Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 1: The Brightest Yellow Bird | Part 1)
LISSA YELLOW BIRD CANNOT EXPLAIN why she went looking for Kristopher Clarke. The first time I asked her 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.” For someone so insatiably curious about the world, she is remarkably uncurious about herself. She is less interested in why she has done something than in the fact of having done it. Once, she asked me in reply if the answer even mattered. People tended to wonder all kinds of things about her: Why did she have five children with five different men? Why had she become an addict and then a drug dealer when she was capable of anything else?
Lissa stands five feet and four inches tall, moonfaced and strong-shouldered, a belly protruding over hard, slender legs. Her teeth are white and perfectly straight. Her hair is lush and dark. She has a long nose, full lips, and brows that arch like crescents above her eyes. When I met Lissa, she was forty-six years old and looked about her age—though, given the manner in which she lives, one might expect her to look older. She has a habit of going days without sleep, of sleeping upright in chairs. She rarely cooks, subsisting largely on avocados, tuna, croissants, mangoes, and candied nuts, and smokes like a fish takes water into its gills. She often loses things, particularly her lighters. One night, I watched as Lissa searched for one, nearly gutting her kitchen, until she gave up, bent over the countertop, and lit her cigarette with the toaster.
She is a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, an assembly of “Three Affiliated Tribes” who once farmed the bottomlands of the Missouri River and now call a patch of upland prairie in western North Dakota their home. The Fort Berthold Indian Reservation is three times the area of Los Angeles. The tribe has more than sixteen thousand members. Like a majority of these members, Lissa has not lived on Fort Berthold in some time, but she keeps in her possession an official document establishing her tribal citizenship:
Arikara Blood Quantum: 23/64
Mandan Blood Quantum: 1/4
Hidatsa Blood Quantum: 3/16
Sioux (Standing Rock) Blood Quantum: 1/8
Total Quantum This Tribe: 51/64
Total Quantum All Tribes: 59/64
“What’s the other 5/64ths?” I once asked.
“I don’t know,” Lissa replied, “but somebody fucked up.”
It was a joke. As far as she knew, at least two fathers of her children were white, and if anyone had fucked up her blood quantum, Lissa thought, it was the United States government. The fractions were controversial and arbitrary, assigned to her great-grandparents in the 1930s by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to determine how many individuals belonged to the tribe and how much federal assistance the tribe thus deserved. One could be a whole Indian, a fraction of an Indian, or no Indian. The idea was that a person’s Indian-ness could be defined solely by race. It was the Bureau’s way of applying order to the mess it had made, though to Lissa the fractions had always seemed superficial. In reality, she believed, there was no clear order to her life. She had worked as a prison guard, bartender, stripper, sex worker, advocate in tribal court, carpenter, bondsman, laundry attendant, and welder. She studied corrections and law enforcement at the University of North Dakota, where she graduated from the criminal justice program, though rather than working for the police, she spent much of her adult life evading them. She was arrested six times, charged twice for possessing meth “with intent to deliver,” and given two concurrent prison sentences—ten and five years—two years of which she served. When Kristopher Clarke went missing in 2012, Lissa was on parole. Her interest in his disappearance may have seemed misplaced were it not for the fact that it made as much sense as every other random interest she had taken in her lifetime.
Lissa was born on June 13, 1968, to Irene* Yellow Bird and Leroy Chase, both members of the MHA Nation. Leroy had joined the Air Force and was not present for her birth, nor was he present for the rest of her life except on a rare phone call. Irene’s mother, Madeleine, was Catholic and, since Irene was twenty-one and unmarried, arranged for a relative to take Lissa. The arrangement lasted seven months before Irene, swayed by the new radicalism of the era, decided she would not be shamed into giving up her daughter and asked for Lissa back.
It was her mother whom Lissa would later blame for the patternlessness of her life—her mother’s ambition, to be exact. After they reunited, Irene dedicated herself to academic pursuits. They left North Dakota for California, where Irene enrolled again in school, then returned to North Dakota, then left for Wisconsin, where Irene pursued another degree before returning, again, to North Dakota, where she served for a while as the only Native American professor in the state. The longest Lissa and her mother remained anywhere was three years, when they lived in Bismarck, a few hours south of the reservation. They moved to the city in 1972, when Lissa was four years old, into an apartment with a single bedroom where Lissa kept a pet fish. One day, the fish died, and Irene flushed it down the toilet. Lissa could not forgive her mother for this. It seemed unfair to her that something living, which she had loved, should end up in the sewer. Her sensitivity exasperated Irene, who supposed her daughter had wanted a full burial, with a procession and drums and star quilts draped over a casket. She supposed her daughter even wanted a priest. Lissa had acquired certain habits in church, such as fashioning bowls out of paper and placing them around the apartment. “Alms for the poor!” she called when anyone came to visit. Sometimes the visitors were her mother’s white, wealthier friends, but often they were family. “Alms for the poor!” she called nonetheless, shaking her bowls piously, until one day her mother had enough and scolded, “Lissa, we are the poor.”
