Today I am 69. It is a meaningless birthday, in a world and time when numbers that don’t end in 0 or 5 are of little consequence. But, it is significant in that I am still here. Males in my family don’t generally live this long. I kind of wish I had planned a little better.
But, I am grateful to still be here, because the world seems to get more and more interesting each day, and I’d hate to think I was missing it. On birthdays past, I reflected on the state of the world. Each time, I thought that the most interesting times of my life were probably behind me. The 60s. Landing on the moon. Vietnam. The U. S. Navy. Nixon. The Environmental Movement. Rock and Roll. Nelson Mandela. Tiger Woods. A few wives. Canoe trips.
If someone in China really did say “May you live in interesting times,” they were surely talking to me.
Looking back, I can see that my most satisfying realization is that I’ve been blessed with good friends, including six who are my siblings, but more importantly, my best friends. They and the friends who are not my siblings have tolerated my shortcomings, for the most part, because they know that at any given time I’m likely to inadvertently do something highly entertaining, and they don’t want to miss that.
But these times, right now, today, right here, may top the list of Interesting Times in my life.
A couple of weeks ago my friend Darrell Dorgan called me on a Friday afternoon and said “There’s a bunch of Indians setting up camp to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline down at Standing Rock, and it’s hot outside. Let’s take them some water.”
We did. Thanks to Darrell’s generosity, we were on hand for a firsthand look at the very first day of a demonstration that has grown into the largest gathering of Indian Nations maybe ever, and what my friend Clay Jenkinson, who knows much about the history of the Great Plains, calls “the beginning of a continent-wide pan-Indian movement.” Wow. Now THAT’S interesting. I wrote a couple of stories about the beginnings of the demonstrations, which you can probably read by scrolling down a bit on this blog when you’re done reading this.
But I do want to share with you a couple of my own thoughts about this most interesting event. My initial thought, which Darrell and I discussed the day of our visit, was that they ought not to put this pipeline across the Missouri River (actually, Lake Oahe) there. Couldn’t there be, we wondered aloud, a better place, or at least an alternative to running it under the river?
Well, Darrell’s run off now to spend a couple months working on the presidential campaign. He invited me to come along to Florida with him, but I declined, saying I don’t have that many more hunting seasons left in me, to which he responded “Yeah, I don’t have that many presidential campaigns left in me either, but this one is pretty important.” You go, Darrell. You rock. Bring home the bacon. So he’s going to miss the outcome of this extraordinary event, for which we were in at the beginning. But it’s a nationwide, worldwide story now, so he’ll be keeping up with it in whatever morning paper he buys this fall.
There really are reporters and commentators, now, from every imaginable media, on top of this story. I’ve even written a story about it for the coming issue of the magazine I write for, Dakota Country, which is read by hunters and anglers in both Dakotas, and those from outside who like to come here. From a sportsmen’s (I use that term generically) perspective, this is an important issue, I pointed out in my article for one big reason:
I said in my article that since the Bakken Boom began in 2009, there have been 9,844 “environmental incidents” reported to the North Dakota Health Department, most of them either oil, or salt water, or both, leaking from pipes. Some years as many as 6 a day. People who fish the Missouri River system ought to be concerned, and ought to be thanking the people standing up to the pipeline builders.
Don’t misunderstand. I think we need this pipeline. Trains crash. Trucks congest and tear up our highways. We’re going to pump oil in North Dakota for the foreseeable future, and we have to move it to refineries, and I think pipelines offer the best solution.
But Pipelines Leak.
So we have to figure out the best possible technology, we need to make them as absolutely fail-safe as possible, and we must put them where, for sure, they don’t disrupt sacred Native American sites. That’s half of Standing Rock’s argument, and the in-your-face game the Dakota Access people played last Saturday, hauling in some big machinery on a weekend and ripping up the ground where identified burial and ceremonial sites were located, out of pure spite, is unacceptable.
That action alone disqualifies them from continuing their project at that location, in my opinion.
Sunday morning, I was listening to my friends Clay Jenkinson and David Swenson discuss this project and the protest on their regular weekly Thomas Jefferson Hour radio show. These are two people worth paying attention to. Clay is one of the premier historians of the Great Plains. David knows as much about native culture here as any non-Indian in the upper Midwest. At the end of the show, Clay asked David “What’s the answer? What needs to happen?”
David replied, “Use the best technology possible to make it as safe as possible to cross the river, and then move the pipeline north of Bismarck.”
They’re right. One of the first proposals for this pipeline was to cross the river north of Bismarck. The Corps of Engineers rejected that idea, out of concern for Bismarck-Mandan’s drinking water. Hypocritically they moved it 50 miles south, where it only threatened the water of a reservation.
I’m with David and Clay. From a technical standpoint, it makes much more sense—the river where the pipeline is proposed now is a mile wide. North of Bismarck it’s just a couple hundred yards wide in some places. That drastically reduces the length of the pipe and the accompanying risk of a leak. Further, it would be a dramatic show of good faith, repairing some very badly damaged relationships with our Native American brothers and sisters, to put the pipeline north of Bismarck. And if the non-Indian population of this area finds that objectionable, then find another place. But not where it is proposed today.
The Corps of Engineers. Sheesh, what a huge disappointment they are in this whole deal. They approved the project, giving short shrift to objections from three fellow federal agencies who said “No! They haven’t done their homework!” People tend to forget it is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, making this the most important standoff between the United States Army and the Indian Nations since 1876. You know what happened that year. (There’s some irony that the law enforcement officers, at the beginning of this situation, set up their command post at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, home of the 7th Cavalry.) The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers ultimately has the final say as to where this pipeline goes, if it needs to cross our nation’s waterways. If the courts don’t intervene here this week, I hope the Commander-In-Chief does.
Finally, there’s the incredible over-reaction and defenseless response by local officials, including local law enforcement and North Dakota’s weenie governor. Their first action, still in place today, was to block the road south of Mandan, hoping to create ill will between recreationists and Indians, swaying public opinion against the Tribes. I don’t think that worked. Neither the governor nor the cops knew much about fishermen and gamblers. Fishermen will just shake their heads and find another place to go fishing. Besides, the bite isn’t that good on Lake Oahe right now anyway. And gamblers won’t be deterred—they’ll just find another way to get to the casino and their beloved slot machines. Both groups exposed the stunt for what it was—a cheap shot by law enforcement and the governor.
What it has done is create hardships for people who live on the reservation. It’s going to be especially trying with the United Tribes Pow Wow coming up this weekend. A gesture of good faith by the governor and the cops is called for here. Lift the roadblock. What’s happening here is way bigger than a phony cry for “public safety.” It’s foolish, and it makes our state look cheap and petty in the face of a very big picture being watched by people around the world.
And that’s what I’m thinking about on my 69th birthday. Interesting Times. I’m so happy to be here to observe them, even to participate in them just a little bit. Next year, my six siblings are planning a family reunion over Labor Day weekend in honor of my 70th birthday. Our family gatherings always prove to be Interesting Times, so I hope I’m here for that one, too. They say they’re going to have it whether I am or not. I think I’ll stick around. For now, I’m going to take the dog for a nice long run on a cool day. And then eat some of Lillian’s lasagna.
One more thing: There’s a lady blogger down in Louisiana who has really boiled this story down to its essence, and provided some great advice, and you can read her short essay here.