The Archaeology of Oil Production

I took advantage of the snow day to finish up a chapter that I’m preparing for some kind of volume on the Archaeology of Plastics. My paper was on the archaeology of oil production and it was a nice chance to pull together a bunch of things that I had noticed while doing field work in the Bakken and writing up some of that work.

Without sounding too satisfied, I think this is one of the better things that I have written over the last few years on oil. It’s mostly just a summary, but I feel like it brings together some diverse threads and sets a course of what the archaeology of oil could be in the future.  

Here’s the paper’s abstract:

This chapter surveys broadly the archaeology of oil production with particular emphasis on work in the United States. The first section of the chapter explores efforts to designate sites associated with the discovery, transport, and refining of oil and their related workforce heritage status in the US and elsewhere. The second section considers how the distinctly liquid character of oil produces diverse and dynamic “petroleumscapes” that integrate the various phases of oil production and consumption. The notion of the petroleumscape and other similar ways of understanding human and archaeological landscapes associated with oil production is then applied to the Bakken patch of Western North Dakota in the final section. This area experienced a number of oil booms starting in the 1950s and culmination in the early 21st century boom at which time a team of archaeologists with the North Dakota Man Camp Project documented both workforce housing in the Bakken and the industrialization of the rural landscape.

Here’s a link to the paper.

Snow Day!

There are different kinds of snow days here in North Dakotaland. There are those in November and early December which feel like the first kiss of winter. There are those in January and February which come with bitter cold and howling winds. And then there are those in March and April which sometimes arrive after the thaw begins that bring their own sense of excitement.

It looks like we got about a foot of heavy, wet, snow over night and might get 6-8 inches more today. The University of North Dakota is closed today. I feel partly to blame for that as I told my Wednesday night class that they could have the Wednesday after Easter off since I had left an extra class anticipating a snow day. It looks like that jinxed them and they’ll have to take their snow day today. I suspect that they won’t mind.

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It’s funny how many people assumed that with the Zoomification of Education, snow days would become things of the past. It turns out that even classes conducted over Zoom require faculty, staff, and planning. Who knew? So for now, snow days will continue and students (and faculty and staff) will get unexpected breaks from our usual routines. 

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The nice thing about these April snows is that they’ll be gone by next week.

Musical Merrifield Hall

Last night, after the last faculty and staff had left the building, Mike Wittgraf and I also with two graduate students set up some speakers and recording equipment in Merrifield Hall in the University of North Dakota’s campus to see whether we could capture some of the building’s distinctive sound.

This project is a bit of a passion project for me. I started my career at UND in Merrifield Hall and spent many happy hours in the North Dakota Quarterly office and my various academic office’s in the building. As part of that, I often found myself immersed in the building’s distinctive soundscape. From the reverberation of footsteps down it’s long, terrazzo paved hallways to the whirring and clunking of the building’s various pumps and lifters, the building’s sounds have long offered a kind of familiar backdrop to late nights and early mornings on campus.

Next year, the building will undergo some serious (and much needed) renovations and I suspect some of the characteristics that made it so endearing to me will be lost. My students in a my English graduate class on things have likewise recognized that Merrifield’s century old design and layout will give way to something more contemporary. They are working on a series of papers that consider the history and, perhaps more importantly, the feeling and experience of Merrifield Hall.

Our efforts to record the sound of the building are part of this larger effort. Last night began by running a series of long tones from a 1000 watt JBL subwoofer.

It has just enough power for us to discover that a tone of 44 hz would produce a standing wave in Merrifield’s basement hallway. We could walk through the wave and find nodes where it was almost inaudible and then walk a few feet further and find places where the sound was almost deafening. These tone tests also revealed when various features of the building would resonate with various frequencies and rattle windows in offices. You can hear some of those moments at the end of the video above.

We then set up a pair of powered fuller-range speakers to complement the subwoofer and to play with a wider range of frequencies. 

We marveled at the how clearly we could hear the notes linger and decay in the hallway. At times we could literally hear the pulse tone racing back and forth up and down the long corridor. For me, these reverberations echoed some of the sounds I remembered fondly from my time in Merrifield and I got pretty exciting that we were not only producing new kind of sonic situations (poetry?) in the building, but that it was also so deeply rooted in my own experiences there.

Finally, we set up a microphone on the fourth floor landing at the opposite corner of the building from our speakers. There’s a lot of a concrete, steel, brick and glass between the speakers and the microphone, but we hoped that we could not only record the time that the sound too to traverse the building, but also show how the building itself amplified, distorted, and conjured sounds through its fabric.    

