By Izzy Stringham
White River Books
When a young oil worker named Kristopher Clarke went missing from the Fort Berthold Reservation oil fields in North Dakota in 2012, Lissa Yellow Bird, a Native American woman with no connection to Clarke, decided to find him. Sierra Crane Murdoch’s impeccably researched book, “Yellow Bird”, chronicles Lissa’s search.
Murdoch had been traveling to North Dakota to report on the oil boom on the reservation lands. When she happened upon the missing person case of Kristopther Clarke, she turned her reporting in that direction as well. What started as an interest, grew into a several year relationship with Lissa Yellow Bird, her children and her family.
Lissa had grown up on the reservation where Clarke went missing and initially it was her knowledge of the land in the area, and her sympathy for the missing man’s mother, that drove her to get involved. The case rapidly became an obsession though, with Lissa convinced that Clarke had been murdered, and that finding his body was imperative to bring him justice. She began acting like an amateur detective and trying to collaborate with the police, the suspects in the case and with Murdoch as she reported the facts for her newspaper job.
Lissa was a complicated and fascinating figure. She was a protective mother, but struggled with addiction and wasn’t always present for her children. She was loyal and hardworking and determined to stay clean after a stay in prison for drugs. She fiercely loved her family, but felt alone and alienated on the reservation. Murdoch’s empathetic eye and straightforward reporting made Lissa an intriguing character to read about.
Along with the disappearance of Clarke, Murdoch delves deeply into the oil boom and what it meant for the Fort Berthold Reservation and the people who lived there. The extraordinary violence that the oil fields brought — and the skyrocketing crime — became a story all their own. She parses the archaic system set in place by Congress for dealing with crime on reservation lands, and the lack of prosecution most criminal acts on the reservation faced.
It was easy to read between the lines, and see the deep hurt and anguish of the people so disrupted by the oil drilling. The corruption of the drilling companies, the massive amounts of money made on broken promises to the reservation residents and the intergenerational trauma from colonization by the U.S. government are all themes that Murdoch explored. She wrote, “After the massacres, the boarding schools, the outright stealing of land, what lasted was the violence that got under a person’s skin, inside a person’s head…Greed was human nature, but it was hard not to see the taking advantage that went on within the tribe during the boom as the legacy of a centuries-old design.”
While searching on the reservation for Clarke’s body, Lissa Yellow Bird spoke often of the land itself, her ancestral connection to it, and also the loss of land that her family had suffered. It ran deep, and the idea that land and place are an intrinsic part of a person’s identity was put in stark relief by the destruction of the oil boom. Money was made, but the damage to the earth, the violence suffered by the people and the loss of self was so much more lasting.
By the time the mystery of what happened to Kristopher Clarke was finally resolved, the story of the North Dakota oil boom was much more than just about oil extraction and jobs.
Paperback copies of “Yellow Bird” are available at White River Books in Carbondale.