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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

We Have Ways Of Making A Difference

By Brenna Gerhardt, Executive Director, North Dakota Humanities Council

I want to share with you a few of the programs your generosity made possible:

"Playing with Mahpiya [Clouds]"
 Photo by Lakhol'iyapi Hohpi, Lakota Language Nest, at Sitting Bull College, Nov. 7, 2012. 

On the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation a three-year-old child is learning to speak the language of her ancestors from an elder who is one of the remaining people in the world who can speak fluent Lakota, an indigenous language spoken by Hunkpapa Sioux since time unknown.  The girl is taking part in a new language immersion preschool program that seeks to ensure the wisdom of the past is not lost for future generations.

Kristi Rendahl

Kristi Rendahl travels the world working to end the practice of torture. She invites the most remarkable people she meets during her travels back to her hometown of Rugby to talk about critical issues facing the global community through the program Prairie Talks. She started the project to connect common-sense people in the heart of North Dakota to common-sense people from around the world who share the same interest: to better understand ourselves and our neighbors so we can work together for a better tomorrow.

Dr. Terrence Roberts

On September 4, 1957, Terrance Roberts, an African American student seeking a better education was turned away at the doors of Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas, by the National Guard and a horde of angry white protesters who did not want to see black students educated alongside their children. It was a pivotal moment in America’s civil rights movement that directly involved a federal judge from North Dakota, Ronald N. Davies. The court decisions rendered by Davies would change the course of public school integration in our country making the dream of equality a reality for Roberts and future generations. Today, Dr. Roberts is involved in creating a curriculum for students across North Dakota to learn about these events and the lessons of justice and civility they embody.

These programs and many more, all currently sponsored by the North Dakota Humanities Council, help us fulfill our mission to transform lives and strengthen communities by offering educational and cultural experiences that allow everyone the opportunity to reach their full human potential. Our ability to offer these meaningful programs depends in large part on the generosity of a thoughtful and caring community.

Please include the North Dakota Humanities Council in your holiday giving so we can continue our important work. A gift of $40, $60, $100 or more will go a long way in helping make lifelong learning a cornerstone of life in North Dakota.  Use the enclosed courtesy envelope and mail your contribution today.

On behalf of the lives that are charged by your generosity, thank you.

Best Wishes,


Brenna Gerhardt, Executive Director

p.s. According to the mother of the little girl learning Lakota, “I really see in her hope, now. We have a drug and alcohol free home and she’s learning the language and the ceremonies. We’re breaking the cycle; that’s the hope.” That is the power of the humanities to transform lives and strengthen communities.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Eating With Eyes On The Community

 By Dean Hulse
This article appears in the Key Ingredients issue of the North Dakota Humanities Council's magazine "On Second Thought," Winter 2012.

I recently came across a note I’d dashed off some time ago that concerned an advertisement (circa 1922),
which I’d seen in my hometown newspaper. If memory serves, I’d been looking through newspaper archives while doing research on a topic unrelated to the ad’s subject, but its copy nonetheless caught my attention. The ad read, “Butter and Eggs, same as Cash.”

My maternal great-grandmother and my grandmother both bartered butter and eggs (and cream) for staples,
probably with the same grocer who ran that ad in my hometown newspaper. According to family legend, my
maternal great-great-grandmother was a “fancy cook” in England before she and my great-great-grandfather
emigrated first to Canada and then to Richburg Township in North Dakota’s Bottineau County.

Mom was an exceptional cook, too, so perhaps it’s genetic. Even as a child I experimented in the kitchen,
and Mom and Dad were generous with what they allowed me to make. Like many farm families of that
era, our “fruit room” resembled a grocery store—with shelves full of jams, jellies, tomato sauce, green beans,
relishes, and pickles (beet, cucumber, corn, cauliflower). Also, canned stew meat and meatballs, with congealed morsels glistening like jewels inside the jars. Without asking, I could go down to the basement and retrieve a package of frozen hamburger, wrapped in white freezer paper carrying the “Not for Sale” label our
local butcher had affixed. The beef came from our own steers. My first food triumph was sizzling as Dad arrived for dinner: hamburgers, releasing the aroma of nearly every dried herb and spice Mom had in her cabinet. A predominance of chili pepper, onion salt, and garlic powder gave these burgers a piquancy that perfectly complemented a melting slab of Colby cheese.

Of course, I had a few failures. A sodden tuna pizza comes to mind. A meal fit for our dog Stub, who
required some persuasion.

“You eat that,” I barked.

I’ll end the tales of my adolescent cooking escapades here.

Beside my note containing the “Butter and Eggs” ad copy, I’d scribbled my reaction: “Oh really? Try making a cake out of cash.” I know about cake. Dad’s avocation was baking angel food cakes, each requiring fourteen egg whites, and many of which he gave as gifts.

Butter and eggs, same as cash? I know bartering is a form of commerce, but during my life, I’ve witnessed this butter-and-eggs sentiment assume a more literal character. I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that many who frequent supermarkets today behave as though their cash is the same as cabbage, one indistinguishable commodity exchanged for another. For many years, I was one of those shoppers.

When my wife, Nicki, and I first moved to Fargo, I relished the fact that I could shop at grocery stores overflowing with exotic produce at 3 a.m. if I so chose. Like many Americans, I ate daily, and well, without knowing or caring a lick about the food on my plate—except how it looked and tasted, and perhaps how much it cost.

For me, the convenience of that marvelous arrangement helped blunt some repulsive memories of growing up on a farm. Picking eggs as a child was a chore, especially when I’d encounter an unexpected visitor in the henhouse. I once discovered a large rat, sitting on its haunches, exposing an oozing ulcer on its underside. After retracing my steps, lickety-split and empty-handed, back to our house, Dad returned with me to the clucking chickens. That rat departed this world squirming on the end of Dad’s five-pronged pitchfork, creating a silhouette against the early morning sun.

And so, I was OK buying anonymous eggs produced who knows where. But in my late twenties, my outlook began to change. I don’t think genetics was responsible. More likely, it was modeled behavior—that is, my having grown up with gardening parents and my having experienced truly fresh food. What manifested my latent craving for vineripened tomatoes? I can’t say. What satisfied it? Thick tomato slices still conveying the sun’s warmth, made even more perfect by salt, pepper, mayonnaise, and two slices of bread, substantial enough to absorb the free-flowing tomato juices without becoming soggy. A summertime sandwich to savor for only a few weeks, but to anticipate the rest of the time.

At first, we rented garden plots from the Fargo Park District, and we drove to our garden with open buckets of water sloshing in our car’s trunk. Later, I bought a small trailer and adapted it so it could haul two fifty-five-gallon water barrels. One year, someone stole our entire crop of spaghetti squash. I pacified my anger by writing a letter to the editor of our local newspaper, in which I offered a recipe so that our thief could fully enjoy his booty (his large footprints among our picked-clean squash vines). A day after the letter appeared, I got a call from a woman living in Casselton. She offered to share some of her spaghetti squash with me. Another woman from Moorhead did the same. We ended up with more spaghetti squash than we had growing in our garden.

