Saturday, August 18, 2012


Slide Show: Amid the Beauty of Mountains, Oil Rigs
Arrive.  The divisions within the Blackfeet tribe over oil represent
two visions of the land where members have lived for

Related Article

The Case for Natural Gas Exports
America should allow exports of liquefied natural gas but guard against the risks.

The New York Times has discovered the Blackfeet Reservation.  It has only scratched the surface of the oil boom.  During the last boom in the Fifties when Earl Old Person was a young man, the big shots could make some handshakes and envelope drops and consider the door open, but no more.  A lot has changed since then.  

Women in power, women with experience as state legislators, school board members and even previous tribal councils, are a lot harder to impress with slaps on the back.  (“Hey!  Watch it!”)  People are a lot more hip about the roads quietly reinforced over the last decade, partly because there are former military around who have seen such preparations for heavy trucks in other countries.  We’re all more alert about aerial surveillance of our “bean patches.”  Even so tribal members got blind-sided by all the quiet little lease-deals made over the last few years with the help of people who thought they were being important when they were only being bought off.

But the biggest mistake of locals remains their xenophobia: that is, they only see what is local and they are far too inclined to believe gossip.  My shrewd friend has it right:  the local people think this is about resources.  They think they’ve found a pot of gold under their bed and they are terrified that someone will take it away from them.  They do not realize that gold and all other mineral resources are dependent on other people’s wealth for its value.  That is, oil in the ground is worth nothing.  Its extraction depends upon capital investment in the infrastructure to extract it, to transport it and to refine it,   Also, oil’s value depends on the amount and quality of gas, coal, wind and solar power that’s in play, including their subsidies.  Even here, ranchers pay close attention to crops in the Ukraine or livestock in Argentina.  The markets are worldwide.

Only a few and only recently have some of these people begun to pay attention to the downsides, like whether altered grain genomes meant to make it resist pesticides might also be triggering diabetes and cancer in humans, while creating “Roundup Ready” weeds, or that the use of antibiotics to make animals grow faster creates antibiotic resistant microbes.  The rate of topsoil erosion has not been considered.

With gas and oil the darkest underground side is all about water.  Enough water is needed to mix with secret chemicals and inject into the ground to force up the oil.  HUGE amounts.  And then what do you do with the poison water that comes back up?  Towns in Montana and elsewhere are very short of water.  Do you drink it, irrigate with it, or use it for frakking?  No one really knows what’s below the surface, so town wells are targeted sometimes above seams of water polluted by old mining, old oil wells, or contemporary frakking, and sometimes below -- which is much more expensive, especially once the underlying rock has been jumbled.  Which means it will move liquids around.

Here in Valier we get most of our water off the east slope of the Rockies, esp. the watershed of Birch Creek where Swift Dam is the crucial key to the whole Pondera Canal Company irrigation system.  Only recently have the Blackfeet asserted their water rights to Birch Creek, which is the southern boundary of the rez.  That’s a touchy subject and part of a social wall between Valier and the rez that restrains some human tension.  Most of the drilling has been on the rez and some people seem to have the idea that frakking contamination will stay over there, as though it recognized lines on a map.  

There has not been a realization that the Birch Creek watershed is entangled with whatever oil fields are also under the ground and plumes of poison can creep a long ways.  It worries me that a pipeline is underway to bring water from Lake Elwell for several communities, with Valier pressured to sign on “to show solidarity” in spite of Valier having spent a LOT of money on its water lately.   What do they know, those pipeline builders?  

Some of Valier’s water investment was pretty necessary.  The airport was the location of stored ag poisons on a high point that in case of a spill could easily have saturated the town.  Worse, the water hydrant being used for mixing had no backflow valve on it.  If the water had begun to siphon, it would have fed poison water into the Valier school drinking fountains.  Now the chemicals are stored out of town on a ranch.  We have a second watertower because the engineers told us the smaller one was inadequate.  There is still a LOT to be done but we have installed water meters to curb leaks and misuse.

More immediate than the technical issues have been the social impacts.  On the one hand everyone is hoping for a boom that will get their deteriorated or out-of-date houses sold at last -- they seem to be collecting at least down payments.  On the other hand the law enforcement people are braced for an invasion like that on the Montana/Dakota border where a jogging schoolteacher was murdered.  They want to organize a club to teach women to shoot and a neighborhood watch in a town where a hundred grandmas already monitor everything.  The Clint Eastwood wannabes do not sign up to be EMT’s on the ambulance, which are badly needed.  

More street lights are being installed, so there goes my quiet starry walk around the little park in the next block.  The public biffy there was vandalized, but not by roughnecks looking for oilfield work -- just the usual local delinquents.  It was a good excuse.  (“The Russians are coming!  The Russians are coming!”)

Historically, when Swift Dam was being built, things were pretty Wild West around here.  By the time I came to the area, social life had simmered down except for Cut Bank and Shelby where the bar biz boomed.  I remember what it was like.  

We don’t have bars in Valier.  I’m not counting Froggie’s Pizza and Beer or the genteel bar out of town at the high-class Lighthouse Supper Club.  Murderers drift everywhere now, not generally looking for employment.  Murders are most often between intimates/family members.  But among my worries is the likelihood of someone being shot on the street by the hepped-up Neighborhood Watch.  I’d rather count on Grannies.


The post below wouldn't go onto my comments in the conventional way, so I'll put it here.

What the writer is actually saying is that if the tribal members don't have one religion they all share and if that religion doesn't look like the writer's (i.e. a building, a savior, a dogma) then it's not a religion.

I hear from Tony Bynum that he spent a couple of hours with the NYTimes reporters, fed them a meal, showed them locations.  They stiffed him in the story -- not a mention of his map that shows every drilling spot on a map of the rez and marks it with either a still or a video.  If you're interested it's at:

Timothy Williams has been doing a series of sad stories about reservations.  I spent a lot of time on the phone with him trying to explain the Blackfeet but I guess he decided they weren't pitiful enough and went with the Sioux next.

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