This year, two people from True Crime novels came to our Cinema Femme pages because of the way their story struck me. Earlier this year, I spoke with Nancy Miller about Michelle McNamara, author of the book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which followed her investigation on finding The Golden State Killer. I was inspired by her drive, and the impact her research and book had on closing the case. Before I knew about her book, I saw the documentary created by Liz Garbus and Elizabeth Wolff.
The other person that caught my interest and my heart is Lissa Yellow Bird from Sierra’s book appropriately titled Yellow Bird. The woman’s drive and complexity and no nonsense attitude brought me deeper into the story. The premise of the book circles around Lissa. In 2009 she is released from prison, and now living in sobriety, as she was a meth addict prior to her arrest. Upon release she sees that her home, the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, has become engulfed by the Bakken Oil Boom. The oil boom has altered the people on the reservation through a newfound wealth and the construction of the land with the surge of the white population coming to work, creating these camps on the reservation. Within this new landscape, Lissa finds a new purpose when she hears that a white oil worker, KC Clarke, has gone missing, and she makes it her quest to find him.
Lissa’s story rippled in me an awareness of what I was not seeing onscreen. Where are the indigenous stories and indigenous female stories? The book inspired me to take a deeper look into the indigenous female filmmaker community who are telling these stories. Read my profile with these filmmakers, and coming soon is my interview with indigenous filmmaker Erica Tremblay.
I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Sierra about Lissa. I learned that Lissa has an extreme empathy for people who are discarded in society. Lissa’s story is complicated, but it also reflects the experiences of many people in her community. Sierra linked up with Lissa because of her unique perspective on the oil boom, along with her statuses as an outsider not living on the reservation and an insider who grew up in the reservation’s community. Simultaneously Sierra reported on the investigation of KC within the politics of the reservation, and the crimes related to the oil boom. She also did a deep dive into the history of the reservation. When I asked her about how she pieced the book together, she responded, “It was an interesting project where it required these very different forms of reporting, kind of wrapped up into one. And it required some kind of compartmentalization in that sense. This is the part where I’m totally in Lissa’s life, this is the part where I’m doing all of this historical and archival research, and this is the part where I’m investigating how this really happened. And I like all of those things.”
We talked mostly about Lissa, as this is what drew me to the book. And it was great to hear from Sierra that there are plans to bring Lissa’s story to the screen. I am so happy that Sierra covered Lissa’s story, otherwise I would have not been as aware of what has been missing on the screen. I’m excited for more people to read this book and eventually see her represented onscreen.
REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to Lissa and this project?
SIERRA CRANE MURDOCH: I met Lissa in 2014. I had already been going to her reservation for about three years reporting on the oil boom. I was drawn to this story about the murder because I had been reporting on crime on the reservation, and I was reporting on the lack of criminal jurisdiction over non-native people who had flooded there to work with the oil boom.
I was reporting this story, but more in a scattered journalistic fashion, and I knew that at some point I wanted to write something bigger. I wasn’t sure yet what I wanted my focus to be, because I had observed this radical transformation of this community for some years, and I knew that transformation was going to continue. When I met Lissa I was first of all immediately taken with her because she is dynamic, and she is brilliant. She’s surprising, you know? She has all of these interesting qualities to her character that you don’t expect to find in one person. I write at the end of the book she is kind of iconoclastic, you cannot fit her in a box.
MARTIN: And I love that.
CRANE MURDOCH: Agreed. And yet at the same time she has lived this life where she has had many experiences that a lot of people, particularly women from her community, have had as well. I found her story to be both representative and non-representive at all at the same time. But mostly I think what initially I saw in my conversations with her in the time I spent with her in the very beginning, as she was trying to find out what happened to this young oil worker KC Clarke, and as I was beginning to follow along with her and her journey, I realized that the way that she saw the oil boom was far more interesting than the way that I could see the oil boom.
I also felt that as a member of the tribe, she also had a particular, interesting perspective on the boom because she was someone who had left the reservation. She lived off the reservation for a lot of her life, then she had gone to prison when the oil boom was beginning. When she got out of prison, the reservation had been leased to oil companies, and the boom had already begun. She was coming home and she was seeing it with fresh eyes. So she had that really interesting position in this story as someone who was both an insider, and an outsider. And that gave her a perspective on this crime and this oil boom that I felt like no one else I met had.
MARTIN: I loved how you used Lissa’s story and relationships as a window into the history of the tribe. I also love how you walk us through the multi-generational stories of the women connected to Lissa’s life, like her Grandmother, Mother, and even her daughter Shauna. Can you talk about that?
CRANE MURDOCH: Four generations, and even five, because I talk about Shauna’s daughter in the book, and you also meet Lissa’s Great Grandmother Nellie, which makes six. That layering of generations was really important to me when I was writing the book. It became just as you implied, it wasn’t something I initially set out to do, but it became important as I was reporting the book for several reasons. I think first from the beginning, I understood this book as a history and a commentary on white violence, a legacy of white violence throughout generations. This boom was a culmination of that legacy in many ways, and one more stop in this long pattern of exploitation of these resources from the reservation. So I was interested in that, and I was interested in that interplay of violence towards the land and violence towards people, and the way that the violence ripples through and across communities and generations.
The theme of inter-generational violence and inter-generational trauma was something that came up a lot in my conversations with Lissa and her family members. I wanted to be very cautious that I wasn’t taking a frame and placing it on their family. But it was something that her family talked about a lot. Lissa’s mother is a social worker and a professor. Her uncle, who helped raise her, is one of the foremost scholars on decolonization theory.
