Monthly Archives: October 2013

Humanities Updates from the Northern Great Plains

CHRBefore this morning gets away from me, I thought I’d provide two humanities updates taking place in the great state of North Dakota, central North America. The first is a link-reference to the progress of our Punk Archaeology manuscript; and the second concerns the official press release from NDSU’s Center for Heritage Renewal on our continued Dakota book discussions. Of this latter, the discussions bring together the public and scholars to consider the Dakota Conflict and the subsequent punitive campaigns from 1862-1864, and where we, Native and non-Native relations, are today.

For more details, check out the uploaded hand-bill image to the left. Of this, the most recent discussion took place this Sunday past at the Opera House in Ellendale, Dickey County, North Dakota. This brought out a variety of topics, and the most attentive-grabbing and engaging at all of these events is that of Native historians and knowledge-keepers and scholars. After Tamara St. John, a Native historian and genealogist, spoke at this event, an attendee remarked on how (and I’m paraphrasing) they are starved for this kind of information.

For those of us up to our elbows in the history and historiography of the US-Dakota Conflict and Wars, we understand and often wrestle with accurate and precise and appropriate terminology, definitions, and so on. When we chat about this stuff with non-specialists, one of the most common remarks I have heard is this: “How come we weren’t taught any of this — attempted genocide, attempts at cultural destruction, attempts at forced assimilation — in our public education here in North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota?” I’m uncertain. But I do always insist on using attempts and attempted when talking about genocide, cultural destruction and assimilation. I do this because the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota, the Seven Council Fires, are alive and well today. We are pushing ahead as well with these discussions, and every time we have another conversation and chance to talk about this, legitimate history is happening. And if that is happening, so is that large, amorphous thing we call culture and the humanities.

When it comes to the public school systems, I’m sure there are plenty of politics behind all of the curriculum decisions from yesteryear and now. Perhaps that is something we in the future can consider, and perhaps in the future bring before various departments of public instruction in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. That would be at least one long-range goal to consider.

Nonetheless, the next discussion will be held at 2:00PM (CST) on November 10, 2013, at Sitting Bull College,  in the Science and Technology Center Room 120/101, Fort Yates, Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota. And here is a photo from the discussion from last Sunday.


Rough Notes from Minot, North Dakota

Some quick photos from the overnight trip Molly and I took to Minot, North Dakota in the last 36 hours. Upon arrival to Minot, we tracked down Molly’s good friend (and my cousin) Jessica. Housing and lodging is tough to come by in the Bakken, but Jess managed to track down a 250-square foot abode for $600/month. No griping, though. Jess is thoroughly happy to have a place to lay her head and make a meal. But crunch the numbers. This is Minot, North Dakota, folks, and not Harlem, home-sweet-home NYC.

Anyhow, here are a couple photos from Minot, October 25 and 26, 2013. Historians have been known to talk about Nature’s Metropolis. A historic specific of this is the rise and establishment of Chicago, say, in the latter half of the 19th century. One of the reasons Chicago happened was because of the agrarian and natural resource commodities pulled in by rail from the American West. Chicago, of course, used to be a cow town, originally a cattle off-loading and exchange point. It is different today.

With Minot, and other established village and population centers throughout the Bakken, historians are often watching these and wondering which cultural directions they will take. Pulling oil out of the ground is a messy and toxic business, and the flip-side of that is how it monetarily energizes cities and urban centers. The world, at least since the turn of the 19th century, has increasingly relied on petroleum as a dominant source of energy. It kind of just crept up on us over the course of 100 years, and has been the source of handy plastics and war.

I do wonder if the lot of us in the professional world of North Dakota could speak frankly about these dynamics: “Oil is getting spilled. Can we develop a statewide database that everyone can see to keep an eye on that?” Or, “How do we make oil money today and figure out how to use those profits to develop non-petroleum energy sources for when the black gold runs out?” Or, “How did over 850,000 gallons of oil over the course of 11 days get put into one end of a pipeline tube, and not get discovered until it covered some 7 football fields in some farmer’s field in northwestern North Dakota? Don’t we have some red buzzer that goes off if even 10,000 gallons goes missing from the outlet of the oil pipeline tube? If it goes in one end, and doesn’t come out the other end, how does that get missed?” Check out the stories here and here. Stuff like that.

