The Spirit of Arbor Park

There has been an interesting debate going on in my home town of Grand Forks, ND over the last few months. The city is looking to sell one of a small number of “pocket parks” in the downtown for development as a build a mixed-use condominium and office building. A rather rancorous debate ensued with a vocal group of community leaders calling for the park to be spared and another group calling for the park to be sold to accelerate development downtown. The park itself features work from local artists and stands as a nicely landscaped spot in the city with some disiecta membra from buildings destroyed by the 1997 flood and metal sculpture that evokes the history of the city and one of its founding fathers George Winship. While I’ve never found the park very compelling or interesting, apparently some folks in the community do. I’m much more interested in seeing the continued development of downtown Grand Forks, but I’m not entirely unsympathetic to people wanting to spare the park. You can get a sense for the debate here

What is getting me interested and excited about this debate is that this is just the latest in a series of issues that have fueled community interest in how Grand Forks should develop the downtown. Residents are debating the location for a new library, adding bike lanes, managing surface parking, traffic calming measures at dangerous intersections, and the role of tax revenue in all these projects. The enthusiasm with which people engage these debates is incredibly encouraging.

Downtown Grand Forks is going through a bit of a transition lately with a few established businesses closing up shop, some new apartments and businesses moving in, and a growing interest in thinking about downtown in new and interesting ways. Events like the Blue Weber’s Alleys Alive – a music and arts festival set up in alleys and parking lots downtown – attract impressive crowds, and initiatives like Pete Haga’s food truck (which local restaurants can rent for events) drew long lines. My hope is that the energy from the Arbor Park debate will continue to fuel interest in downtown. This is all the more important as the North Dakota economy stalls and the legislature panicked imposing overly ambitious budget cuts which further impair the ability of communities (and individuals) to respond the opportunities for growth.

The exciting thing about a downtown in transition is that there are ample opportunities for what some have called “tactical urbanism.” These are small-scale projects like Alleys Alive or temporary parks or other short-term interventions that expose new ways to inject energy into downtown at a minimum risk and cost. In other words, the energy being put into preserving Arbor Park could also fuel myriad other projects across the community. 

For example, I’m sort of interested in seeing the now-closed co-op Amazing Grains being turned into something new in the short term (although maybe the space has already been leased). Maybe a temporary coffee shop and library extension? Or a pop-up art gallery? Are there ways to use the evident passion for downtown to ensure that the pregnant pause of transition doesn’t slide into a kind of doldrums? I’m particularly interested in the potential for small-scale, short-term projects to bring new voices to downtown and reveal new opportunities for growth and change. 

So no matter what happens with Arbor Park, I am optimistic that the energy evident in the debate (aside for some of the more divisive and rancorous comments that probably speak more to frustration than genuine anger) will contribute to the existing vitality of the downtown.

[As an aside, one of my great regrets this past year is that I’ve stopped walking home from campus and walking around downtown. Part of it is because I started running regularly either on a treadmill in the winter or outside in my neighbor in the summer. This made me less motivated to go out for a long walk in the evening or walk home from school in the winter. As a result, I feel like I’m a bit less connected to the downtown (which is only a few blocks from my house) and a bit less informed on the vibe of the community. I need to get out and walk more.]

Fragments of Ivan Illich in the Bakken Oil Patch

Over the past week or so, I’ve been making my way slowly through Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality (1973) over the last few weeks, and it has really helped me refine (let’s say?) some of my ideas on work in the Bakken and (wait for it…) slow archaeology.

For Illich, the expansion of technology, professionalization, and institutions have undermined the fundamental conviviality of human society. This conviviality involves making space for independent creative acts and a commitment to work that modern, industrial society has stripped away. Illich sought to promote tools that allowed individuals and communities equal access to productive processes. His classic case study is learning: convivial tools allow for a freedom to experiment and encounter without institutional sanctions or limits whereas non-convivial tools limited access, reinforce the exclusivity of knowledge, and develop expertise and restrictive institutions like schools, factories, and professions. Technocratic society promotes inequality among its members through tools that grossly amplified the labor of the individual through increasingly technical means. Thus, the individual’s labor became increasingly estranged from their access to the rewards of the system which institutions meted out unevenly and in ways that were increasingly distinct from the work of the individual. The rise of fossil fuels accelerated the dominance of non-convivial tools and created a hard break between individual work and effort and consumption. 

