Commemoration in the Bakken

Over the weekend, my colleague Richard Rothaus forwarded me a story about the dangers of working on oil rigs in the Bakken. Much of the article is a rather typical discussion of physical risks of working in the oil patch, the pressure on workers to cut corners, and the lack of adequate safety or corporate accountability. 

The final photo in the article is a cross dedicated at the site of a well blow out that cost the life of an oil field worker. The cross was depicted in front of a sign marking the location of an oil well, and this nicely juxtaposes the most highly visible mark upon the Bakken landscape (the drill rig, oil well, et c.) and a less visible commemorative landscape.

Of course, the cross commemorating the death of a worker in the oil patch runs counter to the dominant narrative of the progress and wealth brought to the region by the oil boom. It reinforces a theme of sacrifice that is not entirely absent from conversations about the risks that oil workers face on a global scale (and it is a topic that comes up regularly in social media discussions of oil patch life). The military-style garb common to some of the larger companies in the patch which features coveralls with American flags underscores a link between patriotic duty and work in the patch. Sacrifice is a persistent subtext associated with work in the oil industry because the risks are very real, but the way in which it is represented reflects a certain ambiguity. Appeals to patriotism suggest that risk is part of national duty, whereas roadside crosses hint at the more personal costs of working in an industry with notoriously shoddy safety standards. It’s hard not to read commemorations like the cross set by the side of the road as a critique of the industry and the foundation of a subversive landscape. 

Over the next month or so, I plan to finish up the Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch and send it off on the journey to publication. At the end of the week, though, I plan to head out west to fill in a few gaps. The photo at the end of this article tipped me to being a bit more aware of commemorative markers across the patch. While I’ve endeavored to bring into my Guide sites that form an environmentalist landscape, mark the historical landscape of drilling in the region, and the unavoidable signs of the productive landscape, I’ve included no evidence for the human cost of oil in the region. As I explore the Bakken once more this week, I’ll be on the lookout for this small, but important sites that form an important counterpoint to the productive, industrial landscape of the Bakken.

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