But to return to the original point of this blog entry, here are some grand photos of the energized culture in Minot, Ward County, north-central North Dakota. The first is an established place, one of the last old wood-frame structures in the downtown known as the Blue Rider, owned by Walt Piehl.

Blue Rider

The next photo concerns the Souris River Brewery. Molly and I had bison meat balls there, as well as a great black bean sandwich. And excellent perogies. The glass of beer I had was, as expected, delicious.


And the next morning (or this morning), we took Jess’s recommendation to breakfast at Sweet & Flour Patisserie. We had French pressed coffee and an chevre-apricot croissant. Here is a shot of that from this morning.

Sweet and Flour

Weekend Line Up

Before logging off and hitting the northern Great Plains segment of Eisenhower’s Interstate system this morning (a grand piece of Federal infrastructure reform from the late 50s and 60s), I thought I’d give a line up as to what is in store for this weekend. Molly and I will first be heading from Fargo up to Minot, North Dakota. We’ll stay with Jessica Christy (Molly’s good friend and my cousin), and I may even have a chance to get over to Walt Piehl’s cowboy poet bar, The Blue Rider. At least for a beer or two and some conversation with, perhaps, fellow Frenchman Todd Reisenauer. Both Christy and Piehl are professors of art at Minot State University, and both are artists from and for the northern Great Plains.

Molly and I will return to Fargo on Saturday, and then on Sunday it is back out on the road to Ellendale, North Dakota (west from Fargo to Jamestown, then south on Highway 281 for about an hour). We are heading to Ellendale to begin and continue another public conversation that considers what happened 150 years ago with the US-Dakota Wars, and where we want or ought to go with the conversations today. These events are sponsored by North Dakota State University’s Center for Heritage Renewal, and the North Dakota Humanities Council, and they bring together a variety of professionals, Native historians, and the public. Gotta run now, but a follow up at some point next week on all this.

Post-Talk Update from North Dakota State University

I had an excellent time in Kjersten Nelson’s Political Science class today speaking about the philosophical whys and technical hows of historical and archival research. After I finished, I asked students where they were in their archival research.

It was excellent to hear from one student who is taking on the hard topic of how returned soldiers deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I was glad to recommend that they 1) chat with NDSU Philosopher Dennis R. Cooley about this, since it concerned how soldiers deal with suicide, and since Dennis has thought long and hard about this topic; and 2) that they look into David Silkenat’s Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina for the historical backdrop of how American soldiers have dealt with these exceedingly difficult memories. The human costs that result from war are infinite, and it was great to hear how an NDSU undergrad (and soldier) is considering ways to push knowledge in new directions. She seriously wants to help. I’m looking forward to checking back in on that research.

Imagining Research and Teaching Tuesday

In a couple hours I’ll follow my established pedestrian transect to North Dakota State University (this is the fancy way of saying I’ll walk up to class) to provide a guest talk on archival research for Dr. Kjersten Nelson’s Political Science classes. Over the last couple days, I’ve thought off and on exactly what I could and should impart upon the class (she said there are approximately 17 students). Three thoughts came to mind, and here they are (note: a friend of mine, Don Paul, attended one of those Ford schools back in the day in Michigan. These were philanthropic schools Henry Ford set up for kids to attend — for free. Don said at those hands-on liberal arts vocational schools, the artisans and industrial manufacturing teachers would tell him to follow this rule when giving talks: start out by telling your audience the three things you’re going to tell them; then tell them the three things with explanation; and then conclude by telling them the three things you told them. This makes sense. Work in threes or fours if possible.):

1) Perhaps the best way to go about it is to initially do a bit of podium driving, explaining why research matters, and why professors at universities invest themselves in pushing knowledge in new directions. Just last Friday I chatted a bit with Bill Caraher in Bismarck, this after a invigorating ND Humanities Council board meeting, and in conversation he mentioned how he explains to his students exactly what he does with his time at the University of North Dakota. Students understandably want their professors to be attentive, and professors should definitely do this, both with class room lecture, discussion, and in office hours and over coffee. But the reverse of that is to make sure the students activate the auto-didactic — the self-taught learner — within themselves. The entire idea, I’ll tell the students today, is to do good on your archival research and paper skills because A) this may turn into a larger research project when you are off working on your own PhD in grad school; and/or B) this will give Dr. Nelson the ability to write you a glowing letter of recommendation that speaks to your abilities as a critical thinker, writer, and self-directed learner and problem solver; and C) your friends, colleagues, and current or future life-long partner will indeed dig these skills.

The granite bugler at Whitestone Hill in southeastern North Dakota.

The granite bugler at Whitestone Hill in southeastern North Dakota.

2) From there I’ll delve into the personal, at least how I managed to bring a topic I’ve cared about since 2008 to a manuscript form that was considered and eventually published by a top-flight academic journal. There are enjoyable struggles and processes of preparing such a manuscript, and one pours themselves into these things not knowing if a journal will consider them at all. That, of course, is why it takes the spirit within each person to be driven to figure out a problem in the social sciences or humanities that may, at the outset, induce confusion or frustration. Such was the case when I first heard about and then visited the Civil War monument at Whitestone Hill in southeastern North Dakota some years ago. I was initially confused by it — “Why did North Dakota install a granite Civil War bugler on top of the largest hill in the area?…” There’s a tendency to be confused or frustrated by what is not yet understood. And one doesn’t have to agree with something to understand it, but agreeing with something and understanding it are two disparate things.

3) And finally, this might be a direction that students and researchers think about as they continue to consider their topics: is there anything in the world of politics or political history that induces confusion or frustration? Research always begins with questions, and sometimes if you one feels frustrated about something, they should indeed start asking questions. “Why is that the way it is?” I’m interested in hearing how far along the students themselves are in their research processes. A large part of archival research deals with imagining where the sources might be. Once a paper trail starts to emerge, it can help with imagining where other sources might be. I’ll again default a bit to the Whitestone Hill case study, but broaden it out to envelop which directions the students are pushing.

North Dakota’s Autumn Pheasant Opener

Yesterday was the day hunters in North Dakota could begin blasting away at pheasants. A couple years ago, after thinking things through a bit, I decided to purchase a sensibly priced double barrel shot-gun to take up seasonal bird hunting. And in the last week, I ended up meeting and briefly chatting with Hank Shaw, the chef and author of the cookbook, Duck, Duck, Goose. Shaw is one of the latest recipients of the James Beard award, and he’s got a spectacular blog here.

Hunting isn’t like going to the grocery store. If you happen to shoot something, you have to gut and field dress whatever it was that you killed. In the case of a bird, this requires you to hold the still-warm bird in your hand while making the right incisions to access and discard the guts. At least for me, it helps recenter my psyche, and I feel a bit more re-attached to the realities of my diet. This is much different from purchasing a saran-wrapped cold chicken in the meat and poultry section of your grocery store. And when one is hunting, there is never a guarantee that a hunter is actually going to return with something dead to eat. That ended up being the case yesterday. But as you’ll often hear hunters say, it’s often not just about the hunt. It is also about walking tree rows, getting out into the landscape, and just looking around at what’s out there.

An abandoned prairie church near Enderlin, North Dakota.

An abandoned prairie church near Enderlin, North Dakota. Photo taken on October 12, 2013.

Rick Gion and Christian Gion and myself made up our entire hunting party. Rick and I brought our shotguns while Christian opted to hunt for edible mushrooms. Christian got a small bundle of oyster mushrooms and some seriously ripe buffalo berries. When Christian returned with the berries, it reminded me that this was also the seasonal plant northern Great Plains Dakota and Lakota indigenes would pick at this time of year. Christian ended up returning with more than Rick or myself (which means Rick and I returned with zero birds). We did find some good spots for next time.

