Back to the Bakken

This week, I’m headed back out to the Bakken to revisit some of our study sites and to think a bit about a fun writing project for this fall. Tom Isern, at NDSU, and Bret Weber, my co-direct at the North Dakota Man Camp Project, received a grant from the North Dakota Humanities Council to fund a series of public workshops, called the “Man Camp Dialogues” focused on our work in western North Dakota. Richard Rothaus, Bret, and I will be involved and we hope to rope in some of the other participants in our project 

Tom suggested that we produce a study guide for these workshops and publish it as a Circular (no. 2) in a new series produced by his Center for Heritage Renewal. We can then make the study guide available for our talks around the state and, perhaps, for a show scheduled this winter at the Plains Art Museum that will focus on art and the oil patch. Apparently these circulars run 15-20 pages, so this is not a huge writing project, but one that will require a certain amount of thought. Right now, I’m thinking about how we can present the man camps of the Bakken as a kind of living archaeological site of our contemporary age. (I am not sure I’d want to encourage tourism of workforce housing, but the amount of through traffic on Route 2 through the heart of the oil patch makes a certain amount of curiosity only natural. Folks who live in historical homes or in historical neighborhoods have experienced this kind of tourism for over a century.) 

So as I revisited many of our study sites, I began to think about how to present our research to a diverse public audience. I figure the circular would start with a basic description of our work and our study sites. We’re probably introduce our now (in)famous typology and some of the challenges associated with doing archaeology of the contemporary world.

I think then I’d like to introduce four ways of talking about workforce housing in the Bakken.

1. Stories of the Boom. One of the most interesting thing that we’ve encountered are the various ways that people have talked about the oil boom in North Dakota. The media, for example, loves to tell stories of people taking risks to make their fortune as well as folks who found only disappointment in the Bakken. The Bakken is narrated in so many different ways and workforce housing, man camps, are typically part of these stories. We could imagine directing a visitor to the Bakken or someone attending one of our workshops to consider the various ways that people have told the story of the Bakken boom and how the place where many of these new North Dakotans live contribute to these stories.

2. Objects and Arrangements. A key aspect of living in workforce housing is that “home” is often somewhere else. On a practical level, there is workforce housing provides less space for the kinds of objects that most of us associate with him. On a philosophical level, this reduced assemblages makes it more difficult for residents of the man camps to express their own identity through their objects located in and around their residences.  In this context, then, it is useful to consider the objects associated with workforce housing. They typically range from objects associated with domestic life – grills, coolers, refrigerators, lawn or camping furnitures – to those associated with work. The latter category becomes all the more common when the line between the space of sleeping and eating overlaps with the space for working.  

3. Architecture and Innovation. Despite the limited assemblage of material present in many of these camps, there is nevertheless innumerable examples of innovation as residents of the Bakken work to transform RVs from season and occasional vehicles to spaces for longterm habitation. Elaborate mudrooms, platforms, and barriers to block the cold and wind, expand and refine the limited space available in the standard recreational vehicles. Large camps, have a vibrant trade in recycled building material and, in some cases, additions that allow residents to customize their spaces to suit the distinct needs of year-round life in the Bakken. The growing prevalence of mobile housing and the needs of an expanding contingent and transient workforce is ushering in a new chapter in the history of vernacular architecture.

4. Images of Home. Most of the world has encountered the Bakken oil boom through the often-spectacular images published in the national media. These images show a range of experiences associated with extractive industries, but images of the workers in their domestic space are relatively rare. The national media then characterizes the Bakken primarily as a place of work with short-term habitation being a curious, but underrepresented footnote. This has the risk of dehumanizing the residents of the Bakken by making them seem an appendage to work rather than individuals who struggle to make a comfortable, secure, and balanced life just like the rest of us.

Today, we’re going to revisit a bunch more of our study sites around Watford City and Williston and I’ll post an update tomorrow. 

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