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We connected this microphone to a laptop which could be time synced with the computer responsible for producing the sounds. This should allow us to measure the time it takes for sound to traverse the building. We also anticipate that it’ll create some interesting sonic features as the microphone also captured the various background sounds that are so characteristic of Merrifield Hall.

The end result of this work is a bit hard to know right now and I suspect we’ll come back over the summer to do more recording and play around with how things sound, but we have a start.

Merrifield Meditations

Over the last few weeks my students in my graduate class in English have started a project designed to engage with Merrifield Hall before it undergoes major renovations next year. For those of you who have read this blog, you’ll recognize this as a development related in some way to my ongoing effort to engage with the changing landscape of campus. In the past, however, these projects – such as Hearing Corwin Hall, have privileged historical perspectives on buildings or approaches that seek to dig beneath their often beleaguered exteriors to find their former beauty, significance, and meaning.

This semester, however, the class is teaching me to pay greater attention to the surfaces as they now exist in Merrifield. To be clear, Merrifield Hall has always been a special place for me. For the first five years of my career on campus, I had an office in Merrifield Hall and taught in its classrooms. These were pretty good years for me. I was productive professionally, I was developing as an instructor and advisor, and I felt supported by the institution. Even today, as I spend the last few months in Merrifield Hall, I find myself drawn to its distinct sounds and features that form a backdrop to the changing rhythms of campus life. In fact, the recent pandemic and the longer term trend of declining enrollments at my institution transformed the once bustling corridors of Merrifield into quieter spaces where footfalls and shuffles remain distinct and reverberate off the terrazzo floors and masonry walls.

This has me thinking about how we should go about engaging with Merrifield Hall on the eve of some pretty significant transformations. My buddy Mike Wittgraf and I want to record it somehow and try to capture and experiment with the sound of the building. My students are thinking about how to understand and document the building through conventional history, but also through fiction and poetry. As I’ve blogged about before, more creative approaches to understanding our work may open us up to new ways of knowing and thinking about a space. This represents a kind of inversion of traditional ways of thinking about how we work in the humanities and social sciences. Instead of us pealing back layers of accumulated meaning from the buildings themselves, we’re starting to think about how the buildings shaped our experiences of them. This involves digging into ourselves and how we feel about a place and pealing back layers of our own experiences to try to figure out how it is that we make sense of spaces and spaces push us to make sense of ourselves.

I’m not sure how far we’ll get doing this over the next two months, but working with this group of students has started to clarify in my mind how I might engage with campus in new, more introspective and reflective ways. What’s most important for me is realizing that my previous approach of looking at campus as a palimpsest of previous experiences, adaptations, and designs which we can detangle to reveal past intentions, only tells part of the story. Being, working, and living on campus also created changes in me that require looking inside in order detangle the way that campus spaces function.   

Grand Forks, UND, and the Ku Klux Klan

I’ve been directing a graduate seminar called “Thinking with Things” in the English department this semester and so far it has been pretty great. The discussions have been probing and enthusiastic, the students eager and creative, and over the last two weeks they’re transformed the seminar from a standard, read-and-discuss format, to a more active read-discuss-produce class. As part of the “produce” part of the seminar, the students are working on a project that will engage with Merrifield Hall. Merrifield is a useful object of research and consideration because it is the current home of the English department and is slated for a major renovation in the coming year. The results of this renovation will be a revitalized building, that will largely serve as classroom space rather than its previous mixed use design where faculty and administrator offices, labs, and classrooms stood next to one another. 

Yesterday, the class spent some time in special collections where they dug into the history of the building, the history of the university and Webster Merrifield, and the history of the building’s architect, Joseph Bell DeRemer. Midway through the class, UND’s archivist came over to me and wondered, conspiratorially, whether we should tell them that Joseph Bell DeRemer was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. 

I have to admit that this caught me a bit off guard. I didn’t know much about Joseph Bell DeRemer, the person, and had mainly admired his works across the campus, in our small town, and across the region. Over a career spanning most of the first third of the 20th century, DeRemer skillfully blended 19th century architectural traditions of College Gothic, Tudor Revival, and Neo Classicism with sleek Art Deco touches in his carefully considered designs. In many ways, Merrifield Hall is one of his masterpieces with its outwardly College Gothic form only gently masking is modern amenities and even Art Deco inspired touches. 

