Sue and “Dinosaur 13”

“It was a brilliant story, if you didn’t have to live it like the Larsons did.”  This is my favorite line from the the opening of Dinosaur 13.  Directed by Todd Miller, Dinosaur 13 (13) won the 2015 Science and Technology Programming Emmy and was nominated for the Sundance Grand Jury Prize.  I love the film and I hate that I have to admit it is biased (for a review which acknowledges the bias and praises the film).


I graduated from Custer High School in 1994.  The Black Hills Institute of Geological Research is in the town of Hill City on Highway 16, just up the road from Custer.  I’ve driven past the institute a hundred times.  I don’t remember everything about Sue’s story but I remember the buzz about Sue.  I also remembering thinking it was a bit surreal; the most complete and well preserved Tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered might be housed near my hometown.

In August of 1990 the Larson brothers and a few other paleontologists, included Susan Hendrickson, were digging in the Ruth Mason Quarry near Faith, South Dakota.  A tradition in the paleontology community is to name specimens after the people who discover them and so the T rex was named Sue, after Susan.  Listening to the scientists in the film talk about the study of paleontology, you might think the whole film was going to be filmed out in the field, but then we learn that the team purchased the fossils from landowner Maurice Williams for $5000 and a handshake.

Badlands        DinosaurBadlands

The fossils were taken to the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, SD, started in 1979 by Pete and Neal Larson and friend Bob Farrar, all graduates of South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.  For several of my high school years, parts of Sue were on display at the Institute and many people took tours to see the fossils.  In May of 1992 the team separated Sue’s skull from other fossils.  They were on top of the world.  “Less than a week after that,” Neal says, “all hell broke loose.”  FBI agents came with a warrant to take Sue to a container building at the School of Mines.


From there the film follows Sue’s story through the grand jury investigation, protests in Hilly City, the 1995 trial and sentencing in Rapid City, a Utah prison, Sotheby’s in New York City, and then to Sue’s final resting place.

When you grow up in South Dakota, particularly in the Black Hills, you learn that the government is a large land owner: National Parks, National Monuments, National Memorials, State Parks, designated wilderness, Forest Service, BLM and Reservations.  All of those categories carry with them different rules.  There is also private property and, depending on minerals, water, livestock, or wildlife, it might have its own rules.

Two conflicts shape the story of Sue and the film.  One is about property. In 1969, Maurice Williams, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, had placed the parcel of land where Sue was discovered in “trust” with the US Department of Interior.  While tax exempt, Williams was required to obtain permission from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to sell anything from the land. The judge decided that a “fossil had become mineralized, become land, and an individual Indian can’t sell land without permission from the Federal Government.” Crazy, right?

When I watched the film the first time, Trinity Lutheran was trying to sort out property issues with the county, all brought about when we purchased Trinity New Hope (affordable housing) from Mercy Housing.  We learned a great deal about Idaho’s codes as well as guidelines in Canyon County.  I got actual headaches trying to understand the laws.  So there were moments while watching Dinosaur 13 when I almost fell off the sofa laughing.  The frustration struck a little too close to home for me.

The second conflict is about removing fossils.  No matter whose land they are found on, what are the who, what, where, how rules about removing the fossils?  Dinosaur 13 mentions the conflict between academic and commercial paleontologists, but does not explore it.  The film shows that the trials and rulings about the Black Hills Institute provided the government with a mechanism to sort this out.  And this is where the film shows a definite bias, painting the Larsons as the clear victims.  In his defense, director Todd Miller did reach out to people who never returned his phone calls.

The story for me does not end in the Black Hills.  I began coursework in the ministry program at the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1999.  In the spring of 2000 there was excitement about the Dead Sea Scrolls coming to the The Field Museum, their first stop in the United States.  Another Divinity School student covered the story for WBEZ and the church I was attending organized a trip to see the Scrolls.  I signed up and read up on the Scrolls but when we got to the museum I was transfixed.  There was Sue, purchased by the Museum at auction and who had been on display for only a few weeks!  No one understand my enthusiasm about a dinosaur when the Scrolls were a visiting exhibit.  But this amazing specimen from my home state was on display at a world renown museum.  At that time I didn’t know much about her journey from the plains of my home state to the shores of Lake Michigan.  I was sad that she was not in Hill City but the Field Museum seemed like a fabulous second choice.

What does any of this have to do with the church?  I suppose that any story about paleontology can remind humans of our short time in the universe.  There’s also the call to care for and be good stewards of the land, whether or not it has fossils on it.  It doesn’t seem like I should need it, but the story reminded me that life is complex.  Sometimes things are black and white but often they are grey.  Finally the film holds a dozen stories about vocation.  In the church we talk about callings, in the family, in the workplace, through volunteerism.   How interesting it would be to have all of the vocations in the film represented in my faith community.  What does it mean to be called as a journalist, judge, US Attorney, scientist, jurist, and film director?  Each has its own joys.  Each meets a need in the world.

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1 Response to Sue and “Dinosaur 13”

  1. Danny Braudrick says:

    I saw the documentary. I was absolutely disgusted with Maurice Williams (a person with no moral compass or ethics) and the US government. Honest people were run through a legal wringer only for finding, digging up and public displaying a dinosaur, Sue. No money to be made. Done just for the furtherance of science.

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