The Bakken Goes Boom: A Collaborative Book Project

November 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

As I look ahead to my sabbatical year, I hope to have so many projects ready for attention that it is neither regenerative nor focused. So, I’m very excited to announce that I will be editing a book with my colleague Kyle Conway in the University of North Dakota’s Department of English. Titled The Bakken Goes Boom, the book will bring together many of the leading academic voices on recent events associated with the oil boom in the Bakken. We have a snazzy website here.

The most exciting thing about it is that the book will be produced in collaboration with a graduate seminar called “Communication and the Rural Community”. You can check out the syllabus here. The students will help us evaluate the contributions, edit them, and have the opportunity to contribute to the volume themselves. Kyle is also hoping to arrange a trip to the Bakken with the class.

Here is the Call for Papers:

The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota. Edited by William Caraher and Kyle Conway

In less than five years, western North Dakota has changed so dramatically that many long-time residents no longer recognize it. High oil prices and new mining techniques have made the region, which sits on top of the rich Bakken oil formation, an exciting place to be. While the rest of the U.S. economy has lagged, North Dakota’s has boomed. People have flocked to state in search of a better life, and cities such as Williston and Watford City have doubled or tripled in size.

The editors of The Bakken Goes Boom are soliciting essays on topics related to the oil boom and its impact on the geography and communities of western North Dakota. The book will address topics from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives. Its intended audience includes not only scholars but residents of western North Dakota, newcomers to the area, and policy-makers in Bismarck, all of whom are trying to understand the changes the state is undergoing.

Potential topics to address include (but are by no means limited to):

  • History: how does this boom resemble or differ from oil booms of the past?
  • How does the boom fit into the larger history of the state?
  • What are the benefits/cost of the boom (social, economic, environmental, etc.)?
  • How have man-camps changed the physical and social landscape of western North Dakota?
  • Patterns of migration: where are people coming from, and where are they settling?
  • How are newcomers using social media to stay connected to home or to build ties with North Dakota?
  • What are the environmental advantages/drawbacks of hydraulic fracturing (fracking)?
  • What legal questions does petroleum exploration raise?
  • What impact do international geopolitics (for instance, the negotiations about the potential Keystone Pipeline) have on western North Dakota?

Submissions of 5,000 to 8,000 words (formatted following the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style) should be sent to the editors, William Caraher (william dot caraher at und dot edu) and Kyle Conway (kyle dot conway at und dot edu) by February 28, 2014. They should be in .odt, .rtf, .doc, or .docx formats.

The Bakken Goes Boom will be published by the Digital Press of the University of North Dakota, a new project run by the UND Working Group in Digital Humanities. It will undergo peer review, and it will be distributed in both electronic and paper formats. The expected publication date is Fall 2014.

DigitalPressLogowhiteThe Digital Press at the University of North Dakota

First Snow 2013

October 20, 2013 § 1 Comment

A tradition on this blog is to remark on the first snow the winter season here in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Last year, the first visible flake happened on October 4th. In 2011, it was November 10th. The first significant snow accumulation was on November 21st in 2010 and on October 28th in 2008. It is fun to note that I got caught in the snow in Western Macedonia, Greece on the drive from Kastoria to Florina on September 11, 2007.

So in this spirit, I offer a somewhat uninspired photograph of the first consistently falling flake of snow this year:

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Thinking about Trash in the Man Camps of North Dakota

October 16, 2013 § 5 Comments

One of the things we’ve been reluctant to do so far in our work in the Bakken oil patch is look through the trash in a systematic way. Sure, Bret Weber did look through a trash bin early in our trips to the Bakken to determine whether a camp was “really” dry or not. (We found beer cans, so it was not).

For those of you new to this blog, I’ve been working with my colleague Bret Weber and a team of intrepid scholars to document the material and social conditions in workforce housing in the Bakken oil patch. You can read more about our work here.

Evernote Snapshot 20120808 110952

Trash has been a central consideration in our study of man camps. In fact, one of the key features that distinguish the various kinds of workforce housing in the Bakken is how they discard trash. Type 1 camps – typically run by companies like Target Logistics or other large companies – have robust trash management strategies that involve dedicated custodial crews who keep the landscape around the camps and the space within worker housing clean. Type 2 camps – which consist primarily of RV parks – typically feature industrial dumpsters. Trash disposal in area immediately around units varies considerably as these spaces tend to be hybrid living, storage, and working areas. As a result, the spaces around individuals units features areas set aside for storage, tools, workspaces, gardens, and recreation. Improvised building techniques encourages provisional discard practices that leave a clutter of “trash” around units. Type 3 camps are mostly ad hoc clusters of campers without access to water, electric, or trash removal infrastructure. As a result, they tended to have recourse to rather less regular methods of removing trash from around the living area. We’ve documented the scatter of trash left behind  at one of these Type 3 camps.     