That series of incidents planted a seed that would sprout once we bought a home and had a garden of our own. Now, we didn’t start our backyard gardening with the altruistic notion of supplying our neighbors with produce. But on most years, there are only so many zucchini squash two people can eat. To our credit, we are diligent in checking our zucchini plants. We aim to pick the fruit when it’s six to eight inches long, and that’s what we share with neighbors. Those zucchini lurking at the very bottom of our plants, the ones stealthily growing to the size of small children’s legs, we toss into our compost pile.

We also share tomatoes, eggplant, onions, spinach, chard—whatever we have in overabundance. Our neighbors have been joyfully generous with their in-kind reciprocations. One of our neighbors, an elderly Japanese widow, treats us to several meals reflecting her culture’s cuisine each year. Painstakingly garnished and with precisely cut vegetables, her dishes don’t disappoint in presentation, taste, or texture. I often daydream about her sticky rice. And the source of her homemade herb wine, which packs a punch more like a liqueur, grows right outside her garage service door. This year she’s going to show us how to grow the herb and make the wine.

Another neighbor is the patriarch of a family-owned package store and popular college bar. He repays
with wine or beer, some of which comes to us with a “born-on” date that is either current or only a day or two old. A Montana native, he’s also shared cherries that grow near Flathead Lake.

Contact the North Dakota Humanities Council for a copy of the article in which this except by Dean Hulse appears and we'll gladly send you one at no cost: call us at (701) 255-3360. OR see the entire article and this issue of On Second Thought now online at

Dean Hulse is a writer living in Fargo. He and his wife, Nicki, still own his family’s farm in Bottineau County, which is a source 
for much of Dean’s activism and inspiration concerning land use, renewable energy, and sustainable agriculture. In 2009, the 
University of Minnesota Press published Hulse’s memoir, Westhope: Life as a Former Farm Boy.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Chautauqua, A Living History Experience Coming to Bismarck

General Lee signs the surrender papers at Appomattox Court House. General Grant sits at the other table. Standing second from the right is Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian from Upstate New York.

When General Lee arrived at the Appomattox Court House to discuss terms of surrender with General Grant, he was introduced to Grant’s personal secretary, Lieutenant Colonel Ely Parker.  Startled by the sight of the Seneca Indian chief, Lee paused for a brief moment, then extended his hand to Parker and said, “I am glad to see one American here.”  Parker took Lee’s hand and replied, “We are all Americans.”  Grant then had Parker compose the surrender papers, which Lee signed.

“His story is absolutely intriguing.  I think people will be amazed at what he accomplished in spite of the odds against him,” says Reuben Fast Horse, the scholar who will be portraying Ely Parker during the upcoming Everett C. Albers Chautauqua, which runs September 5 – 8, in Bismarck.

L to r: Frederick Douglass, Little Crow, Clara Barton, Ely Parker, and William Jayne.

During the living history event, sponsored by the North Dakota Humanities Council, scholars will present the stories of four people who played significant roles in the Civil War in America: Little Crow, who led the Santee Dakota in the Dakota Conflict of 1862, portrayed by Jerome Kills Small; Gen. Ely Parker, the Seneca Indian chief and Union general who drafted the surrender papers signed by Confederate General Lee at Appomattox, portrayed by Reuben Fast Horse; Frederick Douglass, the former slave, abolitionist, and writer, portrayed by Charles Everett Pace; and Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, portrayed by Karen Vuranch. Governor William Jayne, who was President Lincoln’s personal physician and first governor of Dakota Territory, portrayed by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton, will moderate the Chautauqua presentations.

All performances, which combine entertainment with education, are free and open to the public.  For those unfamiliar with Chautauqua, the routine is simple: Performers present a 45-minute monologue in character and then field questions from the audience.  According to event coordinator Dakota Goodhouse, “The scholars who portray the characters are skilled interpreters who’ve devoted months or even years of study to present authentic performances.  They imitate appropriate accents and styles of dress.  Most of all, they strive to speak their characters’ words precisely.”

Adult workshops and children’s programs will also be presented.  During the adult workshops scholars step out of character to present more in depth analysis of the historical figure they have researched.  The children’s programs are an opportunity for children to learn more about American history. 

For more information visit or call 701.255.3360.

Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012
10:00 AM             Children’s program by Charles Everett Pace at the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library

2:00 PM                Adult workshop by Karen Vuranch at the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library

6:30 PM                Evening Chautauqua program by Little Crow, portrayed by Jerome Kills Small, at St. George’s Episcopal Church

Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012
10:00 AM             Children’s program by Karen Vuranch at the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library

2:00 PM                Adult workshop by Jerome Kills Small at the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library

6:30 PM                Evening Chautauqua program by Gen. Ely Parker, portrayed by Reuben Fast Horse, at St. George’s Episcopal Church

Friday, Sept. 7, 2012
10:00 AM             Children’s program by Jerome Kills Small at the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library

2:00 PM                Adult workshop by Reuben Fast Horse at the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library

6:30 PM                Evening Chautauqua program by Frederick Douglass, portrayed by Charles Everett Pace, at St. George’s Episcopal Church

 Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012
1:00 PM                Children’s program by Reuben Fast Horse at the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library

2:00 PM                Adult workshop by Charles Everett Pace at the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library

3:00 PM                Afternoon Chautauqua program by Clara Barton, portrayed by Karen Vuranch, at St. George’s Episcopal Church

 4:00 PM               Chautauqua Scholar meet-and-greet at the North Dakota Former Governors’ Mansion

Friday, July 20, 2012

Pulitzer-Prize Finalists and US Poet Laureate Coming to Fargo-Moorhead

Four prominent poets and novelists will be visiting Fargo-Moorhead for a symposium honoring North Dakota native, Louise Erdrich.  Entitled Four Souls: Stories from America’s Boarders, the event will feature keynote presentations by Robert Pinsky, Naomi Shihab Nye, Luis Urrea and Erdrich.

The symposium, beginning Thursday, Aug. 23, and running through Friday, Aug. 24 will be held at Bluestem Center for the Arts.  The event is a joint effort of Bluestem and the North Dakota Humanities Council. 

“This symposium is dedicated to the diversity of cultures and ideas that make America such a great nation.  During a time when our nation is deeply divided politically, this is a chance to remind everyone who we are and what we stand for,” said Brenna Gerhardt, executive director of the Humanities Council.  “I hope people will walk away with a renewed hope for both our nation and the global community we are a part of.” 

New York Times best-selling author, Louise Erdrich grew up in North Dakota, where her parents taught at a school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. As the daughter of a Chippewa Indian mother and a German-American father, Erdrich explores Native-American themes in her works, with major characters representing both sides of her heritage.   She has said, “One of the characteristics of being a mixed blood is searching.  You look back and say, ‘Who am I from?’  You must question.  You must make certain choices.  You’re able to.  And it’s a blessing and it’s a curse.  All of our searches involve trying to discover where we are from.”   Erdrich will share her journey during an opening conversation with fellow North Dakota author Jamieson Ridenhour on Thursday evening.

