Nice Write-Up on Theodora Bird Bear

This is a great write-up on Mandan-Hidatsa Theodora Bird Bear, linked here, and on the complexities of life in the Bakken of western ND. She currently keeps the books for a church, this after spending 19 years working for Indian Health Services. I have had the privilege of hearing her speak about the living history and genealogical attachment to the landscape (every word deliberately chosen and delivered to the audience with respect for herself and others). This was last year, January 2013, before the ND Industrial Commission.


Friends in Fargo this Weekend

It’s about 3:23PM, so I thought I’d break just a moment for tea and a blog entry to throw out a little PR for some colleagues and friends.

Two events are going down in Fargo this Saturday, March 15. Well, wait a minute: certainly there are more than two events going down in Fargo this Saturday. But here are the two events that I know of right now, this Monday afternoon. The two that I’m going to talk about. You should definitely go see other events, too, above and beyond this.

The first event is a benefit for a friend and scholar, Mike Casler. Mike was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2011, and he’s been through a battery of surgeries and radiation treatment. Mike, along with a bunch of us, are gathering at The Bowler in Fargo (2630 South University Dr.) anywhere from 4:00-11:55PM for the official Mike Casler Benefit Fund — again this Saturday, March 15. Also, Mike is the author and historian of several upper Missouri River scholarly works, including Steamboats of the Fort Union Fur Trade: An Illustrated Listing of Steamboats on the Upper Missouri River, 1831-1867 (Ft. Union Association, 1999); and he regularly collaborates and conspires (in a good way) with the Great Plains titan of anthro, archaeology and history, W. Raymond Wood (some of Ray’s works here, here, and here, and his memoirs here).

And also on Saturday, March 15, Keith Bear will be playing Mandan-Hidatsa flute at 8:15PM in The Avalon. This is a part of the larger Great Winter Crow Show organized by Dawn and the Spirit Room Galleries. Also check that out from 5:00-10:00PM. You can read more about Keith at this link here. The event is sponsored by the Avalon Event Center, the Lake Region Art Council, and the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Okay, that was a 5-minute blog post update. Back to it.


Visiting Dickinson State University

Left to right, Historian Frank Varney, Aaron Barth, and Political Scientist Steven Doherty.

Left to right, Historian Frank Varney, Aaron Barth, and Political Scientist Steven Doherty on the campus of Dickinson State University, western North Dakota.

Yesterday Dickinson State University (via Frank Varney) invited me to speak about a component of research concerning how and why the US-Dakota Wars (1862-1864) were remembered at the turn of the 19th century throughout the Minnesota River Valley and on the northern Great Plains. It was great to get west of the upper Missouri River and spend some time with Varney and other fellow history and humanities nerds. I like this topic — thinking about how the US-Dakota Wars were remembered — because it mitigates what I call historical anxiety. I’ve thought about this phrase for a while, and loosely define it as that anxious feeling of not knowing how and why something happened in a particular place in time. A way to mitigate historical anxiety is to head into the archives and cobble together a narrative from the disparate bits and pieces. Through this I’ve been able to understand why the US-Dakota Wars were memorialized the way they were at the turn of the 19th century.

I’m using this, in turn, to push the way in which we think about the US-Dakota Wars today: largely as genocide, the word invented and deployed by Raphael Lemkin first in 1944. At the root, genocide comes from the Greek genos, which roughly means people or tribe; and the Latin cide, which means killing. Don’t take my word for it, though: visit Sully and Sibley in their own words. One humanistic universal I pitched out there to the group was that if the United States concerns (as it should) itself with genocide taking place today in Syria, and in other parts of the world, the U.S. should also concern itself with and consider the genocide that took place in our own past. Otherwise it just gets awkward, as the question will invariably come up time and again. So we can either chat and consider this, or just pretend like it doesn’t exist. If we pursue the latter, it just ends up leading to long bouts of awkward, uncomfortable silence. More on all this scholarship later, at least as it applies to the US-Dakota Wars, and the broader 19th-century Anglosphere.

Just a real quick warranted amplification of Varney’s work (he is in the midst of preparing a second volume that builds off his first monograph), General Grant and the Rewriting of History: How the Destruction of General William S. Rosecrans Influenced Our Understanding of the Civil War (Savas Beatie, 2013). Click on that link. If you enjoy history, or have thought deeply or superficially (there are only so many hours in a day) about memoirs, or Grant’s memoirs, definitely give it a go.


Thoughts on Nebraska

NebraskaMolly and I caught the late matinee Nebraska at the downtown Fargo Theater this Sunday afternoon. It’s a story about an older man (Bruce Dern) who is starting to enter the earliest phases of senility. He and his wife made a life in Billings, Montana, having relocated there years prior from their small home town of Hawthorne, Nebraska. This old timer received a standard sweepstakes letter that said he was a “winner” of $1 million. He only had to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to check his winning number to see if he did in fact win. Through this he becomes possessed with getting to Lincoln: he finally felt he had something to live for. And without spoiling any more of it, I’ll just type a couple ideas below and recommend that you check out the film yourself.

The first idea is how small town agrarian life can come to a crawl in the absence of, well, anything beyond industrial farming. In many ways this reminded me of life in western North Dakota in, say, the 80s and 90s. In the movie, Hawthorne was not experiencing a robust Bakken oil boom. Folks kept busy, but it was at a level rather than an unrestricted economic pace.