Lissa had always been like this, Irene later told me—a fanatic with a bleeding heart, giving weight to weightless things. I supposed it was a kind way of explaining her daughter’s passionate tendencies, since Shauna, Lissa’s own daughter, explained them to me differently. “My mom is an addict,” Shauna said. She meant this in the broadest sense.
Shauna is the oldest of her mother’s five children, only nineteen years younger than Lissa, a generational closeness that pressed her up against her mother’s faults and made her feel them more acutely than her siblings. When Lissa started smoking crack, Shauna was eight years old. Six years later, Lissa turned to meth. But even in the years before she got high, Lissa, Shauna believed, had been prone to obsession.
Among the first of these obsessions Shauna recalled were plants. When she was in preschool, her mother had discovered an interest in growing things, and after that they kept all kinds of plants—leafy, tropical, sun-starved plants spilling from the windows of their apartment in Grand Forks, where Lissa attended college, as well as trays of vegetable starts Lissa grew from seed, though they never had any space for a garden. After that, her mother’s obsessions came in all forms, sudden and indiscriminate, but each one Lissa had taken on with the faith and focus of a zealot. For a while, it had been music—Lissa taught herself to play piano—before she purchased a camera and became an ardent documentarian.
If these obsessions sounded like hobbies, Shauna insisted they were not. It had never been enough for her mother to take an interest in something. Rather, Lissa was set on being the best at everything she did. The best drug dealer. The most dogged bondswoman. The eventual leader of each organization she joined. After Lissa emerged from prison sober, she still found plenty of things to obsess about and, in fact, it seemed that sobriety intensified her fixations. According to Shauna, the only difference between the things that occupied her mother when she was sober and the things that made her high was that Lissa often abandoned the sober things with the same swiftness and ease with which they came to her. In one of their many moves, they had left the plants behind. This was one thing Shauna expected as a child, that whatever life they were living at one moment would last only so long. Always they had kept moving, from hotels to shelters, from apartments they rented to the houses of friends, and from the papery walls of all the places they lived, her mother had hatched, again and again, changed and yet the same.
And so when Lissa first told Shauna about the oil worker who was missing—and how she planned on finding him—Shauna assumed this obsession would also pass. She thought it would last weeks or months until the young man was found. She did not think it would go on for years. “I don’t know what it was about that boy,” Shauna would say, but Kristopher Clarke was different.
IT WAS BECAUSE of Clarke that I encountered Lissa. I was a journalist reporting on the mystery of his disappearance, which, by the time I met her in 2014, mostly had been solved. On February 22, 2012, Clarke had gone missing from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. He was twenty-nine years old at the time, white, from Washington State. North Dakota was booming with oil development, and Fort Berthold was in the center of the oil fields. Clarke worked for a trucking company based in a remote southern district of the reservation where most of the wells were being drilled. He was a “pusher,” in the lingo of the industry: Among other things, he arranged contracts to haul water to drilling sites, where the water was mixed with chemical additives and shot down holes to “frack” the wells. On the morning he went missing, Clarke was spotted at the trucking company offices. Several people who spoke to him said he was leaving that day to visit his grandfather in Oregon, but no one saw Clarke again. In February 2014, after he had been missing two years, I came across some news about a break in his case: There had been arrests and, soon afterward, a confession. The alleged perpetrators were awaiting trial, but while prosecutors believed Clarke had been murdered, they lacked one thing that would prove their case: They could not find his body.
The story caught my eye because I was familiar with the reservation from which Clarke disappeared. Since 2011, I had been going there myself to report on the oil boom that was transforming the tribal community. One of the ways I had seen the place change was a rise in crime, a new pervasiveness of violence due to an influx of non-Native workers over whom the MHA Nation had no criminal jurisdiction. That was why I took an interest in Clarke: I had some understanding of the legal topography into which he disappeared, and I suspected his case might be a window into the darker realities of the boom.