Born in Tijuana, Mexico to a Mexican father and an American mother, Luis Alberto Urrea grew up in San Diego, California. Urrea will share his story of transformation from his beginnings on a dirt street in Tijuana to Pulitzer Prize finalist and beloved storyteller. Nye’s next books include On the Edge of the Sky (1981), a slim volume printed on handmade paper, and Hugging the Jukebox (1982), a full-length collection that also won the Voertman Poetry Prize. In Hugging the Jukebox, Nye continues to focus on the ordinary, on connections between diverse peoples, and on the perspectives of those in other lands. She writes: “We move forward, / confident we were born into a large family, / our brothers cover the earth.” Nye creates poetry from everyday scenes throughout Hugging the Jukebox in poems like “The Trashpickers of San Antonio” and the title poem, where a boy is enthusiastic about the jukebox he adopts and sings its songs in a way that “strings a hundred passionate sentences in a single line.” Reviewers generally praised Hugging the Jukebox, noting Nye’s warmth and celebratory tone. Writing in the Village Voice, Mary Logue commented that in Nye’s poems about daily life, “sometimes the fabric is thin and the mundaneness of the action shows through. But, in an alchemical process of purification, Nye often pulls gold from the ordinary.” According to Library Journal contributor David Kirby, the poet “seems to be in good, easy relation with the earth and its peoples.”

The poems in Yellow Glove (1986) present a more mature perspective tempered by tragedy and sorrow. In “
Blood” Nye considers the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. She describes a café in combat-weary Beirut, bemoans “a world where no one saves anyone,” and observes “The Gardener” for whom “everything she planted gave up under the ground.” Georgia Review contributor Philip Booth declared that Nye brings “home to readers both how variously and how similarly all people live.” In Red Suitcase (1994), Nye continues to explore the effect of on-going violence on everyday life in the Middle East. Writing for Booklist, Pat Monaghan explained that “some of her most powerful poems deal with her native land’s continuing search for peace and the echoes of that search that resound in an individual life. Nye is a fluid poet, and her poems are also full of the urgency of spoken language. Her direct, unadorned vocabulary serves her well: ‘A boy filled a bottle with water. / He let it sit. / Three days later it held the power / of three days.’ Such directness has its own mystery, its own depth and power, which Nye exploits to great effect.”

Award-winning Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye was born in St. Louis in 1952. Just four years earlier, her father and his family lost their home in Jerusalem following the establishment of the state of Israel. As a result of her father's experiences, she learned the importance of place and of being connected - a theme she will address in her poetry reading and discussion. 

Robert Pinsky (United States Poet Laureate 1997-2000) grew up in a lower-middle class Jewish family in Long Branch, N.J. According to Pinsky a poet needs to “find a language for presenting the role of a conscious soul in an unconscious world.”  Pinsky will perform improvisatory poetry with a local jazz combo, “trading fours” with the musicians to create a spontaneous work of art that tells its own story.

According to Sue Wiger, “This is exactly the type of event Bluestem was built for.  It will bring the community together to experience the best our nation has to offer in the way of arts and culture.”

Poetry writing workshops for adults and children will also be offered.

For more information and a full schedule of events, visit or contact Brenna Gerhardt at 800-338-6543. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Captain Meriwether Lewis and the Great Falls

"Meriwether Lewis at the Great Falls" by Charles Fritz.

Captain Meriwether Lewis and the Great Falls
by Aaron Poochigian, a selection from his book "The Cosmic Purr."

I was the one, the first white man, to shiver
into the wind of it – a rush so grand
it felt like God was barreling downriver.

I was the fool who marked in a clear hand
its height and spate, certain that words would claim
what savages had only scratched in sand.
I was an ass to fix it with a name.
What was the use? The blasted thing went on
thundering Shush! to spite me all the same.

After the portage, I sat up till dawn
ignoring what was missing, since I knew
that part of me had quit the corps and gone

to serve there, hushed and worshipping the view,
no matter what we went on to subdue.

Aaron Poochigian was born in 1973. He attended Moorhead State University from 1991 to 1996 where he studied under the poets Tim Murphy, Dave Mason and Alan Sullivan. He entered graduate school for Classics in 1997 at the University of Minnesota. After traveling and doing research in Greece on fellowship from 2003 to 2004, he earned a Ph.D. in Classics in 2006, and now lives and writes in New York City. His translations, with introduction and notes, of Sappho’s poems andfragments were published by Penguin Classics in 2009. His translations of Aeschylus, Aratus and Apollonius of Rhodes appeared in the Norton Anthology of Greek Literature in Translation in the spring of 2009, and Johns Hopkins University Press published his edition of Aratus’ astronomical poem, The Phaenomena, with his introduction and notes, in the spring of 2010. His poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including Arion, The Dark Horse, Poetry and Smartish Pace.

For more information visit Aaron's Poochigian's website.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Why North Dakota?

A view of the Little Missouri River valley along HWY 22 in North Dakota.

By Michael Lopez
I’ve been stopped in elevators, on sidewalks, in grocery stores, by friends and family alike, with the question: Why North Dakota? Or, more appropriately: “Why would you (or, by implication, anyone else) choose to live in North Dakota?” And before I’ve even had a chance to respond to their question, the second one is inevitably forthcoming: “Is North Dakota even a place?” I’m sometimes tempted to respond: “is Sacramento even a place?” (Or San Francisco, or Oakland, or wherever I happen to be.) Because my first inclination is to ask them, “What do you think constitutes a place?” Perhaps more importantly, I’m tempted to ask them, “Did you choose your place?”

It was not, in retrospect, very surprising on my part to move from the warm climates of Northern California, specifically the San Francisco Bay Area, and my college alma mater’s town, Davis. I sometimes think that, at least for me, a move to Los Angeles, or San Diego, would have been viewed with real surprise by my friends and family as an unusual variation. What I mean to say here is that for me, the way my psychology is oriented, and what I am interested in, is not to be found in Los Angeles, or (though I’ve spent considerably less time in it) New York, or Washington, D.C.

Bison at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, photo by Trip Advisor.

I think it was a novelist – though I can’t remember which one – who said that those places aren’t really places, because you’re never really there (As Gertrude Stein meant it in that there-there sense); it’s more that you’re simply passing through. You may stay there for forty or fifty years, but the place is so large, so rapidly moving, with so many incoming and exiting passengers, that you’re just occupying a space, but never a place. It’s not simply the largeness of a city that precludes place; I think you can find place cities, but those, with their electrifying movement, their caffeinated jolts of frantic energy, suggest to my conscious and unconscious that I’m constantly moving – I’m never at rest. The time for reflection isn’t today (or tomorrow), because there’s too much to be done; too much to see; movies, plays, shows, lectures, enough for a lifetime. Home is about peace, and rest.