That DeRemer was a member of the Klan was perhaps not entirely surprising considering the prominence of the Klan in 1920s Grand Forks. Spurred by the firebrand Presbyterian preacher F. Hawlsey Ambrose from his pulpit at First Presbyterian, the Klan sought to create a voting block in opposition to what they perceived as the growing influence of a Catholic minority in town. The 1920 census recorded only 27 Black people in town and fewer than 400 Jews, but the city had continued to attract foreign born settlers which comprised over 20% of the population. Catholics had long held positions of significance in the community including the office of mayor, police and fire chief, and on the school board. Anti-Catholic sentiments fanned by the resurgent 20th-century Klan intersected with roiling political divisions in North Dakota associated with the emergence of the Non-Partisan League with its left-leaning policies and powerful political influence. In Grand Forks, for example, Ambrose’s pulpit railed against Catholic influence locally as well as the pernicious influence of socialism and communism in the NPL. 

To be clear, Bell DeRemer was not a rank and file Klansman who joined for political reasons or in the heat of the moment. He was an inaugural member of the Klan in the city and stood second only to Ambrose himself on the founding documents of the organization. Because we don’t have much information on the other members of this secretive order, it is a bit challenging to trace the influence of the Klan in town, although William L. Harwood’s careful 1971 study, “The Ku Klux Klan In Grand Forks, North Dakota,” in South Dakota History 1.4 suggests that it was considerable, at least in the 1924 elections.

The Klan’s influence on campus life is likewise difficult to discern. For example, we know that Ambrose inveighed against both the historian Orin. G. Libby and the sociologist John M.  Gillette in his church as being socialists and communist sympathizers. This outburst emerged from their public battle with UND’s president Thomas F. Kane who sought to have them both dismissed. Gillette and Libby were two of “Merrifield’s Faculty”: the first group of formally credentialed academics hired by UND in the first years of the 20th century. They pushed back against many of Kane’s efforts to modernize and professionalize the university as well as his opposition to the politically ascendent NPL. It is worth noting that Kane hired (whether personally or through his office as President of UND) Bell DeRemer to design Merrifield Hall in 1927 at a time when the Klan’s political influence in Grand Forks and elsewhere in the state remained significant.

Of course, it is tempting to assume that political allegiances would be consistent with Klan ties, but there are enough cases when this doesn’t appear to be case, to give us pause. For example, Governor R.A. Nestos, who came to power with the backing of the Independent Voters Association, a group set up to oppose the NPL, made it illegal for the Klan to perform public activities while wearing their masks. His successor, Grand Forks native Arthur Sorlie was a Republican and an NPL member and denied membership in the Klan throughout his campaign. Locally, Ambrose found it possible to criticize John Gillette in his church, but also to offer support to his wife when she ran for school board. She declined to receive Ambrose’s or the Klan’s endorsement. 

Kane was clearly a political animal and sought to use statewide and university politics to advance both his position and the position of the university. It would not surprise me if he sidled up to the Klan during the 1920s. For example, he pushed back against Libby, by dividing the History Department into two Departments: a Department of European and a Department of American History. To lead the former, he hired Clarance Perkins away from Ohio State. During his time at UND, there is some evidence that Perkins harbored anti-Semitic attitudes or at very least sought to hire faculty who would be comfortable with the political landscape of the university and Grand Forks. Whether this meant that he knew about Kane’s possible association with the Klan, shared his attitudes, or simply read the tealeaves about the political life of the community is unclear. 

By the 1930s, the power of the Klan both in Grand Forks and nationally diminished. Ambrose left town in 1931 and Kane retired in 1933 (whatever his sympathies and allegiances). Interestingly, Joseph Bell DeRemer is the architect of record on Grand Forks’s B’nai Israel Synagogue which dates to 1937, although it appears that his son, Samuel Teel DeRemer had a significant hand in its design. Nevertheless, this must count among a very small number of synagogues designed by (former?) member of the Ku Klux Klan. 

New Book Day: The Archaeological Cultures of the Sheyenne Bend

It’s my favorite day of the year! NEW BOOK DAY. 

And this new book day is better than most because it’s a NEW ARCHAEOLOGY BOOK DAY. 

Let’s celebrate the publication of Michael G. Michlovic’s and George R. Holley’s Archaeological Cultures of the Sheyenne Bend!!

Here’s the skinny on The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota’s latest publication. As always it’s available for free or as a low cost paperback. Download links are below and do remember that purchasing a copy in paperback supports future publication projects by The Digital Press and contributes to building a sustainable infrastructure for small-scale, scholar-led, collaborative, open access publishing!

