(Cross-posted, with permission, from The Prairie Blog.)
My friend Darrell Dorgan dedicated nearly 15 years of his life to the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. I was with him at the Lonesome Dove bar on the Strip in Mandan back in 1994 or 1995 when a guy neither of us knew, Phil Baird, brought a bunch of us together and pitched the idea of a North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, a place to record the history of Cowboys, Indians and Ranches in North Dakota. Eventually Darrell signed on to raise the money and build the place. He retired last winter, and last week, at the annual induction ceremony of Hall of Fame honorees in Medora, he gave the keynote address as his farewell to the several hundred members he had recruited over the years.
Darrell didn’t mince any words. In Medora, the epicenter of the controversy over protection of the Elkhorn Ranch, surrounded by conservative ranchers who don’t much like the city folks who call themselves “environmentalists” and stick their noses into ranchers’ business without being asked, Darrell wove together a message of preservation and cowboy values that left the several hundred attendees quietly thinking about what is really important in North Dakota these days. Nothing but positive reaction, Darrell said afterwards.
Here’s his speech, along with a bit of cowboy poetry.
I see many great friends and it’s a wonderful day; a great day to look across the Badlands, a land of beauty, dreams, and eternal hope.
But lest we forget, it was just 150 years ago, men fought to the death to lay claim to this untamed landscape of grass, buttes and buffalo
The Native Americans claimed it; the Army, following the policy of Manifest Destiny, took it; the buffalo were slaughtered; the Texas Trail Drivers came North with Longhorns, and a ranching industry was born.
Homesteaders came from across the world seeking their chance for a piece of the Great American Dream. A chance to live in a democratic society, a chance to vote, a chance to own 160 acres, raise a family, worship as they wanted and become part of a growing and free society. And, despite drought, hoppers, and blizzards they, and you, survived.
Today this land is again in transition. It’s not a question if there will be large-scale energy development, it’s a question of how fast, and on whose terms. You will have to decide if roads through roadless areas, truck after truck, power lines and strip mines, are progress. Or, if we can coexist by limiting the pace of development; saying no to intrusions like hundreds of flares that light the night sky and can be seen from space.
Because of the energy boom, our economy is the envy of the nation, and something cataclysmic happened earlier this month. The incredible pace of development meant that sales tax receipts in Williston outpaced Fargo.
The economic pendulum is now swinging this way and unfortunately, money doesn’t always translate into good decision making.
Unfortunately, decisions on the pace, impact and wealth being taken from western North Dakota are still being made by people in other parts of the country and state, not by those who live where the impact is dramatically changing lifestyles and daily economic realities.
The negative aspects of energy development are not all the fault of the industry. There are good oil companies and good people who have come here looking for a new life, a new start. There are also bad oil companies and thoughtless, long-time residents who seem to have lost sight of the fact that Prairie provides, when it is taken care of.
Dan Kalil of Williston is a friend of mine; a Cowboy Hall of Fame Trustee. He’s also a County Commissioner. Dan was recently quoted as saying, “We need to stop. Take a break. We can’t keep up. We need to figure out where we’re going.”
Think for a moment with me and wonder, might now be the time to slow the fast pace of change until we decide what the future will hold? How many people, roads and homes do we want? How many flares are too many, how many salt water and brine spills are too much? Who pays the price, and will the unmitigated lightning pace of development, without adequate planning, forever change our lifestyle, permanently damage the land we live on and proudly call our home, our heritage?
The Hall of Fame is about preserving culture, heritage, history and yes, celebrating responsible leadership. Today’s new inductees will join the nearly 150 who have gone before, and grace the walls of the Hall of Honorees here in Medora. It is where the heritage of the great caretakers reside.
The people and animals we honor are all leaders; pioneers. We want their exploits to live on because if the last Resistol becomes a hard-hat, if the last wind mill becomes a drilling rig, we want a heritage preserved.
Ours is a way of life that fascinates the world. And, we should strive mightily to preserve parts of the Badlands and Grasslands without a road, and a former President’s ranch without a gravel pit of greed, or bridge running through it
If we were to stand in Trafalgar square in the heart of London this afternoon, or stand by the Arc De Triumph in Paris we will see billboards just like we have here. But the billboards in Europe do not feature drilling rigs or roads across the prairie, they have on them, pictures of the Marlboro Man, scenes of our western heritage.
Willie Nelson, you were simply wrong. Mamas should let their babies grow up to be cowboys. Cowboys know you’ve got to plan a ride. They know, sometimes you have to slow down to get where you’re going so you’ll enjoy it when you arrive, and afford to stay.
People across the world want to be a cowboy. I have traveled the world and have never met anyone who really wanted to be a Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, Bernie Madoff or Donald Trump. But, I’ve met hundreds of people who would like to ride a horse, be a cowboy. They know about Lonesome Dove, Sitting Bull, Sakakwea, Teddy Roosevelt, trail drives and people like you…..
A lot of you have thanked me for my role in building the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. Thanks, but I didn’t do it. We did it together because we believe in preserving the heritage and history of what is right and what needs to be remembered. Most of us believe in preserving a land and a life style. So do many in the energy industry, and if good people, with a common goal, sit and talk rationally, I’ll bet a compromise can be reached . . . but someone has to reach out . . .
All of us have faults and I’m sure you would agree, mine are many. It always helps my perspective when I remember the words of Wally McCrea, who wrote one of the country’s iconic pieces of cowboy poetry, and called it
“What does Reincarnation mean?”
A cowpoke asked his friend.
His pal replied, “It happens when
Yer life has reached its end.
They comb yer hair, and warsh yer neck,
And clean yer fingernails,
And lay you in a padded box
Away from life’s travails.”
“The box and you goes in a hole,
That’s been dug into the ground.
Reincarnation starts in when
Yore planted ‘neath a mound.
Them clods melt down, just like yer box,
And you who is inside.
And then yore just beginnin’ on
Yer transformation ride.”
“In a while, the grass’ll grow
Upon yer rendered mound.
Till some day on yer moldered grave
A lonely flower is found.
And say a hoss should wander by
And graze upon this flower
That once wuz you, but now’s become
Yer vegetative bower.”
“The posy that the hoss done ate
Up, with his other feed,
Makes bone, and fat, and muscle
Essential to the steed,
But some is left that he can’t use
And so it passes through,
And finally lays upon the ground
This thing, that once wuz you.”
“Then say, by chance, I wanders by
And sees this upon the ground,
And I ponders, and I wonders at,
This object that I found.
I thinks of reincarnation,
Of life and death, and such,
And come away concludin’: ‘Slim,
You ain’t changed, all that much.’”
I think Wally was talking about me . . . Thanks for having me today. Thanks for your friendship and your trust. Someone once asked me what I’d gotten out of the past 14 years. It’s pretty basic. I think I can go across the state and never have to buy a cup of coffee . . . Doesn’t get much better than that.
Now then, that might be one of the best speeches given in North Dakota. If you’re interested in learning more about or supporting the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, take a look at their website. There’s membership information there. And next time you see Darrell, say “Thanks.”