"Lightly governed, lightly taxed, highly educated, isolationist, farmer's paradise."
— Clay S. Jenkinson
This week, President Thomas Jefferson explains his own vision for America.
Over the past few days I have had the wonderful guilty pleasure of sitting down to read Robinson Crusoe cover to cover. I know I should have been doing other things, some of them pressing, but I just sat there and read this famous and fabulous account of a man who is shipwrecked on a small island off of Venezuela and spends 28 years there, 26 alone with a parrot and some semi-domesticated flocks of goats.
My core conviction is that the American people are less divided than they seem. That the American people are hungry for something more authentic in the national arena. That people are more reasonable and open-minded than they seem.
Civilized nations enact reasonable laws to prevent create a more perfect union, encourage domestic tranquility, secure the lives and fortune of their citizens, and prevent mayhem.
Drifting down the river in the afternoon, gazing up at the blue blue sky, slipping past golden eagles as if they were sparrows or wrens, examining the famous White Cliffs that Lewis said had the feeling of “scenes of visionary enchantment,” and at times just pulling the paddles into the canoe to feel the gentle but inexorable tug of the continent, this too is paradise on earth.
I thank God that I was alive when it happened. It was surely the greatest human achievement in my lifetime, one of the handful of greatest moments since we crawled out of the sea and found a way to stand upright.
We speak with President Jefferson this week in our annual 4th of July Show. Jefferson shares his thoughts on why the holiday is so important to Americans and recalls how it was celebrated during his time. We also speak to Gaye Wilson, the Shannon Senior Historian at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies and Pat Brodowski, specialty gardener at Monticello who tell us about the celebrations being held at Monticello.
Joining us this week are two special guests: the independent filmmaker Steven Lewis Simpson and author Kent Nerburn. We talk about Simpson's recent film adaptation of Nerburn’s book, Neither Wolf nor Dog, and about Jefferson’s long shadow when it comes to the United States' conduct regarding American Indians.
Events of historic importance are slowly unfolding south of Mandan, North Dakota, near the boundary of another nation state, the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The Dakota Access Pipeline protest has grown into something much larger and more important for the future of white-Indian relations. As we in the non-Indian community look on, it is essential that we try to shut up and just listen for a change.
Long before white people showed up, what would become North Dakota was the home of buffalo and antelope, elk and grizzly bears, and indigenous people who either roamed the plains on foot in pursuit of the great herds or farmed along the river bottoms. The former lived in tipis and wickiups, and the latter dwelled in round earthlodges. At times the game could be hunted out in some very local sense, but the technologies of American Indians were such, and their understanding of the chain of being so deeply respectful, that there was never a question of killing so many of anything that the resources central to their lifeway would collapse.
Then came Euro-Americans, Verendrye from the north in 1738, Lewis and Clark from the south in 1804. White folks run by a different software. Lewis and Clark saw their first grizzly bear just south of today's Bismarck in October 1804. By the summer of 1805 they were killing every grizzly they could, not for food but because they regarded them as a dangerous nuisance. Today there are no grizzly bears in North Dakota, and though elk have been reintroduced in and around Theodore Roosevelt National Park, they were hunted out in the age of Theodore Roosevelt (who mentioned several times that he had killed the "last" elk), and they probably could not survive here if it weren't for the protection of the national park.
Once the floodgates of Euro-American settlement were opened, it was only a matter of time before more than 90% of the land base was privatized, thanks to the homestead programs, under which fully 39% of North Dakota was deeded out, what now appear to be obscene land grants to the railroads, and private speculation corporations. When Indians refused to get out of the way or sell out by way of "legal" land cessions, the white newcomers drove them off the lands they coveted, and finally settled them on reservations, which at the time were seen as temporary holding zones for Indians who would soon either disappear altogether or be assimilated into the new dominant culture. The tenacity and resilience of American Indians in the face of the unrelenting pressures white culture has employed against them is one of the most significant (and joyful) developments in the modern history of North Dakota. We are an incomparably richer culture for the continuing presence of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Dakota, Lakota, Assiniboine, and Ojibwe in North Dakota life.
