Cultural Landscapes on the Northern Great Plains: From 1862 to 2012

This evening while toying around with Google Earth’s image overlay feature, I thought it would be interesting to see what a 2012 map would look like in contrast to the map of the 1860s in Mark Diedrich’s, Mni Wakan Oyate (Spirit Lake Nation): A History of Sisituwan, Wahpeton, Pabaksa, and Other Dakota That Settled at Spirit Lake, North Dakota (Fort Totten, North Dakota: Cankdeska Cikana Community College Publishing, 2007). I was keeping in mind how we — the Royal We — are all born into particular sets of cultural values that we consciously or unconsciously bring to bear on everything we process, do, and see. So in 2012, it’s a given that we can hop Eisenhower’s Interstate 94, lean heavy on the gas peddle, and within 1 to a dozen hours find ourselves anywhere between Minneapolis, Minnesota, Billings, Montana, Omaha, Nebraska, or Winnipeg, Manitoba. In 1862, the reality would have required weeks worth of time to cover that amount of space. One hundred fifty years is quite the temporal gap. But Google Earth reconnects us with the spatial, or what we might consider as that sense of place.

Here, for example, is the Diedrich map imported into Google Earth with an approximate transparency of 20-40%. This is laid on top of a 2012 map (some specifics don’t quite line up, but considering that this took 3 minutes to put together, it’s not bad, and the general idea is conveyed).

1862 sans 2012 Geopolitic

Note the non-existence of the 2012 place names. We get the large type of Dakota in the east, Nakota in central Dakota Territory, and the Lakota primarily west of the Missouri River. Imbedded within that are several sub-national sets, including the Ihanktuwana, Sisituwan, Pabaksa, Assiniboin, Mandan (“Gros Ventre”), Arikara, and Blackfeet Lakota. It might be worthwhile to filter our 2012 mindsets through an 1862 landscape in the same way that we would consider today’s landscape in Central Asia, western Europe, or eastern Asia. To an outsider, “it all looks the same.” But try telling someone who hails from Hong Kong that Bangkok and Ulaanbaatar are just the same. Or try telling someone from Tashkent that they’ve experienced something similar because they once saw a picture of Moscow, they talked to a guy who visited Kabul, or they heard about the cultural mecca of St. Petersburg. Or try telling a Parisian that Germany is just like Italy. Or try… yes, the idea is conveyed. And this doesn’t even begin to touch on the dynamics of Africa, Australia and so on.

In 1862, North Dakota was northern Dakota Territory to Abraham Lincoln, Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey, and any immigrant Euro-American back east (many of our great- or great-great grandparents included). The names of Bismarck, Williston, Dickinson, Jamestown, Fargo, Casselton, Valley City, Grand Forks, Watford City, New Town, Devils Lake, Minot, Ellendale and so on wouldn’t have been on anyone’s cultural radar. Between the 1860s and today, though, several generations have come and gone. And through this amount of time, our perception of the landscape has altered as well. This Google Earth gadget is amazing in that regard. Here is Diedrich’s map with Eisenhower’s Interstate System and the industrial Geopolitics imposed on the landscape:

1862 and 2012

Above, the 49th parallel is quite pronounced, as is our national (or international) system of highways and byways. Today’s 2012 I-94 blasts east-west through former Native America. You can travel from Minneapolis through the 1860s Dakota (Red River Valley now), Nakota, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara (upper Missouri River) and Lakota country (now the Bakken Oil Fields) to Billings in about 20 hours (I cannot recommend any more efficient time). In North Dakota, we can sail past these 1862 landscapes at no less than 75 miles an hour, thermostat pumped full tilt, iPods routed through the speakers. This is the push and the pull between culture and landscape throughout time. I think that’s all I have for now.

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