May YOU Live in Interesting Times

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.

I wish I could write about this the way Clay Jenkinson has, but there’s no chance of that, so I’m giving you links to his two latest essays, here and here. Please read them.

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:

Pipelines Leak.

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.

11 thoughts on “May YOU Live in Interesting Times

  1. We share your thoughts about the pipe line and the great Native American tribes. We hope they stand their ground.


  2. I like the idea of having the pipeline cross the river North of Bismark. Maybe they could use heavier, thicker pipe too where it crosses the river to reduce the chances of it bursting.


  3. It’s interesting to me to think about how we rationalize to justify our own philosophical instincts. Here is my “rationalized” reaction to this post.
    1. I have some sympathy for the native American protesters.
    2. Most of the other protesters are Native American sympathizers and (reportedly) mostly environmentalists who want not just to stop a pipeline, but to STOP all fossil fuel production. Non-violent? Thankfully, mostly true. But if it was the police who laid down in front of your water bearing van or strapped themselves to your vehicle I suspect you and Darrel would also be outraged.
    3. Most of those you demonize have had nothing to do with the siting — the governor’s choices to prevent violence, the police (who have brought dogs to protect themselves, not to attack others), And Dakota Access itself, which tried first to route the crossing where you prefer. The Corps of Engineers which made the change, is able to stay aloof.
    4. The Reservation water supply beginning this fall will originate near Mobridge, 50 miles from the crossing point.
    5. Newspapers have profited greatly from pipeline construction. The siting process includes extensive public hearings including printing maps in every county where the proposed line is supposed to cross. I haven’t verified the claim that not one reservation leader testified at the public hearings.
    6. There are enough pipelines in western North Dakota to circle the world three times. Many are fresh water. My home town is supplied by a line more than 100 miles long. Almost all of the accidental spills have been in smaller gathering lines, sad as they are. The State Health Department requires extensive remediation which work pretty well for oil. The salt water spills are the greatest concern.
    7. Pipelines inevitably have to cross rivers.
    8. Finally, when the line is complete it will have disturbed precious little sacred land, all of which will be repaired and mostly not even visible.


    1. I understand your points, Senator, but you have to admit that even if Jack isn’t isn’t a weenie, it was a weenie move to close the highway. Ridiculous, and dangerous move, causing economic harm and threatening public safety for those in Sioux County who need medical care in Bismarck.


  4. Happy birthday, Jim! Long may you run. Any birthday is an important marker, not just the ones ending in 0.
    1. After years of hard work, research and persistence, you, Darrell Dorgan and Clay Jenkinson have become the experts on North Dakota history. Thank you! You function as the institutional memory of the state, as gatekeepers to specific types of knowledge, the big picture. I know that takes a lot of time.
    2 .Pipelines and oil refineries are the standard for oil production. The 42-inch Northern Border Pipeline was built in 1981-82. The planned Dakota Access Pipeline is only 30 inches. That leads to a number of questions about depth of planning, financial resources, company brainpower abilities, government oversight.
    3. What is happening with the planned oil refinery in Billings County, a stone’s throw from the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt Nat’l Park? That is an example of a company I have never even heard of threatening a national treasure.Again, many questions about depth of planning, depth of the company’s experience, financial resources of the company, which is separate from Dakota Access Pipeline. Have there been any protests yet in that area?
    4. Jim, you discussed the Plains Indian logo on the ND Highway Patrol vehicles. The ND Highway system also features a silhouette logo of an Indian in a headdress. I see these symbols as damaging the image of my beautiful home state, hurtful to ND tourism. dehumanizing and disrespectful. I hope the people of North Dakota will soon be ready to let go of these stereotypes.
    5.I hope the new governor is a leader in the area of racial equity. I hope the new governor creates a truth, justice and reconciliation group with representatives from reservations and other major stakeholders in ND. Canada and South Africa are far ahead of the United States in this respect.
    6. Thank God these protests are happening during the most important time in our 4-year political cycle. Perhaps that will spur some action.


  5. Jim, Check out this Documentary National Geographic – First Contact Lost Tribes of the Amazon – Documentary 2016

    Meet retired FUNAI Ranger/Anthropologist Carlos Meirelles from Brazil. He’s about your age & looks like you. Carlos chats with an isolated Indian chief named Sheena. Video is 46 minutes.


  6. I recall being briefed on the Northern Border pipeline route and literally overseeing its route by helicopter in 1981. Potential damage from crude oil would be much more significant than from natural gas so common sense would suggest returning to the shorter and more managable original route north of Bismarck-Mandan and making the river crossing technologically “fail safe”.


    1. Thank you for your clarification and for adding to the state’s institutional memory. Comments by two former governors here on Jim’s bday blog! This is what make North Dakota such an accessible, people-friendly state.


  7. A good read for North Dakota Folks. Different project but same problem.

    Massive Hydroelectric Dam Stopped in Brazil Due to Human Rights Infringement. $18 billion dollar project (3rd largest dam in world) Belo Monte Dam halted.

    Three-hundred indigenous people, small farmers, fisherfolk and local residents occupied the Belo Monte Dam project, removing a strip of earth to restore the Xingu’s natural flow and “freeing the river.” Participants gathered in formation spelling out the words “Pare Belo Monte,” meaning “Stop Belo Monte,” to send a powerful message about the devastating impacts of the dam prior to the UN Rio+20 Summit. They are demanding the cancellation of the $18 billion Belo Monte dam project.

    A high-level court suspended construction on Aug. 14, 2016 of the controversial Belo Monte dam project on the Amazon’s Xingu River in Brazil, citing overwhelming evidence that indigenous people had not been properly consulted prior to government approval of the project.

    The ruling means that Brazilian Congress will have to correct its previous error by organizing consultations on the project’s impacts with affected indigenous peoples of the Xingu River, especially the Juruna, Arara and Xikrin tribes.

    Project consortium Norte Energia, S.A, led by the parastatal energy company Eletrobras, faces a daily fine of R$500,000, or about U.S.$250,000, if it does not comply with the suspension. The dam consortium is expected to appeal the decision in the Brazilian Supreme Court.


  8. For further enlightenment on the history of the relationship between the Corps and Sioux, read “Damned Indians” The Pick Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux 1940-1980″ by Michael Lawson. He did write a revision and I suppose with these goings on will have another chapter or two to add.


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