The first homestead in North Dakota was filed in the northeast corner of the state in 1868 (early), but the great homesteading boom did not occur until the period between 1890 and 1920. Fully 39% of North Dakota's 45 million acres were homesteaded, second only to Nebraska, where 45% of the land was homesteaded. The percentage in Indiana was less than 1%, because most of that land had been deeded out by the time Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862. More than ten million acres (23%) of North Dakota were handed over to the railroads in post-Civil War era as an infrastructural economic incentive.
For many decades North Dakota was primarily a producer of wheat (and some cattle). Today, on the Fourth of July, less than a quarter of the state is carpeted in wheat. From 1889 to 1989 we were an essentially agrarian backwater, a broad open land of family farms and ranches. Since 1989, certainly since the millennium in 2000, we have been graduating into a more mixed economy (with or without the oil boom). The day may soon come when agriculture slips out of first place as the engine of the North Dakota economy. That will be a sad day for the agrarian dream. Meanwhile, we are, in the second decade of the new century, knocking on the door of corporate agriculture.
The first population peak in North Dakota occurred in 1930, at 680,845. The second peak is occurring now. At the moment, the best estimates show 739,482 people living in North Dakota, the largest population in our history. Some people believe the population will reach one million in the next twenty years. Where will we put them!?
Think of the transformation. In 1830, none of North Dakota's 45 million acres had been plowed, and very few acres had been planted by the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Indians. Today, there are only a handful of acres left in North Dakota that have never been plowed, and the demise of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) means that we are moving back towards fence post to fence post tilling. Actually, we are tearing up the fences and shelterbelts, too. My point is that North Dakota has been a culturally modified landscape for most of its recorded history. To see it as it looked before the first plow broke the prairie grasses would now be an overwhelming, and perhaps disturbing, experience. I know an artist who ventured to Mongolia to see endless grassland without the rectilinear grid of section and township lines. She felt swallowed up.
Making North Dakota viable for modern white civilization required an amazing sequence of infrastructural "developments." A U.S. military presence (occupation may be a better word) to protect white settlers from the displaced native peoples whose lands we appropriated. This included Fort Totten, Fort Berthold, Fort Abercrombie, Fort Buford, Fort Lincoln, etc. Steamboat service (1832-1870) along the Missouri and the Red Rivers. Railroads, including the two upper latitude transcontinentals, the Northern Pacific (approved 1864, completed 1883) and the Great Northern (completed 1893). Paved roads, including U.S. 10 (created 1926) and U.S. 2 (organized 1919 as the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway), U.S. 83 and U.S. 81. Rural electrification (begun under the New Deal in 1936, finally completed in the remotest hollers of North Dakota in the 1970s). The telegraph, followed by the telephone, followed by fiber optic cable, followed by the Internet. Airports. Microwave towers. Cell towers. An extensive and enviable university system. The Interstate Highways of the 60s and 70s.
Lay the groundwork, and then reap the benefits.
Now, suddenly, thanks to oil, we are rich in an unprecedented way.
If I may use a slang term, the 2014-15 downturn in world oil prices freaked a lot of people out, including many members of the North Dakota legislature. But the experts are almost unanimously confident that oil prices will climb back up, more or less permanently, and that the economic upturn in North Dakota will continue for many decades. Three factors have brought about our unprecedented prosperity. First, there is a giant carbon foundation under western North Dakota, including lignite coal. Sorry Minnesota. Second, a technological revolution in oil extraction has occurred in the last fifteen years, and Continental Oil's Harold Hamm had the insight to bring it to bear on our Bakken shale oil deposits. Third, during the darkest period of our recent history (1980-1995), North Dakota's political leaders, led by former ND Governor Ed Schafer, created a friendly business (i.e., regulatory) climate in the state, which makes North Dakota a more desirable oil extraction platform than Montana and Saskatchewan.
Just what the future holds is unclear. The question will not be how will we pay our bills, but how we should invest public wealth so vast that our grandparents could never have conceived of it, much less expected it to happen here.
This much is sure. We won't be slopping the hogs hereafter, or walking four miles to school through a January blizzard.
The President wasn't here very long last week, and he did just one thing in the state, in a place few North Dakotans have ever visited. It is not clear just why he came or what will come of it. I wasn't there, but I have friends who were there, and their reports are fascinating.
