Monthly Archives: August 2012

Western North Dakota Man Camps, Poetry, Literature, and Immigration

Media outlets have picked up on our study in western North Dakota that brought archaeological, anthropological, sociological and architectural models to bear on documenting man camps. The study was led by University of North Dakota’s Bill Caraher and Bret Weber, and they charged me with collecting interviews from the camp inhabitants (Weber also collected interviews). I thought specifically about two laborers I chatted with in a type II man-camp, a type of trailer park. They, Polo and José, identified themselves as Mexican-Americans, and their scuffed work boots, coarse hands, and sturdy frames reflected a life of labor they had already put in. José offered me a chair and hospitality, and Polo offered me a beverage. They did not care to waive their right for me to digitally record their stories (mainly because they wanted to read an information waiver, but in Spanish — I only had English on me, and no one wanted to try translating legalese English into Spanish), but we sat and chatted for almost an hour. Their families are back in the American southwest, and Polo and José labor on the northern Plains and occasionally make it back to their families to visit.

I was thinking about Polo and José this last weekend at the Four Souls Symposium, specifically at a talk put on by Luis Alberto Urrea. During his talk and while fielding audience questions, Urrea said we might all visit or revisit our country’s immigration law which can be found in legalese hypertext here. This 21st-century hypertext link stands in stark contrast to Emma Lazarus’s nineteenth-century sonnet, “The New Colossus,” mounted inside the lower level of the Statue of Liberty. In any case, check out Luis Alberto Urrea, The Devil’s Highway (2005). It humanizes the legalese, and captures the flesh-and-blood stories of a borderlands area.

Here is the 1883 Emma Lazarus sonnet in full:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The Benefits of Historical Misinterpretation

Some day down the line, perhaps decades from now, I plan on assembling a monograph with the rough title, “The Benefits of Historical Misinterpretation.” It will cover a series of case studies about how professional historians got things wrong, and it will also address the philosophical why. If an historical actor was wrong, there was a reason why. It will also flesh out the lasting effects of historical misinterpretation.

This idea came to me after chatting further with Naomi Shihab Nye about the purported flat where Louise Erdrich purportedly lived in Fargo during the 1970s. Naomi said she had further discussions with Louise about her time in Fargo, and that Louise said she did not, in fact, live above Arctic Audio (where you should still go because they have super cool McIntosh amps for sale there). I’m still uncertain where the story started, and I’ll have to chat with the Fargo Forum reporter who originally published this purported fact. But this is why scholars do what they do: research, research, research, triangulate data, see what agrees and disagrees, think long and hard about all the angles, and so on. It’s an exercise in forensics, no doubt.

In thinking about the thinking of this, I was also thinking about how the State Historical Society of North Dakota misinterpreted Menoken Village in 1964. If you read La Vérendrye’s journals, he notes how he got lost wandering around in a large village of earth lodges in AD 1738. When visiting Menoken Village, though, there are only a hand full of earth lodge depressions — certainly not enough to get lost in. In the 1930s, local area lore held the Euro-centric view that Menoken was the La Vérendrye site. Perhaps Orin G. Libby and subsequent leaders of the State Historical Society of North Dakota thought a good chunk of the earth lodges were washed away by Apple Creek erosion? I don’t know. But since the 1990s and on, the SHSND and Stan Ahler and company brought techno-archaeology to bear on Menoken Village, and the data revised the interpretation. Through radio-carbon dating, we now know Menoken Village was bumping and going full-tilt with activity around AD 1200.

Naomi Shihab Nye on the History of Fargo, North Dakota

On August 22, 2012, Naomi Shihab Nye took a walking tour of downtown Fargo, North Dakota. Inspired by an article in the Fargo Forum on Louise Erdrich, Naomi set out to locate two buildings connected with Erdrich’s time in Fargo during the 1970s. The first was the building where Erdrich lived, and the second is where Erdrich worked. Below are two short video clips of Naomi’s impressions, first of the location of Erdrich’s Fargo flat, this above Arctic Audio at 14 8th Street South…

…and the second on the north sidewalk of deLendrecies at 620 Main Avenue, what used to be the location of Erdrich’s office…

Buildings are stories on so many levels.

