Some Things Never Change

The stories of the selling out of the North Dakota Bad Lands to the oil industry by our state’s leaders continue unabated. Almost daily now, there are more and more stories of shoddy management of cultural and natural resources in the name of greed. Readers of The Bismarck Tribune aren’t getting good coverage of the things going on out west. They are being covered by reporters for Forum Communications and The Dickinson Press in particular—much the same as in the coal boom years of the 1970’s. Some enterprising journalism is taking place at The Forum’s papers, but the Tribune runs only capsules of the stories provided by the Associated Press in abbreviated rewrites of The Forum stories. This week, for example, The Forum and Grand Forks Herald carried a Patrick Springer-bylined story about the Hess Corporation wanting to drill wells on a section of state school land which contains significant archeological sites. The section is near the Killdeer Mountains.

The state Historical Society is recommending that the sites not be disturbed by oil wells. Here are three telling paragraphs from Springer’s story:

            The proximity of the stone “scatters” ignited protests from American Indians and nearby ranchers who argue that archeological and historical artifacts and sacred sites will be disturbed by oil drilling.

            Thus, when contacted last summer by state public lands officials about the drilling proposal, state historic preservation officials responded with an advisory that the two archeological sites were “to be avoided.”

            Lynn Helms, the state’s Oil and Gas Division director, said at a hearing last week that he had no doubts the proposed drilling area has no artifacts.

The Historical Society has had neither the time nor the resources to do a complete archeological survey. Earlier archeological work in 1999 and 2007 identified areas on the section with archeological value, but no formal archeological or historical artifact surveys have been completed. Sue Quinnell with the Historical Society says historic preservation officials cannot say whether other artifacts are located there.

            “It’s a concern to have well pads going into that general area,” she said.

            Not a concern to Helms, the state’s official cheerleading team captain for the oil industry, though. He has “no doubts” there are no artifacts there. Sheesh.

Footnote: If the land in question was owned by the federal government, a complete archeological survey would be required before drilling began. But it is state-owned land and there is no such requirement in state law. So far, neither the governor nor any of his appointed officials have announced they will introduce a bill in the next session of the North Dakota Legislature to enact such a requirement.  Even if they do that, (yeah, right) by the time it is enacted, the bones will be over in a pile in a corner of the well pad.

Meanwhile, residents of Dunn County are taking matters into their own hands. Using a little known law, which my lawyer friend David Thompson says hasn’t been used since the 1920’s, they collected enough signatures on a petition to summon a grand jury to investigate bribery charges against Jack Dalrymple. Thompson prepared a report connecting more than $80,000 worth of campaign contributions to approval of an oil industry proposal to drill for oil in Little Missouri State Park, located in Dunn County. You can read’s detailed story and the full report by going here. The report so enraged Dunn County residents that they are now calling for a grand jury investigation. It won’t play out until after next week’s election, which Dalrymple is certain to win. But North Dakota also has a recall law on its books, which, coincidentally, hasn’t been used since the 1920’s. It was used once, though. Successfully. Who knows?

Meanwhile, week after week, the rape of the Bad Lands marches inexorably forward. Legitimate rape. No “morning after” pill will erase the problems facing the land, the people and the animals of the Bad Lands.

I think I’m beginning to understand the feeling of the Plains Indians in the 19th century, as they watched the march of progress across the prairie, a civilization completely foreign to them squeezing out their cultural heritage little by little, until by the 20th century they were relegated to tiny patches of the vast landscape that once was theirs to roam free. At least they fought back, often to the death. We seem to be going down with nothing more than a whimper.

We’ve arrived at almost a hopeless point in the Bad Lands now. We’re waging an effort to save a few small pieces of undeveloped Bad Lands with what is known as the Prairie Legacy Wilderness proposal, but that is now being threatened by the lawsuit filed by the State of North Dakota which, if successful, will destroy the last few remnants of land that remains pristine (you can read about that here).

I read the lawsuit complaint filed against the Forest Service by Wayne Stenehjem and Jack Dalrymple to open up all the remaining “suitable for wilderness” lands in the Bad Lands to oil development this week. In it they cite several examples of where the Forest Service has refused to cooperate with the state in granting access to oil developers. The very first example cited is a refusal to let Whiting Oil Company put a new road across a piece of Forest Service land to get to a state-owned school section where they want to drill a well.  It doesn’t say exactly why the Forest Service doesn’t want a road there, but it is just possible it is because the site is less than half a mile from the boundary of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Do ya suppose, Jack and Wayne, you could just let one go once in a while, when it encroaches on the most important place in North Dakota, our NATIONAL PARK?

I also revisited this week the book Coyote Warrior, Paul VanDevelder’s magnificent telling of the tragic story of the taking of the Missouri River Valley by the United States government from the Three Affiliated Tribes to hold the waters backed up by the Garrison Dam.

VanDevelder writes of tribal life in North Dakota’s Missour River bottoms up through the 1940’s:

            They farmed the rich bottomlands, hunted game and gathered food that grew wild in the hills and along the river. And just as it had been for their ancestors on the Knife and Heart Rivers, the village was still the social hub for the people of the three tribes. Forty generations of their ancestors had lived in villages in this valley. They still owned half a million acres of land straddling the river—land they possessed in perpetuity by virtue of aboriginal title that was formally recognized by the government at the Treaty of Horse Creek in 1851.

But by 1948, members of the Three Affiliated Tribes were being told they must move out of the river valley to make way for the waters of the lake the government was going to create behind massive Garrison Dam. Congress was offering them five million dollars in relocation costs to leave their ancestral homes. A hostile United States Congress put a “take it or leave it” offer on the table. The dam was going to be built. Period. The tribal lands along the Missouri were going to be sacrificed for flood control, irrigation and power generation. Period. VanDevelder writes:

The tribe was face to face with a “prisoner’s dilemma.” (Tribal Chairman George) Gillette felt he had little choice but to argue in favor of accepting the offer. At the very least, he could argue that the contract guaranteed the tribes’ grazing rights, and hunting and fishing rights, in the taking area. It also protected the tribe’s subsurface mineral rights and promised that if the $5 million proved insufficient for “relocation” costs, Congress would cover the overruns. The official signing ceremony was held in Secretary Julius Krug’s office on Washington, D.C., on May 20, 1948. As Krug fixed his signature to the contract, flashbulbs popped at the moment emotion overwhelmed Chairman Gillette. He buried his face in his hands and wept. The picture ran on the front page of newspapers across the country.

            “As everyone knows,” Gillette told the press following the ceremony, “our treaty of 1851, and our tribal constitution, are being torn into shreds by this contract. My heart is very heavy. What will become of our people?”

            I can’t help but wonder what George Gillette would think of what we are doing to what little we have left of North Dakota now. I think he’d be dismayed. But probably not surprised.

5 thoughts on “Some Things Never Change

  1. Jim, you’ll remember I used that photo when the Star Tribune sent me and a photographer to spend a few days with the Mandan as they anticipated the arrival of visitors commemorating the bicentennial of Lewis & Clark. Many people in the newsroom remarked the sad power of that photo.


  2. Thanks Jim. I have visited with many of the elders who were there before the flooding of their land. It breaks your heart to hear them tell of being wrenched away from their homes and livelihood. Well done.


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