Don’t get me wrong about this either: home can be anything but peace, or rest. Especially if something is wrong: a loved one is sick, the bills can’t be paid; external and internal forces beyond our individual power to control can subvert that peace, but in the end, home is always a place where you find yourself again. It resists, from its center on out, the forces of chaos; it calms you, brings you back into its comforting sense of familiarity, and never ceases to surprise me with the newness I discover in things I thought I knew.

The Mandan Indians called "North Dakota" home for a thousand years. They named one of the rivers they lived by "Heart River." The Missouri and Heart Rivers are still considered by the Mandan as their homeland despite their move north and west to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

I’ve driven certain stretches of highway for over ten years, and am still amazed at the new things I see and discover. I’m not talking about little flowers by the roadside, or a hidden brook – I’m speaking about houses, buildings, mountains, that I could never consciously recall in conversation to another. They still have the power to take my breath away: that recognition that within so much that is familiar, there’s so much I don’t know. I do know it takes a lifetime to learn it, and more importantly, a lifetime to shape my life around it. My momentary existence on a plod of earth, the continent North America, the webs of family and ancestral ties that long ago determined the shape of my bones, the texture of my lips, color of my hair and eyes, and future, that remains to be lived.

So North Dakota was partly because of my past. My great-great grandparents immigrated from their native Norway (they were farmers, and the family homestead is still in Telemark), through the famous pathway of Ellis Island, to North Dakota. The state was a great place for immigrants, especially those used to cold climates. And, the railroads made it easy by securing vast tracts of land from the U.S. Government, and through encouraging the settlement of towns close to the rail lines. Casselton, where they ultimately ended up, was in the early 1900’s a major center for freight movement through the state. They lived there until the outbreak of the Second World War, whereupon it was decided by my great-grandfather (I would have liked to have known him then. He was, by photographic and personal accounts, a handsome, debonair, intellectual, and all around cool fellow), that the family would move to California, to take part in the work of the Kaiser Shipyards.

During and after the American Civil War, Generals like Sully, Sibley, Terry, and Custer were sent to the "frontier" to secure land for immigrants like Michael Lopez' great-great-grandparents from the native peoples who already lived there. Above, Clell Gannon's painting Sibley Campaign of 1863 celebrates manifest destiny.

That might have been the end of this story. After all, when I was born in 1982, they had lived in their California house for over forty years (they never moved out of it), all of their children resided in the state, as did every other immediate family member. My own family was established in its businesses and trades; my schooling was secured by nature of district alignment; health facilities were (and remain), some of the best in the country; and the terrain, those geographic areas I’ve been fortunate to call “home,” are some of the most beautiful you will encounter in the world. There is nothing like being close to the ocean for a Norwegian (that ancient blood still moves through my veins), and the ghostly echoes of waves still comforts me when I am most alone. I even attended an elementary school directly adjacent (our fence was about 15 feet away) to the bay itself.

At this point I’m usually stopped in my response to most people’s question on why the move, the radical shift North – but I ask them to hold, because it’s important to understand what has been my home for over twenty years. And, because, I want them to understand that the directions our lives take, whatever choices we make, are bound in an universe (which no one can fully envision) – all that blackness held together by so many particles of light, and motion; families of substance that go back to the beginnings of time – of past, the past of our ancients who traveled from the only places they knew, in a search of being for some epic impulse within them; the more immediate past of our migrant ancestors finding their ways to this young country; and the most immediate past of those relatives who welcomed us into this world, into our first light; our home is already chosen for us.

The Kaiser Shipyard's General Warehouse, photographed by Jon Haeber.

It could have been anywhere: Australia, Japan, Iowa, or Nevada, but it was San Francisco, California. And in the end, it was only a place. The webs of being were already crafted and formed, the lines of transit between bloodlines and people, established; our fates are bound to those who came before us, and our choice is to accept the open door to adventure, to fate, that they offer.

The answer then, if there is one, or at least the closest that one individual journeying through life, attempting to continue the infinite thread that connects one living being to the family of humanity can give, is my family. My father, mother, and great grandfather, whose life lessons – ones they don’t even know they gave – came in the form of stories; of places they had been, of things they had done; of memories that were woven so tightly into their conscious (and unconscious) being, that it influenced everything they had ever done.

The stories of North Dakota rank, as some of the most deeply affecting of my childhood. I spent a large amount of time with my great-grandfather, and was never so amazed as when his eyes would go off into some distant memory – of which I could play no role, except as receptor for the images he described – of North Dakota. The place he left in his early 20’s, and which seemed as close to him as though he had never left, as though every childhood friend, sour adult, sexy schoolmistress, (secretly) alcoholic husband, and dour spinster, were still there; still living in the same houses they had occupied since the beginning of time – his time, which is as real as anyone or anything gets.

The Security Building in downtown Grand Forks burned down during the flood of 1997.

Those streets of North Dakota never changed for him. I remember when I was in high school, when Grand Forks was devastated by a flood, that for that day (and the week, or two after), the television was always on, always on the news channel, as he watched those electronic images with a reflection so deep that not even a serious student of Kant, or Hegel, could achieve that sense of oneness with the idea, or act. He told me, with something that bordered on the joy of a schoolchild, and the concern of a North Dakotan, that Grand Forks had been flooded; as though he was there, back again, a part of something he had left fifty years earlier. A vicarious involvement in a part of a place that took him into its web of existence, as though he had never left; never ceased to live in Casselton; never stopped being in North Dakota. And, he never did.

His stories filled much of the time we spent together, and of course they weren’t always about North Dakota. Often they were about wonderful parties he went to in the hills of Berkeley, in the Sixties; about organizing labor on the waterfront, as a longshoreman, with the great Harry Bridges, and on. They were the stories of a single man who lived a fully-lived life, and they were never boring – even to an eleven year old. The stories about North Dakota though, were always the ones that took on a different clarity; they caused Berkeley, San Francisco, and the town he had lived in for half a century, to fade away. They became little more than a glimmer, a passing stop on a long journey that began, and ultimately ended in, North Dakota.

Crown Butte, a natural landmark to all people throughout the ages, west of Mandan, ND.

Those stories that he told me, that he honored me with in a sacred tradition that goes back to cave paintings, aren’t remarkable. I mean that in the sense that he wasn’t the Norwegian Scott Amundson, who traversed Antarctica, braving severe temperatures – though growing up in the 1920’s and 30’s in North Dakota could certainly be read as that – while exploring vast territories, as yet unknown. His stories were about everyday events – kids running around, soaping up windows on Halloween; getting a milk cow onto the third story of their High School building – they were stories about husbands who secretly drank, and hid their empty bottles of vanilla in old tool sheds; ultra-religious women who objected to everything, and attractive aunts, who had they not been aunts might have taught my young grandfather more than he could have bargained for. Stories about kissing young girls born in Breckenridge, Minnesota; being sick with scarlet fever, more than once, and a host of other diseases, that he told with a distant tear in his eye – as though he had been happier facing death, in that cold terrain, up North. (Sickness, and kissing, seemed to have less of a pleasure in California, than in that far-away distance sense; a mixture of nostalgia, and a life altered beyond one’s ability to comprehend where it went.)