Thanks, Naomi, for advancing historic preservation…

Aristotle and the First Day of Autumn Classes

As we lean closer and closer to November, and since the political rhetoric is going to get even more insane than this, it seemed necessary to revisit Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (the David Ross translations from Oxford World Classics) a couple days ago. As is the case when wandering around in the history of ideas, any number of said ideas will barrage the brain and apply themselves to contemporary conundrums, situations, and topics. Instead of focusing on or responding any further to said insane political rhetoric, a more constructive use of time came by way of coming across Aristotle’s remarks on academic or professional training. In Book VII, Part 3 of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle said,

…those who have just begun to learn a science can string together its phrases, but do not yet know it; for it has to become part of themselves, and that takes time…”

Today, 20 August 2012, at 4:00PM, the North Dakota University System mobilized and started the autumn semester, North Dakota State University included. I was thinking how tens of thousands of incoming and returning students will begin or continue professional training within the state, and sometimes it is worth remembering that this professional training takes time. No one wakes up one day, picks up a skate board for the first time, and flawlessly executes an ollie impossible — I stick to walking for these reasons, as I found it is safer for society and myself. Ollie impossibles and any kind of technical and theoretical training requires repetition and practice, similar to what Aristotle mentioned above, or what Zeno of Kitium knew — rail slides and all. Professional training takes time. I think it’s important to remind students of that.

Glad to start the semester, get my head back in the books, the studies, the reports, and in conversation and seminar. Off to it…

Industrial Aesthetics: Petroleum in Western North Dakota

This last weekend Dr. Bill Caraher and Dr. Bret Weber invited me to join a research crew that

The petroleum industry (a total of four wells in this photo) dropped in amongst an ocean of industrial agriculture, or wheat fields, in northwestern North Dakota.

plunged into western North Dakota and brought archaeological, architectural, historical and sociological models to bear on living conditions in labor, crew, and man camps. While the notes and data from that are being processed, I thought it might be of interest to upload some short clips of the industrial aesthetics of a petroleum boom in western North Dakota. Instead of exclusively taking more still photos of the industry that at this point in time — through historical processes that, broadly, have a type of cultural inertia to it — powers the planet, it seemed like both audio and video might benefit viewers of this blog. Before I enter the oil fields of western North Dakota, I often joke that I watch excerpts from these flicks. Seems reasonable, especially after jockeying through semi tractor-trailer traffic that easily dwarfs full size pick ups.

Anyhow, the first video captures a green horizontal cylinder with a vertical pipe attached — even if you’re familiar with the oil fields, this first video might capture a slice of what it will sound like when Homo Sapiens attempt to colonize Mars (and sans golden wheat fields as a backdrop). The camera pans to the southwest and then to the southeast, and captures the grasshopper-like derrick smoothly rising and lowering the counterweights.

While standing there the project’s architect and art historian, Dr. Kostis Kourelis (during the tour, he was often known as “Kostis the Greek”), noted to me that in a 21st-century world, this type of industry provides serious relief to assertions that this country only produces digital and virtual instead of tangible and material. I don’t mean this in a celebratory or conspiratorial way, but it’s important to remember that plastics and automobiles and drinking straws and pace makers and Curiosity rovers and good beer and running shoes and punk rock necessitates petroleum.

The second video almost doesn’t even seem like our fault. While heading back from Alexander to our lodging in Watford City, we (John Holmgren, Kostis Kourelis, Richard Rothaus and I) looked to the south of the east-west running road. And we didn’t really look ourselves so much as have the vertical 30′ (or more) natural gas flare streaming up out of the prairie pull our eyes in that direction. How would a full size pick up full of four adult males not be drawn to a 30′ flame shooting up and out of the prairie?