As a bit of backstory, the authors of this book reached out to me after struggling to find a traditional publisher for their manuscript. They wanted to publish their synthesis of a career of archaeological field work in the Sheyenne Bend region of Walsh County, North Dakota in a way that would ensure that a diverse and interested audience could get access to this work. They eventually discovered The Digital Press and we worked together to bring this remarkable little book together. 

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota has had the good fortune of publishing quite a few books that deal with archaeology, on the one hand, and North Dakota, on the other. Every now and then, there’s a happy coincidence, and we publish a book on the archaeology of North Dakota. 

Today’s New Book Day celebrates one of these books: Michael G. Michlovic’s and George R. Holley’s Archaeological Cultures of the Sheyenne Bend. This book will join a small handful of books that explore in an engaging and accessible way the pre-European history and archaeology of North Dakota. Michlovic and Holley present a synthesis of over 35 years of archaeological research in the Sheyenne Bend of Walsh County. The book should be of interest both to specialists who want to get a broad overview of the archaeology of the region as well as to nonspecialists who are interested in how archaeologists interpret their finds and produce new understandings of regions and cultures. 

As with all our books, you can download it for free or pick up a low cost paperback from Amazon. Go here for the download or a link to purchase

More on the book and the press release below the cover image! 

Sheyenne Bend Book Cover

This volume presents the results of several decades of archaeological research in the Sheyenne Bend region of southeastern North Dakota. Piecing together evidence from disparate field projects, along with the work done by previous researchers, Archaeological Cultures of the Sheyenne Bend offers a status report on the pre-European era cultures of southeastern North Dakota. Presented in ordinary language, this book constitutes the essential details to make sense of the regional archaeological record.

A New Archaeological History of the Sheyenne Bend

Denizens of eastern North Dakota know that there is more to the history of this region than meets the eye. Mike Michlovic and George Holley pulled together over 30 years of archaeological field experience in southeastern North Dakota to write an accessible new history of the pre-European cultures on the Sheyenne Bend region.

Both Michael Michlovic and George Holley are Emeritus Professor s of Anthropology at Minnesota State University Moorhead, where Michlovic served as chair of the Department of Anthropology and Earth Science and president of the Council for Minnesota Archaeology. Holley excavated across the United States in the Southeast, Midwest, Plains, and Southwest, and in Mesoamerica where prehistoric ceramics became his specialty.

Mike Michlovic remarks that the new book, The Archaeological Culture of the Sheyenne Bend, “is an effort to make our work more accessible to a larger audience, and to put all of the sites we worked into a single story.”

Beginning over 10,000 years ago, Michlovic and Holley welcome us into the world of the communities that lived around what is now the Sheyenne River in Walsh County, North Dakota. Retreating glaciers, the disappearance of Lake Agassiz, and the changing course of the Sheyenne River provide a vivid backdrop to the thousands of years of activity in this region that predate the arrival of Europeans.

For Michlovic and Holley, the story of these societies remains important to this day: “We were both educated as anthropologists, and as such were taught that there are no people in the world who are unimportant, and who, through understanding, don’t have something to teach the rest of us. We feel it is the same with the study of the past. There is something to learn from everyone’s past, not just the from the history of presently dominant societies.”

Michlovic and Holley explain how the sites only gave up their history of the area when combined on a regional scale: “The Shea and Sprunk sites demonstrated the features of a previously unknown cultural entity in the Sheyenne region, the Rustad site by far the oldest site, and one well represented by the cultural deposits, and the Biesterfeldt site, now a National Historic Landmark reflecting the early history of the Cheyenne people.”

Taken together these sites remind us “every people and every place have a past worth knowing, and it is vital that we learn this past before it is lost.”

William Caraher, director of the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and himself a field archaeologist, said, “Working on this book was particularly rewarding because it combined the press’s interest in archaeology and North Dakota into a book that is both accessible and one of the very few book length studies of North Dakota archaeology published this century.”

Like all books from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, it is available as a free download for the press’s website or as a low cost paperback: https://thedigitalpress.org/sheyenne-bend/

Music Monday: Classroom Music

This past week, I listened with a good bit of enthusiasm to the Koichi Matsukaze Trio feat Ryojiro Furusawa, Live at the Room 427 re-released by BBE as part of their series of Japanese jazz. It’s a great example of Japanese jazz from the 1970s and both reflects the internationalization of this deeply American form of music and is immediately recognizable as jazz. (Do check out this recent article on “J Jazz” in the Guardian.) The highlights on this album is the 20-minute “Acoustic Chicken” which is simply brilliant and the disassembled and improvised version of Billie Holiday’s “Lover Man.” You can listen to it here.

