Tag Archives: Man Camps

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.

Bakken Oil Train Photo

A photo from a couple weeks ago of a BNSF train facing west with Bakken oil cars in tow. This was taken just east of Moorhead, Minnesota. If the train cars are going east, they are carrying oil. If they are going west, they are returning to pick more oil up.


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.

Historic Industry in Western North Dakota

Railroad workers in 1910, this one mile west of Regent, North Dakota.

Railroad workers in 1910 one mile west of Regent, North Dakota.

I just finished a lunch of homemade chicken soup (with lots of fresh lemon juice and cilantro), and before I grab a coffee and get back to the busywork, I thought I would upload a photo of historic railroad industry in western North Dakota circa 1910. The photo was taken about a mile west of Regent, as track was being laid to connect the rural agrarian areas of the American interior with the city centers and rail hubs of Dickinson, Bismarck-Mandan, Fargo, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and so on.

Looked at from an agrarian context, railroad construction was big throughout the world at this time, as nation-states increasingly relied on agricultural production to feed an ever growing populace, and this led to increased competitions over global resources. I suppose a modern public historical treatment of pumping Euro-Americans into colonizing the continent’s interior might come by way of AMC’s “Hell On Wheels” or HBO’s “Deadwood,” a kind of post-Civil War historical days of our lives with amplified skull-duggery, dodgy behavior, and shenanigans. But don’t simply rely on Hollywood to shape the way the past is understood. It’s best to get into those archives and see the documents for yourself.

Punk, the Humanities and Academia: Some Analogies

Bret Weber and Bill Caraher prepare to present man camp findings to NDSU in the Spring of 2013. Tom Isern pictured at right saunters back to take a seat.

Bret Weber and Bill Caraher prepare to present man camp findings to NDSU in the Spring of 2013. Tom Isern pictured at right saunters back to take a seat.

This coming Friday the board of the North Dakota Humanities Council (or humanities council, however one prefers) will convene for one of its regular meetings. The council meets every three or four months in various locations throughout the state to conduct the business of a board. A primary function of these meetings is to consider a variety of outstanding proposal submissions. In addition to this, and at this Friday’s meeting, we will officially or unofficially welcome aboard — the board — some new members. One of these new members is Bill Caraher, a crack Ohio State University-trained jet-setting ancient and modern historian and archaeologist with University of North Dakota’s prestigious department of history. Bill is also a Punk Archaeologist without borders, much like our friend and colleague Andrew Reinhard.

Because Bill’s summer field season regularly takes him to Cyprus and the greater Levantine world, he physically cannot be with us in eastern North Dakota for this specific meeting. But because it’s the second decade of the 21st century — and even though we don’t have flying cars or flux capacitors, yet — we will digitally beam Bill from Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean to conduct a short presentation in Fargo, North Dakota. The topic is a presentation on our modern archaeological and sociological research of man camps in the petroleum booming Bakken of western North Dakota. I just returned

Dr. Kostis Kourelis, punk archaeologist and art historian with Franklin and Marshall College (Pennsylvania), gives his thoughts on punk archaeology through a PA after being introduced with a bullhorn.

Dr. Kostis Kourelis, punk archaeologist and art historian with Franklin and Marshall College (Pennsylvania), gives his thoughts on punk archaeology through a PA after being introduced with a bullhorn.

an e-mail to Bill this morning, letting him know the technology I’ll bring to the NDHC board meeting so that we can pull a kind of joint half-hour presentation off in good order.

Doing something like this is akin to playing in a band. Professors and teachers: encourage your students to start or join bands. Here are some analogies between the two: there is the processes of research and preparation (or what a band calls making songs and then rehearsing those songs), locating the technology to transmit that research (the band refers to this as instruments, including voice, guitars, harmonicas, drums, banjos, cymbals, sound boards, timpani, PAs, speakers, cow-bell[s], monitors, lights), finding the specific meeting room and location and coordinating with the executive director (this is what a band calls finding a venue, and “chatting with a bar owner”), and then executing the entire thing within the span of 30 minutes (this is what a band calls a “set”). Doing this over and over and over again, too, ensures that researchers and lecturers (or individual band members) will simply refine the process and get better and better.

Another note: while we can digitally bridge the spatial gap between the northern Steppe of North America and the eastern Mediterranean, there is little we can do about the temporal gap: it’s not that big of deal, though, since when it is noon Central Standard Time in eastern North Dakota, it is roughly 20:00 hours in Greeco-Levantine time (or about 8:00pm). This will be fun. Long live modern archaeology, the digital humanities, and punk.

Some modern archaeology of a punk archaeology set.

Some modern archaeology of a punk archaeology set.

Revisiting Dee Taylor’s Archaeology of Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch

A view of the Elkhorn Ranch landscape from October 6, 2012.

A view of the Elkhorn Ranch landscape from October 6, 2012.