I was going to say the stack was belching, but the flare wasn’t quite reflecting the irregularities associated with a belch. A belch, for example, is quite sharp and abrupt, and it has a definitive beginning and end (the Oxford American Dictionary defines the verb as “emit gas noisily from the stomach through the mouth.”). The natural gas flare, on the other hand, was more of a steady stream of orange and yellow that illuminated the surrounding wheat fields in a pulsing glow. More of that glow is captured below, and again the video is required because a single still photograph is incapable of showing change through time like successive photographs (which is what video is).

We took these photos from a section line road which, in turn, is public. One of the oil worker supervisors came over to interrogate us, but he and we were quick to acknowledge that we were indeed on public land.

It was a bit curious that during our entire 4 day tour of the oil fields in western North Dakota, the most intense security and interrogation came at an oil well rather than any of the labor, crew, or man camps. Nonetheless, before the supervisor left, he made sure to reassure us that our way of life relied on the stuff coming out of the ground. Of course, platitudes are impossible to dispute. When I conveyed this story to Dr. Caraher the next morning, he reminded the table that the vehicles and technologies and ever-changing philosophies that the planet uses result from the intense debates that carry forth within the arts, sciences and humanities. At its best, the mission of universities and colleges is, broadly, to un-dumb the planet (and we are constantly having to un-dumb one another).

Bohemia on the Great Plains

On August 4 (a Saturday evening), the Suchy family played the Bohemian Hall, this just south of Mandan, North Dakota on Highway 6. According to Chuck Suchy (a Bohemian Hall specialist) music has been played at this venue since the building was put up. For a deep history on this theme, check out Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. At least I couldn’t stop thinking about how these sorts of novels strike at the heart of cultural truths.

Chuck Suchy ripping it up with accordion on the north elevation of Bohemian Hall.

When sitting there listening to Chuck belt out according licks in front of the north elevation of a historic prairie building called Bohemian Hall, the mind wanders through time. Pretty soon you have what in the business we call that “sense of place.” Tall corn fields to the southwest and cut wheat fields immediately north of that. Just to the east is a small village and a rehabilitated church. The shadows get taller as the music plays on and the sun sets in the west. There were two just-off-the-boat Czechs in the audience. The remaining Bohemians (at least the performing musicians) were just a generation or two removed. This hall means something to the Suchy family, and pretty much to anyone that has come within its range. It means something because we’ve decided to make it mean something. We didn’t wait for a financial analyst to come in and tell us whether it would be viable or not (but I suppose one might be handy when it came to crunching numbers about how many pulled pork sandwiches to supply). We gather around because we want to do this.

Bohemian Hall is the white building center-right in the photo. This view looks to the east-southeast.

The Suchy family not only captures the exact identity of what it means to be Bohemian artists, but they are in fact reflections of it to the core. We associate art and music with ethnic Bohemians because of families like this.

During the final couple songs, the late evening gave way to night, and a burning moon rose up out of the prairie.

The weather was remarkable on this evening. No wind (which is unusual for the Plains) and temps that required a light jacket. A horse whinnied during one of Chuck’s tunes, and toward the end of the entire set a burning moon rose up out of the prairie.

Wild Bill Hickok and Western Americana

On August 2, 1876, Jack McCall forever immortalized himself and Wild Bill Hickok when said McCall shot and killed Wild Bill in Deadwood, southwestern Dakota Territory. Since then, any number of statues have been created to memorialize and deify Hickok. In Deadwood today, at least as of July 2012, there are numerous signs and busts of Hickok. His heroic and tragic story was popularized even further by the HBO series Deadwood (this is similar to the how Shakespeare popularized the story of Julius Caesar, too). Below is some of the Hickok iconography throughout Deadwood, South Dakota:

Wild Bill Hickok’s grave site at Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota.

Offerings at Wild Bill Hickok’s grave in Deadwood, South Dakota.

The “Dead Man’s Hand” at the base of Wild Bill Hickok’s grave in Deadwood, South Dakota.

Saloon #10 signage in downtown Deadwood.

Bust of Hickok in downtown Deadwood.

A 19th century bronze Hickok greets 21st century motorists entering Deadwood, South Dakota.