I first saw Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country (2020) by Sierra Crane Murdoch on NPR’s Best Books List. I was intrigued for a number of reasons. First, it takes place at Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. This past summer I spent some time exploring in North and South Dakota. It was a memorable experience, with such unique and harsh land and weather. I also drove through a reservation on my way home, and I wondered if I’d seen where the story took place. (It only took a little investigating for me to remember that I drove through the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, so I never saw Fort Berthold). Secondly, back in 2019, I read Killers of the Flower Moon by David Gramm. I thought the book was both shocking and incredibly interesting, and I was hoping for more of the same with Yellow Bird.
Yellow Bird covers a lot of ground. It takes place on Fort Berthold Reservation during the Bakken oil boom. Christopher “KC” Clarke, a white oil worker, disappeared from the reservation in 2012. Lissa Yellow Bird, an Arikara tribal member decides to help KC’s mother, Jill, find out what happened to her son. Much of the book is about Lissa and her life. Lissa had been a prostitute, a drug addict, and a dealer. She’d been abandoned by her mother when she was young, and almost beaten to death by her boyfriend. But after getting out of jail in 2009, Lissa was staying sober and intent on helping others. Her kids reacted in various ways to Lissa’s new obsession. Her oldest daughter, Shauna, felt the most resentment towards her–for what Shauna had to live through when her mother was an addict. On top of all this were the many repercussions from the oil boom. The higher rates of crime, environmental disasters, increased traffic, and increased accidents were felt by everyone, but only a few were really benefitting from it. It caused fights between family and distrust among tribal leaders.
One large theme of Yellow Bird is intergenerational violence. The violence began with the genocide and relocation onto the reservation. Then, when things were actually going relatively well, the United States implemented the Garrison Dam project in the 1950’s. More than 90 percent of the reservation’s inhabitants had to be relocated, and much of their farmland disappeared. In addition, the reservation was split into two parts, with a large lake separating what used to be easily spanned by a bridge.
Although there were some interesting parts to this book and I learned a lot, it was sometimes difficult to get through. I found Killers of the Flower Moon much more compelling. Murdoch discussed at the end of the book her anxiety about being a white woman writing a Native American story. Possibly for that reason, a large portion of the book is transcribed conversations: conversations Murdoch had with Lissa, that Lissa had with KC’s mother, that Lissa’s family had at a gathering, and more. On one hand, this is a good way to not take over another person’s view with your own. However, I think it made the book less focused and harder to read, and since Murdoch is choosing what conversations to include, she is still steering the narrative. I would have much preferred more context. For instance, Murdoch rode along with a police officer to demonstrate the increased crime since the oil boom. We see the officer deal with some domestic violence and drug-related issues, and he talks about other things that have happened on the reservation. But those isolated anecdotes don’t tell me much about what is going on. I’m sure there was domestic violence and addiction before the oil boom. I often found myself bored while reading long conversations between people where I didn’t understand the point, and then I found myself wanting more information so I could really understand the people I was reading about.
I would still recommend this book to those interested in the subject–because there is a lot to learn. However, it was a little disappointing for me.
You can find all my reviews on my blog.