The album title, At the Room 427, refers to a classroom in Chuo University which Matsukaze (a saxophone player) and Furusawa (the drummer) had attended. The idea of recording a performance at a university isn’t unique at all. In fact, jazz music especially in the 1970s, was popular on campus and any number of well known albums were recorded at specific campus venues. (Joe McPhee’s Nation Time recorded at Vassar’s Chicago Hall, remains in heavy circulation at my house. Chicago Hall, of course, is a theater so perhaps this isn’t very surprising!). There’s a tradition, of course, of music at libraries, jails, lofts, homes, and other unconventional venues as well.

A classroom, on the other hand, feels unique to me and maybe it conveys a kind of intimacy or even intellectual and creative security that this album exudes. Where else would we feel the most free to experiment, to improvise, and to explore than in a university classroom? (Wait, don’t answer that…) 

I also got to thinking about how classrooms are acoustic spaces where we both produce sound and listen intently. What better venue for creating improvised music?

This also got me thinking a bit more specifically about a situation at UND. Sometime over the next year or so, Merrifield Hall, one of the oldest buildings on UND’s campus, will undergo a significant renovation and upgrade. Whatever the results of this transformation (and some of the renderings look pretty significant and impressive), the building will never be or sound the same. I’ve had to good fortune of having an office in Merrifield hall for most of my years at UND: first as a member of the history department when it was housed in Merrifield and then as editor of North Dakota Quarterly. My time in Merrifield Hall is inseparable from its distinct sound. The wide hallways paved with terrazzo floors, with cement walls, and lowered acoustic tile ceilings create a particular sound when a middle aged male faculty member with a bit of a lazy shuffle walks down them. The classrooms, many of which are original, likewise have a unique sound to them with their large windows, solid walls and carpeted floors. Anyone who has taught in Merrifield know the feeling hearing their voice sound just a bit different when facing the outside wall or the middle of the room. This isn’t to suggest that the classrooms are especially live, but rather to point out that they do have a unique sound.

My guess is when the building is renovated some of the unique sound will disappear and I wonder if it is worth putting some energy into capturing its distinctive sound before it’s gone?

For a bit of visual history of Merrifield Hall check out my posts from 2009 when the history department was last in the building: Room 215Room 217Room 209,  Room 300Merrifield graffitiimages from the department of history, and the Merrifield move.

The Catholic Conference and UND’s Code of Life

For better or for worse, my blog rarely deals with contemporary affairs, but occasionally a situation arises in our community that intersects closely enough with my professional and personal interests to warrant some comment. 

This past week, North Dakota’s Catholic Conference penned a letter to the Catholic parents urging them to contact the University of North Dakota concerning its ongoing work to revise its gender inclusion policy. In my memory, this is the first time that the Catholic Conference has weighed in publicly on something at UND (although I might be wrong here). They seem to be concerned about UND’s effort to make their policies comply with federal law protecting the rights of transgender and nonbinary individuals in housing and student activities. The policy is in draft at this stage and the letter urges concerned citizens to reach out to UND and to urge them to produce a policy that protects individuals who uphold the primacy of “assumption of binary, or biological based gender.” UND’s president responded to the letter pointing out not only that the current policy is still at the draft stage and that the letter itself included a number of misunderstandings and outright misstatements of fact. 

These mistakes suggest that this letter was not a good faith effort to influence UND’s policy, but is another example of a dogwhistle designed to elevate a particular group’s anxieties and to use these anxieties as an opportunity to forge a greater degree of social cohesion. Indeed, obedient to the dogwhistle’s call, a number of local conservative politicians supported the letter publicly on social media suggesting that some folks were ready and eager to take sides. 

Whatever its resonance with immediate social concerns among the state’s political, social, and religious conservative leadership, I would also suggest that this letter reflects several proximate and longstanding concerns of the Catholic Church. To be clear, I am not an expert of contemporary Catholicism nor do I have any particular insights into the workings of the local Catholic community. So this post today is a bit of me “shooting from the hip” as I try to wrap my head around this unusually public statement.

It is my effort to answer the question: why would the North Dakota Catholic Conference decide that this is worthy of a public letter?

To this end, I have four observations.

