Amidst North Dakota’s fracking boom, people keep disappearing

Journalist Sierra Crane Murdoch documents Lissa Yellow Bird’s search for the missing.

 

Lissa Yellow Bird knows something about how to find a body in the badlands of North Dakota.  To outsiders, the landscape might appear empty and unchanging, but to Yellow Bird, it looks dynamic — different in every season. She is attuned to how April’s snowmelt washes away sediment and carves rivulets into the land; to the way the heavy rains in the fall can erase tracks; to how the winter’s snow can bring new shapes into relief. “The land would reveal what it wanted to us,” journalist Sierra Crane Murdoch recalls Yellow Bird explaining. “The point was not to force the land to give up the body but to be there when it did.”

For eight years, Yellow Bird has helped grieving family members search for missing relatives. In her sprawling and richly detailed debut book, Yellow Bird, Murdoch, a former High Country News contributing editor, tells the story of Yellow Bird’s first search.

Kristopher “KC” Clarke disappeared while working on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation during the fracking boom of the early 2010s, and Yellow Bird helped his family look for him. As she describes Yellow Bird’s efforts, Murdoch also does her own excavating, trying to uncover the connections between the region’s settler colonial history and its ongoing human disappearances. The result is an illuminating book that draws a complex portrait of Yellow Bird as well as of life in Fort Berthold during the boom and the historical context of the region’s disappearances.

In the 2010s, the Fort Berthold Reservation — home to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, also called the Three Affiliated Tribes — underwent extraordinary upheaval, as a fracking boom brought unprecedented money and an influx of outsiders to the reservation. Clarke, a 29-year-old white man from northwest Washington, vanished in 2012 from the reservation, where he moved after a breakup. At the time of his disappearance, Clarke was working for a friend’s trucking company, which hauled water to drilling sites. “The work had been so good, (his mother) learned, that her son hardly slept,” Murdoch writes. Clarke was completely burned out, and at his employer’s suggestion, he took a vacation. He never returned. Authorities began investigating about a month later, but the case stalled with few leads.

Yellow Bird, a federally enrolled citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation who lived in Fargo, North Dakota, never knew Clarke. She stumbled upon his case when she saw a Facebook message posted by his mother asking for help. Yellow Bird began her search, driven by an impulse she struggles to explain to Murdoch.

“The first time I asked (Yellow Bird) the question, she paused as if I had caught her by surprise, and then she said, ‘I guess I never really thought about it before,’ ” Murdoch writes. Part of Murdoch’s goal in the book is to understand Yellow Bird’s growing obsession with the case.

Lissa Yellow Bird searches for Kristopher “KC” Clarke in Mandaree, North Dakota.
Kalen Goodluck

Murdoch draws from a wealth of source materials — text messages, court records, interviews with Yellow Bird’s distant family members and old boyfriends, ride-alongs in cop cars, archival documents, even months spent living in Yellow Bird’s house in Fargo — to draw a deep and vivid portrait of Yellow Bird’s engrossment. Yellow Bird got too deeply involved, Murdoch suggests, creating fake Facebook accounts, befriending and manipulating someone she saw as a suspect, fighting with Clarke’s mother, pestering law enforcement officials she considered complacent and incompetent. Eventually, she started fighting with her children about the time she was spending on the case.

Seeking to understand this relentless quest, Murdoch connects it both to Yellow Bird’s personal history — her guilt about her absence from her own children’s lives during her several years of meth addiction and imprisonment — and to the region’s history of settler colonialism. In particular, Murdoch points to the flood engineered by the United States government in the early 1950s on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, during construction of Garrison Dam. The government used strongman tactics to obtain the land, forcing the Three Affiliated Tribes to relocate to higher ground, abandoning roads, schools, bridges, farmland, houses and a hospital, along with ancestral remains. This history, Murdoch argues, is deeply connected to Yellow Bird’s attempts to bring back Clarke — she is reacting to a long history of things suddenly disappearing. This idea of erasure — historical, environmental and literal — holds together the disparate pieces of the book.

