Lissa Yellowbird-Chase, former tribal attorney for the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Hidatsa-Mandan-Arikara Nation, has seen her share of courtrooms, but January 27, she took an unpaid leave and flew 1,200 miles to sit for two weeks in a Washington state courtroom in a murder-for-hire trial.
She never knew either of the two murdered men, but she has spent weeks literally digging up dirt in the North Dakota Badlands, searching for one of them. His disappearance near her hometown of Mandaree on the Fort Berthold Reservation in 2012 inspired her to create a volunteer group willing to become the voice for missing and lost people.
“Four years ago, a young man named KC Clarke went missing near my hometown in the oil fields of North Dakota. Even though I never met KC during his life, the story of his disappearance touched me. I began to search for him, to ask questions, to make connections and to demand action from law enforcement. Now, four years later, his [alleged] murderer will stand trial in Richland, Washington, and I want to attend this bittersweet event.”
Yellowbird-Chase made this announcement as part of her Go Fund Me campaign to cover travel and lodging expenses to the trial. Her pay as a welder in Fargo does not stretch far enough for such a trip, nor, really, to cover the passionate sleuthing work that occupies much of her free time these days. The Sahnish Scouts of North Dakota, the non-profit group she founded and named with the Arikara word for “people,” gains support and Facebook followers each day, spreading word about Native and non-Native people who have gone missing and Yellowbird-Chase has expanded her focus from the Bakken Oil Fields to the Midwestern region and beyond.
“I think every reservation should have this, every city should,” Yellowbird-Chase said of the Sahnish Scouts in an interview with ICTMN. “We need to start something like this so we can do this on our own.”
She didn’t start out to create a group dedicated to finding missing people, but she did understand the situation in the then burgeoning oil fields when a woman posted about her missing son on Facebook. Kristopher “KC” Clarke worked for the Blackstone trucking firm that sprang up with the oil fields. He disappeared February 22, 2012.
As word of Clarke’s disappearance spread, people brought it to Yellowbird-Chase’s attention, asking if she might be able to help. She had been a district attorney for the tribe, but her own life had taken some hard turns. A train derailment in 2002 by Minot, North Dakota, at the edge of the Bakken fields released a cloud of anhydrous ammonia gas that landed two of her children in the hospital and herself in a crisis that culminated with alcohol and drug abuse, then dealing, then prison time.
When people started asking her about the Clarke case, she was working as a welder in Fargo. Having been trained in law, though, she understood the challenges Clarke’s mother, Jill Williams, faced in trying first to find her son and then find justice for him.
“This was a non-Native. He went missing on Native lands, and the kid has fallen through the cracks,” Yellowbird-Chase said. At first, she was confident she might be able to help. “I used to be a tribal attorney and have always advocated for anyone I can … with a couple of phone calls we’ll find out where this kid is. That’s what started it.”
For the four years since then, she has traveled weekends from the eastern side of North Dakota west to spend hundreds of hours in the Badlands, tracking down and digging up suspected locations of Clarke’s body, which has yet to be found.
Breaks have come in the case, though not necessarily as a direct result of the Scouts’ work. Standing trial is Clarke’s boss, James Henrikson, who, angry that Clarke was planning to start his own trucking company, allegedly hired Timothy Suckow to beat Clarke to death in a truck shop leased to Henrikson’s company by former Three Affiliated Tribes chairman Tex Hall. Henrikson is also charged with hiring Suckow to murder a business rival Douglas Carlile in Washington State. Suckow has pleaded guilty to Carlile’s murder and admitted to involvement with Clarke’s death. He is scheduled to testify for the prosecution in the current trial, as will Hall. Jury selection was underway the end of January, and Yellowbird-Chase believes upcoming testimony may give her clues for where to find Clarke’s still missing body. “I want to see if there’s any elaboration where KC could be located,” she told the Bismarck Tribune.
In the intervening years since she learned of Clarke, Yellowbird-Chase and a growing number of people in Sahnish Scouts have done searches, made calls or posted announcements about missing people around Indian country. “After one person heard about what we were doing, people started asking, ‘Will you help?’”
She has been interviewed by the New York Times and the Scouts were joined by an Al Jazeera Americareporting crew on a search for evidence or the remains of Clarke. In December, she organized 100 volunteers on a search for Rose Downwind, a young Ojibwe woman and mother of five whose ex-boyfriend has been charged in her murder. While the search did not find Downwind, it was helpful for the community, said Bemidji, Minnesota, Police Chief Mike Mastin. “It was very heartwarming to see the amount of people, on a moment’s notice, would show up and do a search like this. … There was definitely a desire by the family and friends, by the community, to perform a search of this nature.”
The Scouts’ Facebook page also helps to keep people who have been missing for some time in the public eye. In December, it re-posted information about Sheila St. Clair, an Ojibwe woman missing from Duluth since September 1 and information on a $1,000 reward being offered by the Duluth Police. St. Clair may have been traveling to Red Cliff in Wisconsin or White Earth in Minnesota. The road between Duluth and White Earth, Yellowbird-Chase said, has a particularly bad reputation. Many others have disappeared along there, including Melissa Dawn Eagleshield, another of the missing listed on the Sahnish Scouts site.
Sometimes searching for one person leads the Scouts to other contacts, Yellowbird-Chase said. “There’s a lot that happens when we are searching.”
Once in the oil fields searching for KC, they came across a woman in need of help. “We stumbled onto a female that was involved in human trafficking and managed to get her out of the man camp into the car.”
Yellowbird-Chase said the Scouts have worked directly on a dozen or so cases – “I don’t really keep track” – but she knows there are so many more needing attention, especially for those already “lost” to family and society, those caught in addiction or human trafficking. “When you’re an addict, you’re under the radar. How would we even know these people are missing? They’re under the grid.”
Most cases involve “recovery” over “rescue,” she said. When cases do come to the Scouts’ attention, though, at least they can spread the word and speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. “Our voice can get pretty loud when it needs to. … We’ve promoted a lot of social media campaigns that have brought people home successfully. … We are getting a bigger and bigger following every day.”
Amid the despair of seeing the volume of missing and lost people, Yellowbird-Chase also has been heartened by those willing to help, like the 100 volunteers to search for Downwind and the elderly lady in Williston, North Dakota, who once handed her a donation. At first, Yellowbird-Chase said, she declined the money and then the woman insisted, saying, “We know what you’re doing; we know it’s a lot. … This I’m willing to do for you.” The memory prompted a chuckle from Yellowbird-Chase and acknowledgment that “I’d just gotten the Indian way thrown at me by a non-Indian lady!”
There has been other support, such as the current Go Fund Me request to cover expenses to the trial, about halfway to its $3,000 goal.
Even if it takes all of her time and much of her income, Yellowbird-Chase believes that the Scouts can help and that the work is important.
“These families, to see what they go through is heart wrenching. … It makes you wonder how many other KC Clarkes are out there.”