First, I suspect this letter has as much to do with drumming up support for Catholic schools, colleges, and universities as actually urging UND to violate federal law. We are at the start of spring admission season and undoubtedly college-aged students and their parents are thinking about what they will be doing next fall. Catholic institutions have recently, at least it seems to me, doubled down on the Catholic aspects of their educational missions and for many this has involved a more conspicuously conservative public face. In this context, this letter represents a bit of a marketing move designed to juxtapose public institutions with pious Catholic ones. 

Second, I can’t help but see this within the larger context of the sexual abuse scandals that have wracked the church over the last thirty years. This has not only heightened concerns about sexual morality, but, perhaps more significantly here, cast light on the relationship between issues of gender and sexuality. I’ll unpack this more below.

Third, the Catholic Church in the US has long had to negotiate the tension between the idea that the family is the heart of moral life and Christian values and the fact that the clergy and many of the most revered members of the Catholic community do not live in conventional families. This is not an unreconcilable tension, but the sexual abuse scandals within the church have resonated with long standing prejudices against men living in homosocial conditions.

To be clear: I’m not in any way suggesting that priests, men, or women who chose to live with others of the same gender or sexuality are any more likely to be sexual predators than anyone else. This is patently not true. 

That said, there is a perception that individuals in these circumstances are somehow sexually suspect in part because their sexuality doesn’t have the “traditional” heterosexual outlets present within conventional family life. Again: I am not saying this is the case in reality, but this argument is part of a larger constellation of homophobic rhetoric designed to mark individuals living outside of heterosexual family life as deviant. 

Thus, the Catholic Church especially in the US is in a bind. Its spiritual leaders and exempla often live outside the conventions of sexual morality that they advocate. Not only have the innumerable scandals brought this tension into high relief, but practices of Catholic clergy and members of religious orders contrasts with the situation in most Protestant churches — especially mainstream evangelical churches — which allow pastors to marry and have families. 

Fourth, even my rusty memory of the Early Church history is replete with non-gender conforming individuals. Holy women, in particular, often so thoroughly rejected their traditional gender and sexual roles that they manifest as holy men. Roland Betancourt’s recent book, Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages (2020) offers a well curated litany of non-gender conforming saints (and there are, of course, many others: Gilian Cloke’s classic This Female Man of God Women and Spiritual Power in the Patristic Age, AD 350-450 (1995) and, of course, the work of the late Elizabeth Clarke; for a particularly recent take on the complex issue of women clergy in the Early Church, check out Sarah E. Bond and Shaily Patel’s piece at the LARB). Some of these saints possessed such extraordinary piety that they lived in monasteries among fellow ascetics of the “opposite biological sex.” Far from being a sinful situation, this ability to shed the outward trappings of one’s gender was seen as a mark of particular devotion and faith. “Biologically male” ascetics likewise shed outward trappings of masculinity by rejecting not only their roles as biological fathers, but often in public life as well. Retreating to a monastery and rejecting the trappings of masculine ambition, whether in war, business, politics, or social life, contributed to their sanctity and their ability to be closer to God. As Matthew 22: 23-33 famously states at the time of the resurrection men and women will not be married, but become like angels, and it is clear that some achieved a similar sanctity by anticipating this moment.

In other words, contemporary priests, monks, and nuns, continue to live in same sex accommodations and develop deep and meaningful homosocial friendships and spiritual lives in part by through rejecting conventional sexual and gender roles. These practices contribute to a tension between contemporary anxieties about sexual morality and gender conformity, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, living traditions of sanctity established by the Early Church. 

Thus, I would urge UND and anyone else who has read this letter to ignore its vaguely prurient and plaintive efforts to influence public policy and instead consider the tune played by its dogwhistle. This letter is not about the obligations of a public institution toward vulnerable members of its community, changing standards of diversity and inclusion, or even federal laws, but about the deep anxieties present in the contemporary Catholic Church.

It seems to me that we should probably read this letter more as a piece seeking to define the character of Catholic education or as a subtle manifestation of the anxieties about the relevance of the Catholic church in ongoing discussions about changes to the traditional family or even as a public effort to struggle with the place of the clergy in a world where historical notions of sexuality, gender, and justice form only a cryptic cypher for contemporary practice. 

It is particularly unfortunate that Catholic Conference chose to engage these valid, genuine, and even pressing concerns to the Catholic community in a letter misrepresenting the efforts of a public institution to protect vulnerable members of North Dakota society. 

