For more than 150 years, outsiders have ventured onto tribal lands and helped themselves to fossils and dinosaur bones. Some, like a Tyrannosaurus rex named Sue, have brought fame if not fortune to those who sought to own them. After all these years, the tribes are now reclaiming their rightful property, but as the story of Sue proves, the journey is still not without its bumps.
In 1990, Sue Hendrickson came upon the bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex that were beginning to “weather out” or emerge from hills on the Cheyenne River Reservation. Hendrickson was a volunteer at the Black Hills Institute in Hill City, South Dakota, and Peter Larson, one of the founders of the institute, said he paid Cheyenne River tribal member Maurice Williams $5,000 to collect the dinosaur from William’s trust land.
However, according to Darlene Williams, Maurice’s widow, the $5,000 was a payment for having disturbed the land, not for the dinosaur. “I heard Maurice on the phone, they didn’t say anything about fossils. The $5,000 was not for removing fossils, but for digging on the land.
“When they found that on our property, Maurice told them it was trust land and the government had to be involved, but they took it anyway,” Williams said. “We had a lawyer write to them and they flat out said it was theirs and we had nothing to say about it. They sent us a letter and as much admitted they had taken it. But my husband knew all about trust status, and he kept everything in a file cabinet.” Laughing quietly, she added, “I guess they didn’t know he was that kind of man.”
Things got even trickier after Sue was removed from the ground and brought to Hill City. “The federal government made a raid on the institute saying we violated the Antiquities Act. But we knew a lot about legal stuff, and the Antiquities Act did not apply. The act had been created as part of NAGPRA [Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act] and was meant to protect human remains. But the law is fatally vague,” Larson told Indian Country Today Media Network.
Larson said the judge ruled that fossils are actually part of the ground, which meant the dinosaur was tribal land. “Everybody was trying to get it—Peter Larson, the federal government, but what it came down to is that it was Maurice’s land,” Williams said.
While the U.S. government officials had confiscated the dinosaur, the judge ruled that since the land was in trust for Williams, he actually was the owner. Williams then requested that the dinosaur be sold to the highest bidder, Larson said.
Charges were filed against Larson, who said, “I was sent to jail for a failure to fill out forms and Williams was fined for selling the dinosaur without a business license.” Larson said there was a story about the situation in a 1995 South Dakota Law journal with the headline “Jurassic Farce.”
Sue was ultimately sold to The Field Museum in Chicago for $8.36 million, of which tribal member Williams received $7.6 million. The balance went to the auctioneer’s fee. Larson and the Black Hills Institute received nothing.
While Williams, as an individual, made millions from the dinosaur, it has not been a Cheyenne River tribal policy to dig for them, especially for a profit. Steven Vance, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe said that between the oil, uranium, and the dinosaurs, the ground in Cheyenne River has been heavily disturbed. “In that area you can find bones all over, but when you come upon something like this, all they see is dollar signs.”
Asked about the traditional perspective of digging for the dinosaur bones, Vance said, “Elders say what is in the ground should remain in the ground until it exposes itself. Once it comes out of the earth, it’s ready.”
But Vance added, “We never dug them, if we knew where they were, we left them. When it comes to making money on them, as traditional people we frown on it. We do what we can to oppose it, and we are sitting here wondering how we can do that,” Vance said.
It’s a different story on the Standing Rock Reservation, which abuts the Cheyenne River Reservation. There the tribe is taking matters into their own hands. Allen Shaw, the tribal paleontologist for Standing Rock said, “We go out every summer and collect fossils during a 12-week field season, and we monitor the different areas where fossils are located. We keep our eyes open for illegal operations.
“If people are collecting, we make sure they are on their own land. Anything on private land is privately owned, and they can do what they want,” Shaw said, adding that the checker-boarding of the reservation and private land makes things difficult. “It is time consuming to know where we are, and we use a GPS, and we stay on tribal land.”
The tribe has a collection of fossils, many are stored in a repository at Fort Yates. “We have more than 11,000 fossils,” Shaw said. “We collect 800 to 1,000 a year, from partial dinosaur skeletons and teeth to a variety of fossils,” Shaw said.
In regards to the T-rex, Sue, Shaw said the situation was difficult for everybody involved. “It was a remarkable specimen, and mistakes were made on both sides.” Shaw said if such a dinosaur were found on Standing Rock, “It would a huge highlight.”
Having their own paleontology department gives the power back to the tribes. According to Shaw, the tribe is working towards their own museum, not just for fossils but so the tribe’s story can be told.
Standing Rock tribal member Adrienne Swallow is the paleontology specialist for the department. She said, “There are fossil legends of the first peoples; the Lakota have legends of dinosaurs, like morality tales. We have elders who have the legends of the dinosaurs, which we will able to show” when and if the museum becomes a reality.
Swallow said that paleontology is a new program that has allowed them to handle the fossils their way. The tribe travels to schools and gives dinosaur presentations for science classes. “It is a story that hasn’t been told. There was a college that collected fossils here for 10 years and it took us many years to get those fossils back,” Swallow said.
Lawrence Bradley, who is of Apache/Pueblo descent, but was adopted and raised from an early age by an Oglala family on the Pine Ridge Reservation, is about to publish his book Dinosaurs and Indians: Paleontology Resource Dispossession From Sioux Lands.
The book is a tell-all of the historical and illegal taking of fossils since the 1800s. It is only very recently, within the last decade, that tribes are being consulted about the removal of the dinosaurs from tribal land. While he states that the situation has improved, it is still a problem getting many museums to acknowledge the origin of the bones. Most of the dinosaurs’ skeletons originate from the Great Plains, and when the origin of the bones are not revealed, the scientific study is undermined. Bradley said that Standing Rock is leading the charge, and that once Sue was collected, the tribes wanted to head off groups like the Black Hills Institute.
A documentary, Dinosaur 13, based on Larson’s book about Sue, will debut in South Dakota before it is released in the theaters in late summer. It will play in the Black Hills Film Festival, and will be shown on April 30 at The Elks Theatre in Rapid City and at Hill City High School on May 3.
A review of the film by the Hollywood Reporter acknowledges Peter Larson’s compelling passion, but admits, “We’re told briefly of philosophical disagreements between academic paleontologists and those, like the Black Hills Institute, who dig up fossils to sell to people. The film clearly has picked a side in that debate, but some viewers will feel they’re being urged along that path without a full consideration of whether anybody should be allowed to buy or sell a treasure so incomparably rare.”