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.
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.
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.