Photo credit: Terry Sylvester
In the preface to her book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
, Anne Fadiman writes, "I have always felt that the action most worth watching is not at the center of things but where edges meet." She is drawn to “frictions and incongruities....Often, if you stand at the point of tangency, you can see both sides better than if you were in the middle of either one."
I read these lines for the first time four years ago, as I was beginning to write my own book, Yellow Bird
, and it occurred to me that I, too, had been standing at a point of tangency. Since 2011, I’d reported on the oil boom in North Dakota and, in particular, on the transformation of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation, which had found itself in the midst of this boom. The point of tangency was the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, where thousands of non-Native men and women had arrived to find work. I was writing about what came of this meeting, this collision of culture and desire. I was writing about “frictions” and “incongruities.” I was hoping that, by positioning myself in the middle of it all, I could see both communities — the oil workers driven there by economic recession, the tribal members burdened or relieved by sudden wealth — more clearly.
It was not the first time that the reservation had become a point of tangency. To think otherwise is a common mistake. One thing I’ve learned in the years I’ve spent reporting in Indian Country is that quite a few non-Indigenous Americans imagine reservations as something akin to isolation chambers, walled off from the rest of the world. “Why don’t they assimilate already,” is the baffling refrain I hear, as if it had been Native peoples’ choice to be confined to reservations, and as if a majority of tribal citizens don’t already live in cities.
In truth, the borders of reservations have been crossed since the days, roughly 150 years ago, that the US Congress drew them. They were crossed, first, by tribal families fleeing the reservations in protest of their confinement and then by US soldiers forcing these families to return. They were crossed by cattle drivers who, without permission from tribes, allowed their herds to trample pastures, and by trappers and traders who poached wildlife for fur. They were crossed by railroad companies who shrunk the circumferences of reservations, and by white homesteaders to whom the US government auctioned Indian land. (Today, on many reservations in the Great Plains, roughly a third of the land is still owned privately by non-Native people.) They were crossed by federal agents who separated children from parents and shipped these children to boarding schools. Later, borders were crossed voluntarily — by thousands of Native men and women who fought for the US in wars abroad, and by many more who, under the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, left their reservations to find work, attend school, and start families.
When we want what others have, we can surprise ourselves with our violence.
If you stand long enough at a point of tangency and tally up these borders crossed, it becomes harder to distinguish present crossings from this sum of history. You see, for example, that reservations are not just some godforsaken ground that white people didn’t want, but in fact they have always contained land of practical and spiritual value to tribes and their citizens. You see also that tribes are still engaged in a struggle to control their land — that the land has long been coveted by outside interests and continues to be coveted. On Fort Berthold, I observed this covetousness among the oil companies who leased land from owners at rates below market value and then “flipped” these leases for large profits, as well as in the men and women who saw in the reservation some kind of economic redemption. “Opportunities like that don’t just come,” said one oil worker caught up in the crime around which my book, Yellow Bird
, revolves. “Let’s say I didn’t have the oil field. What would I do? Sell cars? North Dakota is the only place in our country right now where somebody like me can go and make big money.”
In Fadiman’s preface, she does not dwell long on points of tangency. “That was all theory,” she writes. After she had spent some time reporting her book, which is about cultural misunderstandings between a Hmong family whose daughter has epilepsy and the daughter’s American doctors, Fadiman notes that she “stopped parsing the situation in such linear terms, which meant that without intending to, I had started to think a little less like an American and a little more like a Hmong.”
While I found the point of tangency to be a helpful theory, I also found that it did not serve me entirely. As a white journalist who writes regularly about Indigenous communities, I am wary of a related theory — that is, the theory of objectivity — which suggests that if I stand in some neutral position, observing from a calculated distance, my story will be more discerning than one told by a person plunged in the depths of it all. I don’t trust this theory; I don’t believe I’ve ever trusted it; and it was after I met the protagonist of my book, Lissa Yellow Bird, that I came to distrust it even more. By virtue of being from the community bearing the impacts of the oil boom, could Lissa not see the transformation as clearly as I could? I didn’t think so. In fact, the more time I spent with Lissa, the more I suspected she saw the boom more clearly than I ever would.
The reason for this, I believe, is her deep historical knowledge of the reservation, of her tribe, and of the long history of colonization that preceded the boom. If I am allowed to make a generalization: The greatest difference I’ve observed between people who live or have lived on reservations and people who have not is that the former tend to have a more complete understanding of the legacy of European American oppression of Native American people. Lissa’s family, the Yellow Birds, are no exception; her mother, uncles, aunts, and grandparents imparted on Lissa this knowledge when she was a child. And so, when the boom arrived on Fort Berthold in 2009, Lissa saw it not as an anomaly but as the repetition of a long, historical pattern — another crossing of reservation borders.
There is a second reason why Lissa was already an ideal narrator of her own story: She, too, had been drawn to a point of tangency. Yellow Bird
begins in 2009, when Lissa is released from prison and returns home to Fort Berthold, finding it already changed by the boom. Not long after her return, she hears about the disappearance of a young white oil worker from the reservation and sets out looking for him. She does not just stand at the point of tangency; rather, she moves along it, navigating the thin and porous line that barely separates her tribal community from that of the oil workers. The crime Lissa uncovers does not surprise her. In understanding her tribe’s history, she already knows what I have had to learn by standing at a point of tangency: That when we want what others have, we can surprise ourselves with our violence.
÷ ÷ ÷
Sierra Crane Murdoch
is the author of Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country
. A journalist based in the American West, she has written for Harper’s
, newyorker.com, The Atlantic
, and High Country News
. She has held fellowships from the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and MacDowell.