This past Monday, Emma Willard School welcomed alumna Sierra Crane Murdoch ‘05 for a virtual Speaker Series event. Sierra is a journalist and essayist whose work concerns, primarily, communities in the American West: “I write about power and powerlessness and I write about the ways in which people resist or reclaim power then they have been denied it.”
Her first book, Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country
, was published by Random House and was named one of the best books of 2020 by The New York Times, NPR, Amazon, and Publisher’s Weekly. The book chronicles a murder on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, tracing the steps of an Arikara woman, Lissa Yellow Bird, as she searches for a young white oil worker who went missing from the reservation.
“Emma is where I found my voice as a writer,” she began, addressing the school community via Zoom. This introduction of her time at Emma as a place where burgeoning writing skills were supported, serves as a theme of the evening: talent and skill are important, but access and privilege are a necessary engine for power.
“I've learned through my work [...] that no matter who you are, where you come from, no matter your political affiliation, we have been conditioned to believe that the harder we work, the more successful we will be. That’s the fundamental American myth. When I look back on my own path to becoming a journalist I can say with certainty that I work very hard, and I would like to believe I have some talent as a writer [...] But would I be here speaking as a journalist if I had not, through access and through coincidence, encountered a few kind people who leveraged their privilege in my favor? I’m not sure that I would. This is something that has become even clearer to me in my work.”
In telling the story of her first book, Sierra recounted the steps that brought her to the physical place she would write about. It started at a pitch meeting where an editor suggested a story about the oil boom in North Dakota, with an angle on the subject no one had yet written about: the Native American tribe located in the center of that oil boom. Immediately interested, Sierra volunteered to write it.
There were other stories, but the reservation at the center of the oil boom is where she kept returning. “And that’s the key,” she says. “I kept going back.”
Though the narrative she was pursuing could have become a more cliche part of the True Crime genre, that isn’t the story Sierra wanted to tell. “The reason I cared about this murder in the first place is because I thought it would be a window into a much bigger story about the way outside interests repeatedly, across history and today, exploit Native American people, land, and resources.”
Her choice to tell that story is underscored by journalistic power. Choices in writing have the potential to influence a reader and how they may feel about an issue or a person. The concern about using that power carelessly seems to be at the forefront of many of Sierra’s thoughts and speech. Getting this story right for Lissa Yellow Bird, her subject, was important because it would tell the story of “a historical layering of trauma within the community.”
Much of the night’s conversation centered on the importance of trust and relationship-building for the kind of investigative journalism Sierra employs. In detailing her relationship with Lissa, she underscored the importance of collaboration and radical transparency with those whose story a journalist is telling.
Following her talk Sierra answered a few questions from students and faculty about the relationship between Sierra and Lissa and how a journalist can instill a feeling of trust in their subjects (her answer focused on the importance of transparency), and what gives her the courage to write.
“Terror, deadlines?” she said with a laugh, before commenting on her love for the writing, reporting, and learning new things about the world. Links: