Monthly Archives: February 2014

Historian Frank Vyzralek

So I’m sitting here at my desk this Saturday morning looking up some more details of the crop lien system of farming from the 1860s to 1890, and reading academic articles on the origins of agribusiness. I’m doing this in preparation for this coming week’s lectures that deal with a period of American history from 1890-1900. I’m engaged in my usual over-preparation, which I’m fine with. In fact, I find that as my over-preparation intensifies, the glorious edgy feeling one gets before lectures and presentations begins to ebb.

But even earlier this morning I caught an article in The Bismarck Tribune on the passing of Frank Vyzralek. Sometimes it’s okay to stop reading articles on the crop lien system of farming so as to direct that energy toward thinking about the passing of a friend and colleague. So I thought I’d type out just a couple immediate thoughts that came to me after reading about Frank this morning.

  • In doing my own research at the State Historical Society of North Dakota over the years, it was common to see Frank — long white hair and long white beard — at the microfiche reader, with laptop, typing out notes for one area of research or another.
  • On occasion, I would bump into Frank at a local watering hole in north Bismarck. I think the last conversation I had with Frank happened years ago, this about Joseph Henry Taylor. I remember Frank sipped a glass of red wine as we traded Joe Taylor points back and forth.

Thanks for all the history, Frank. Thanks for reminding us how unique a place North Dakota was, and is.


Three Dakota Words

Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon I sit in on and learn a bit more of the Dakota language with Dr. Clifford Canku (pronounced “chan-ku”), Dakota elder and professor of Dakota language at North Dakota State University (NDSU). The classroom setting is both structured and informal, and it has been incredible thus far. By this I mean eye-opening, as in language is the epitome of culture. It is the way we perceive of and describe our world. To understand a culture and its history requires us to understand the language. It’s a basic rule but it bears repeating.

On Tuesday Canku instructed our small student squad to select 10 Dakota words in which non-Dakota/Lakota/Nakota speakers have difficulty enunciating. Here are three from my selection, all of which begin with the letter č. This is a hard c, making a kind of “ch” noise. Also, you can always consult and listen to Canku going through the Dakota alphabet at this link here, too.

čáǧa (v.n.), to freeze, or become ice.

čantiŋ’za (v.n.), to be of good courage. — side note: this might be required to endure the season of čáǧa.

čanza’ni (v.n), to be well in heart; to be tranquil; or of good cheer. — again, see side note above.


The Barton Benes Collection in North Dakota

Barton's recreated apartment at the ND Museum of Art in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Barton’s recreated apartment at the ND Museum of Art in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

On June 18, 2012, Paul Vitello of The New York Times ran a story on the passing of Barton Lidice Benes (11/16/1942-05/30/2012), a New York sculptor who appropriated antiquarian methods of museum display into his finished works of art. Indeed, a source of inspiration for any historian, art historian, archaeologist, or punk archaeologist, this last Saturday I had the chance to visit his collection at the North Dakota Museum of Art, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks. In June 2012, Vitello said in his New York Times piece,

The North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks, which in the early 1990s showed controversial artworks of his [Barton’s] that no other galleries would, plans to build a replica of his apartment and furnish it exactly as Mr. Benes left it.

So that’s what I did, along with Molly, J. Earl Miller, and Rick Gion. We had a chance to sit next to and chat with J.D. Jorgenson and Jimmy. J.D. is a Bismarck native who studied art at North Dakota State University in Fargo, and who now has a straw bale pottery barn in St. Joseph, Minnesota. Some day I will build a straw bale shop. That is what I decided after chatting with Jorgenson. Artists are excellent sources of inspiration, or firing up that spirit within humanity.

Barton appropriated antiquarian museum display methods into his works of art.

Barton appropriated antiquarian museum display methods into his works of art.

Here are a couple snap shots of Barton’s collection at the North Dakota Museum of Art, including an opium bed which, in turn, is a reflection of the 19th century imperial struggle between Great Britain and China. Note the other items, though, and how they are displayed. In a short documentary of Barton, he said that as a child he was mesmerized by museums, the artifacts, and how they were displayed. You can see that in his art as well. Another memorable moment from the documentary was when Barton pointed to a piece of furniture in his apartment, that of which he salvaged from a dumpster. Paraphrasing, he said something to the effect of, “You can’t find stuff like this in dumpsters anymore.”

An opium bed Barton purchased and had in his flat. This is now on display at the ND Museum of Art in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

An opium bed Barton purchased and had in his flat. This is now on display at the ND Museum of Art in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Art is meant to provoke, to incite, and to get people talking. As an artist, Barton accomplished that.

One of Barton's filing systems.

One of Barton’s filing systems. Take a close look at the subject titles.


Books and Boots

I call this photo, "Books and Boots."

I call this photo, “Books and Boots.”

Walking is fun no matter what season. It helps clear the head, and we get to see the world at a slower pace (meaning not from a car). Some thoughts on that here and here


New Americans from Sudan

First Sudanese Lutheran 1Last Sunday, as we on the northern Great Plains were enjoying our 357th blizzard of the winter, Molly and I drove down to southern Fargo to oblige an invite from the First Sudanese Lutheran Church of Fargo, North Dakota. We went to chat with this recently-arrived growing group of New Americans. They put out a huge spread of Sudanese food, too, prepared by no less than 3 Sudanese mothers the night prior.

After the benefit supper, on the drive home, I couldn’t help but think about the processes of global population movements in world history. This invariably led me to think about our grandparents and great grandparents and great-great grandparents who poured into the United States in the 19th century: think today about navigating immigration (the New American Sudanese are here because they are getting away from a lot of this, and a cease-fire update on that here too), finding transportation, learning about car and health insurance, learning a new language, and getting up to speed with the societal customs inherent to America’s increasingly industrial society, all while trying to keep a foot in the old ways too (this is why today we see things like the Sons of Norway, German-Russian, and Three Crowns organizations).

Some of the New Americans expressed an interest in future home ownership, and the gears in my brain started moving: “Who might be able to chat with these folks about the processes and options of home loans and real estate?…” These folks have jobs and they want to continue raising families. Homes are important for going about this. I was so wrapped up in conversation and getting filled up with Sudanese food (the delicious Sambusas were flowing like wine) that I didn’t get a chance to take a photo. But I do have this handy 2013 year-end reflection that I picked up.