During my research in the Bakken oil patch, I consistently noticed this curious curious tension that I was at pains to understand or describe. On the one hand, extractive industries especially modern fracking and deep drilling, represent an apex of industrial technologies and have value not in anything visible or tangible, but in the monetary reward that individuals receive for their work and society received from fossil fuels. In other words, the individual is separated from the fruits of work by myriad institutional and technological barriers ranging from the complexities of the modern financial structure of extractive industries to the hidden infrastructure of drill bits,  pipelines, and wells. Opportunities for expression within these institutional frameworks are profoundly limited for the safety of the worker, the efficiency of the process, and the control over the product. Worker wear uniforms, live in company housing, come to the area exclusively to work, and have hyper specialized skills.

There are, however, more convivial spaces in the Bakken, particularly in the informal workforce housing sites where some of the same workers (or the workers who support them) live. Amid the deeply unconvivial space of extractive industries that feeds the dense network of unconvivial tools that dominate the exclusionary space of modern society, there are these informal, ad hoc, convivial space for living that stand out as a space of resistance against the very regimentation of society that petroculture demands and requires. For example, these camps are filled with ad hoc mud rooms often built of found material present throughout the industrialized area. These rooms expand the living space of the RVs where workers live, protect the door from the cold and dirt of the patch, and offer an opportunity to show off individual building skills. These are expression of conviviality and the ideas for these improvised extensions circulate via conversation at these camps and stand in contrast to the more regimented life and work on the oil rigs.

This contrast produces a chilling irony. Advocates for the Bakken oil patch have presented it as a pathway to energy independence. If we follow Illich’s thought, however, the need for the fossil fuels produced from the Bakken constitutes a much more densely constituted web of dependence. 

Despite romantic views of the American West as a space for rugged individualism, the reality of work in the Bakken is more consistently manifest as the “wage earners frontier” with oil patch worker depending on a dense web of government, capital, and institutions to thrive. In fact, the risks associated with oil field work, the structured spaces of workforce housing, the technocratic organization of 21st-century extractive industries, and even the increasingly conspicuous collusion of the state and the oil companies locates the oil patch worker (as well as any consumer of fossil fuels) amidst multiple and rarely competing systems of control. Parts of this system from the economic networks that fund the work to the infrastructure that moves oil and water throughout the patch are conspicuously occluded as if to hide these patters of dependency. In fact, little about the Bakken and the Bakken oil boom constitutes genuine independence, but the space of man camp provides a rare exception.

It is hardly surprising that local government has cracked down on both mudrooms and informal workforce housing sites, and promoted superficially tidier superficially tidier apartment blocks that despite their more rational and regular design are now unoccupied. The result is a simple case study for Illich’s ideas. The informal conviviality of RV parks in the Bakken produced housing that was flexible, dynamic, cost effective, and left little impact on the landscape. The less convivial constraints of modernity produced produced a superficially more humane and rational housing system that has, at least for now, failed and will cost communities and future workers into the future.

Fragments on the Tourist Guide

I had to write up a little bit of the backstory for my forthcoming Bakken book, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape. (Fargo 2017).

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It’s a bit conversational:

This book has a messy backstory. It derives fundamentally from the North Dakota Mancamp Project which is a cross disciplinary project focused on documenting the social and material context for workforce housing in the Bakken. Over 5 years we visited Western North Dakota regularly, talked to people there, wrote about our experiences, and made arguments for the character of housing in the 21st century and in extractive industries. Our familiarity with the Bakken led to numerous inquiries from the media, other scholars, and the general public concerning both our work and the Bakken more broadly.

One morning, while writing my blog, I decided just to start writing a tourist guide to the Bakken. This was a genuinely spontaneous project in which the writing preceded any real thinking about what this might entail or even the purpose of the book. Over a few months, on the trusty blog and then on the longform writing site of Medium, I wrote the basic narrative of this guide and got feedback from people both in the region and around the world.

