Friday, August 05, 2005

Tyrannosaurus Sue

I have my "Tyrannosaurus Sue" t-shirt on today. People ask who she is...

Sue is the largest, most complete T-Rex skeleton ever discovered, and currently on display at the Chicago Fields Museum. I saw her in 2002, while on my way to the Hamilton-Sundstrand IT Managers conference in Michigan City, IN. Yes, Michigan City, IN, on a man-made lake chock full of senior citizen pontoon boats.

I flew out early in the morning, caught the subway to the downtown by the waterfront, and spent a few hours in the museum to see Sue. Her skeleton replaced the Brachiasaurus skeleton, which is now at the O'Hare Airport.

Who is Sue?

As I said, Sue" was the largest and most complete T. Rex skeleton found up to her discovery in 1990; she was named after her discoverer, Sue Hendrickson. While fossil hunting with her then-boyfriend, Peter Larson, Sue happened upon a skeleton on the side of a small mesa. A complete T-Rex skeleton. The skeleton was on Sioux land (Sue, Sue and Sioux. How complex can this get?) which was owned by a Native American (yes, an out-of-character pc'ism by me) named Maurice Williams, who had a "trust" on the land. The Black Hills Institute (the Larson Brothers) had obtained permission from Williams to dig where Sue was found, and using expensive equipment, they painstakingly removed the T-Rex.

Once back at the institute, they began to prepare the skeleton for display. The plan was to use Sue as a centerpiece for their museum. But they also realized what a find they had and, being devoted (albeit amateur) paleontologist, they sought to share their find. And here's where the troubles began, for as the academic community caught wind of this specimen, word spread about the value. And everyone wanted a hand in the find.

The Sioux reservation sought claim. Williams' land was part of the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation, and the Sioux claimed that it was illegal to remove the fossil without the tribe's permission.

Williams, of course, thought it should be his (never mind he received a payment for permission to use *his* land), and the government, being the government, wanted in as well. On May 14, 1992, the FBI raided the Black Hills Institute offices and impounded the fossil. Acting U.S. Attorney Kevin Schieffer arrived on the scene and stated, out of the blue, that the fossil was U.S. government property. This claim had never previously been asserted; the government simply walked in and nationalized Sue. The National Guard was called out as part of the seizure; the governor of South Dakota, who was not informed of their use till after the fact, called the Federal government's action "underhanded." The bones were deposited in an uncontrolled environment which could have damaged them through chemical breakdown.

The government claimed that Williams had placed his property in trust with the Department of the Interior as a tax-saving action, and therefore could not sell it without permission of the government. Acting U.S. Attorney Kevin Schieffer interpretation of the law was that all Indian trust land is government property and that Indians are simply tenants. (He did not, however, extend this argument to void the oil leases which Williams had issued on his land.)

Williams prevailed in court; the government ruled that a dinosaur in the ground is real estate, and therefore Williams' trust agreement prevented him from selling her. Ownership reverted back to him. Sue was finally auctioned to Chicago's Field Museum for $7.6 million, (not counting the auctioneer's percentage), and is now on public display at the Field Museum.

The feds weren't finished, however. Wielding the sharpened axe they were aching to grind, the federal government prosecuted Larson and the Black Hills Institute on a large number of charges, none of which related directly to Sue. Larson was found guilty of "failure to fill out forms" -- he had not declared $15,000 which he had brought in from Peru on a required customs form. He was sentenced to 2 years in prison, serving 18 months.

And the "other" Sue? The feds threatened to prosecute her unless she would provide them with testimony against the Institute, and ordered her not to communicate with the Larsens. She wound up so disgusted with the entire affair that she left the United States afterward. She said that the events "shattered my faith in the United States government."

There's more to this incredible true story, but I suggest reading 'Tyrannosaurus Sue", by Steve Fiffer.

And by all means, make a trip to Chicago, and the Fields Museum. It's an amazing glimpse of the skeleton of a real-life "monster" that once walked the earth.