Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The selling of fossils: more proof that only money speaks (to some)

Two fossils for sale have recently been in the news. One is a Triceratops that went up for bid Wednesday in Paris. It is from a private collection, a 'museum' that the owner has in his home in South Dakota. The fossils did not sell, so I assume it will be returning to the living room of someone with more money than they know what to do with and who has no value for scientific research. Things like that make me very bummed. Tax write off dude – just donate it to a museum!

Another story was forwarded to me last week while I was out of town (thanks Jack!). The Blackfeet Nation (Reservation) shares most of its western border with Glacier National Park, and there are known outcrops of the Two Medicine Formation all over the res. Fossils have been found quite often on their land, with many being sold to factions such as Canada Fossils. Prenoceratops pieganenis* comes to mind as important fossil (the first basal neoceratopsian bonebed) that has been sold from the tribe lands. It appears that now they are planning on selling (or trying to sell) another fossil from their lands: a juvenile tyrannosaur, "Cameron" (see picture below), discovered in 1995. The fossils have been on display at the Blackfeet Heritage Center in Browning, right next door to the Museum of the Plains Indian for the past few years. I had no idea! I have driven by the center so many times and never had any idea it was there (I lived in the park in 2005, and was just though Browning back this past September), let alone that I should maybe go inside and take a look around. I think this is a missed opportunity for the tribal people (more on that below)!

I will be the first to admit that Browning is not the richest town in Montana and the tribal lands and their people are not the best cared for. It sounds like much of this can be attributed to poor management and corruption from the inside (see the latter part of the article for details). It is still sad to see how we (as a nation) corralled the native people into small, poor plots of land, some being forced far away from their homes and native lands and told to just make due. That is an entirely different post for a different day for sure! It is depressing that members of the tribe (and any humans in general) see that there is a buck to be made from selling fossils. And to sell the fossil of "Cameron" to a group of people who are off in search of the impossible (Searching for Bigfoot Inc.), I can't help but wonder what their motivation for purchasing the specimen is…oh ya, it's all about making more money, of course. Ugg, and the 'Searching for Bigfoot' webpage has put together a page on why they (or you, Daddy Warbucks) should purchase the fossil makes my stomach turn! They compare it to other merchandise market/trade – like a fossil is just another car or plate:

  • "From vintage automobiles to antique weathervanes, the rare collectible market offers a haven for investing if done wisely and if placed in only the finest and rarest specimens but no venue of this field has more promise than that of collecting rare fossils. In comparison to all other rare collectible markets, it is one of the MOST UNDERVALUED markets….Despite what some scientists or 'anti-private ownership' individuals may tell you to discourage the fossil trade, the highest quality and rarest fossils DO APPRECIATE and their value goes up each and every year. This is simple logic. They are not making fossils any more. …This transpires while collector demand for only the finest quality specimens drives onward, forcing values and prices higher as time goes on. …"

Ick, I want to puke. I guess I fall into their "scientists or 'anti-private ownership' individuals" category. It's people like this who are making science more and more impossible and think that everything has to have a dollar value assigned to it. To them it is just another untapped market that they can make a buck off of, regardless of what suffers.

I truly do understand the plight of the Blackfeet Nation. I have been to their land and seen first hand how they live and the conditions many are faced with. I also grew up in Oklahoma ("Indian Territory" - mass exodus destination for many tribes), have a bit of Indian in me, and have seen my fair share of 'good' and 'bad' reservations (still, I know I am not an expert, this is just my opinion). It is all very sad. However, as an alternative to selling off their fossil and their tribal treasures, I would rather see them erect a museum to showcase these things properly (or work it into a permanent display at the Museum of the Plains Indian)! With the close proximity of Glacier National Park and the high volume of tourist traffic Browning and the reservation get every summer (spring to fall even), I think, if done correctly, they could make a killing! Displaying the fossils from their land proudly would give the Blackfeet the financial backing they need, while also promoting education and science! I realize the debt they are in and it would financial backing, but I think if a project were put together with tribal support it could be a success. Training the local tribal people to give informative tours, and in excavation, preparation, collections management, and research techniques could also help to promote a wonderful community of learning for the Nation! The biggest problem would probably be finding someone the tribe felt they could trust to help them get up and running, and someone who would be willing to let them take the reins once it is going the direction it needs to be (and not take advantage of them or their situation). I believe it would need to be an internally managed tribal project to ultimately succeed however. (The current management problems would first need sorted out!) Partnerships with other local and state museums could also be beneficial (sharing specimen cast for example), if done in a non threatening/dominating/controlling way. I truly hope that they will take the pros and cons and look into keeping their fossils and properly promoting and advertising them for themselves. If I had known that Cameron was at the Blackfeet Heritage Center I would have stopped to see it! Good promotion and advertising is paramount when you are a small museum. I say keep the money where it needs to be – on the Blackfeet Reservation for the Piegan people! It may not get them $5 million dollars fast, but in the long run it will be far more valuable!

* Chinnery, B. 2004. Description of Prenoceratops peiganenis sp. nov. Dinosauria, Neoceratopsia) from the Two Medicine Formation of Montana. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 24(3): 572-590.

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