At the same time this was taking shape, I was working with Kyle Conway to produce the edited volume, The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota. I was also working on a paper for Historical Archaeology that set out some of the main conclusions from our work in the Bakken. These two projects helped me solidify the idea that my work in the Bakken was both about the place, that is Western North Dakota, but also about the idea of modernity and something that scholars have increasingly called “petroculture.”

The realization that I was really thinking and writing about the modern world, rather than just the Bakken, and tourism represents this key element in the making of the modern world. In fact, the “tourist gaze,” to use John Urry’s famous phrase, represented as vital an aspect to creating the modern world as the rise of fossil fuels. In fact, the two are deeply intertwined with our modern way of viewing the world and tourism being propelled forward first by steam and then oil powered vehicles which allowed the new middle class to enter a world of travel and leisure. This allowed the middle class to expand the world that they called their own through both recognizing themselves in others around the globe, but also subordinating what they saw to the realm of experience, exoticism, and leisure.

Applying the lens of tourism to the Bakken, then, offers an opportunity to see the modern world as if it were a strange place filled with wonder. The Bakken embodies our age of fossil fuels and tourism while hinting at a future age of hypermobility set against oft-competing views of apocalyptic and nostalgic dreamscape. 

The Digital Press on Longreads

While I’m settling into my summer research in Cyprus, I’m still thinking of some of my projects this spring. Some good news from my colleagues at The Digital Press.

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is excited to announce that Josh Roiland’s story, “It Was Like Nothing Else in My Life Up to Now” in David Haeselin’s edited volume, Haunted by Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997 (2017) has appeared on the iconic long-read internet site, Longreads, this week.

Go check it out, and if you like their work (and their support of a wide range web publishing), click the Support Us button and give them some support. At very least, click through to their page and support their mission by reading.

Or, click through to the Haunted by Waters page and download the book or buy it in paper!

 

 

It Was Like Nothing Else in My Life Up to Now

Updates from The Digital Press: Haunted by Waters and the Corinth Excavation Manual

Some good news today from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

David Haeselin’s Haunted by Water: the Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997 is now available in print from Amazon for the low, low price of $20! We’ve also added a few supplemental pages that developed during the editing and production of the book. One offers some additional reading on the Red River Flood of 1997 and other provides some useful insights into the class that produced this fine book.

If you haven’t already downloaded this book for free. You really should. And if you like it enough to add to your analogue paper book collection, do it, and leave a little review. It helps others make good decisions where they spend their $20 and bookshelf space.

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The other bit of good news is that the Corinth Excavation Archaeological Manual is on pace to break all of The Digital Press’s download records. It has been available for a little over two weeks and seen almost 500 downloads! 

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To celebrate this, we’ve made it available for purchase through Amazon for $9.99 for the rest of the month (it’ll take a little time for the price to change on Amazon. In the meantime, you can buy it here for $9.99 or be patient!). I can think of no reason not to go and grab a copy. If you like it and find it useful, it’s great for the Digital Press if you leave a comment! 

Finally, if you have an excavation manual that is gathering digital dust on your hard drive and think it’s pretty good and useful, drop me an email. When I first began work on the Corinth Excavation Archaeological Manual, I had this idea that it might be the first in a series of published field manuals. A few people expressed some interest and I’d be keen to get a sense for whether other projects might be interested too!

The Bakken Bookshelf

One of my long simmering projects is to pull together a bibliography of works relevant to the study of the Bakken oil patch and the most recent boom. Part of the challenge facing the state of North Dakota is a remarkably fragile historical memory. Events even in the recent past tend to give way to political rhetoric, economic contingency, and social expediency. While some of this “blind eye toward history” is commendable because it allows us to avoid a kind of fatalism that traps the state in its past, it can also be crippling when it prevents us for anticipating challenges.

The Bakken bookshelf has another goal, as well, and this is to encourage the state to engage more fully in recent conversations on petroculture and the impact of oil on politics, economics, the environment, society, and culture more broadly. I’d love for the bookshelf to come to include some teaching material – whether syllabi or just reading lists – to guide teachers, students, and the interested public through this material. 