On the morning of November 4, 2014, I dropped by the tribal newspaper offices, where the editor, a woman I knew, suggested I interview Lissa, who at that moment happened to be out searching for Clarke’s body. The editor arranged for us to meet that night.
The offices were in a clapboard house perched on the west shore of Lake Sakakawea, a reservoir that flooded the center of the reservation in 1954 after the federal government built a dam on the Missouri River. It was dusk when I arrived, a cold wind sweeping off the surface of the lake. I climbed a set of steps, knocked, and the editor answered. She led me past an office furnished with a space heater, a coffee maker, and a crystal lamp into an airy room strewn with proofs and cardboard boxes, where she instructed me to wait. An hour passed. I began to shiver. Then, at last, the door opened, and Lissa entered.
Her face was luminous with cold, her hair flecked with ice. She wore a sweatshirt, long underwear, hiking boots, reading glasses, and a Bluetooth device affixed to her right ear. She did not shake my hand or say hello but spoke as if we had seen each other just that morning. Only when she caught me glancing at her long underwear did it seem to occur to her that we had never met. She explained that she had been searching for Clarke “down at the river” and sunk in a pit of mud.
She had been looking for him since the summer of 2012, when a relative sent her a Facebook message posted by Clarke’s mother. The mother, Jill Williams, was pleading for information regarding the whereabouts of her son. By that time, Clarke, or “KC,” as Jill called him, had been missing for three months. Investigators found his pickup truck parked on a street in Williston, about an hour west of the reservation, but no other clues had turned up. Lissa thought she could help. Since 2008, she had been living five hours east of Fort Berthold, in Fargo, but many of her relatives lived on the reservation, and she often visited them there. Lissa sensed that Jill, who lived with her husband in Washington State and was unfamiliar with Fort Berthold, had no idea where to begin. So she wrote to Jill, offering to ask around about her son.
Lissa had a ready laugh, I noticed, the bearing of a woman who derives entertainment from the absurdities of the world. Her speech was rushed and giddy, her legs kicked beneath her chair, and her hands were in flight, touching pens and cigarettes and the Bluetooth earpiece and darting in her lap. She did not seem nervous. Rather, she seemed so intent on telling the story that she had lost track of her own body. Only in her expressions did she retain full control. She laughed when I became confused, smiled when I looked surprised. Once, when I interrupted her with a question, she stared at me, stone-faced and abruptly still, as if the question were stupid and the answer too obvious to say. I stopped asking questions, and as I listened, it occurred to me that Lissa knew far more about Clarke’s disappearance than the editor had let on. Lissa was not just searching for his body. She had done much more than that. If she had not exactly solved the case, I suspected that she had, at least, influenced its outcome. It seemed possible to me that because of Lissa, everything had come to light.
She must have mistaken my quiet for disbelief, because after we had spoken for more than hour, she said, in a flicker of self-consciousness, “It’s all in my files. I kept everything.” If I wanted, she added, I could visit her in Fargo, and she would give me her documents.
The following spring, I flew to Fargo, as I would many times after that. Lissa would pick me up at the airport, and when we arrived at her apartment, she would brew a pot of coffee no matter the time of night. In the morning, before she left for the welding shop where she worked, she would open her computer so that I could spend the day sifting through files, through emails, text messages, photographs, and audio recordings, which I copied to my laptop. There were hundreds of these files, spanning three years, some thousands of pages long. In the evening, Lissa would fix tuna sandwiches, and we would scroll together through the documents. We did this every day for weeks, often until after midnight. I don’t know why she trusted me, and I don’t think she knows, either. Once, she said, “You just kind of showed up, and then you kept coming back.”
It was over those weeks, and then over years, that I pieced together this story, beginning with a note Lissa composed to Jill Williams on June 2, 2012:
Hi to KC’s mom! I am a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes which headquarters in New Town, North Dakota. My family, which consists of most of the reservation, mostly live on Fort Berthold….That is federal land and there are many hoops to jump in order to get information or get the ball rolling on an investigation….I have many connections there and would like to help you if you need me to….I’m sorry to hear about your boy. I’m a mother too. My prayers are with you.
LISSA’S LIFE AT the time of KC’s disappearance had entered a period of rare stability. It had been four years since her release from the Dakota Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitation Center in New England, North Dakota, where she served two years after she had been caught twice with large quantities of meth. Her first charge carried a mandatory minimum of five years in prison; the second, ten years, since she was arrested near a school. Lissa refused to snitch on her fellow dealers—she would not bargain with prosecutors—so it had come as a surprise to her when she was notified of her early release on account of her good behavior. On April 4, 2008, she was transferred to a halfway house, Centre, Inc., in Fargo, where she spent ten more months in state custody before she was granted parole.