There were stories about the people who filled this town of Casselton: its two doctors, the good one who took care of the poor, and who charged nominal fees that they could afford; and the bad doctor, who took much better care of the rich. My great-grandfather had the unfortunate circumstance, during one of his bouts of sickness unto death, of dealing with the wealthy one – whose name escapes me. While treating my grandfather, this doctor had to go out of town to attend a gathering, and when my grandfather’s mother asked him: “What more can I do?” his only response was, “To pray.”

The Casselton High School in 1909.

My grandfather’s mother being dissatisfied with this response – she was one of those sturdy Nordic mothers, who could switch fluently between Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish (something that their great-great grandchildren, and I struggle with; we’ve lost something of that maneuverable tongue, that speaks with ease to our neighbors), and who refused to take matters like death, which were always so close at hand it seems, lying down – and so she went to speak with Dr. Reedy, the good doctor. He asked her what medicine had been prescribed, and I remember my grandfather belaboring to me that it was measured in “horse units” (though I may have misremembered it), and when my grandfather’s mother told him, he shouted “My God, he’s killing him!” Dr. Reedy tripled the medication that the other doctor had prescribed, and when he returned from his conference and found my grandfather sitting up in bed eating ice cream, his face – much to my grandfather’s relish – dropped to the floor. My grandfather also told me that Dr. Reedy eventually committed suicide, and he could never quite understand why – he had always served the vulnerable, the truly needy of Casselton. I’m not sure I can answer that question, but it strikes me that it’s not altogether surprising that of the two doctors, his name is the only one I can recall.

Even my grandfather’s fondness for restaurants with booths and curtains (he used to point out the old hooks for the curtains at older restaurants we’d go to), where he remembered these stories with such acuity and narrative clarity, that I’m struck at how real his memories seem to me, though he’s been dead nearly ten years. He liked those curtained booths, for making out with pretty young girls.

A curtained booth in an older restaurant.

One of his most distinctive memories of North Dakota was of a beautiful, young, Irish girl; very Catholic, though as my atheistic, liberal, grandfather told me, “Still I would’ve converted for her, and we’d ‘ave had ten children.” I don’t quite remember how he met her, or where, only that she had gone to a teachers college in Jamestown, and had landed a job teaching primary school in Fargo. It makes sense if they had met there, my grandfather worked in Fargo for Sears, Roebuck – a job that always loomed as his finest. However they met, it was love at first sight: he would begin to describe her fiery red hair, and how they would go to restaurants and spend “hours,” as he put it, “just staring at each other.” Unfortunately, my grandfather was also very much married, and would soon have a child on the way to complement the affairs. And so, as is so often the case, this young woman wrote my grandfather a letter, which was found by my grandmother – and after that, there were no more letters. This affair was never consummated – it was never about that. It was about the passion that burns inside every individual who lets himself live, to find another person that he can love in such a way as no other. It’s our choices that often redirect those ambitions – in my grandfather’s case, getting my grandmother (who he met on a blind date, arranged by his friends) pregnant.

One of the most famous smoking hot Irish women in the early days of film was Maureen O'Hara.

He didn’t regret marrying my grandmother, or having children. After all, he would tell me, “I would never have gotten you.” I know he meant that, and that I was the son he never had (he only had daughters), and so he intended that I should carry on the ambitions of living, as he had done for most of his life. And yet, it’s not without tears in my own eyes that I remember his mind being transported far away from the Pacific Ocean, away from me, from his family, from the very car he was driving – we often talked about his past while in the car – back to a place that then, at fifteen or sixteen, I simply could not understand.

North Dakota.

“Okay, Grandpa, what is this North Dakota?”

“There’s nothing like it, Michael,” he would say, “We used to have so much fun, and then there was…”

And eventually her name would come up, that woman who he never had, and at that physical moment in his life, never would, and whom I could never meet. And yet, I did meet her, time and again in that car with my grandfather; she was resurrected from the depths of his memories, which at eighty retained such detail that I’m sometimes ashamed to admit I can’t even remember some of the momentous moments of my life in such vivid imagery. Always the backdrop for this was North Dakota, with its endless stretch of characters for there – in Casselton, Fargo, everywhere – were characters.

New York City in the 1950s.

An author once said that “New York has only eight or nine characters,” and the rest are just “copies.” Copies of copies of copies, that are slowly diluted, like in California. We are too far away from each other here, though we sometimes sit right next to each other on the train or bus, idling in traffic to go to points we think we know, to be characters any longer. Our towns long ago lost that ability to support characters as a town, as a community.

Every memory my grandfather spoke retained the vibrancy of pure air: as though when he spoke of this place so distant (and it is 2,000 miles from San Francisco), the only thing I could even begin to compare it with is camping out with friends on the tops of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, where you’re confronted with billions of stars, that you’d never know existed, if you lived your life in the city, if you lived in that image of what is. When he spoke of his love for that young woman, of icy winters, long underwear, and outhouses; of being an upwardly mobile buyer for Federated Department stores; of food, and lefse, dancing, music, and town gatherings – I was drinking in pure air. It jolted my stifled mind, long since used to the clouded exhaust of so much, to realize I had so little of that purity, of characters, of those things that really mattered: love, community, fun, adventure, and the clarity that only forty below brings.

The campus of the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND.

Even so, after my grandfather died, I remained in California. This is, after all, my first home, the place I felt I knew best, and I was able to attend one of its renowned universities. It was not until I was close to graduating that I realized I had better figure out what to do with my life, and so after a night of heavy drinking and thinking, I decided that graduate school seemed, at that point, the place to direct myself to. I wasn’t quite ready to relinquish the academic world yet, though it had disappointed me as an undergraduate with its petty vices, and war of words on every miniscule topic one can imagine. North Dakota was one of many places I applied, and it accepted me. At twenty-one I was given full support, and a teaching position – and without a second thought, I left California, and moved there. I have never regretted that choice.

What I discovered there was not my grandfather’s North Dakota; it exists, in parts, and there are still people there who remember him. I was even able to take my sister to visit a woman who grew up with my grandfather (she still lives in Casselton), and my sister’s eyes filled with tears as she listened to this woman tell the stories I knew so well, and for her to understand and see, that our beginning began far away from the coastal territories we know so well. But those stories that were my grandfather’s are not my own, they are his, and will forever be; what they did for me was to show me that my way is not so lonely or alone, as so many young people my age believe; it lit up corridors and halls throughout a place that felt, from the first, as though I had returned home.

"What they did was to show me that my way is not so lonely or alone...," says Michael Lopez.