Here’s how I imagine some basic organization. The works fall into four categories:

1. New Research. 

I’m really excited that my colleagues Kostis Kourelis, Richard Rothaus, Bret Weber, and I published our first journal article on the North Dakota Man Camp Project in Historical Archaeology (hit me up for an offprint, if you want one!) In many ways, it’s the evolution of work that I had published in the volume that I edited last year with Kyle Conway, Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota. what prompted me to write about this today. I’m also anticipating the appearance of my The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press 2017) and Bret Weber’s Voices of the Bakken (The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, 2018) which will be a curated and lightly-edited collection of interviews from our work in the Bakken. 

These works could be joined by some recent research from across the state including Matt Jones recent dissertation in criminal justice at UND titled, “Anomie in the Oil Patch?” and Clarence Herz’s 2013 M.A. Thesis on the history of petroleum exploration in North Dakota prior to 1951, as well as the various white papers published at NDSU (e.g. Nancy Hodur’s and Dean Bangsund’s reports on the oil and gas workforce) and various other organizations. In addition to these academic works, there are significant contributions from non-academic works like Lisa Peters’ Fractured Land: The Price of Inheriting Oil (Minnesota State Historical Society Press 2014) or even Richard Edwards’ Natives of a Dry Place (South Dakota Historical Society Press 2015).

2. Historical Research.

There are some fantastic historical documents available on the Bakken  From Robert B. Campbell, ed. The Williston Report: The Impact of Oil on the Williston Area of North Dakota” (1958) to D. Schaff’s 1962 M.A. thesis, “The History of the North Dakota Oil Industry,”  Robert Chase and Larry Leistritz’s “Profile of North Dakota’s Petroleum Work Force, 1981-1982,”  and John P. Blumle’s The 50th anniversary of the discovery of oil in North Dakota (ND Geological Survey 2001).

As we develop the bookshelf project more, I hope that we can excavate a slightly more substantial list of significant historical research on oil in the specific context of North Dakota.

3. Official Documents.

One of the interesting things about researching oil both in North Dakota and on a global scale is that there is a good bit of official discourse about extractive industries ranging from debates in the legislature to technical reports like William M. Laird and Clarence B. Folsom Jr.’s North Dakota’s Nesson Anticline (ND Geological Survey 1956) or cit. While it is clear that official documents and research will blur into each other, with documents like the City of Ray’s Comprehensive Plan (2015) fitting as easily into one category as the next, but to collate these documents in a single place would be come a useful resource. 

4. Petroculture.

Finally, there is an expansive and growing body of academic work on petroculture. The work is situated at the fertile intersection of literature, history, social sciences, and technical and scientific disciplines. At its best, petroculture creates a bridge between individual consumption practices, extractive industries, global economics, and the consequences of modernity. Winnowing down this work into a body of essential texts is a challenging prospect, but, in some ways, the key component of making The Bakken Bookshelf relevant outside our region and state.  

The Bakken, Petroculture, and the Anthropocene

Last week, like many folks, I’ve been thinking a good bit about science and the humanities. The march for science has prompted some of this, but so has some recent reading on petroculture and the Anthropocene for my graduate historiography seminar. I read Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement (2016); Bob Johnson’s Carbon Nation: Fossil Fuels in the Making of American Culture (2014); Dipesh Chakrabarty’s seminal “Climate of History: Four Theses,”; Bruno Latour’s “Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene,” and Timothy LeCain’s “Against the Anthropocene: A Neo-Materialist Perspective.”

All of these are fine works by people a good bit smarter than me. 

They’re fueling my thoughts right now on how to bring my long-term research in the Bakken oil patch, which primarily focuses on workforce housing, into a meaningful conversation with recent work on petroculture, agency, and the Anthropocene. It seems like many of these authors write with sweeping perspectives and gestures, and this makes sense because the scale of the Anthropocene and modernism pushes historians to think on both expansive time spans and immersive levels of culture. In particular, they interrogate agency in ways that sever it from the immediacy of human experience. The agency of the Earth, for example, is not something that can always been encountered in a life time, a century, or even a millennium.  Climate change, geology, and even the place and aspect of the Earth in its orbit around the sun contribute to our experience of life at widely varying degrees of immediacy. We may encounter the impact of climate change in our lifetime, but the history of climate change and the role of climate and human actions on shaping our world unfolds over many generations. As several of these scholars have noted, the time spans involved in understanding these phenomena and the complexities of agency alone challenge conventional historical methods.

