workforce trainees, who now numbered in the hundreds and included Native American men and women from reservations as far away as Arizona. He was also putting together thoughts for a talk in Washington, D.C., and figuring out how to get one of the company’s myriad solar projects to move faster. By all accounts, it should have been an exciting time. Instead, Henry was in a melancholy mood. John’s 46th birthday was the next day.

Red Cloud had been his father’s security blanket after returning home from Colorado. If Henry was the soul of Red Cloud Renewable—the one who’d founded the nonprofit based on the tribe’s spiritual connection to the life-giving sun—John had become its voice. It was his research and writing that led to the grants, and he was the one who could take Red Cloud Renewable’s big ideas and sell that promise to government types and donors who existed outside the reservation’s invisible walls.

Henry hung up his phone and exhaled. He desperately needed his son’s help. “I feel like I’m running a marathon with one leg,” he says. “But how can I say that to my boy?”

He gathered some logs and fed the fire inside a potbelly stove in one of Red Cloud Renewable’s buildings. Three of the company’s domed homes rose in the distance. Near the domes was a circular, covered workstation. Across from that stood a large stanchion, where trainees learned to install solar panels. “You should see their eyes light up when they put it together from scratch and finally get it working,” Henry says. “John was so proud with how far we were coming.”

Inside the building, framed artwork and family photographs covered the walls. There was a young, smiling Red Cloud, with an eagle feather rising off his jet-black hair, standing next to his crouching, smiling grandfather, who was in full war bonnet. There was also a colorized photograph of Chief Red Cloud hanging near a five-foot-tall charcoal drawing of the chief holding a peace pipe.

Henry excused himself to make more phone calls. He paced around the patio. He looked out at the domes in the yard. He accepted a bag of oranges from a tribal elder who stopped by to say hello. Then he went back inside to check on the fire. Snow was coming soon.