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A Native American Woman's Search For Truth In 'Yellow Bird'


A young, white oil worker goes missing on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. The backdrop is an oil boom that's bringing in lots of money and a lot of crime to the reservation. That is a story that journalist Sierra Crane Murdoch traveled to North Dakota to tell. But as she started to look into what happened to Kristopher Clarke, the oil worker, she learned that another woman was also searching for the truth - a Native American woman named Lissa Yellowbird.

SIERRA CRANE MURDOCH: I understood that she was just out looking for Kristopher Clarke. But it was actually after I met her that I realized she was far more involved in this case than I'd originally believed.

CHANG: Lissa Yellowbird is the protagonist of Sierra Crane Murdoch's new book "Yellow Bird." It's a true crime story, but it's also the story of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and the people who call it home.

CRANE MURDOCH: I had actually been going to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, which had found itself in the middle of the Bakken oil boom in around 2009 - I'd been going there since 2011, actually, around the time that the boom was beginning and covering - just trying to report on the transformation of this community, of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation.

So I went back because I'd heard about this crime, about this disappearance of this young white oil worker from the reservation. And in the process of investigating what had happened to him, I met Lissa Yellowbird. And I was just immediately drawn to her for all kinds of reasons.

CHANG: Like what?

CRANE MURDOCH: I mean, she's just a very dynamic person. She's also, I realized pretty quickly, just brilliant. And in the course of speaking to her about this crime and understanding her role in the investigation, I realized that she had actually immersed herself very deeply in the community of people that she believed was responsible for this young man's disappearance. And through some really interesting tactics, which involved creating aliases and running essentially an Internet sabotage campaign, she was able to get inside this community and eventually force one of the perpetrators off the reservation and then open up the case to more official investigation.

CHANG: You say that, you know, she's this dynamic - this brilliant woman. But she's also really complicated, right? I mean, she's a recovering addict. Her kids had been in and out of foster care. She's straight up manipulative at times, and yet she is also someone who's driven by a strong sense of justice who can throw her whole self into a larger purpose, like finding out what happened to this Kristopher Clarke. Can you talk about, like, these contradictions that you saw inside her character?

CRANE MURDOCH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that was part of what drew me to her - was that she was so complicated. When she started looking for Kristopher Clarke, she had actually just been out of prison only a few years. She'd gone to prison on drug charges. She had gotten addicted to crack and to meth earlier in her life. And when she got out, she was sober. And searching for Clarke was, in many ways, her method of distracting herself and of not using drugs again and finding some other obsession that could keep her focused in healthier ways.

CHANG: Well, besides the need for distraction, besides the need to perhaps trade one addiction for another, was there another reason, perhaps an even deeper reason why she became so singularly focused on solving this case?

CRANE MURDOCH: Well, she certainly had a personal connection to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. She's Arikara. She's a member of that tribe. And she saw the oil boom very clearly by having some distance herself from it. She had gotten out of prison in 2010, come home to the reservation, seen it already in this radical state of flux. I mean, for me, certainly, the murder of Kristopher Clarke was a window through which I could see the North Dakota oil boom more clearly and really to see more clearly the methods by which outside interests systematically gain access to and exploit Indian land. And Lissa saw that as well.

And so I felt that she was the ideal protagonist to help tell the story because she was from the place where this crime occurred. It was her Indigenous community that was bearing the heaviest impacts of the boom and because she had this really interesting distance and perspective, having just come home.

CHANG: How did you build trust with her - with Yellowbird - to get her to let you in the way she did for years?

CRANE MURDOCH: Yeah. I write in the book that I don't know why Lissa trusted me, and I don't think she knows either. And people ask her a lot, why did you let this white girl write this book about you? And her answer has always been that I was the one who kept coming back.

CHANG: You, Sierra Crane Murdoch, was the one who always kept coming back.

CRANE MURDOCH: Yeah. I kept coming back. And we got to this place where I really cared for her and her family. And she told me once after we had known each other for a while that a lot of people tend to come to her and then disappear. And I thought, I don't want to be the one - one of the ones who disappears. I want to stay as long as she wants me to stay. And that's an emotional line that a lot of journalists don't typically cross.

CHANG: You mention your whiteness. I mean, you call yourself out in this book and say that your limitation in writing this whole book was the fact that you were white, that you were a white woman writing about a Native American woman, a book that is often in that Native American woman's perspective. Can you talk about how you struggled with that conflict?

CRANE MURDOCH: I'm a journalist. "Yellow Bird" is a work of journalism. And as a journalist, my job is to go out into the world and ask people from communities unlike my own about their lives and then to listen and then to hopefully render those stories as truthfully as possible. And still, in the process of writing this book, I felt that I had an extra responsibility to think really hard about my role in that story and how I was going to make up for the fact that I have probably my own assumptions that could color her story.

CHANG: Yeah.

CRANE MURDOCH: I was very aware of the fact that I didn't want to be falsifying her truth because of who I am and where I come from. So we made a couple of really important decisions, actually, about how I went about the book.

CHANG: Like what?

CRANE MURDOCH: I wrote the book in the first person. I felt that that was more honest so that readers, you know, could say, OK, this is the person who is choosing what information to put in, choosing what information to leave out. And I also involved Lissa and several of her family members in the editing of the book to a degree that I know some journalists might consider a liability but in this case I do believe proved essential.

CHANG: So ultimately, in the end, what would you say Kristopher Clarke, the man who was murdered - what was he a victim of?

CRANE MURDOCH: I mean, he was a victim of one man's greed. He was also a victim of denial on the part of a startling number of people.

CHANG: And what do you mean by denial?

CRANE MURDOCH: I mean just a general disregard for human life and a lack of awareness for the way that our desires for other people's resources and the way we go about satisfying those desires puts other people's lives at risk. This oil boom was tremendously damaging in many ways to the tribal community. Certainly, some people earned quite a lot of money, but a lot of people who were already somewhat vulnerable became more vulnerable. The boom has ended, and a lot of that hasn't gone away. And so I saw, you know, Kristopher Clarke's murder as reflective of a larger trend in violence on the reservation as a result of the boom.

CHANG: Sierra Crane Murdoch's new book is called "Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder And A Woman's Search For Justice In Indian Country."

Thank you very much for joining us and for writing this tremendous book.

CRANE MURDOCH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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