Marston: Heard Around the West
February 7, 2014
NORTH DAKOTA, MONTANA
There's now a brilliant, low-cost way to start a newspaper smack in the middle of nowhere: Just open up a Facebook page or two, and share what you know and what you'd like to know more about. Ask local readers to pitch in with Smartphone photos and tips, and voilà! You're in business, though it's community you're making, not money. That approach has been surprisingly successful in a remote area of the West known as the Bakken, the huge oil play that straddles the border of North Dakota and northeastern Montana. Since 2000, the Bakken has attracted thousands of workers to create what's become the second-most productive oilfield in America after Texas; in 2013, its output rose to 1 million barrels of oil a day. But how do oilfield workers living in far-flung man camps, rentals and motels stay in touch? One answer is Facebook, or so says "Mr. X," a man who wishes to remain anonymous to protect his oil-patch job. He created two Facebook pages in 2012, and one of them, "Bakken Oilfield Fail of the Day," now boasts over 72,000 followers. As the Billings Gazette puts it, that's comparable to the Facebook page for World Peace, which has 76,149 likes. Mr. X says his other page — "Missing Persons and Property from the Bakken Oilfield" — hooks up people who report thefts with readers who not only identify stolen vehicles or tools, but also sometimes volunteer to guard them until police or the owners can retrieve the property. Theft has become rampant in the area, with three or four trailers or trucks stolen every night. Mr. X says he enjoys even wider reach because so many share his news on their own Facebook pages. Recently, for example, more than 93,000 readers helped a woman find her missing daughter. But the bread-and-butter news for workers remains the endless number of stolen vehicles, plus photos of wrecked semis or company trucks wallowing in mud and some sad outhouses that have seen better days.
Someday, there will probably be a movie about how a nonprofit foundation plotted to save objects sacred to an Indian tribe by stealthily and secretly outbidding rich people at an auction. Tom Mashberg tells the wonderful story in The New York Times. The Hopi Tribe, whose religious objects were on the block at a French auction house, lost a court battle to stop the sale and knew nothing of the Annenberg Foundation's decision to act on its behalf. Some tribal members were deeply upset by the loss of headdresses and other items, some more than a century old, that they consider not just religious, "but living entities with divine spirits." That's when Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, vice president and director of the foundation, got involved. "These are not trophies to have on one's mantel," he said. "They are truly sacred works for the Native Americans. They do not belong in auction houses or private collections." He authorized the foundation to spend up to $1 million for the pieces, eventually buying all but three of the 24 Hopi objects as well as three Apache artifacts. Though the Drouot auction house in Paris was at one point suspicious of the determined but anonymous American who bid by phone, no one glommed onto the fact that a major foundation had determined to take all, if possible. Co-conspirators edging out other bidders included a Paris lawyer, Pierre Servan-Schreiber, who had represented the Hopi in court for free, Philip J. Breeden, a cultural attaché from the U.S. Embassy, and foundation staffers. As Executive Director Leonard J. Aube explained afterward, "It was a leap-of-faith kind of moment for us. Not a lot of foundations are geared up for this kind of clandestine, late-night activity." For Sam Tenakhongva, a Hopi cultural director, the foundation's victory was bittersweet: "No one should have to buy back their sacred property," he said. "But now at least they will be at home with us, and they will go to rest."
As 2013 came to a close, the death of George Thomas Thornton, 84, made news, but only because of an unfortunate decision he'd made decades ago. In 1970, Thornton, a highway engineer, was faced with the dilemma of what to do about a 45-foot-long dead sperm whale that was decomposing on an Oregon beach. Dynamite was Thornton's solution, though for many years he refused to talk about the consequences — smelly whale parts flying through the air and splattering 75 observers a quarter-mile away, plus a big hunk flattening a parked car. Later, when he described the explosion, he said that it just "blew up in my face," reports the Associated Press. The resulting mess inspired elaborate alliteration from eyewitness TV reporter Paul Linnman: "The blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds."
Betsy Marston is the editor of Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). Tips and photos of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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