MTIP client Joseph Jefferson-Dust found connection with culture in Navy career

Joseph Jefferson-Dust joined the Navy in 2002 (Photo courtesy of Lydina Big Man)

Montana Innocence Project client Joseph Jefferson-Dust is a Navy veteran. His experience in the military and as a warrior in his tribe led to a deeper connection with his culture that helps him maintain hope as he fights wrongful conviction.

Joe joined the military at age 17. He wanted to go to college but did not have the means, so he enlisted in the Navy with the goal of becoming a photographer’s mate.

“I did art my whole life, so I understood pictures pretty well,” Joe said. 

To pursue this path, Joe had to enlist as an undesignated airman. Unfortunately, the opportunity to change his position to photographer’s mate never arose, but he maintained his enlistment with the Navy as an Aviation Boatswain’s Mate on the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis, #74. He started out chalking and changing the aircraft when they parked and was later promoted to aircraft elevator operator. 

“I felt very lucky that I was working on the flight deck,” Joe said. “Just working alongside the deck was really cool. You could see the ocean. I worked days and nights. I got to see a lot of sunrises and sunsets. Just hearing the noise of the ocean was nice.”

After four years–traveling to Canada, Hawaii, Japan, Australia, and Malaysia–Joe decided not to reenlist because he was unable to pursue his original goal of being a photographer. However, he received the GI Bill and will attend college following the completion of his case. 

“I plan on seeking an art degree after everything,” Joe said. “I draw pictures all the time–through high school, in jail, and even now.” 

Joe said his training and experience in the Navy helped when he was wrongfully incarcerated.

“The structured lifestyle of being in jail and being able to comply with orders and stuff, I don’t have a problem with,” Joe said. “But mainly the mental strength helped a lot. Being out on my own and working on the flight deck and stuff like that was kind of scary. After going through that and knowing I could do that, going through jail and stuff, it felt like very similar. I wasn’t as scared.”

Joe served on operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Lydina Big Man, Joe’s mom, said military careers run on both sides of Joe’s family. She said it is a way for Indigenous Peoples to replicate an aspect of their culture that was taken from them.

“If you look back in the history, we weren’t allowed to do stuff like that anymore when we were on the reservation,” Lydina said. “So in order for our young men to still feel that strife, they join the military because it’s almost the same continuance of our traditions and culture. They reach a high status among our family. We’re very proud of our family members who are in the military. Back then, when they put us on the reservation, they couldn’t participate in counting coup and all that stuff. This way, they can still carry on that tradition.” 

In the Crow Tribe, those who enlist in the military receive warrior status. “Counting coup” means receiving accolades as a warrior. The more coup you count, the more respect you receive. Joe is a warrior with coup for his deployment–the importance of which he did not fully realize until he arrived home after leaving the Navy.

“I got off the plane, and there was like 150 people waiting for me because I was getting the warrior greeting for coming home,” Joe said. “I was completely embarrassed. My dad’s sisters, my two aunts, they snatched the Navy dixie cup hat. They took that off and put a war bonnet on me, and they’re parading me around. People are giving me gifts. I’m like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ I didn’t fully appreciate what joining the military would mean in the traditional sense.” 

Joe carries a deep respect for his culture but believes that everyone should have the right to engage with traditions in their own individual way. 

“There’s this expectation of how you’re supposed to behave,” Joe said. “I feel that’s a pre-determined route, which I don’t like. I want to be completely free with my choices, and how I act, and how I feel without having to be this caricature of Native Americans. I have so much respect for the culture, and I read up on traditions and everything. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to behave this way. I want to be completely myself.” 

Joseph Jefferson-Dust (left) pictured with friends during his Navy enlistment (Photo courtesy of Lydina Big Man)

However, Joe does not take his status as a warrior lightly. Once he realized the significance of the status to his family and other tribal members, he aimed to fully embody the role. 

“You get this special recognition,” Joe said. “If I were to go to any other family other than my own, as long as they knew who I was, I would be treated almost like a king. I would get this really special treatment. Everyone would look up to me and have this view of me…almost like a celebrity. I’ve always tried to live like that. Be a good person. I don’t do drugs. I drank a little in the Navy because you’re a sailor, and you have to drink rum. But I always try to be respectful when it comes to elders. I very rarely curse. It all comes from that–trying to be this person people expect me to be.” 

