by Sierra Crane Murdoch
Lissa Yellow Bird was an unlikely detective when Kristopher Clarke, a young trucker, disappeared on Feb. 22, 2012.
He stopped in at his employers’ office to drop off a company credit card before setting off on what was supposed to be a two-week vacation. He was never seen again.
Yellow Bird had graduated from the University of North Dakota’s criminal justice program. But at the time she volunteered to help Clarke’s mother, Jill Williams, she was on parole for possession of meth “with intent to deliver.”
She’d been a prison guard, a bartender, stripper, sex worker, tribal court advocate, carpenter, bondsman, laundry attendant and welder. A member of the Arikara tribe, she often visited and had friends and relatives on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation where Clarke disappeared.
Author Sierra Crane Murdoch braids together the story of Yellow Bird’s search for Clarke and the story of the oil boom that hit the reservation in the first decade of the 21st century. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling made it possible to extract oil from the Bakken Formation, which spreads 200,000 miles under Montana, North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Oil brought money for some residents of Fort Berthold — and made poverty worse for others. It drew job-hungry, untrained people from across the country to dangerous jobs with long hours. Drug dealers weren’t long to follow.
With them came an explosion of crime, domestic abuse and drug-related health conditions. Tribal law enforcement, already hamstrung by jurisdictional issues and federal restrictions, was underfunded and understaffed. Reservation roads were being pulverized to dirt and potholes by trucks carrying toxic wastes and water. The oil companies and support operations cut costs by dumping their toxic loads wherever it was convenient, creating an environmental nightmare.
This is a fascinating tale of a woman who manages to uncover enough information, ferment social pressure and goad law enforcement into action that led to a trial and conviction, despite the fact that Clarke’s body has never been found. It’s also a disturbing view of the destructive impact of federal policies on tribal life.
As people heard about Yellow Bird’s search, they approached her about finding other missing people that law enforcement wouldn’t or couldn’t follow up on. This has now become an ongoing job for her.
YELLOW BIRD (2020) is written in the same vein as David Grann’s KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON; THE OSAGE MURDERS AND THE BIRTH OF THE FBI, about the murders of 24 members of the Osage Tribe near Pawhuska, OK, between 1921 and 1926 for their oil money. If you like true crime, you might also like Jax Miller’s HELL IN THE HEARTLAND.
About the Author: Sierra Crane Murdoch
Journalist and essayist Sierra Crane Murdoch writes about the American West and issues related to natural resource extraction.
She wrote YELLOW BIRD after winning a 2017 MacDowell fellowship.
She has reported on the North Dakota oil boom and its impact on the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation since 2011. Her work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, The New Yorker online, Orion, The Atlantic, and High Country News, where she was a staff writer and contributing editor.
He work has been supported by a Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, an 11th Hour Food and Farming Fellowship, and more recently, a visiting fellowship in the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley. Through MacDowell, she received the Sylvia Canfield Winn Award.