We also came across an abandoned church, and I posted it to Facebook last night. I included this caption:

Abandoned prairie churches on the northern Great Plains really catch the eye when one is out hunting upland birds. Bottom part of the photo is mono-industrial agriculture; the abandoned gothic church architecture is a stratigraphic slice of a time gone by; and the top 3/4s of the photo is the skyline typical of our North American steppe.

So the hunt wasn’t a total loss. At least I got to shoot something, if only a landscape photograph.

Northern Plains Ethics Journal

Last night I downloaded Volume 1, No. 1, of the Northern Plains Ethics Journal. It is a work born out of the Northern Plains Ethics Institute, a scholarly endeavor that will regularly bring public and academic conversations about ethics together in one edited journal. You can download the journal for free at this link here. It is a collaborative project funded in part by the North Dakota Humanities Council (if one wanted to donate any modest or obnoxious monetary sum to the NDHC, they can easily do so at this link here).

Thus far I have read the introductory remarks by friend and colleague, John Helgeland, and also an article by another friend and scholar, Tayo Basquiat. Of the former, Helgeland says,

…ethics aims its focus at the future. So, ethics is the kind of thinking that imagines the future, to conceive how things could be better and different. Friends doing the Theology of Hope tell us the meaning of hope, namely, that tomorrow can be different from today. People need not feel imprisoned in a web of human frustration. Working through problems in concert creates a community of concern, a value of which is to understand that we are not alone in response to problems and challenges. (Helgeland, 2013: 5)

Of the latter, Basquiat speaks to ethics in the face of roaring economic energy development in western North Dakota. Numerous quotes popped out at me, and I’ll give you a short slice of one of those here. Speaking to how one faces the realities of violence on women as a repercussion of male-dominated petroleum booms, Basquiat focused on that, and broadened it to other groups. He says,

This difficult work is entailed in widening the values which are given power, because, as the old saw goes, when money talks, people listen. I propose listening to people instead of money. Vulnerable groups such as women, children, the elderly, and those unable to work are always in danger of having their values ignored and of having to bear the costs of models of development that focus too narrowly on growth. The question is how do we account for values such as personal safety or clean water if such values are always seen as derivative, secondary, or can’t be monetized for quantification in the calculus? (Basquiat, 2013: 42)

If we take what Helgeland and Basquiat said together, we do have the ability to shape the future, to modify existing institutions so that they can keep up with social and cultural changes. The onus is on all of us, though. I haven’t much to add to that, other than to again recommend visiting this journal in all of its thoughtful glory.

Let the Scholars at Your Family and Local History: Swedish Family Photos and Academic Scholarship

Albertina (Mattson) Larson. She eventually took up a farmstead with Hans T. Larson in northeastern Wells County, North Dakota.

Albertina (Mattson) Larson. Originally from Willmar, MN, she took up a farmstead with Hans T. Larson in northeastern Wells County, North Dakota.

Approximately 20 years or more ago, I recall going to a Larson-Mattson family reunion somewhere in Minnesota. It was important to the Mattson side of the family because my dad’s, mother’s, mother (in Swedish, “min far-mor-mor“), Albertina (Mattson) Larson, was indeed a Mattson. I remember at that family reunion being asked who in the room had relations with the Swedish-Minnesota Civil War Col. Hans Mattson, and I was nudged by my late Grandma (Larson-Mattson) Barth to raise my hand.

Now fast-forward to a year or two ago, when I read H. Arnold Barton, A Folk Divided: Homeland Swedes and Swedish Americans, 1840-1940 (Southern Illinois University Press, 1994). Barton notes in his preface that ethnic groups engage in a kind of ethnogenesis. This means the groups develop a collective identity by gathering together and agreeing upon what they do not stand for, and what they do stand for (often times, we define ourselves by what we are not). While reading Barton’s book, though, I didn’t expect to come across Hans Mattson in the beginning of chapter 5. This was the individual I was told about over two decades at the family reunion in Minnesota. Perhaps Barton was in the crowd too. Who knows.

In his piece of academic scholarship, though, Barton said Hans Mattson hailed from the southern province of Skåne in Sverige, and he came to the U.S. in 1851 as one of the first northern European Swedish settlers to Minnesota. He served with distinction in the Civil War, and eventually became Minnesota’s Secretary of State. He returned to Sweden in 1868-69 to recruit more settlers and develop a chain-migration from Sweden to Minnesota. It worked. He acted as the Northern Pacific Railroad’s chief emigrant agent from 1871-1876, and the list goes on as to his accomplishments by and for his ethnicity.

Albertina (Mattson) Larson, a Swedish-Minnesotan originally from Willmar, MN.

Albertina (Mattson) Larson, a Swedish-Minnesotan originally from Willmar, MN.

With all that said, here are a couple photos of Albertina (Mattson) Larson, my great grandmother. I never had a chance to meet her in person, as she passed away before I was born. As a girl, she grew up in Willmar, Minnesota. Eventually my great grandfather, Hans T. Larson, got up the nerve to ask her to marry him, and they took up a homestead in northeastern Wells County, North Dakota (just north of the borderline historic archaeological town of Bremen, ND).

I’m sharing photos of Albertina for a couple reasons. The first is to make them accessible to other family members (it’s the worst when people hoard documents and artifacts while simultaneously doing nothing with them). There are unknown benefits, too, as perhaps this blog post will reach other Mattson family members who are interested in the various branches of the family. I do plan on ultimately curating the originals with the State Historical Society of North Dakota (but I’ll wait until the grand expansion is complete). By curating them with the SHSND (or any top-tier public archive), the artifacts will be stored in a safe spot with all sorts of fire-prevention and non-acidic devices (stuff along those lines). They will also be accessible to other family members, at least during SHSND archival hours. And if Swedish-American scholars want to have a look, to analyze and scrutinize them, they will be there. Perhaps they will even incorporate them into some piece of future scholarship. Who knows. Access is key, though.

Green Spaces at North Dakota State University

I’ve been in conversation with some friends and colleagues on the campus of North Dakota State University (NDSU) as to where the latest proposed STEM APE (Area of Potential Effect) should be located and, eventually, built. Thus far, NDSU administration is leaning toward putting the important STEM center just to the east of the Memorial Union, requiring the bulldozers to first knock out some historic trees (yes, such ecology exists) and the beautiful and quaint historic Nelson building on campus. So NDSU is now circulating a kind of after-the-proposed-planning-fact survey to gauge student interest.

This is how I answered a couple questions on page 2 of the survey, and I also provided them with all of my contact information.

1) In our broader culture where horizontal asphalt parking lots and strip malls are the norm, it seems not only important but paramount to ensure that North Dakota State University protects historically green, recreational spaces at the heart of our campus. Theodore Roosevelt carved out national green spaces throughout the American West so that the American population could re-create themselves by being in and connecting with the grasses, trees and shrubs. This is where we get the word recreation: our ability to return to natural or artificial landscapes to, as they say, get away from it all, if but momentarily. This is another reason why Island Park in downtown Fargo was created, as well as large green spaces on the eastern seaboard of the United States (take New York’s Central Park as a prime example).

2) The Elm trees within the proposed STEM APE are historical hybrids, a variety resistant to the Dutch Elm disease that nearly wiped out the entire American Elm species in North Dakota. The American Elm, by the way, is the state tree of North Dakota. There is a bit of irony at play every time North Dakota State University obliterates, or proposes to obliterate, a piece of its local ecological history. We as a state have so few trees to begin with. Why not just build the STEM building in a parking lot, or a place on campus where there aren’t any trees? By doing this, it would increase the verticality of the campus while simultaneously preserving green space.

I encouraged them to get a hold of me if they want a proper study of their proposed APE(s). This, in turn, would help guide decision making so that the best possible construction solution could be arrived at. Who knows what will come of this. It is their call. We hope they make the right decision.

