Book Thoughts – Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country by Sierra Crane Murdoch

Yes folks, I’m 1) reading books again and actually finishing them and 2) going to blog down my thoughts post-read. There’s just something nice about putting reactions into words, and I’ve been following a couple of book review blogs and was inspired. Anyway, this is named “Book Thoughts” because these entries are not reviews, per se, because I’m not going to give them a score or anything, although I’d wholeheartedly recommend ones I really love. It’s kind of exciting, both me picking up reading again and talking about them. Also makes me work on my critical reading skills after I’ve been out of school for such a long time. It feels good.

So, the book I’m going to talk about today is Yellow Bird by Sierra Crane Murdoch. (I’d type out the whole title but man it’s long! Plus it’s in the blog title anyway.) It’s journalistic nonfiction mostly revolving around Lissa Yellow Bird, a Native American woman from Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. I first heard about Lissa from a This American Life episode called “A Mess to be Reckoned With.” It was absolutely fascinating and I picked up the book as soon as I finished listening. The episode doesn’t go into what the book entails – the disappearance of an oil rig worker – but on another case a few years later involving Lissa’s niece, who’d also disappeared. Because Indian reservations have odd jurisdiction rules when it comes to law enforcement, a lot of crimes go un-investigated by either the US police or the reservation police. So Lissa, in this case, is basically the person to go to if you’re looking for someone, dead or alive, when official law enforcement can’t, or won’t, help you.

The book’s main story is about the disappearance of Kristopher Clarke, or KC. What happened, who was involved, how did the case and trial go, etc. But it was also about Lissa. Who she is, what she does, how did she come to be. Murdoch, the writer and a journalist, has been following Lissa (and subsequently KC’s case) extensively for years. She went into extraordinary details about not just the case itself, but everything surrounding it – from the extensive family history of the Yellow Birds to the history of the reservation (and how the United States government, along with a whole long line of unscrupulous white business owners, have completely screwed over the reservation in terms of land, money, oil rights, and all that in between.) It is about so much more than just what happened to KC, and the narrative is richly interwoven with many stories about the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara nation (MHA) as a whole. I have learned so much and feels like I’ve only read a sliver of the injustices and trial and tribulations that faced Native American tribes. It really puts in perspective just how badly everything was, is, from such a microcosm of what from the surface to be a confined case of missing persons.

However, because of the all-encompassing nature and the sheer number of people involved in the story, the narrative can get a bit confusing. The author tries to mitigate it by always adding descriptions along with names. “Lissa talks to so-and-so, the sheriff in charge of the case.” Or “So-and-so, the tribal leader of MHA, goes to Washington DC.” Stuff like that. It helps some, but I still find myself constantly trying to remember what else she had said about so-and-so before, and it can get very distracting. I think the book could benefit with a giant “who’s who” tree, like an index of every single person mentioned with what they do, how they’re related to Lissa or KC or whoever, so that if I don’t remember exactly I can flip to it and quickly find out. But alas, it doesn’t have one, which I think is a miss.

Overall I think the book is very interesting and informative. Lissa is such a strong and imperfect human being and absolutely fascinating to listen to. (Another reason I highly recommend the TAL episode, because you literally do hear her talk and it helps with the narrative voice so much). I was unfamiliar with all the background – never knew the MHA nation existed, didn’t know North Dakota had an oil boom, you know, the most basic stuff, and the book does a great job of both entertain and inform a clueless reader like me. I’ve read some reviews that the book seems a bit meandering and disjointed, which I can see why considering what I said in the previous paragraph. But I personally didn’t mind too much, and find that the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. I was taken through this great journey and came out with newly gained insights. And just like real life, the journey doesn’t wrap up neatly or even ends, for that matter. It continues on and I’m just glad to parse a slice of it as it goes.

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