I’ve been slogging my way through a very short article on the possible role of the North Dakota Man Camp Project in contributing to recent interest the archaeology of forced and undocumented migration.
I set up the problem as one of impermanence and abundance. Undocumented and forced migrants often move from one impermanent camp to the next at the margins of more settled communities which are committed to preventing these contingent populations from leaving a lasting trace in the landscape. Workforce housing in western North Dakota follows this practice exactly as the established tows in the region worked to curtail the establishment of crew camps and other forms of housing for temporary workers. They did this for reasons ranging from xenophobia to a desire to expand the local tax base, encourage the settlement of families, and limit the long-term impact of the boomtown growth. From an archaeological perspective, these short-term character of these settlements and the attitude surrounding their creation will obscure their archaeological impact on the landscape. The undocumented migrants that these sites housed will likely remain rather invisible in an archaeological record that privileges long-term, iterative, settlement practices which slowly create archaeological deposits.
At the same time, our modern world enjoys an unprecedented abundance of stuff. The mass production and distribution of objects has created a modern landscape that is densely arrayed with discarded objects. The residents of workforce housing sites demonstrate both a remarkable ingenuity in modifying their spaces, often RVs, to adapt to the North Dakota climate, the needs of year-round occupation, and the desire to project some individuality in the relative uniformity of the RV park. Objects abound from wood shipping pallets to outdoor furniture, appliances, equipment, vehicles, and grills, fire pits and weight sets.
In other words, workforce housing sites in the Bakken manifest this tension between abundance and impermanence. Somehow I need to conclude a paper that establishes this tension and make reference to ideas like “an archaeology of care,” the potential of tourism to serve as a lens for critiquing the modern landscape, and our responsibility for creating an persistent archive to both document and memorialize these events even after the archaeological record slips from view.
Wish me luck.