I know there are people who wish President Obama had visited the Bakken Oil fields to observe our staggering economic success and perhaps gain increased respect for carbon. I would have liked him to visit the badlands, perhaps Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch, or the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University.
But there is a lovely simplicity and purity to what Mr. Obama did. He made the long journey to North Dakota just to spend a little time with American Indians, particularly Lakota Indian children. He didn't try to make the trip a Dakota smorgasbord--with five scattered stops, a ticker tape of hectic policy briefings, meet and greets, and an ad hoc tarmac news conference. Instead, he went to a pow wow. If he had a political agenda, it is difficult to discern just what it was. Some folks say he was fulfilling a campaign pledge, but it was certainly much more than that. One of the perks of being President of the United States is that you get to meet anyone you want—from the poet laureate of Ireland to the current NBA champions, from a Nobel-prize winning entomologist to Bono. The President and First Lady wanted to see American Indians--in their homeland not in the Oval Office, on their (Indian) terms, at a long-scheduled traditional event, outdoors, not at a "Presidential Summit" staged at some impossible distance from the heart of Indian Country.
There is something noble in that. I loved the front page photo in the Bismarck Tribune last Saturday, of President Obama (clearly moved, clearly enjoying himself, not stern as he sometimes appears) leaning into a group of Indian children, telling them their lives can be better, that they can achieve great things, that they should pursue their dreams and he will help if he possibly can. I spent much of Saturday trying to imagine the impact of that. It is possible that that moment could make a difference—could make all the difference—in one or more of those young lives. When someone of great consequence looks you in the eye, singles you out from the 316, 999, 900 other Americans, and says, "Yes, you can make a difference, you can improve your life and the life of your friends, we are counting on you, we believe in you," that may just be the leaven that helps transform a community.
Think about it. For most of American history, Presidents have told Indians to jettison their values, their economic systems, their social structure, their culture, their lifeways, and "get on board" with the Anglo-American dream. When Jefferson addressed a delegation of Choctaw leaders, at the White House, on December 17, 1803, he said, "A little land cultivated, and a little labor, will procure more provisions than the most successful hunt; and a woman will clothe more by spinning and weaving, than a man by hunting. Follow then our example, brethren, and we will aid you with great pleasure." When he met our own Sheheke of the Mandan nation on December 30, 1806, Jefferson advised the leader he called "The Wolf" to convince his people to give up warfare and live in peace and harmony as white folks do. How he said this without smirking I don't know. "Remember, then, my advice, my Children," he concluded, "and carry it home to your people."
President Obama is not an assimilationist. He does not subscribe to the historically dominant U.S. Government policy of "kill the Indian and save the man." What he brought to the windy plains of North Dakota last week was simple but profound: respect, recognition, validation.
It would be a great thing for any President to have come to Cannonball to meet Indians on their home court. But it clearly is more meaningful in that this President is an African-American, a man of great achievement and success who comes from a historically-oppressed minority, addressing representatives of another historically-oppressed minority. Obama's message of "possibility" means something more when you consider that this is America's first black President, that fifty years ago we had to send in federal troops to make it possible for African-American children to attend the schools of Little Rock, Arkansas, or to enroll at "Ole Miss."
When friends of mine attended the University of Colorado Law School in the early 1990s, a young Oglala Lakota woman named Delores was in the first year class. We all spent a good deal of time together. Even though the University had an enrollment of more than 20,000 students, and an Indian Studies Program, Delores had a hard time finding anyone who could understand her world or appreciate her homesickness, especially at the law school. She said she knew the Pine Ridge Reservation was beset with problems—that in some ways it was a disaster—but it was her home, it was where her friends and family lived, it was a miniature world where she felt "secure." One day in the spring semester she came to us and said she was quitting law school immediately and moving back to the rez. We tried to convince her to stay at least to the end of the year. "No, you don't understand," she said, "there are so few brown people here. I miss being with brown people." Delores was gone by the weekend and we never saw her again.
Things are better now, but far from perfect. Young Indians still often feel isolated and alone at UND, NDSU, and other universities. Retention is a significant issue, in spite of some excellent pro-active university programs. Things won't get much better until we have more Native American professors, nurses, doctors, lawyers, CEOs, athletes, board of higher education members, government employees, novelists, accountants, and perhaps especially K-12 off-reservation teachers, to prepare the way for a broad American Indian renaissance. Just after the Revolution, John Adams said, "I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. . . in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."
