Time to Stop Exporting Our Native Talent

My mother and daughter and I were sitting at the Medora Musical on the Fourth of July—soaking in the joy of a perfect evening in a perfect place. This year's Musical looks back over 50 years of song and dance on the stage of the Burning Hills Amphitheater. At one point the lovely and talented host Emily Walter mentions a few Musical performers who went on to national careers: David Soul (Starsky and Hutch), Job Christianson (Broadway), Tom Netherton (The Lawrence Welk Show), and most recently Kat Perkins (The Voice).

It's an impressive but only a partial list. Harold Schafer's summer open-air show has been the nursery for some major national talent. More importantly, it has served as a platform on which scores of talented young people have had the chance to live out their dreams of performing live before large audiences in one of the most beautiful places in North Dakota.

When Theodore Roosevelt spoke of "the glory of work and the joy of living," he helped to create the mythology of the Old West frontier. That mythology is alive and well in Harold Schafer's Medora, and in Sheila Schafer, now 89, who sits in Row G, a whoopin' and a hollarin' as if she were seeing the Medora Musical for the first time. We all know that she has seen the Musical on several thousand occasions in the last 50 years, and yet every evening that she glides down the escalator into the amphitheater, the magic of an outdoor theater in the heart of the badlands rejuvenates her. And everyone around her.

One of the best things about the economic miracle that has come to North Dakota is that it is laying the groundwork for a burst of new cultural activity in a state that has traditionally exported its talent. The old paradigm was represented by Angie Dickinson and Eric Sevareid—talented and ambitious North Dakotans who were born and raised here, but who left the state at the first opportunity and seldom came back. In fact, Sevareid and Dickinson both sometimes spoke about North Dakota as if it were a slough of rural parochialism and mediocrity that had to be overcome if one really wished to live a full and happy life. Once they achieved escape velocity, they gave their mighty energies to other zip codes, and came back once in a very long while to accept awards from a state that congratulated itself for giving the world people it could not keep.

That North Dakota is ebbing away and I say good riddance. I revere Sevareid, who epitomizes what sane public commentary should be, and who was a lively presence at the birth of broadcast news. And I had the chance a year or so ago to be part of an interview with Angie Dickinson, who has softened her quarrel with the northern prairie, and whose performance in Rio Bravo (with John Wayne, 1959) is enough to make you fall in love. But they left forever.

The Minot-born actor Josh Duhamel is a source of pride for North Dakotans, and he seems genuinely to care about the land of his childhood, but we ought to be prouder of musician and writer Jesse Veeder-Scofield, who has chosen to live on a ranch near Watford City, when she could live anywhere, and who sings the song of North Dakota (not Texas, not Hollywood, not New York City and not Nashville), including the song of the oil boom. Her creativity and her art are not just derived from the broken country of western North Dakota, but her Muse seems to be here, in the creaking floors of the old ranch house and out along the ridgeline. Her presence amongst us makes North Dakota a better, richer place to live. She is just getting started. We need people like Jesse to explore our experience and tell our story, to tease out the mystery and identity of North Dakota in the twenty-first century. Her presence will attract other young artists, especially young women, to cast their lot here and not just bolt for easier venues.

The same is true of our fabulous troubadour Chuck Suchy, who is a great musician and an actual farmer south of Mandan. That's the source of his authenticity. His music over the last few decades has taught us how to love our home place. He has given us a vocabulary for our pride in wildflowers, in a red hunting dog bursting through the tall grass, in the dignity of agricultural life. He is more significant to North Dakota than Warren Christopher, now deceased, who was born in Scranton in 1925, and who served as President Clinton's Secretary of State. Christopher was an important diplomat, but what did he do for North Dakota? He's in the Rough Rider Hall of Fame, as he deserves, but the fact is that he built his life elsewhere. He was one of our great exports. Chuck Suchy has done more for us than anyone who was merely born here. And he is not yet in the Rough Rider Hall of Fame.

Over the past couple of years I have heard Governor Jack Dalrymple, on at least half a dozen occasions, say that we should use some of the great Bakken oil windfall to fund and encourage cultural activity in North Dakota. I love it when he speaks of the cultural heritage and potential of North Dakota, of our responsibility to give it as much attention as we give wheat and soybeans, higher education and oil zone infrastructure. It is clear that he has a vision of what North Dakota could and should be in the year 2030—and beyond. Few places ever get what we are getting—a sudden gigantic infusion of wealth and possibility, beyond our immediate ability to spend it or spread it around. I think the Governor is right that we will be judged—centuries hence—by just how we invested the surpluses.

We have it in our power to make North Dakota the most remarkable place on the Great Plains, one of the most remarkable places in America, if we have the imagination and vision to plant the seeds now.

Great things are already happening here. Some of them are still below the radar, but you will hear more and more about them in the coming years. Organic farms, community gardens, a new higher agrarianism, a food coop (soon!). A renaissance of craft and localism, more high tech and somewhat less clunky than the kind we prized in our grandparents. Independent filmmakers are sprouting up all over the landscape. Brew pubs. Young writers are coming or returning to the state, drawn by the complicated story of the boom, but their best work will almost certainly be about something else that is rooted on the northern plains. When is the last time a North Dakotan wrote anything as good as Larry Woiwode's Beyond the Bedroom Wall (1976)? That moment is likely to come, and it will owe something to shale oil.

I do not wish to play down the dark side of the industrial revolution that has swept into our beloved homeland. But we need to remember that the other side of the coin represents virtually infinite possibility, if we have the strength and imagination to insist upon it. We must demand a conservation and cultural renaissance as our compensation for the losses we feel but hardly yet dare to express.