Excerpt from Yellow Bird by Sierra Crane Murdoch, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Yellow Bird

Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country

by Sierra Crane Murdoch

Yellow Bird by Sierra Crane Murdoch X
Yellow Bird by Sierra Crane Murdoch
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Feb 2020, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 16, 2021, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Peggy Kurkowski
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1
The Brightest Yellow Bird

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 f***ed up."

It was a joke. As far as she knew, at least two fathers of her children were white, and if anyone had f***ed 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.

Excerpted from Yellow Bird by Sierra Crane Murdoch. Copyright © 2020 by Sierra Crane Murdoch. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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