The second thing impressed upon me was how well the cameras captured the northern Great Plains. The film is shot in black and white, possibly to convey a greater sense of gloom. But the Great Plains look glorious in either full color or black and white (and when we say “black and white,” what we really mean is shades of grey).

The old timer and his family also visited the abandoned family farmstead, one of those homes that we pass thousands of times on rural and main roads throughout the Great Plains. Whenever I’m out on assignment, recording one of these rural structures (I’m in the profession of historic preservation), I can’t help but think about what kind of lives were made and carried on day in and day out. A kind of “these walls can talk” feeling. It’s a squishy feeling, yes. But we’re human. That means we feel — sensory and perception — and we’re supposed to describe that. So anyhow go to this movie. It is good. I think we’ve earmarked Inside Llewyan Davis for our next cinema outing.


Wind Turbine Mosaic in Langdon, North Dakota

Some of the 20th century Cold War missile public art in Langdon, North Dakota. The Langdon Elementary School is immediately behind this missile.

Some of the 20th century Cold War missile public art in Langdon, North Dakota. The Langdon Elementary School is immediately behind this missile.

Molly and I are now back in Fargo, having returned from a couple days in Langdon, northeastern North Dakota. To my right is a small pincer sized Cypriot coffee (I trucked back a couple bags of the stuff upon finishing my eastern Mediterranean archaeological trench supervisory work in June 2012, some details of that here and here and here), and on the stove is a long link of smoked garlic Langdon Locker sausage (sides include grated horseradish, stone ground mustard, ketchup). Oranges are also going to make an appearance for breakfast.

While in Langdon, though, Molly was on a special assignment with the Langdon public school system and the Northern Lights Arts Council. Her colleague and friend, Mindi Paulson, had an idea a couple months ago to co-lead an art project that would produce a mural for the entrance of the Langdon Elementary School. They decided to reflect the built landscape, or the wind turbine field immediately southeast of Langdon. The interesting thing about this 21st century wind turbine field is that it surrounds abandoned 20th century Cold War ICBM architecture, namely the Stanley R. Mickelson Safeguard Complex. In running errands here and there while in Langdon, and in viewing 20th century missile architecture in Langdon, I got to thinking about the perceptual shift in the Langdon landscape.

Teacher Mindi Paulson (far right) leads students in grouting the public wind turbine mosaic at the Langdon Elementary School.

Teacher Mindi Paulson (far right) leads students in grouting the public wind turbine mosaic at the Langdon Elementary School.

Last century, at least up until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the USSR, the public art projects in Langdon understandably amounted to potential nuclear holocaust, a byproduct of many things: competing D.C. and Moscow ideologies, Eisenhower’s military industrial complex, Cold War anxiety, eventual acceptance, and so on. David Mills has a lengthy monograph on this subject.

And this century, instead of massive Federal military infrastructure projects that reflect potential nuclear Armageddon, we get architecture that reflects and generates green, renewable energy. And you can see how it bears on the public art projects. So today students learn about wind turbines and the hands-on of making wind turbine murals. Last century the public art was a different story. In the discipline of history, we call that a perceptual shift or an intellectual turn. Or something like that.

Teacher Mindi Paulson explains the process of grouting to the students as Molly McLain grouts.

Teacher Mindi Paulson explains the process of grouting to the students as Molly McLain grouts.


Langdon Locker

Langdon Locker, 324 6th St., Langdon, Cavalier County, North Dakota, on the morning of February 27, 2014.

Langdon Locker, 324 6th St., Langdon, Cavalier County, North Dakota, on the morning of February 27, 2014.

This morning just after the sunrise, the car thermometer registered something like -18° F in Langdon, northeastern North Dakota. I’m on detail up here for a couple days, dissertating (a verb in grad school) and so on. But before getting started on that, I decided to track down the famous Langdon Locker, home of the famous Langdon Locker Sausage (caps is warranted).

This, says Tom Isern, is the greatest sausage in all of North Dakota. I once pressed Isern to explain why it was the best, and he (paraphrased) chalked it up to preparation and texture. I think the texture reminded him a bit of sausage production around and near his historic family farm in western Kansas. It is no surprise that certain smells and foods activate otherwise hibernating memory files within our brains.

Langdon Locker.

Langdon Locker.

In any case, I tracked down the Langdon Locker. Then I tracked down an ATM. Then I returned to Langdon Locker and purchased one of their regular staples, the smoked garlic pork sausage. It is locally made, and goes for just over $4 for one-and-a-half pounds. There are rumors that this sausage is available through distributors in Fargo. But there is something fun about getting the stuff at the source too.


White Chicken Chili

Molly's white chicken chili.

Molly’s white chicken chili.

There’s something like a 3rd or 7th polar vortex bearing down on the northern Great Plains and Great Lakes region on this sunny, cold Saturday lunch hour. Yesterday Molly suggested that we make white chicken chili. I set the navy beans to soaking yesterday afternoon, and she put soup together just before lunch today. Lots of coriander, cumin, Tochi’s taco seasoning, green and red chilies, etc. This is what she was telling me after I asked, “Why is this so delicious?” We also added cilantro just before serving. Note: what you can’t see in this photo are the two chihuahuas at my feet. Seriously. They are named Willow and Honey. This soup is heating us up for sure. Polar vortex, your serve.


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