Sitting Bull and the Government Shut Down

A photo I snapped while in D.C. in August 2013. It is of the National Archives. The inscription at bottom-right of the photo reads, "Study the Past."

A photo I snapped while in D.C. in August 2013. It is of the National Archives. The inscription at bottom-right of the photo reads, “Study the Past.”

Today, October 1st, 2013, the United States Government momentarily halted its business. Perhaps the best story I’ve read on this comes by way of Joshua Keating of, and it takes the shut down as an opportune moment to describe how American media would report on this if the shut-down happened in a non-American, or non-Western, nation-state. It is enlightening. This is the first installment of the article. An excerpt from it, and a direct link if you click right here:

The capital’s rival clans find themselves at an impasse, unable to agree on a measure that will allow the American state to carry out its most basic functions. While the factions have come close to such a shutdown before, opponents of President Barack Obama’s embattled regime now appear prepared to allow the government to be shuttered over opposition to a controversial plan intended to bring the nation’s health care system in line with international standards…

…The current rebellion has been led by Sen. Ted Cruz, a young fundamentalist lawmaker from the restive Texas region, known in the past as a hotbed of separatist activity. Activity in the legislature ground to a halt last week for a full day as Cruz insisted on performing a time-honored American demonstration of stamina and self-denial, which involved speaking for 21 hours, quoting liberally from science fiction films and children’s books. The gesture drew wide media attention, though its political purpose was unclear to outsiders.

This story is fascinating for a number of reasons. To historians, it reminds me of how we are disciplined to develop histories of past societies by using the individual words of the people we are talking about. So, for example, yesterday around the graduate seminar table we got to talking about how the British mounty Walsh characterized Sitting Bull during the Hunkpapa chiefs short tenure north of the 49th parallel in Canada. Sitting Bull was thinking things over, and the Anglo-North American Walsh decided to refer to the chief as “Mohommet.”

I’m not sure how Walsh meant it, but it caused me to speak up and note that when Walsh called Sitting Bull “Mohommet,” it said more about Walsh than it ever could say about Sitting Bull: of course Sitting Bull was not Mohommet. Walsh hailed from Prescott, Onterio, though, and that was part of the St. Lawrence Seaway and The Atlantic World, and that world indeed was privy to imaginings of European Christiandom, and so on. This is why Walsh’s analogy is the most non-analogous attempted analogy in the history of analogies (okay, I’m exaggerating, but sometimes a person gets sucked into the amplified media craziness which, in turn, speaks to the point of this blog). Sitting Bull is Sitting Bull. He was by and for the Hunkpapa, the Seven Council Fires, the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota, and the northern Great Plains. Period.

A gratuitous government shutdown photo, this snapped before the shutdown was known or talked about during a DC site visit in August 2013.

A gratuitous government shutdown photo, this snapped before the shutdown was known or talked about during a DC site visit in August 2013.

This is easily the same for today’s media, though, where reporters are given a couple minutes or hours to cobble together something on a non-American or non-Western topic, and make it vaguely intelligible for a news-absorbing public. Then we can all sit in our living rooms and either nod in approval or shake our heads in disagreement about what country we need to consider invading next. In the second half of the 19th century, this is what a reading public did on the east and west coasts of North America as they read about the actions taking place on the North American steppe. “What could possibly go wrong here!?” Right.

An aside on how Keating of describes Ted Cruz, with addition: certainly Ted would be described this way if he were the reverse operating in Mesopotamia and Persia and the Levant (in a kind of opposite world, though). But the media would also say something like, “Ted Cruz is from the adjoining Christian country of Canada.” Then listeners of that media would sit in their living rooms and be mind-boggled at how one Christian could have different ideas in North America from another Christian. “Honey, get this: they don’t all think the same way! At least that’s what the news is saying… Should we order pizza tonight? Or go for Chinese?”

Anyhow, happy government shut down. I’ve rolled up my sleeves to get through it all.