The city of Fargo is on the west bank of the Red River, which flows north along the border of North Dakota and Minnesota and empties into Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. The land around it is vast and treeless, the otherwise fertile remnant of a glacial lake bottom, but the city center is small, cozy, made up of old wooden houses, brick-and-mortar shops, and streets shaded by maples and oaks. Lissa requested placement there to be closer to her sons, who had lived with her uncle since her arrests. She did not want to displace the boys again. After her release from the halfway house on February 10, 2009, she moved into an apartment on Ninth Avenue Circle, on the bottom floor of a three-story building inhabited by families from war-torn countries.
It had not been easy to find a place. From the halfway house, Lissa had called all over the city until at last, a landlord told her that, yes, there were openings, and no, it did not matter that she was a felon, though the credit check cost forty dollars. She sent the money. The landlord never replied. When she called again from the halfway house, the landlord informed her that she was sorry—she could not accept a felon.
Then, one night, as Lissa rode from the halfway house to the church where she attended addiction recovery meetings, her driver offered to call a friend who managed some apartments. The property manager agreed to meet with Lissa, and on a Monday evening, Lissa caught a ride to the west side of the city. She brought a copy of her criminal record. The manager refused to see it. “I already know,” she said, and told Lissa she could have the place. The next day, Lissa waited at her uncle’s house for her youngest son, Micah, to return from school, and together they drove to the apartment. It was small and dark, with three bedrooms, the windows level with the ground so that snow piled against them, and with a sliding glass door that opened from the living room onto a patio. The walls and ceilings were painted white, and the floors, except for in the kitchen, were carpeted. It felt cozy inside, like a fort made of blankets, padded from the noise of the outer world. Lissa and Micah used their clothes for pillows, lying side by side on the floor of the bedroom nearest the kitchen, and fell asleep as lights from out on the cul-de-sac played across the ceiling.
For many nights, they slept like this, curled together on the floor. Lissa called Micah her “baby,” though he was nine years old and had grown in their years apart. He was roughly the height of her shoulders, now, with sleepy eyes and prominent ears and a dark, thick mat of hair. He was the sort of boy older women stopped on the street to admire. On Thursday nights, Lissa brought him to her addiction recovery meetings at the church, where Micah was polite, a keen listener. He liked hearing the stories people told, and when it was his turn to speak, he liked to stand and say, “My name is Micah, and I’ve been sober my whole life.” The program, called The Red Road to Wellbriety, was modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous but emphasized Indigenous ways of cultural healing. Founded in the nineties, the Wellbriety movement held that the twelve steps bandied in recovery programs were circular, that humans healed in cycles, and that one should acknowledge—in the words of movement founders—“the roots of addiction,” the “sociopolitical causes without removing an individual’s need to do the hard work it takes to heal.”
The ideas made sense to Lissa immediately; and when, after only her second gathering, the leader of the group announced he was leaving town, Lissa led the meetings. The other attendees seemed to like when she brought Micah along, and some men even asked Micah to be their “sponsor,” the person they turned to whenever they were having a hard time. Micah did not have a phone, so the men rode their bicycles to the apartment or called Lissa and requested to speak with him. They often asked Micah about their own children: What did they like to do for fun? What gifts would they like for Christmas? One man who had not visited his kids in years worried they did not want to see him. “Give them a call,” Micah advised. “They can’t hate you for making an effort.” On other occasions, the men asked him about women. Micah had no romantic experience of his own, but his answers seemed to satisfy the men. “He’s just so simple,” they told Lissa when they met for meetings. This was a rule of their recovery group—keep things simple.
Of her children, Lissa felt closest to Micah. In 2002, when he was two years old, a train hauling farm fertilizer had derailed in Minot, the city east of the reservation, and released a cloud of anhydrous ammonia gas into the neighborhood where they lived. Micah’s lungs had been severely damaged. He spent his childhood in and out of hospitals, where doctors insisted he would not live past the age of twelve. Lissa supposed their mutual desperation had cinched them to each other, and it was not long after her release from the halfway house that they resumed their positions as mother and son.