I knew no one, understood none of the rituals or institutions that were the state, but never felt lost, or outside of what I had never lived. Everywhere I drove, everything I saw, seemed as it should be, in the right place, doing what it ought to be doing. Though, and this is especially true late at night, as I drive on the major interstate highway that runs from Bismarck, Casselton, Fargo, to Minneapolis, and as I pass Casselton, I always howl the loudest howl I can muster, in honor of one who brought me here. There would be no North Dakota without my family; everything would have been strange and foreign. I could have, over time, grown accustomed to it – but it would never have been the strange peace, as when I lived through my first winter, of standing at the edge of town staring off into the infinite whiteness and feeling as though I had only come home.

Our lives are decided for us long before we’re even conceived, let alone physically delivered into the arms of life. I don’t mean to say that we have no freedom to choose, or that we can’t make our lives what they are – we do that everyday. I have done that, made choices, tried to understand who and what I am, and where I’m going, but my stories know too well now that look my grandfather had when he resurrected memories; my heart now feels the icy cold of a North Dakota winter, and sometimes (though, not always; it can get very cold there) longs to be in it; to drink coffee, and drive on highways unclouded by the frantic mentalities of speed, and schedule, lost in my own recollections of what it means to live, to take time to think of everyone around me, of the characters I have encountered, and who are waiting to be born.

A look from an overpass of I94. The roads go to the edge of forever in North Dakota.

My grandfather’s stories, as I have said, did not force me down this path, and he did not mean for them to be a rigid structure for living my life. Rather, as is the case with true stories, he meant for them to be an inheritance of himself, of his lifetime of knowledge on everything that was good, right, and just, on the themes that have been the foundations of meaning for the human race: love, beauty, and hope, and to find, as he once had, a place of home where those could be felt in their true magnitude.

Until I lived in North Dakota it was always an image, a thought, an idea – a place that, sure, yeah, existed, but not really. Having lived there, and having understood my grandfather’s stories as I have made my own, I understand now why California was, for him, a station, where he could tend to all of the things that life gives an individual in a lifetime. And, I like to think, he tended them well. So well, in fact, that whenever anyone asks me, “Why North Dakota?” I only give them a smile of deep feeling, and unconsciously I feel a part of my mind shoot off into the depths of memory, and though I can’t see myself, I feel my eyes taking on the look of my grandfather, as I glance off into the distant sky that forms the horizon, and the outlet of the bay to the Pacific Ocean that unfolds before me, and in my chest, and with the hint of a sigh, I reply, with a sense of complete peace and knowing, “Where else?”

Michael Lopez was a graduate student at the University of North Dakota, in the department of English. Originally from San Francisco, CA, Michael earned A.B. in English Literature and Political Theory from the University of California, Davis. His research focuses on the writings of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, and William Shakespeare. In addition to his work in North Dakota, Michael has held fellowships and residencies with the Kierkegaard Library, St. Olaf college, and the Søren Kierkegaard Research Centre, at the University of Copenhagen, in Denmark. Although much of his work is focused on British literature and philosophy, he has a serious interest in American literature, and recently presented (Summer, 2006) at the Hemingway Foundation’s conference in Andalusia, Spain, on the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and one of Hemingway’s later novels, Across the River and Into the Trees.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Key Ingredients, A Travelling Smithsonian Exhibit to Visit Hettinger, ND

The Dakota Buttes Museum in Hettinger, ND will be hosting the travelling Smithsonian exhibit Key Ingredients: America By Food beginning tomorrow.

Here is a brief listing of events in association with the exhibit in Hettinger, ND:

Sheheke, White Coyote. Sheheke was born about 1766 at the On A Slant Mandan Indian VIllage, presently located in Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park. He died near present-day Washburn, ND defending the United States when the War of 1812 spread west.

May 5, 2012 - 2:00 pm MDT, Dakota Buttes Museum

Ribbon cutting / Visiting dignitaries / Refreshments

Speaker: Diana Medicine Stone, direct descendant of Sheheke, the Mandan chief who met the Corps of Discovery in 1804 with the greeting, "If we eat, you too shall eat. If we starve, you too shall starve." Lewis and Clark escorted Sheheke east in 1806 to meet with President Jefferson. Join Medicine Stone in Hettinger to hear the retelling of this wonderful and historical benchmark in American history.

The Hettinger Lutheran Church is located at 904 2nd Ave S., in Hettinger, ND.

May 6, 2012 - 2:00 pm MDT, Hettinger Lutheran Church fellowship hall

Enjoy afternoon tea in a festive atmosphere complete with homemade delicacies served on a variety of treasured table setting. Program. Hats and gloves optional. Freewill.


May 9, 16, 23, 30, and June 6, 13, 2012 - 10:00 am MDT, Dakota Buttes Museum

Wednesday morning gatherings to discuss various food-related topics specific to the area.

Dakota plays the Native Amerian flute at the On A Slant village in Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park. Photo courtesy of ND Tourism.

May 21 & 22, 2012 - 10:00 to 4:00 pm MDT, Dakota Buttes Museum

Dakota Goodhouse, NDHC Program Officer and Researcher, invites students to reflect, to share and to connect in a greater understanding of the Key Ingredients: America by Food exhibit. Visit

Alan Bjerga, follow him at

June 4, 2012 - 7:00 pm MDT, Dakota Buttes Museum

Alan Bjerga, American journalist and former president of the National Press Association, with his book Endless Appetites: How the Commodities Casino Creates Hunger and Unrest. Discussion / Book signing

Jessie Veeder, right, North Dakota song writer, performing artist, and photographer.

June 17, 2012 - 2:00 pm MDT, Dakota Buttes Museum

Voices of the Prairie: Borderline Singers / When Stories Speak: Ceil Anne Clement

If Aprons Could Talk: Apron Style Show / Voices of the Present: Jessie Veeder

Visit Jessie Veeder online for music, photography, humor, and observations about ranch life in western North Dakota.


June 17, 2012 - 4:00 to 7:00 pm MDT, Dakota Buttes Museum

Yesterday’s Farmers / Musical Entertainment 6:00 pm Freewill

Visit for more information about the events in association with the Smithsonian exhibit.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

North Dakota Welcomes Back Chuck Klosterman

Chuck Klosterman was the READ ND author of 2012. This very special guest lecture was brought together through the cooperative efforts of Prairie Public Broadcasting, the North Dakota Library Association, the North Dakota Council on The Arts, the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and the North Dakota Humanities Council.

On Wednesday evening, April 11, 2012, Chuck Klosterman visited the Bismarck State College campus and treated a packed audience to an hour of North Dakota humor and life lessons.

Klosterman's most popular work so far is his Sex, Drugs, and Cocopuffs. Support your local book store and gratify yourself with a copy today!

Monday, April 30, 2012

Life Returns to The Northern Plains

Trees begin to bud leaves as pictured above. Cottonwood trees wake up from a prolonged autumn and show boaters and fishers they survived last year's flood.

The Missouri River holds a special place in the hearts of the native peoples and the people who've come to make their homes in the river valley.

In the middle distance above is Fox Island, a developed suburb of Bismarck. It was under water during last year's flood. In the middle to far distance is Sibley Island. Why are these places special?

