New Themes for a New North Dakota
This may seem like an odd thing for me, a professional historian, to say, but history can be hazardous to the health of a commonwealth. It seems to me, in 2011, that the way we think about our history here in North Dakota is a problem. We need to come to terms with our past, and our present, in more constructive ways.
There is a considerable literature among academic and intellectual folk about the negative mindset of people in North Dakota. Usually this is ascribed to some sort of rustic stubbornness among rural Dakotans. The exasperating pessimism that so frustrates economic and social entrepreneurs, however, does not grow from the grassroots. Rather it flows from that font of wisdom which is the academic establishment.
In general, the academic establishment has been captured by what has come to be known among a few of us revisionists as the “declensionist narrative.” This involves what I sometimes call, in simpler terms, the assumption of inevitable decline. Things are going downhill, they have been for a long time, and it’s only going to get worse. This is the declensionist narrative.
The keeper of the narrative in North Dakota is our eminent historian, Elwyn Robinson, of the University of North Dakota. A half-century ago he laid out what he called the “six themes of North Dakota history.” Let’s run through these, and then see what they add up to.
1. Remoteness. North Dakota is a long way, Professor Robinson tells us, from anything that matters.
2. Dependence. We look to metropolitan centers elsewhere for all good things. This is no place for the rugged individual.
3. Radicalism. We have a chip on our shoulder. We’re cranky people.
4. Economic Disadvantage. Don’t get your hopes up, the big boys in Minneapolis are going to snatch away any profits you may generate.
5. The Too-Much Mistake. We have too many towns, schools, farms, and so on, and we need to get rid of most of them.
6. Adjustment to the Imperatives of a Cool, Subhumid Grassland. Which is to say, this is a nasty place to live.
What do all these six themes have in common? Every one is a negative factor. Of the six themes Professor Robinson says explain the history of North Dakota, not one is positive.
In 1960 these were reasonable explanatory factors. The story as then told made sense. This far into the 21st century, however, the celebrated six themes sound like six excuses for people who have been blessed by God not to make the best use of His gifts. Allow me to suggest the themes of North Dakota most pertinent today.
1. Long-term profitability in agriculture. We can make money raising wheat, for pete’s sake. Commodity prices rest today on a new, higher plateau.
2. A thirty-year energy boom. Maybe it will be longer than thirty years, but that’s long enough to make the point.
3. A thriving knowledge industry. Digital, pharmaceutical, defense, we have it all.
4. For the first time since the 1880s, a positive brand–something we haven’t had since Dakota was a territory.
There you have our four themes. Let’s make some history.