My work in the Bakken, in contrast, has been much more granular and detailed and focused on a tiny sliver of modernity and petroculture as well as a small window into some of the mechanisms that have contributed to the creation of the Anthropocene. My hope is that by doing this on the local level, we can encounter more readily the intersection of modern labor regimes, domestic practices, work habits (and taskscapes), and technologies (as sophisticated as fracking and as longstanding as railroads). Local perspectives push us to articulate the points of contacts between human and non-human actors in the modern world. Further complicating this is the pace of modernity which accelerates experiences and makes certain moments of interaction particularly ephemeral and generates a tension between the dense networks that allow agents to interact and the episodes of interaction.

My current projects have looked to engage this in two distinct ways:

First, in a book that should appear this fall, I’ve tried to describe the Bakken through the perspective of the tourist. Tourism offers a distinctly modern way of viewing the landscape of petroculture. The imagined tourist to the Bakken participates in a way of viewing (the so-called Tourist Gaze) that relies upon both modern technologies of travel as well as modern ways of organizing space, time, and labor. The neatly organized tourist itineraries punctuated by sites of historical importance and bookended by regular meals, accommodations, and packaged amenities. The Bakken tourist is both within and separate from the world of labor, and this reinforces certain ways of organizing experience that produces divisions between what we can see – an objective reality – and who we are. By making this dichotomy known and apparent, we make the barriers between ourselves and the world susceptible to increased scrutiny. The divisions between the tourist and people, sites, and events that the tourist sees is not so radically different from the division between our gaze as humans and “nature.” And this division has been the target of so many recent critiques of our modern fate and the Anthropocene.     

My research in the Bakken offers that opportunity to bring in human voices, not at the level of society or even in some other meaningful aggregate way, but at the level of the individual. Next year, my colleague Bret Weber will publish a massive collection of interviews with residents of the Bakken. While these interviews are wide ranging and don’t speak to a single moment or issue, they offer an immediately human perspective on petroculture and the mechanisms that have shaped the Anthropocene. If the Bakken provides a circumscribed spatial context to dig deeply into petroculture and place, then the interviews offer a human scale for the interaction between people, extractive industries, and the landscape. The challenge will be to see if I can extract (pun intended!) petroculture and the workings of the Anthropocene at the level of the individual interview and trace our own place in the late modern world in the Bakken workforce.

Book Day: Haunted by Waters

Please do join me in congratulating David Haeselin and his students in the Writing, Editing, and Publishing program at the University of North Dakota for their first collaboration with The Digital Press: Haunted By Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997.

The book is now available for FREE download from The Digital Press’s page. Originally we had decided to release a teaser for the book during “flood week,” but for some crazy reason, David Haeselin and I decided to accelerate production to get the digital version of the book out this week. So it is READY.

The project is a great example of a kind of local, civic-minded, public, digital humanities project. The students, who had no memories of the flood, explored the archives, the earlier literature on the flood, and constructed a book that spoke to the social memories of the flood that they encountered through their time at UND and in Grand Forks. So the book is both a reflection of their experiences and a contribution to the mediated memory of the flood.

Download it today! 

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The Northern Great Plains History Conference and the Bakken

Next fall, the Northern Great Plains History Conference will be in Grand Forks. So my colleagues and I put together a panel proposal on the Bakken.

Here it is:

The 21st-century Bakken Oil Boom in Historical Perspective

While the Bakken Oil Boom may have gone into momentary abeyance, its long shadow continues to extend over both the economy and the cultural and political imagination of North Dakota. The papers in this panel consider the technological innovations that led to the increase oil production and population, the historical context for violence in the region, and the structure of the Bakken work force as a manifestation of the 21st-centurty concerns with precarity. The final paper presents a broadly synthetic attempt to frame the Bakken at the intersection of late modernity, petroculture, and the tourist’s gaze upon an industrialized landscape. These papers offer a distinct local and early effort by historians to understand the history of the Bakken Boom and to reflect on contemporary and future challenges facing the state.