Discard practices are one thing, but I think my colleague Richard Rothaus is nudging us to consider more fully the content of the trash around man camps. He sent along a citation to M. Posnansky’s recent article in Historical Archaeology 47 (2013), 64-75: “Digging through Twentieth Century Rubbish at Hani, Ghana”. This article shows that the study of garbology (the study of garbage pioneered by William Rathje) is alive and well and has been deployed in the study of colonialism in west Africa (although the author does stress that their work is less concerned with contemporary practices (as garbology has tended to be be) and more concerned with historical practices). Posnansky documented the excavation of 20th century midden mounds surrounding villages near the site of Hani/Begho in Ghana. He noted that local memory of the date and use of these mounds had begun to disappear even through some of the mounds were less than 40 years old. This is an important thing to note in our study of discard in workforce housing. Mundane details like discard practices tend not to feature in written records and, because of the routine nature of the activities, can often slip to the margins of memory.

The assemblage from these midden mounds revealed the rather slow adoption of imported goods such as plastic utensils, enamel wares, and metal nails and screws. The material culture, then, remained remarkable unaffected by the status of Ghana part of the colonial world. How much this can speak to the relative impact of colonialism, the autonomy of the groups studied, or the structure of the colonial economy is left open, but the method of documenting activities that fall outside both individual and social memory and textual sources is significant.

Now, we just have to find people willing to start going through dumpsters at man camps!  

Imagined Battlefields on the Dakota Prairie

October 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

It was really fun to see Aaron Barth’s maiden major publication this weekend in The Public Historian 35 (2013): “Imagining a Battlefield at a Civil War Mistake: The Public History of Whitestone Hill, 1863 to 2013″.  He tells the story of the monument at Whitestone Hill in North Dakota. The monument marks the spot of a particularly heinous assault on a group of Native Americans in September 1863 by Alfred Sully and commemorates the death of some 20 Union Soldiers in the clash. The monument was set up in 1909 as part of a larger project to demonstrate the triumph of “white civilization” and to integrate North Dakota more fully into a national narrative that made the Indian Wars the Western equivalent of the Civil War.


Among the more interesting tidbits in this well-researched article is that the founder of the Whitestone Hill monument was a Congressman Thomas Marshall who cut his teeth as a banker, surveyor, and mayor for the town of Oakes, North Dakota. The link between governing, surveying, and settlement is interesting in a North Dakota context as so many towns were established on a speculative basis. The creation of a monument and the surveying of the battlefield contributed to the larger project of defining the North Dakota landscape and partitioning it into understandable parcels that represent economic, commemorative, and administrative area. In short, it is poetic that a surveyor would be interested in creating a commemorative landscape in the state.

A series of murals dating to 1912 at the nearby Dickey County Courthouse in Ellendale further reinforced the place of the monument within the North Dakota landscapes. The various images present the history of the region showing Native American hunters, early European settlers, and thriving farms. The north elevation of the mural shows the “battle” of Whitestone Hill embedding this event within a path from hunters to settled farmers in the area.

Soon after the monument was erected (and almost certainly during Sully’s life), the circumstances of the “battle” came under dispute and a critical conversation emerged surrounding the ruthless acts of the Union troops. Theatrical productions and public comment introduced counter-narratives that challenged the view within 5 years of the monuments dedication. A local clergyman, Rev. Aaron Beede declared the battle a mistake and wrote a play giving voice to Native American perspectives on the event. Barth argued that this play was the first step in publicly articulating an alternate view of the events at the battle.

I wonder if there was a slightly earlier precedent: on the first Memorial Day event at the monument, the University of North Dakota’s own Orin G. Libby provided a lecture titled “Our Earliest History.” Libby was a student of Frederick Jackson Turner and was generally sensitive to Native American history in the region. Perhaps Libby’s address provided the first critique of the site’s controversial history. Libby was also an important member of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, which met around the same time on UND’s campus. This group sought to emphasize local history, historical sites, and the core values of what would be formalized as public history many years later. If any comments existed amidst his voluminous papers, it would have been a valuable addition to this nice article.

By the 1940s, a plaque commemorated the Native Americans who died at the site. By the 1960s, commemorative events featured individuals who represented the Native American perspective. Of course, the continued use of the term “battlefield” to describe the site ensured that earlier narratives continued to influence the site’s commemoration.

One thing that is notable about this article is that it relied rather heavily on official account drawn from textual sources. Barth is a historian, so I appreciate his wide-ranging research into the history of the site, but he’s also an archaeologist. With a site like a monument, as I am sure Aaron knows, dissenting opinions often appear outside of the view of texts. I finished the article wondering whether the monument ever served as a place of protest for Native American groups or as a location of mourning for the massacre that it commemorated. The signs were and are likely subtle. Object left behind, the faint traces of gathering, and alternate rituals that subvert the intended message of the site.