MARTIN: They’re smart!
CRANE MURDOCH: They’re smart and they also have their own frames for their own stories and on their own histories. It was really exciting to talk to them about that and their way to put their own stories in their own contexts. It felt really meaningful, I felt really comfortable integrating their thinking into the book. And then when it comes to the women in Lissa’s family, I write a lot about this tremendous violence that they’ve all experienced. And that felt important to be able to trace the intergenerational trauma, to really understand Lissa and where she’s come from. But then when I thought about the tremendous violence that she experienced, that she had inflicted herself, and what she had survived, I found myself very often thinking why? Why did Lissa survive?
MARTIN: She’s a superhero.
CRANE MURDOCH: It seemed like luck in a lot of ways. At one point her daughter Shauna says, “My mom is like a cat who has nine lives, but her lives do not run out.” I do think there was a lot of luck, but also Lissa is a very tenacious person. She has a lot of resilience herself. I also thought a lot about the idea of intergenerational love. The reason why Lissa survived, to me at least from what I’d gathered from spending all of those years with her and her family, was that she had this family, this network of relatives all around her of all generations that supported her and taught her, and felt sad when she was going off the rails and suffered along with her. They went through a lot of the same things she was going through too, or had gone through them, and were able to kind of understand that from their own perspective. It was that intergenerational love as an antidote to intergenerational shame or trauma that really allowed her to survive.
MARTIN: Can you talk to me about the “why?” You ask this question in the book: why is Lissa so driven to find these lost people that don’t have anything to do with her?
CRANE MURDOCH: That’s the question I open up the book with, right? I don’t know if I want to spoil it for all of your readers. I’m happy to comment on it though. Not to disappoint people, but I realize the answer is both so many things and is also incredibly simple. There are all of these theories that come out through the course of the book. Like Lissa’s daughter Shauna says, “She’s just an addict, she’s trading one addiction for another.” I think and Lissa thinks there is some truth to that. She was trying to fill this time and try to find a distraction for herself that was healthy. Over the course of searching for KC Clarke, she found so many reasons for why she was doing it.
I do write about how she has this unbelievable deep well of empathy, which is really rare. Lissa has this empathy for people who go missing whom no one else looks for. She is an advocate for the kinds of people who are discarded by society. And she is also someone who has felt that she could be discarded by society at points in her life.
There are so many personal and not personal reasons. At one point I ask her and she says, “it just makes me happy. It makes me happy to help all of these people.” So there were all of these simple reasons. I think people will have to read the book to come around to their own conclusion and feel the full force of all of those reasons, and how they are all connected in this really essential way.
An important aspect of that too is that those reasons evolved. She went from searching for KC Clarke to now searching for indigenous women all over the country. Her search for KC became something bigger. And there are all kinds of reasons why she searches for indigenous women with it being a really massive issue in this country, and she feels she has the skills and the drive.
MARTIN: You spent a lot of time with Lissa. Was there anything you learned or gained during your time with her?
CRANE MURDOCH: I don’t even know where to begin with that question [laughing]. Going to this reservation first of all has defined my adult life. I was 22 years old when I started going there writing about the oil boom. The people I’ve gotten to know there have completely influenced the person who I’ve become. And Lissa more than anyone. At this point I probably know Lissa more than any person in my life. I’m incredibly close with my family, but you don’t ask your family the kind of questions I ask Lissa.
MARTIN: She’ll give you a straight answer. [laughing]
CRANE MURDOCH: She has no shame. I think so many things. I think that the time I’ve spent with Lissa has really made clear to me what’s important in the world. I was drawn to her initially because I felt this deep level of empathy from her, and this ability that she has to really connect on an intimate level with almost any person, probably any person. And I found that connectivity to be almost intoxicating to be around, when you’re with someone who is that willing to tell the truth. She’s a very complicated person, but also just unbelievably loving.
MARTIN: She’s a lot of things.
CRANE MURDOCH: At this point in our relationship we still talk, all of the time. It’s not so much a journalist relationship as I’m the person with whom she’s willing to share almost anything. And she also knows quite a bit about my life. I think it’s her deep well of empathy and her ability to feel empathy for literally anyone in the world. That has been the most important lesson for me.
MARTIN: What do you hope readers will see in this book and what do you hope they will take with them?
CRANE MURDOCH: I love that you reached out to me because like you, what really drew me to this story was what you described to me in the very beginning, having a woman protagonist who’s so dynamic and so complex and who could be this hero and this anti hero at the same time. Lissa was so willing to do this with me. I was drawn to Lissa because she had so little shame — she understood how valuable the complexities of her story could be, and she shared those with me knowing people will read it. That’s probably been the most exciting thing about this process, knowing that there are readers who have experiences like she has, and who are reaching out to her. She is constantly getting letters from people in prison, or people from her own tribe are showing up at her door asking her to sign the book. The book really has resonated with people I hoped to reach, and that she would hope it would reach. And that’s really exciting.
More on Lissa!
This American Life “A Mess to Be Reckoned With”
Lissa Yellow Bird searches for missing people. Cold cases, mostly. People no one else is looking for. It’s not her job, but a lot of Native Americans go missing and their cases remain unsolved, so families often ask Lissa for help. But then, Lissa’s own niece goes missing.