What we call Fox Island today was where the Corps of Discovery encamped on their return to St. Louis in the late summer of 1806. They took with them the Mandan Indian Chief Shehek Shote (White Wolf), aka Sheheke (White Coyote), who told them of the history of where he was born across the river at On A Slant village.

What we call Sibley Island, of course was where a steamboat, the Assiniboin, became caught on a sandbar and burned, in the 1830s. Later, in 1863, General Sibley's command engaged what he estimated as a force of about 2500 people (about able-bodied warriors) in a punitive campaign against the Sioux, only he didn't realize until later that he fought people who had nothing to do with the Dakota Conflict in Minnesota the previous year.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sibley Island, formerly called Burnt Boat Island

This image is taken from the hilltop at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park looking south southeast. In the center line is Sibley Island.

In the 1830s, Prinz Maximilian ascended the Missouri River with the artist Karl Bodmer. On coming up the Missouri River, they noted a burned out steamboat which had run aground on a sandbar. The steamboat as called "The Assiniboine," it was the second steamboat to travel upriver from St. Louis to Fort Union. It became grounded and overheated and burned. The sandbar grew to an island and is new part of the west bank of the Missouri River.

A different view of Sibley Island, looking west from the University of Mary, Bismarck, ND.

The island was renamed after General Sibley and his campaign against the Dakota in 1863. On July 29, 1863, Sibley engaged a force of perhaps as many as 2600 Dakota and Lakota warriors and fought them for three days in a battle larger and lasting longer than the Little Bighorn. Sibley was unable to take prisoners and could not estimate how many his men killed. The Sioux were encamped on the bluff overlooking the Missouri River and Apple Creek and held their ground until their women and children escaped. The "battle" was essentially a stalemant. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

What is "Community" and How Is It Changing in North Dakota?

By David Danborn
(Originally posted on, June 3, 2008)

When the folks at the North Dakota Humanities Council asked me to write on this question I figured the first thing I needed to do was to research the word “community” a little bit.

So I typed in “community” on Google and was informed that there were “approximately” 1,130,000,000 entries. That’s a lot of entries, even for a college professor with time on his hands, so I went over to the NDSU library to see whether I could find a more manageable data set.

The NDSU main library. Visit their website at

Typing in “community” on the subject line of the NDSU Library brought up 5522 entries. That quite a bit more manageable than 1.1 billion and change, but it’s still a pretty big number and – keep in mind – we’re hardly the Library of Congress. But at least I could get a sense of what “community” means from these 5500+ entries.

Turns out it means a lot of different stuff. As I expected, community refers to places, as in the work entitled A Community Study of Mandan, North Dakota. Nor was I surprised to see community defined in terms of emotional bonds among people, as in the book In Search of Community: Encounter Groups and Social Change.

But the word community is also regularly applied to large social groupings, as in the “European community” or the “community of man.” And it is frequently applied to professional groupings, such as the “legal community” or the “medical community.” Interestingly, it is frequently applied to professions but almost never to jobs. There seems to be no “plumbing community” or “truck-driving community.”

We also see the word community attached to institutions, organizations, or even inclinations. Hence, we speak of a “Catholic community” or the “volunteer community” or an “NDSU community.”

Daniel Boorstin's book "The Americans: The Democratic Experience" can be found in most libraries, if not, one can always order a copy off of

Reading through these many applications I was reminded of a book by Daniel Boorstin called The Americans: The Democratic Experience. Boorstin saw communities everywhere, in the television shows people watched, the organizations they joined, and the products they consumed. As one who wrote about “I Love Lucy” and “Frigidaire” communities, Boorstin would undoubtedly nod approvingly at mention of “Face Book” and “My Space” communities today.

Complicating matters further is the fact that the word community goes beyond even this infinite variety of human groupings in its application to ecological or biological niches or species, as in Ecology and Natural History of Desert Lizards: Analysis of the Ecological Niche and Community Structure. Now, if you were to stick the lizards together with the lawyers, this use of “community” might make more sense.

Supreme Court Justice Brennan knows porn.

Well, it should be pretty clear that my search for help turned out to be more confusing than enlightening. I found myself thinking of the words of Justice Brennan of the United States Supreme Court, who said that he couldn’t define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. With apologies to Brennan, I’m not going to attach a rigid definition to community, but I think I know it when I see it, and I expect most of you do, too.

I expect that when most of us think about “community” we think about it through some combination of the first two ways I mentioned – as a physical place inhabited by people bound together emotionally. This is fairly close to the definition of community provided by Ferdinand Töennies, the German sociologist of the nineteenth century who was one of the first people to study the issue systematically. Töennies defined communities as relatively restricted spaces shared by people with close family, kin, friendship and neighborhood ties. In Töennies’ communities human bonds were personal and emotional rather than contractural, and human affairs were governed by moral responsibility and personal obligation rather than law. Töennies contrasted community with society. Societies were made up of diverse, unrelated and unconnected people, often divided along class or ethnic lines. People in societies had few mutual ties and consequently felt few mutual obligations. Thus, they were governed not by moral imperatives, but by law backed by compulsion and force. I would imagine Töennies’ understanding of society sounds rather harsh and alien to us. But his conception of community probably resonates with us, because it sounds a lot like what we have had – and what we still have – in North Dakota.

An old settlers picnic at Pollack, SD.

Early European Americans in North Dakota had to make farms and towns and lives, but when you think about it, you realize that their communities came pretty much ready made. Take a look some time at Bill Sherman’s wonderful ethnic atlas of North Dakota – Prairie Mosaic. When you look at Sherman’s big picture, you see a remarkably heterogenous state. But when you break it down to the township or sub-township level you see communities of remarkable – even stunning – homogeneity. That isn’t accidental. That’s how the railroads and the land companies and the settlers themselves settled the state. So we have Bohemian Germans over here and Volga Germans over there. Norwegians in this township and Swedes in that. Poles on this side of the river and Icelanders on the other.

Sitting Bull attends the installation of the Standing Rock Memorial in Fort Yates, ND. A mixed community of natives and immigrants.

It was a good way to settle the land. It was easier to sell to a group and easier to attract individuals when a bunch of folks like them were already there. And when they came from the same village or even the same family, as they frequently did, they had a ready-made community. People already cared about each other and were ready to lend each other a hand. And when you’re among friends and relatives who depend on you and on whom you depend, you tend to be a sticker and a survivor. It’s easier for you to make a go of it in a difficult environment.

People who spoke the same language – literally and figuratively – quickly created institutions that buttressed their strong sense of community. They founded ethnic churches with services in their native languages. They built schools in which the language of instruction was supposed to be English but frequently was not. They created new organizations – such as the Sons of Norway – to reinforce and elaborate their community ties and their connections to home. And they recreated the Old World in the New, transferring customs, traditions, celebrations, foodways – you name it – from the Russian Steppes and the Scandinavian valleys to the vast and forbidding Great Plains.