This is not a good look.

Moreover, it suggest that some of the church leadership are more interested in forging unity through promoting an anxious view of the modern world than through thoughtful engagement with the Church’s recent and ancient past.  

Three Things Thursday: Books, Teaching, and the Red River of the North

I’m just over 60% done with my first week of classes, and I’m settling into my new weekly scramble. As per usual, buy the half way point of the week, we life has started to fragment as I desperately flailed to capture the bits and pieces of the time, ideas, and work that had been so neatly arranged earlier in the week. 

In other words, it’s a good time for a Three Things Thursday:  

Thing the First

Because we all decided that we weren’t busy enough, Richard Rothaus, who might just be the MOST busy, decided to restart our moderately unsuccessful podcast: Caraheard. As we awkwardly come to realize, this would be our fourth season and as our tradition in the past, we kicked off the year with a discussion of our favorite books of the year with our very special guest Kostis Kourelis. 

My favorite books read during the past year were Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series published by The Dorothy Project. These books are amazing and I blogged about them last February. I also talked a bit about Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, which I blogged about here. Finally, any survey of my annual, pandemic inflected reading had to include something about Sun Ra. I talked about the wonderfully reproduced copies of some of Sun Ra’s poetry by the Chicago gallery Corbett vs Dempsey. I’ve blogged about them here.  I’m going to need to spend some time tracking down the past seasons of  Caraheard and maybe getting them up in the Internet Archive or something. So, stay tuned.

Thing the Second 

I’m teaching a lot (for me) this semester. In fact, I’m almost teaching “for the cycle”; that is teaching a 100, 200, 300, and 500 class. I’m teaching this semester as a bit of a “teaching sabbatical” in which I prioritize these four classes over my other contractual responsibilities. In fact, I’ve reduced the percentage of my contract designated for research to almost nothing and have controlled my service responsibilities by rotation off a pair of particular onerous committee. While I know that many faculty teach four or more classes year-in and year-out, and so I want to be clear that I’m not trying to valorize by teaching load or anything of the sort. For me, however, teaching more classes and more preps creates a chance for me to shift my attention to teaching in a way that sometimes gets lost when I find myself juggling my classes as just another facet of my professional responsibilities. 

There’s something about the constant pressure that four preps places on me that keeps thinking about teaching in the forefront of mind. This has made me wonder why teaching sabbaticals aren’t a thing? Why do we tend to assume that faculty want to spend a year immersed in the research grind and freed from responsibilities to teach and to do service, but we don’t offer the same for faculty who have a significant commitment to teaching? I would love to institutionalize the opportunity to take a year away from service and research and really focus on the craft of teaching. More to the point, I also think it would emphasize the importance of teaching not only to faculty, but to the institution itself. I could imagine a teaching intensive schedule paired with opportunities to be mentored by teachers in other departments and disciplines, there could be a retreat prior to the start of the semester where faculty could focus on installing new methods, approaches, or curriculum. There could be opportunities to refresh tired classes or to emphasize major changes in medium – from in-person to on-line, for example, or from small section to big? 

More importantly, departments and colleges would not only not be penalized for faculty taking a teaching sabbatical, but be rewarded. For example, colleges and departments would still receive the full percentage of research funds allocated on the basis of that faculty member’s typical research contract. Service responsibilities will be entirely eliminated for the year as would occur during a typical research sabbatical, but departments would be given support to incentivize other faculty stepping into service roles for the duration of the sabbatical.

Thing the Third

I serve on our community’s historic preservation commission as the commission’s archaeologist, and at the past meeting, in a not entirely spontaneous gesture, I raised my had to take on a small project that was sent out to bid and did not receive any interest. I’m going to investigate whether any parts of the 1950s era flood wall still exist along the course of the Red River in Grand Forks. Fortunately, we have already done a bit of research and received the Army Corps of Engineers maps showing the 1950s era wall. I also have a copy of Douglas Ramsey and Larry Skroch’s book, The Raging Red: The 1950 Red River Valley Flood (1996).

This work will be a little more salient this year as the community looks back 25 years to the 1997 Red River flood which overran the earlier flood walls and led to the massive installations that we have installed today. While many people won’t be interested in looking back at the 1997 flood (if for no other reason than it represents a time when community cohesion, resilience, and state support provided a foundation for recovery), I feel like we have an ongoing obligation to think about how our decision to make our home on the river has shaped the landscape. 

