Black Hills Institute
Neal Larson and Peter Larson, founders of the Black Hills Institute, using hand picks to remove the 30 feet of overburden above the T-rex’s bone layer (under tarp, below).

After T-Rex Troubles, Dinosaurs Stay on the Rez

Christina Rose

For more than 150 years, outsiders have ventured onto tribal lands and helped themselves to fossils and dinosaur bones. Some, like a Tyrannosaurus rex named Sue, have brought fame if not fortune to those who sought to own them. After all these years, the tribes are now reclaiming their rightful property, but as the story of Sue proves, the journey is still not without its bumps.

In 1990, Sue Hendrickson came upon the bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex that were beginning to “weather out” or emerge from hills on the Cheyenne River Reservation. Hendrickson was a volunteer at the Black Hills Institute in Hill City, South Dakota, and Peter Larson, one of the founders of the institute, said he paid Cheyenne River tribal member Maurice Williams $5,000 to collect the dinosaur from William’s trust land.

However, according to Darlene Williams, Maurice’s widow, the $5,000 was a payment for having disturbed the land, not for the dinosaur. “I heard Maurice on the phone, they didn’t say anything about fossils. The $5,000 was not for removing fossils, but for digging on the land.

“When they found that on our property, Maurice told them it was trust land and the government had to be involved, but they took it anyway,” Williams said. “We had a lawyer write to them and they flat out said it was theirs and we had nothing to say about it. They sent us a letter and as much admitted they had taken it. But my husband knew all about trust status, and he kept everything in a file cabinet.” Laughing quietly, she added, “I guess they didn't know he was that kind of man.”

Things got even trickier after Sue was removed from the ground and brought to Hill City. “The federal government made a raid on the institute saying we violated the Antiquities Act. But we knew a lot about legal stuff, and the Antiquities Act did not apply. The act had been created as part of NAGPRA [Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act] and was meant to protect human remains. But the law is fatally vague,” Larson told Indian Country Today Media Network.

Larson said the judge ruled that fossils are actually part of the ground, which meant the dinosaur was tribal land. “Everybody was trying to get it—Peter Larson, the federal government, but what it came down to is that it was Maurice’s land,” Williams said.


You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page



Steve Ice
Steve Ice
Submitted by Steve Ice on
Interesting article, and I have to say that I agree with the principle that the ownership of fossils removed from land belong to the owners of the land. However, just as ownership of land can be sold, apparently so can the fossils which are found on it. After watching the documentary film, Dinosaur 13, and digging for more info about the events surrounding Sue, I find it shameful that the Williams family feels the need to lie about Maurice receiving payment for the land being disturbed and not the fossil itself. At that time, $5000 for simply digging would be preposterous at best. Who could believe such babble? Furthermore, nobody in their right mind would agree with the classifying of scientifically priceless dinosaur fossils as mere land. Why, even tribal paleontologists such as those at Standing Rock have finally understood the difference between land, which can and should be considered sacred in its own right, and fossils existing in the land. The inconsistencies are piling up. Watch the film - see the video footage of Maurice and Darlene Williams standing and watching while the excavation was taking place. The footage clearly shows Maurice and Larson discussing the institute's plan for the fossil itself. Of course, at no time during the excavation, which took more than two weeks to complete, did the Williams' voice their concerns. Obviously, they were seeing the dollar signs, which were aptly pointed out by Steve Vance. It's unfortunate that people act in this way. The final irony that simply must be pointed out is the highlighting, at the end of this article, of the principle that we should be questioning "whether anybody should allowed to buy or sell a treasure so incomparably rare." Clearly, this concept breaks down when there are millions to be had. Sheee-it, it's them durn doller signs, agin!

morganfj's picture
Submitted by morganfj on
From the documentary, i have no doubt in my mind that Maurice Williams Collect the $5000 for Sue, an amount well over what many are paid for the fossils on their land. I am sure that Mrs. Williams believes her husband told them about the trust and that it not for the dinosaur, but in the documentary, it clearly show she was not there. Also, the Hendrickson's knew how to deal for the bones and surly would not have paid just to do the work and leave them. That is a ridiculous story. It is a sad case, especially in view of how the government responded and that Mr. Williams profited over $6 Million using after using the excuse the land was in trust for the indians... bet they saw none of it and no money was put back into the land. Mr Williams legacy will be one of darkness which his family will continue to have to lie and try to make believe the fossil find on property he was own was a reason to cheat the finders and the state's people out of the find and the money... Too Bad.. money will do that every time.