It was not as easy with her other children. CJ, seventeen, moved into the apartment soon after Micah did, but Obadiah, ten, took more time. Obie did not want to leave Lissa’s uncle, Dennis, who was the closest he had come to having a father since his own went to prison a year after he was born. “Grandpa,” the boys called Dennis—a term of respect for elder relatives—and, indeed, Dennis had done a good job with them, Lissa thought, taking them to wrestling practice and tending to their religious instruction. Obie had become attached. “I’m going to sleep at Grandpa’s tonight,” he said whenever his mother stopped by Dennis’s in the evenings. Lissa did not argue with him. If Micah was her caregiver, Obie was her “warlord.” He was always lighting fires at the same time he was putting them out. Of all her children, Obie most reminded Lissa of herself.
In March, winter cloaked the city in dim light. Obie moved into the apartment. At six each morning, Lissa left the boys at Dennis’s and went to work at a laundry downtown, where she stuffed hospital sheets into washing machines and fed them into giant pressers. The work was simple. Lissa moved fast and resented anyone who slowed her down. If a machine broke, she fixed it herself, having no patience for the maintenance man who was rarely there when she needed him. He was usually outside, smoking cigarettes with another woman who worked at the laundry. Lissa held particular contempt for the kind of person who never paid attention, and her temper flared. One day, when a wheel fell off a machine and knocked her in the face, and her boss, Bruce, asked what was wrong, she laid into him: “What’s wrong? This fucking machine and your fucking five-star maintenance guy who’s out there sucking ass to get with a married woman.” Bruce often invited Lissa to funk shows in the bars around Fargo, but she declined. After the incident, Bruce took to winking at her, saying, “Well, you know, Lissa. Five-star.”
In the evenings, Lissa furnished the apartment. She added beds, a dining table, and a desk. She bought a computer and, in the living room, hung a clock. One weekend, she drove to Minot, where she had kept her belongings in a storage unit while in prison. The door to the unit had been pushed in, letting in years of rain and snow. She discarded most things except for two couches and several plastic crates containing medical records, police reports, letters, and court transcripts.
She focused on each day as if a routine life—billing accounts, file transfers, doctor appointments, school enrollment—might accumulate into an opaque wall dividing the present from her past. The truth was that her release from prison had come so unexpectedly that at first Lissa believed she had not deserved to get out. She had been prepared to serve her entire sentence and had practiced thinking in geologic terms: “Like, the dinosaurs,” she said. If life was just a fleck on the timeline of the universe, then her sentence was too brief to appear. This had made it easier to shrug off the time she already lost—ten years to addiction, what were ten more? Not until she boarded the prison van to Fargo had her sense of time shrunk again, and not until she saw her sons had it become clear to her how long—two years—she had been away. After she moved into the apartment on Ninth Avenue Circle, she purchased a smartphone on which she shot videos of her sons. In one, the camera panned around a bedroom where Micah and Obie were playing a video game. Lissa told them to look at the camera, but neither listened. The video would seem sad, grasping across a distance, and indeed Lissa would admit that it was not until spring, weeks after Obie and CJ joined her in the apartment, that the familiarity she once had felt with them returned.
One day in late March, a storm blanketed the city in snow, and Lissa came home to find the refrigerator empty. The grocery store was not far, a few blocks south where the city’s outer neighborhoods gave way to warehouses and big-box stores, but Lissa worried her car would not make it. It was a blue Ford hatchback she had bought for $500. One door barely opened, and when it did, it would not shut. The first time Lissa pressed the gas, the engine had belched a cloud of blue smoke. She suspected her sons were embarrassed by the car but did not want to hurt her by saying so. They were cautious around her, watchful, she noticed, as if they might startle her back into addiction. When Lissa said she was going to the store, they put on their jackets and followed her into the storm.
The snow was blowing hard, collecting in icy drifts. Where the cul-de-sac met Ninth Avenue, a plow had left a bank as high as their front bumper. “I don’t know about this,” CJ said, but the car kicked as it crested the bank, the snow giving way beneath them. Then it happened again: At a traffic light, they came across a pickup spinning its wheels, teetering on a higher bank of snow. “I don’t know about this,” CJ repeated, but when the light turned green, the car crept forward, and—as if lifted by an invisible palm—moved effortlessly over the bank.
The car would not last long after the storm, but Lissa and her boys would tell the story for years. “Shit, that was like the little car that could,” they would say. It was one thing they would all remember from the year Lissa got out: the car coughing blue smoke, a door banging open and never-quite-shut, but mother and sons floating on through the white, as feathery and invulnerable as the snow.