One is tempted to call these “island communities,” after historian Robert Wiebe’s phrase coined a generation ago, but they were never isolated in the sense of Indians deep in the Amazon rain forest or throwbacks in isolated Appalachian hollows. North Dakota communities participated in a national commercial and political culture. Children went off to school or to the service or to work for a while in Fargo or Minneapolis or Seattle. And automobiles and radios exposed local communities to the world beyond the locality.

Hutterites pictured here prepare to establish a new colony. There are currently six Hutterite colonies in North Dakota, a seventh colony is being established near Hillsboro, ND. These island communities are primarily pacifists and speak Hutterite German.

But, in the context of modern American society, these communities were relatively isolated. They were rural, agriculturally oriented communities, and were not particularly dynamic. People moved out, because agriculture simply couldn’t support all of the children farmers produced, but few people moved in, and those who did were usually friends or relatives of the folks who were already there.

The relatively static nature of so many North Dakota communities was not a bad thing. We tend to privilege “progress” in the United States and assume it is good, but that’s not necessarily so. There is much to be said for places that don’t change very much when they are comfortable, caring, and sustaining. It is the nature of these communities – and their relatively unchanging character – that makes modern people who grew up in them so nostalgic about them.

North Dakota communities provided a comforting and sustaining environment to many of the people living in them, but not all. Communities set standards and had expectations. Those who met them enjoyed a warm and pleasant life. Those who did not – who were “different” to use that judgmental word so popular in our state – found communities stifling and oppressive rather than supportive and caring. They are the folks who left and who do not attend the centennials and all-school reunions that draw so many old residents back.

A barbed wire fence in field of North Dakota.

The fact is that community means defining who we are, but also who we aren’t. It’s about including some people and excluding others, and some of those who are excluded live there. This is where the fences come in.

Now, defining people out as well as in is not a practice confined to North Dakota. I think it is probably a component of human nature generally, and perhaps of the nature of other species as well. We all tend to divide humanity into “us” and the “other.” What we are defines implicitly – and sometimes explicitly – what we are not.

In part because our communities are so tight and change so little we in North Dakota have a good understanding of us and them – of defining of who we are not by who we are. We are Catholic, not Lutheran; white not black or Latino or Indian; Norwegian, not German or Irish; West River, not Imperial Cass. Plug in what you want. We all have a good sense of who we are and who we are not; of who is on our side of the fence and who is on the other side.

Us and them sounds negative, but it isn’t necessarily. We need to know who us is to have a sense of identity and uniqueness and a feeling of belonging, and defining them as them doesn’t usually do anybody any tangible harm.

Rapid change is hitting rural North Dakota communities in the northwest part of the state. A physical manifestation of that change is the increase in traffic on the roads where for years rural North Dakotans drove mostly at their leisure. Newcomers from out of state are put in that "them" catagory.

But the us-and-them thinking that we see in our communities and that represents the fences with which we are so familiar can actually harm us and foreclose a better future for our children and our grandchildren. We need to ask whether the fences our ancestors built a century a [sic] more ago are appropriate in a dynamic and rapidly changing society, or whether they limit North Dakota’s ability to move forward to a brighter future.

We all know that the most compelling and enduring issue in our state is demographic. We are the only state in the Union whose population is smaller today than it was in 1930. We obsess about this issue. We are excited when the Census Data Center shows an uptick in the birthrate or a slight population increase. Conversely, even a slight population decline sends us into a funk.

We view the demographic decline as our number one problem, and what is the solution we regularly suggest? Keeping young North Dakotans here and/or inducing former North Dakotans to return. Now, there are good reasons for conceiving this solution first. People who live here or who have lived here know that we are not at the end of the earth and they know that it is possible to survive the winter. We don’t have to sell them in the way we have to sell outlanders.

One demographic that has seen a steady increase is the native one on the Indian Reservations within the state.

But there’s something more to this, isn’t there? Present and former North Dakotans are part of us. They have been inside the fence, so we know that, not only will they be comfortable with us, we will be comfortable with them.

There’s another way to address our demographic problem. We could encourage immigration to the state by people who have never been North Dakotans. We have great communities and an attractive lifestyle. Why not urge others to come and share it with us?

For about thirty years after statehood we had a Department of Immigration and we had lots of immigrants. In 1910 seventy percent of North Dakotans were either immigrants – mostly from Europe or Canada – or the children of immigrants, a figure which led the nation.

In the 2003, 2005, and 2007 legislative sessions a bill was introduced to revive the state immigration department, which would now target people in other states rather than other countries. It was defeated every time. In 2005 a senator summed up the opposition during floor debate when he concluded, “immigrants cause problems.” What a fine fence-builder he is!

In the film "Gangs of New York," actor Daniel Day-Lewis' character, Bill "The Butcher" Cutting, leads explosive protests against immigration. At one point in the film, The Butcher can be heard shouting for America for Native Americans - he meant of course, natural born citizens.

But, to give him his due, we need to recognize that this xenophobic fence-builder is right in a sense. Outsiders do challenge us. Bosnians and Somalis in Fargo stress the capacities of the schools. It is sometimes difficult to communicate with Latinos in Grafton and Drayton. Roughnecks from Texas and Oklahoma bring practices and dialects and churches to which Williston and Dickinson are not accustomed. But all of these folks also enrich us, economically and culturally. They shake us up and stir the pot. They shock us out of our lethargy and comfortable self-satisfaction. But I believe – and I think the census figures bear me out – that they represent a large part of the future of the state.

I believe that the challenge for North Dakota in the future is not going to involve the wholesale tearing down of the fences that have helped us maintain strong and sustaining communities, but in putting more gates in our fences and opening them more widely. We need to bring more of those who are outside the fence in and we need to make them more comfortable when they are inside.

A fence in the middle of the prairie keeps important stuff in and other stuff out. That's what its supposed to do.

I don’t think this needs to involve a sea-change or a major disruption in our lives, but it will require a little different way of thinking. In recent years we have undergone an ethnic revival movement. NDSU houses a “Center for Heritage Renewal” whose purpose is to serve “heritage communities.” I have not doubts that this center has done much good work on behalf of our “heritage communities” and that those entities appreciate it and what it does. But what I really wish someone would create is a “Center for North Dakota Renewal.” That center wouldn’t define community in terms of eating lutefisk, or speaking German, or making kuchen, or telling Norwegian jokes. It wouldn’t focus on who is in and, by implication, who is out. It would define community in a larger and broader and more emotionally inclusive sense that we have tended to define it. It would talk about community in terms of sustenance for families, neighbors who genuinely care for one another, pride of place, tolerance, and, to paraphrase Martine Luther King, Jr., judgment of others on the basis of their characters rather than their “heritage communities.”

We have the fences, and they don’t need to be built stronger and higher. What we need to do now is to open the gates and invite those who can be North Dakota’s future in.

David B. Danbom is a historian, author, columnist, and professor of agricultural history at North Dakota State University. Danbom spent nine years on the Fargo Historic Preservation Commission.