Some years ago, perhaps around 2008, friend and colleague Lou Hafermehl asked me to join up with him in research and a study that sought to look at the landscape history in and around Theodore Roosevelt’s 1883 Elkhorn Ranch in southwestern North Dakota. For a variety of reasons, our project came to a halt (the decision above our pay grade, as most if not all are), but prior to that, I had come across perhaps the best modern archaeological investigation of a “man camp” in western North Dakota: the Dee Taylor’s study of the Elkhorn Ranch. Arguments can be made back and forth as to whether the cattle ranching industry in the late-19th century was in fact an industry with man camp associations. I would argue yes, since it involved a clear boom-bust cycle, over-crowded and over-grazed grasslands, punishing winters, heavy speculation, and industrial railroads that attempted to bring the cattle to markets in Chicago and beyond. Actual cowboy open range cattle ranching was a short-lived event in American history, and perhaps this is why it is so heavily romanticized: it came and went like a flash in the pan (barb-wire fencing ultimately brought an end to those pesky open grazers).

The layout of the Elkhorn Ranch home in Dee Taylor, "Archeological Investigations of the Elkhorn Ranch Site" (1959), 49.

The layout of the Elkhorn Ranch home in Dee Taylor, “Archeological Investigations of the Elkhorn Ranch Site” (1959), 49.

The 1959 archaeological investigation at the Elkhorn was conducted by Dee C. Taylor (Montana State University), and it is titled, Archeological Investigations of the Elkhorn Ranch Site. Without going over the 146-page report in detail (at least not here), I thought I’d mention at least one of the pieces of material culture that the archaeological crew recovered from the Elkhorn Ranch house. In reading through the domestic assemblage, my eyes focused on the label of one of the tins recovered that said, “OYSTERS.” The three individuals out at the Elkhorn (Theodore, but more so Bill Sewall and Wilmot Dow) were from or around New England (Sewall and Dow served as hunting guides for Roosevelt in Maine). One can imagine that they would get a bit lonesome for some culinary semblance of home, and tins of oysters might have filled that void. Or they could have simply been hungry for food, and a tin of oysters was what they had to eat.

In today’s man camps of western North Dakota, at least the multi-national corporate Type I camps, the kitchens openly advertise southern style cooking, likely to draw the attention of any number of oil laborers from the Gulf of Mexico region. So in thinking about this in a comparative studies kind of way, one can say that in the 1880s New England ranchers devoured oysters at the Elkhorn Ranch site along the Little Missouri River, and in 2013 oil laborers from the Gulf of Mexico area are now on the northern Great Plains, inhaling canteen-style southern cooking around Tioga, Alexander and beyond. This is archaeological food for thought before I head to Denver to present my paper at the Western Social Science Association on the modern archaeology of man camps in western North Dakota.

Note: in his introduction, Dee Taylor noted that he took two anthropology grad students along on his excavation crew, William G. Buckles and John J. Hoffman, and other crew members included Arvid Scott, Rodney Myers, and Vernon Goldsberry. Be very suspicious of any historian or archaeologist who does not mention anyone but themselves as researchers, writers, and idea-generators.

Winter Driving in the Oil Patch of Western North Dakota

North Dakota Highway 85 on March 23, 2013.

North Dakota Highway 85 on March 23, 2013.

On March 23, 2013 (a Saturday), I drove west on I-94 from Bismarck, North Dakota to the Belfield exit, then turned north on Highway 85. My goal was to make it up to Watford City to take in a discussion on the Dakota Wars, post-150 years. The previous evening the discussion was held at Sitting Bull College, and I attended that one too. But after driving on Highway 85 that early afternoon, at least after 20 miles of it, I decided to turn around and head back to Bismarck. The wind carries wisps of snow over the road, and it barely melts, and then freezes. In the afternoon, the roads were a kind of icy-slush, and my plan was to attend the discussion that started at 7pm, and then head back to Bismarck around 9pm. The temps would drop, and the icy-slush would turn to straight-away ice. In both academic and lay-person parlance, driving at night on these roads is what we would have called a “really, really dumb idea and follow through.” So on the afternoon drive up, I eventually pulled over at a safe place, called ahead to Watford City to inform the group that I had a change of plans, and then turned around and headed back to Bismarck. Before turning around, though, I captured an audio-video short of what the roads were like, a kind of cross-section of what western North Dakotans and oil laborers (they are increasingly the same thing) are exposed to each and every day.

In the audio-video: to the right a pick up is driving in the ditch after having just slid off the road while in the left lane oil trucks whip by in the opposite direction. Stay safe out there folks, and don’t let yourself or crazed bosses or market forces hurry you any quicker than you need to be going. Remember this: the oil isn’t going anywhere, and it will be there tomorrow.

An aside: in driving from Sitting Bull College to Bismarck, and then in an attempt to make it up to Watford City, I couldn’t help but thinking about how certain North Dakotans will sometimes in a very judgmental tone say, “Look at all these people coming into our state!!… Do you think they will stay?” And then thinking after that how in the 1860s and on Native elders may have said the same thing about our arriving non-Native and Euro-American great-great grandparents and great grandparents. Then I start thinking about how population movements throughout world history have almost always been chaotic…