(Originally posted on prairiepolis.blogspot.com, 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 http://library.ndsu.edu.
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 Amazon.com.
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.