North Dakota’s Super Boom:  How Fracking Changed Production in Bakken
Clarence Herz, Department of History, North Dakota State University

From Prohibition to Safe Harbor: Reflections on the Past, Present, and Future of North Dakota’s Commercial Sex Laws
Nikki Berg Burin, Department of History, University of North Dakota

Tales of Murder and Mayhem: Historical Violence in the Bakken
Richard Rothaus, North Dakota University System 

Aliens in the Bakken: Precarity and Workforce Housing
Bret Weber, Department of Social Work, University of North Dakota

The Bakken Gaze: Tourism, Petroculture, and Modern Views of an Industrial Landscape
William Caraher, Department of History, University of North Dakota

 

A Forthcoming Book from The Digital Press: Haunted by Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997

With any luck and a little concentration, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will release two books next week. I already mentioned the first book yesterday: Corinth Excavations Archaeological Manual. Today’s book is a bit more close to home here in the Red River Valley: Haunted By Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997, edited by David Haeselin and the advanced writing, editing, and publishing class in the English Department at the University of North Dakota. Here’s a sneak peek at the table of contents!

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Here is press release that the class prepared announcing the book:

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is proud to announce the publication of Haunted by Waters, an anthology written, collected, and edited by Dr. David Haeselin and students from the writing, editing, and publishing certificate program in UND’s English department. Including new additions from various contributors and archival documents, this anthology explores the Greater Grand Forks area twenty years after the devastating Red River of the North flood of 1997.

As the twentieth anniversary of the Red River flood approaches, many citizens of Grand Forks have pushed the disaster to the back of their minds. People have since moved on, their houses rebuilt and their minds focused on the present. Grand Forks stands as a model of recovery for this reason: the city managed to recover and grow stronger. 

Scheduled for digital publication on April 20, 2017 (with a print version available from May 1, 2017 via Amazon), Haunted by Waters offers readers a new chance to explore how communities came together to face of the historic disaster, how they recovered, and, for the first time, the composition of the community that survives the disaster two decades later. 

Many University students are almost oblivious about the flood. If anything, they notice the monument standing proud and mighty near the Greenway, but few take the time to read the plaque or even approach the monument. They glimpse at it and then move on with their lives. Haunted by Waters offer readers the chance to slow down, to notice, to create a sense of memory. According to Dr. David Haeselin, the collection hopes to give these students all other readers “the occasion to look backward so that they can look forward.”

Janet Rex, librarian at the Chester Fritz, asks in her poem included in the book: “How can one convey disaster? The spaces of loss. Nothing flows so smoothly as water oozing over land, creeping through the grass, seeping into windows, cellars, filling streets like rivers, basements like pools.” Haunted by Waters tries it best to answer not just that question, but it also asks: what kind of Grand Forks do we want to see in the future? This collection provides new ways to enter to the historical conversation while also considering what it means to live in the Red River Valley today as workers, as neighbors, as authors, as professors, as students, and, most of all, as citizens. Twenty years later, these voices have more to say. 

A book release event is scheduled for Thursday, April 20 at 6:00 p.m. at Rhombus Guys Brewing Company, 116 S. Third Street. This release is being planned in coordination with the city of Grand Forks’ twentieth anniversary observation. At this event, student editors will discuss their experiences editing the book and how building their sense of memory about the flood has changed the way they see Grand Forks and the University.

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota serves “to publish timely works in the digital humanities, broadly conceived. Whenever possible, we produce open access, digital publications, that can attract local and global audiences” and the Writing/Editing/Publishing program at UND aims to teach its students “to produce and edit documents for diverse purposes in a variety of media and contexts.” Together, Haunted by Waters has been created by its editor(s) to embody these ideas while expanding the breadth of knowledge of the Red River Valley region’s history.