As the messy narrative of Yellow Bird’s search for Clarke unfolds, Murdoch paints a vivid, sometimes disturbing picture of the reservation during the boom.

As the messy narrative of Yellow Bird’s search for Clarke unfolds, Murdoch paints a vivid, sometimes disturbing picture of the reservation during the boom. Clarke’s disappearance came at a time when violent crime and drug use — both by tribal members and non-Native itinerant workers — were rising; when money was flowing in from oil and gas companies at unprecedented but unpredictable and uneven rates; and when non-Native workers were flooding onto reservation land, where tribal law enforcement lacked legal jurisdiction over them.

“I had some understanding of the legal topography into which (Clarke) disappeared,” writes Murdoch, who began reporting on the reservation in 2011, “and I suspected his case might be a window into the darker realities of the boom.” Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that greed and oil money were factors in Clarke’s disappearance. The search for justice would be complicated by the jurisdictional tangle that makes it difficult to prosecute non-Indigenous offenders for crimes committed on reservation land. Murdoch notes that there is also very little free press on the reservation or in the state of North Dakota, making it difficult to get information about cases from government or tribal agencies.

In an afterword, Murdoch, who is white, asks, “What right did I have to tell Lissa’s story?” Yellow Bird does not appear to be bothered; after all, as she tells Murdoch, she has given her permission. But Murdoch worries about getting Native stories wrong. Her attempt to address this is twofold. First, she shared a manuscript draft with Yellow Bird and several of her relatives, going through an unusual process of discussions, corrections and revisions with her sources. This makes the book both more sensitive and deeper, a conversation with her sources rather than an attempt to ascribe motivations from a bird’s-eye view. Secondly, Murdoch put herself in the book as a character. She says she hopes this will help her to “be clear who was telling the story — who heard it, interpreted it, chose which details to leave in or out — and convey to readers my limitations as a narrator.” Here, perhaps, she could have gone further. Murdoch remains largely in the background, and readers have little sense of her own history, or how it shapes her interactions with the people she encounters.

Murdoch did extensive reporting for eight years in her dogged attempts to capture Yellow Bird in all her complexity. There are times, though, when the breadth of her reporting becomes a weakness: There is simply too much there. There are layers of Yellow Bird’s family history that might feel essential to the characters themselves, but less so to readers; by the end of the book, it becomes a bit hard to keep track of minor characters even if one is taking notes. A whole chapter on a heated tribal election in 2014 might have been summarized in a few paragraphs. It feels easy, in a book of this length and scope, to drown in particulars. Murdoch might have aided her readers by using a more selective process and some editorial winnowing. Still, her prose is lucid and lyrical, alternately calling to mind nonfiction writers like Ian Frazier and novelists like Marilynne Robinson. One haunting passage describes the impact of the Garrison Dam flood, which drove tribal members off their land: “It would not take long for the prairie to claim the church, for wind to unhook the battens and shatter windows, and for rodents to make homes in the floors and walls. This became the nature of the reservation. A person could come home and find things taken or worn out. It was something you got used to, the inevitability of loss.”

She continued to search for Clarke long after law enforcement stopped, and even as a number of other bodies appeared.

Yellow Bird, however, never got used to it: She continued to search for Clarke long after law enforcement stopped, and even as a number of other bodies appeared. In this way, perhaps, Yellow Bird reveals how powerful and final disappearance can be in places with limited oversight or recourse to justice. In the badlands, there are many places to dispose of a body where it might never be found, and there are limited avenues for justice on the reservation. The United States is mostly looking elsewhere, especially when the boom starts to go bust.

Many questions remain by the book’s end. Without giving away too much, it’s fair to say that there is ultimately justice of a sort, and Murdoch argues that this is brought about at least in part by Yellow Bird’s determination. Yellow Bird’s quest to find Clarke, to un-vanish someone who is gone, begins to symbolize reclaiming the past. Murdoch turns her attention not only to what is gone, but to a woman who is still there, and in doing so, has produced a masterful book.   

Sophie Haigney is a freelance journalist and critic. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Nation and other publications. Email High Country News at edito[email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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