Bakken Man Camps and the Archaeology of Refugees

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been slowly (so slowly!) pecking away on a short article for a special forum in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology that looks at the archaeology of forced and undocumented migration. Since much of the movement into the Bakken is literally undocumented and can speak to the kinds of short-term settlement change that is taking place on a global scale, I think the work of the North Dakota Man Camp Project can speak to these issues.

So here are some of my words:

Lessons from the Bakken Oil Patch

It is with some hesitation that we offer an archaeology of temporary labor in the Bakken oil patch as a contribution to a volume on forced migration and refugees. After all, it would be easy to categorize the experiences of economic migrants in the Bakken as a separate historical and even moral category from that of the migrants who have fled catastrophic military or political events. At the same time, we would gently content that our experience documenting the archaeology of workforce housing in the Bakken oil patch offers some useful lessons for archaeologies of the 21st century. Our work speaks to several issues that resonate across archaeology of contemporary world: the accelerated pace of the capital, the kaleidoscopic oscillations between cores and peripheries, the increasing fluidity of populations and places, and the fraught potential for the practice of archaeology to authorize the experience of displaced groups.

The North Dakota Man Camp Project has used both ethnographic and archaeological techniques to document the wide range of short-term workforce housing in the Bakken Oil Patch. Improvements in both drilling and fracking technology in the early 21st century and high oil prices re-opened the Bakken and Three Forks formation to large-scale exploitation. The global economic crisis begun in 2008 accelerated the arrival of workers from around the U.S. While some of these workers were brought to the region as employees of multinational corporations like Halliburton or Schlumberger and housed in mobile work force housing camps provided by global logistics companies like Target Logistics, many others moved to the area with the hope of finding employment in the oil patch. The small and historically remote communities of western North Dakota were unprepared for the influx of workers and many of the first wave of workers arriving in North Dakota squatted in public parks, lived in RVs in the Walmart parking lot, and negotiated unfavorable deals to park their RVs, rent bedrooms, or stay in local hotels.

If the absence of model projects for the politically and ethically productive engagement with refugee and force migrants has hindered our ability to produce new archaeologies of this phenomenon, it might be worthwhile to look at similar phenomenon in a global context. Saskia Sassens’ book Expulsions argues that the development of “advanced capitalism” has transformed both economic and social relationships on a global scale. As Arrendt and Agamben have recognized, the displacement of people is more than just the movement of people from one situation to another, but the displacement of an individual’s rights from the guarantees derived from status as citizens of a particular state to a new status dependent on a new set of political realities, definitions, and relationships. This situation does not deprive the refugee of all agency, of course, and Agamben has argued that the refugee has the potential to disrupt the political order of the nation-state by creating a space of for a kind of “pure human” to emerge in the gap between the individual as human and the individual as citizen.

If Agamben recognizes the transformative potential of the refugee as a “disquieting element” in the political order of the nation-state, the spaces of the western North Dakota Bakken Oil patch represent a different expression of the deterritorialization of the individual. The movement of individuals into the Bakken followed the global flow of capital which ignores national boundaries, demographics, and culture. Transnational companies contract with global logistics firms to import prefabricated crew camps which accommodate the largely male workforce involved in extractive industries. These “man camps” are set up to optimize access to work sites, leverage existing local infrastructure, and to allow for the rapid deployment of personnel to remote locations. Their modular design allows for them to be adapted to a range of environments and needs and generators, water treatment plants, cafeterias, laundries, security systems, and leisure spaces allow these camps to exist in self-contained and self-sustaining ways. For residents of these facilities, the space of the prefabricated crew camp seek to standardize the experience of temporary residence and to maximize the labor extracted from each individual. The space of the crew camp is a “non place” with no distinguishing features to complicate or disrupt the seamless deployment of local, human capital.

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