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An Oil Boom, a Missing Body and a Native Woman’s Quest to Find It

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YELLOW BIRD

Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country

By Sierra Crane Murdoch

The Fort Berthold Reservation covers nearly a million acres of rolling hills and prairie in North Dakota and is home to the “Three Affiliated Tribes” of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara. The Missouri River, swollen by the presence of the Garrison Dam, transects the reservation from the northwest corner to the southeast. The tribes for whom Fort Berthold is home had for centuries been drawn to the Missouri River and its tributaries, where one could find the concentration of ecological wealth necessary to survive on the plains: wood, water, horses and game. In their early history the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara were numerous and widely dispersed, at times allied and at other times at odds. But as a result of pressure from both European settlers and more nomadic tribes on the plains, the three tribes were reduced and, eventually, clumped together — an affiliation of necessity, not always of choice.

The resources that initially drew the tribes to the river were stolen, and then stolen again, by the construction of the dam itself, which flooded a sixth of the reservation and destroyed many of the villages situated, for good reason, near the river. But there is wealth on the ground, and in some places there is wealth to be found in it. Since the 1950s, it’s been known that the Bakken Formation — a unique arrangement of rock spread over 200,000 miles underneath Montana, North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba — contained billions of barrels of oil. Until recently, extracting it was prohibitively expensive. But with the advent of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling, the oil began to emerge. Oil companies started leasing tribal land at Fort Berthold, individual tribe members formed companies to truck and dispose of fracking waste, and the tribe itself got into the business.

In the old days, life on the plains had been a cycle of boom and bust; there is a rhythm to nature. It turns out there’s also a rhythm to wealth. As money began flowing at Fort Berthold, old traumas resurfaced and new ones were inflicted. On Feb. 22, 2012, Kristopher Clarke, a young trucker who drove for Blackstone — a white-owned firm that operated out of the tribal chairman Tex Hall’s garage before moving off the reservation — disappeared after dropping off his company credit card at the Blackstone office. He is feared dead.

There is nothing simple about reservations, just as there is nothing simple about the country in which our tribal nations are situated. The cultural landscape is an elaborate and crumpled fabric. But in 2012 at Fort Berthold a tribe member named Lissa Yellow Bird began pulling at the threads. What happened to Clarke? Did James Henrikson, the steroid-jacked owner of Blackstone with his wife, Sarah Creveling, have anything to do with it? What role did Tex Hall play in all of this? Was Clarke’s disappearance a symptom of white people doing dirty business on the reservation, and were tribe members complicit in the violence that blossomed around the oil boom? These questions gnawed at Lissa Yellow Bird and, as the journalist Sierra Crane Murdoch recounts in her remarkable first book, “Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country,” eventually came to consume her.

Yellow Bird, as Murdoch presents her, is a vivid character. A middle-aged mother of five, she had, as we say on the rez, lived large. She was a “fanatic with a bleeding heart.” Her daughter Shauna referred to her as an addict, an assessment Yellow Bird seems to have agreed with. She had worked as a stripper, prison guard, bartender and welder. And she had served two years in prison on drug charges.

Murdoch resists easy portraiture (Indians as pitiful or pathetic or damaged) and blind compassion (Indians as noble sufferers or keepers of special knowledge). Joan Didion once wrote that writers are always selling someone out. But Murdoch doesn’t sell out Yellow Bird or the people of Fort Berthold, and she doesn’t gloss over their problems either. Rather, she finds a way to balance her journalistic curiosity with respect for these complicated people. And Yellow Bird, as a person and as a guide through the mystery surrounding Clarke, is complicated. A fanatic, an addict, sure, but also brilliant, dogged, brave, funny, prickly, radically informed and just as radically nonjudgmental.

In the summer of 2012, Yellow Bird, clean and sober, was living in Fargo when she heard about Clarke’s disappearance. She reached out to Clarke’s mother, Jill, on Facebook and told her that she knew the reservation — the people, government, institutions, sensibilities and land — and could help her find out what happened to her son. Jill accepted Yellow Bird’s offer, and with that Yellow Bird began a search that took her back to Fort Berthold and onto Facebook under aliases, and involved her serving as the secret author of an information campaign bent on flushing out Clarke’s boss, Henrikson, and his wife, at times posing as the wife’s friend and confidante.

Yellow Bird hectored cops and gathered evidence, and even after there was enough proof to charge Henrikson and his (white) accomplices with conspiracy to commit murder, she continued to comb the reservation on foot for Clarke’s body. (It was never recovered.) By the time Yellow Bird was done, she had implicated the tribal government itself in the apparatus of greed and waste — both material and psychic — that are the hallmarks of any boom.

As the story unfolded, I couldn’t help noticing the irony of tuning in to the fate of a non-Native man, killed by non-Native people on an Indian reservation. Maybe irony isn’t the best word. Political and social sadness might be better. After all, there is a crisis in Indian country — one that is finally coming to the attention of national news media — of missing and murdered Indigenous women. In the United States Native women are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted, and one in three Native women has been raped or experienced an attempted rape. According to one study, more than two-thirds of these assaults are perpetrated by non-Natives. Some estimates put the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women at around 6,000 nationally.

Some of the highest rates are found right where the oil is: on top of the Bakken Formation in Montana and North Dakota. Toward the end of her book, Murdoch tries to fold in this larger issue. But her tight focus on Yellow Bird and her quest precludes a full exploration of missing and murdered Indigenous women. I wish it hadn’t. Likewise, I thought Clarke’s murder and Yellow Bird’s determination to find an answer would be a way to bring Fort Berthold and the Great Plains into greater relief; that the journey toward the truth of Clarke’s disappearance would become a journey toward the truth of how reservations and power and money work in our modern world. But — and I am an Ojibwe from Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota who has written a book on reservation life — I was left largely as unenlightened about Fort Berthold at the end as I was at the beginning.

That said, “Yellow Bird” isn’t an “everything” book. Nor should it be. Its strength derives not from vast panoramas but from an intimate gaze. By looking at Clarke’s murder through Yellow Bird’s eyes, we get to see the forces that shape and ultimately unite their lives. I’ve long felt that Native communities are perceived (by Native and non-Native people alike) as places in America but not of America. Murdoch troubles this false separation and helps us understand Yellow Bird and Clarke, and by extension Native and non-Native lives, as deeply intertwined. We also see the nervous mixture of hope and desperation, of compassion and cruelty, of money and its lack, of the desperate grasp of wealth and the human cost it exacts. Yellow Bird’s fanatical but dignified search brought closure to Clarke’s family and change to Fort Berthold. In her telling of the story, Murdoch brings the same fanaticism and dignity to the search for and meaning of modern Native America.

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