Problematizing the Present

Over the weekend. I read Nick Estes’s book on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (2019). The book is good in all sorts of ways although I suspect that the story that it tells won’t be new to anyone who followed the #NoDAPL protests or who is broadly familiar with the history of Native American activism and protests. 

That said, it remains a book worth reading as Estes models the kind of activist scholarship that typifies that best books published by Verso. More than that Estes makes the connections between not only the political struggles associated with Native Americans on the Northern Plains and the important role that this plays in recent and contemporary activism. For someone less familiar with the two important (and violated) treaties of 1851 and 1868, the book makes clear the relationship between these treaties and the legitimate grievances of the signatory tribes against the US. The DAPL protest camp stood on land recognized as belonging to the Sioux according to the 1851 Treaty which while violated by the US government, nevertheless remains “the supreme law of the land.”  

While everyone should be familiar with the basic narrative of Estes’s work, there are two elements of his book that struck me as both exemplary and particularly useful to my own book project.

First, Estes is very direct in recognizing the important role that Native American scholars have played in documenting and interpreting the history of US-Tribal relations. In terms of “citational politics,” Estes clearly identifies the national affiliations of Native American authors throughout his text making clear how the history of US-Native American relations involves not only the kind of activism associated with AIM or the DAPL protests, but also the kind of activism that comes from writing incisive, sophisticated, and compelling academic works. Estes’s book contributes to the academic tradition which he cites and adds the most recent chapter in the history of Native American protests.

Second, and more importantly to me, Estes provides a window to Native American thinking about time. The title of the book is Our History is the Future, which offers a counterintuitive view of history which both recognizes it as distant, but also recognizes it as culmination of the present. Whether this alludes to a cyclical understanding of time (where the past is always the future) or a more revolutionary (see the pun?) view that sees the future as the reclamation of the past forfeited in the present remains a bit less clear. I tend to suspect that Estes recognizes the present as a zone of sacrifice both by the architects of contemporary capitalism by activists who oppose them. For the capitalist, the wealth in and of the present only have value in their capacity to generate more wealth in the future. Thus, projects like the DAPL pipeline represent massive outlays of capital (social, political, and financial) in order to secure wealth in and from the future. The discussion of the DAPL pipeline has made clear that its goals are to facilitate the extraction of oil from the Bakken oil patch (which likely depends more on global oil prices than the cost of transporting oil) into a future. This is despite the fact that most sober commenters realize that we must begin to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions. It is hard to reconcile this scenario with present investments designed, at least in terms of rhetoric, to make oil production and distribution cheaper and easier. The damage done in the present, then, whether through the sacrifice of capital or the destruction of Native land or the increased risk to the Missouri River watershed, represents an acceptable cost in the hope for future gains. 

The difference, of course, between Native Americans seeking to protect their land and water (and our water and land, by extension) and the oil and pipeline companies is that for oil and pipeline companies the past is more or less irrelevant. The present is meaningful as a sacrificial zone and the future is where value exists. For Native Americans, as the title of the book implies, the present is significant in that it is the continuation of a 200 year history of protest and negotiation by Native Americans in this region. More than that, the present protests embodies a long experience of protest and violence from Whitestone Hill to Wounded Knee that is very much part of their contemporary awareness. In this way, their sense of the present is not simply a short lived “sacrifice zone” as in the case of the oil companies, but rather a protracted period of sacrifice separated from past defined by autonomy, greater self-determination, and a more expansive view their relationship with the environment and natural resources. So when Estes says, our history is the future, he regards the present as period that has already been sacrificed in the name of the future.

This bring me to a final point. I’ve started to wonder a bit whether the very idea of the contemporary in an archaeological context isn’t problematic. Even the most casual readers of archaeological literature know that periodization schemes often preserve and reproduce problematic world views. While it remains entirely possible to redefine certain categories spatially, chronologically, and ideologically (see for example, the recent turn toward the “Global Middle Ages”), the archaeology of the contemporary world appears rather more committed to a view of the present that is narrowly defined by a white, “Western,” capitalist view of the narrow present. If a Native American at the NoDAPL protests could see their presence and activism as part of a long-present that includes Wounded Knee, AIM, and various other efforts to resist colonization and assert their right to exist, then this represents a very different view of the contemporary than is often advanced by archaeologists of the contemporary world. A view of the present and the contemporary that extends for over two hundred years subverts a present that is consistent with the proximate needs of capital and a sacrificial zone occupied by individuals and groups who must endure violence, pain, and dislocation in the name of a better future that remains continuously out of reach.