As he continues to research this site as part of his dissertation, I’ll be excited to see how his work develops. And check out his blog here.

Another Triptych

September 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’m getting into doing this little triptychs. Here’s a link to my first one. This one is a bit less derivative.

These photos were taken near Wheelock, North Dakota while out west a few weeks ago.

 I liked the sharp lines of the cultivated field and experimented with different focal lengths.


Engaging New North Dakotans in the Bakken Oil Patch

September 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

This weekend, I had a fun chat with some folks from the North Dakota Humanities Council. As many of my readers probably know, I’m on the board. One of the topics of our conversation was how do we engage younger people in the larger project of the humanities. We talked about how busy many 20 and 30somethings are as they attempt to start their careers and personal lives. The conversation then went in two directions. First, we discussed how young people rely on the flexibility of the web to consume cultural content and engage the humanities. Then, we turned to the largest new community of younger people in the state: those associated with the Bakken Oil Boom.

And in no time at all, the inspired leadership of the North Dakota Humanities Council worked with me to create a proposal. I should emphasize that this is just a proposal, but I find that the best way to make proposals “work” is to make them public and see what the response is.

So here’s the first draft of my proposal to the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Recent research by the North Dakota Man Camp Project has suggested that many new North Dakotans in the western part of the state feel disengaged from their local communities, the state, and its history. The attitudes of new North Dakotans is not unexpected, in part, because these new arrivals do not come to North Dakota for the cultural experiences, but to make a living. That being said, some of the new arrivals intend to make North Dakota their home and even the short-term residents have the potential to contribute to the larger humanities project in the state. In fact, the dialogue between longtime residents of North Dakota and new North Dakotans offers the potential for stimulating and renewing critical reflections on the state’s culture. For example, recent debates about how to best approach improvements to basic infrastructure in western North Dakota has revisited Elwyn Robinson‘s famous “too much mistake”.

The disengagement of the newest North Dakotans from local communities should not imply that these groups have not developed a sense of community among themselves. Like the first settlers to the state, new North Dakotans have worked to forge their own kinds of community centered on work, neighborhood values, and recreation. Unlike the first settlers many of these new communities stretch from physical locations into online social networks mediated by Twitter, Facebook, or blogs.

The presence of a well-developed set of online social networks and an intriguing hook to revitalize conversations on what it means to be a North Dakotan makes the prospect of engaging the new North Dakotans of the Bakken boom a natural focus for the North Dakota Humanities Council. To facilitate this renewed (and renewing) conversation, we will invite leading experts and personalities across the state to contribute short essays (<5000 words) on the history, environment, and values of the state. The format for this renewed conversation will include an interactive online space and print. For distribution of the print publication, we will focus on the “man camps” of the Bakken, leverage existing social networks, and include within each book a QR code that links the printed copy to the online conversation.

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota has developed the tools and expertise necessary to be a valuable collaborator with the North Dakota Humanities Council in these endeavors. We propose not only to solicit contributions (under the advisement of the NDHC), to edit the volume, and to prepare the manuscript, but also to take the lead in raising the necessary funds for the production, publication, and distribution of the final product. The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is a new project and will benefit from the value in the North Dakota Humanities Project name and longstanding leadership.

This project will not end with the book, but continue as a catalyst to engage both North Dakotans of longstanding and new North Dakotans in a renewed discussion of the past, present, and future of the state. 

First, we hope the renew a statewide conversation about “being North Dakotan” by creating a point of departure provided by a cross-section of the state’s intellectual community.

Second, the introduction of the essays in the published volume online produces an online forum from discussion of the ideas in the essays. The combination of a robust online presence, existing social network communities, print publication distributed in a targeted way to new North Dakotans, and the use of QR codes to direct readers of print to online sites ensures that the NDHC web community will have a regular flow of engaged readers. Moreover, the readers will be trackable from across the state to determine whether the program succeeded in reaching the intended audience.

Finally, the renewed conversation on the state of North Dakota sets the stage for the 50th anniversary of Elwyn Robinson’s landmark History of North Dakota in 2016. Robinson’s work has framed the various ways of understanding the past and present of the state for a half of a century and will undoubtedly inspire a new set of reflections which the NDHC will clearly lead.

North Dakota Sky

August 31, 2013 § Leave a comment

The past two weeks have been hot, a bit muggy, sunny, and dry. The sky has been pink and brilliant in the morning except on Thursday, when we enjoyed impressive line of thunderstorms.

This the what those storms did to our sky:

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This prompted me to make this little triptych of our morning skies from the past week. It was inspired (actually “copied from”) by a print that I saw a couple of years ago at UND’s spectacular Arts and Culture Conference.


It’s a nice time to live in North Dakota.

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