Joe was wrongfully convicted in 2017 of criminal endangerment and sentenced to 10 years of probation, all suspended. A July 2022 study published by the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that American Indian people on probation are 1.44 times more likely to have supervision revoked than White people. This was Joe’s experience: he was revoked on minor technical violations multiple times.

He was serving time for his most recent probation revocation when he read the book “Plenty-coups: Chief of the Crows” by Frank B. Linderman. In reading this book, Joe learned more about his role as a warrior and what it means to count coup than ever before.

“Stuff I did as a kid, I didn’t even know, but my dad was prepping me for the warrior role,” Joe said. “In the book, he talks about how his grandfather made him chase butterflies. They have this dust on their wings. You’re supposed to catch one and rub the dust on your chest, and then you get a butterfly’s speed. But in actuality, it’s the act of chasing the butterflies that you get your stamina. I did that as a kid. I had no idea until just this last time [I was in jail]. I was like, ‘That’s why my dad had me do that.’ I was chasing moths, but it’s the same thing.”

Another pivotal moment for Joe when reading “Plenty Coup” was learning the significance of dreams in the Crow Tribe. Chief Plenty Coup had a dream that directed him on how to protect the Crow Tribe’s traditional land. He dreamt about a chickadee bird that flew into a hole on a tree. A storm came and knocked down all of the trees in the forest, but the tree with the chickadee in it remained. 

“The chickadee represented the Crow people, and his tree was still up after the storm had came,” Joe said. “The storm represented White people. And so, he figured that to work alongside White people was the right choice to retain his home. And it’s true, the Crow people still have their traditional lands.” 

It was in the middle of reading this book that Joe received a message through one of his own dreams. He said he did not take dreams very seriously until this moment. 

“I was looking at this bird’s nest, and there were these two eggs,” Joe said. “And it was like in a jungle tree, this really green tree. And these snakes all came and stood over the nest, and this big snake came. He was like the leader snake, and I could feel the feelings of the birds inside the eggs. And the snake ate one egg, and so now there’s just one egg left. And the snake is getting ready to eat the second egg, but the egg falls through the nest. It falls through, and this hand catches it. And I don’t see the body. I just see the hand and the bird. … The hand dips the bird into a basin of water. The bird is clean, but it’s still like a brand-new baby bird. But for some reason, it could fly. I couldn’t see the details of the bird so well. Just by the way the bird was flying, I could tell it was a hummingbird because it would zip here and zip there and hover in place. So it has to be a hummingbird. The hand was carrying the bird away, and it started flying around the hand. That’s pretty much all I remember.” 

Joe and Lydina interpreted the dream to be a sign of hope. They had recently applied for MTIP’s legal services, and he was released from jail just two months after the dream. Joe said he believes that the snakes represent corruption, which would be the criminal legal system that wrongfully convicted him, and the big snake represents the devil. 

Joseph Jefferson-Dust with his mom Lydina Big Man (Photo by Adam Sings In The Timber)

“That kind of makes sense to me,” Joe said. “So the devil was trying to get to me, which was the bird in the egg. The devil had missed. The hand that caught me was the hand of God and cleansed me when he dipped his hand in the water basin. And just the hummingbird itself represented maybe the path I need to take. They’re southwestern birds, so maybe I need to do something in the southwest. My brother lives in the southwest in New Mexico. So I’m thinking maybe that’s what it means. I don’t know.” 

Lydina finds comfort in the dream as we await the final order in Joe’s case regarding the underlying conviction.

“To me, the dream is confirmation that everything is going to work out,” Lydina said. “And the hand is him being caught, it means he’s not alone. He’s being cleansed. The cleansing could be the exoneration.” 

For Joe, joining the military was originally a career opportunity, but it turned into something much greater. It allowed him to connect with his culture in a way that felt authentic to him, and it has assisted him practically and spiritually in his experience with wrongful conviction. Today, MTIP celebrates and thanks Joe for his service!