Standing Rock and the Money Trail

“Are you sure this is it?” Patrick asked me as we pulled into the parking lot.

I pointed to the weathered sign that read Florissant Fossil Beds.

“Where are the bulldozers?” he said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Let’s go inside and ask.”

We were the only car in the parking lot and we were very confused by the lack of activity. The headline in the Sunday Gazette that we had read the previous day had claimed, and the accompanying story supported the assertion, that the Florissant Fossil Beds, one of the most important soft tissue deposits in the world, was about to be bulldozed in order to build vacation houses. Patrick and I, being both fossil enthusiasts and children of the Sixties, had driven up Ute Pass to scout out the situation in order to organize a protest. If necessary, we were prepared to pull off an Arthur Dent. We had chains, locks, and bags of sugar stolen from the restaurant that Patrick’s father managed.

Slightly disappointed that we weren’t going to have the confrontation with the evil developer that we had been steeling ourselves for, we got out of the car and entered the museum. They wouldn’t let us in to talk to anybody unless we paid the entrance fee of one dollar (my hourly take-home wage at the time) which we did. But neither of the two employees could tell us anything about a housing development or the impending destruction of the site. We looked around and were impressed by all of the fossilized plants and insects. The fossilized spiders were particularly cool. We turned down the invitation to spend another $6 to dig for fossils ourselves in a nearby quarry. We took time to marvel at the redwood tree stumps that were fourteen feet in diameter. And then we drove home.

That was my first, though not my last, experience with how the media distorts the news in order to sensationalize it and thereby make more money. A year later, the fossil beds were sold to the government and declared a national park. Patrick and I were both relieved – though it took us years to figure out what happened. The people who owned the land and museum weren’t making much money off of it. By applying for building permits, they scared local officials and the feds into buying most of the land in order to preserve it.

Obviously, I am not angry about this. I wanted it saved. It has turned into a great local resource and many school children have benefited by its existence. The quarry, which is still in private hands, still allows people to pay and dig for fossils. Everybody’s happy. But the trickery by the newspaper still bothered me. It bothered me even more when I went to Vietnam and saw the huge difference between the way stories happened and the way they were reported. The media seems to want a good story or narrative rather than facts.

All of this seems relevant to me when looking at the situation in Standing Rock. First of all, although I don’t really care what happens, I generally support Native Americans in their disputes with the government or with corporate America. Considering their treatment by both entities in the past and present, I figure Native Americans deserve the benefit of the doubt. Simply put, America owes them, in my opinion. But there is more to the story than the oil companies and the government trying to railroad (pun intended) an oil pipeline through an Indian reservation. This not to say that the protesters are not sincere or that their concerns about spills and pollution are not valid. I am sure they are.

But a piece of the story is getting left out. Exhibit A is the money. The oil companies want more and so do the tribal governments. Since I know some people who have worked in the Bakken field, I also know some facts that aren’t getting reported. The reservations in North Dakota have been quick to approve drilling on tribal land and justifiably so. Poverty and social problems are rampant on many reservations. The money the oil companies are pumping into tribal coffers can go a long way toward addressing those issues.

Besides getting jobs on the drill rigs themselves, reservation leaders demanded that only Native Americans drive the water trucks and oil tankers on tribal land. Now, as the oil companies always do, a pipeline is being built to reduce costs such as trucking. These are great paying jobs that the oil companies want to eliminate. I can understand the desire to prevent the building of the pipeline and maintaining the current employment situation. But that is not a story that sells soap. The narrative of the government and the oil companies screwing over the Indians once again gets eyeballs and therefore advertising dollars.

I can’t emphasize enough that I support the tribes involved. If preventing the pipeline benefits them economically and raises the price of oil a few dollars, I’m ok with that. But I’m not okay with ignoring some facts while reporting others. One reason Trump got elected is that facts have become harder to find than a Republican in a science class. Ignoring the data to propel a narrative wins elections and makes money. But it creates poor public policy that hurts everyone except for the rich. The one percent make money no matter what happens to the rest of us.

Considering that pizza joints are getting shot up due to false “facts,” my irritation with the Standing Rock news coverage may seem like minor quibbling. But facts are important in spite of the assertion on CNN by Reince Priebus that they aren’t. What the temperature is and whether it’s raining, snowing, or sunny is one example why. So we need to draw the line somewhere. Why not start with Standing Rock?