It takes time. It may take generations.
I like to think that one of those young people who met the President of the United States last week—in part because she met the President--will grow up to change the world, to win the Nobel Prize for chemistry, to write the great American novel, to file an important patent, to become the Secretary-General of the United Nations, to be the president of a great university, or make one of our tribal colleges a world class institution. Or just to make life better and more culturally rich for her fellow Lakota.
In the wake of all the post-Fighting Sioux aftershocks and incidents, some of them very recent, President Obama could not have come to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation at a more opportune time.
I'm so glad he came to this one place for this simple purpose, and without other distractions.
Respect. Recognition. Validation.
North Dakota's Indians have been amazingly resilient. Their cultural survival is little short of miraculous. We have the opportunity to enter a new era of mutual cultural respect and reconciliation. At the very least it is time for all of us to insist on zero tolerance for cultural slurs and racism, stereotyping, and cultural appropriation.
Just when you thought race relations on the northern Great Plains were moving into a new era of greater respect and sensitivity, along comes a disheartening setback. By now you are aware that a group of University of North Dakota students wore t-shirts to an off-campus Grand Forks event called Springfest that featured a caricature of a male Indian in a feathered headdress drinking from a beer bong, with the words "Siouxper Drunk" displayed in bold capital letters above the imagery.
UND President Robert Kelley issued a statement condemning the message on the shirts as "an unacceptable lack of sensitivity and a complete lack of respect for American Indians and all members of the community." Kelley rightly pointed out that Springfest was not a university event and it did not occur on campus. North Dakota University System Interim Chancellor Larry Skogen said the shirts exhibited "ignorance, intolerance and hatefulness." Skogen, who wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on Indian relations, said, "I am indignant about the disrespect conveyed in the repulsive messages on those T-shirts and how this conduct hurts those insulted."
The tastelessness of the stunt would be hard to exaggerate. The stereotype of the "drunken Indian" is one of the most vicious slurs in the long sad history of white-Indian relations. Alcoholism is a serious problem in the American Indian population (as it is in my white family). It has complex roots involving trade policies, poverty, unemployment, forced assimilation, unviable reservations, cultural collapse, and despair—but the best way to think about it is within the context of the conquest of the continent by Euro-Americans between 1492 and 1953 (the year Garrison Dam was dedicated). It is, in the terms of the great University of Colorado historian Patricia Limerick, just one of the "Legacies of Conquest." The only decent response by non-Indians looking at this problem from the outside in would be magnanimity, sadness, sympathy, a willingness to pitch in in any way outsiders can (by funding every useful treatment and education program), and a willingness to explore the historical dynamics of colonialism in the history of the United States. Needless to say, "drunken Indian" gags, even if not intended to be racist, even if they have more to do with collegiate hijinks than with a deliberate intention to hurt, are profoundly insensitive and ugly.
In addition to that, the t-shirt incident has to be seen as yet one more in a long series of aftershocks following the official retirement of the "Fighting Sioux" nickname and logo in 2012. I doubt that the nitwits who hatched the t-shirt gag knew how darkly they were scratching one of the most serious cultural wounds in North Dakota life. They are probably just as bewildered by the storm of outrage that has followed their stunt as all the rest of us are by the gross insensitivity of what they did. I very much doubt that they set out to be hateful. Still, when you see the images of the offensive shirts, in group photos of students hamming for the camera with the now-inevitable "thumbs up" and "oh, yeah!" pose, all you can do is shake your head and ask, "What were they thinking?"
We can all follow the dumb logic of some late night planning session: "Sioux=Sue=Sioux-per—cool!; since we plan to get wasted at Springfest after a long winter semester; wouldn't it be a cute commentary on the whole mascot controversy to …?" The thing I cannot understand is why someone in the student group didn't say, "I'm not so sure this is a good idea. Don't you think this is going to upset a lot of people? Let's keep brainstorming." As the controversy heated up, the t-shirt fulfillment company, CustomInk, released a statement, saying, "We handle hundreds of thousands of custom t-shirt designs each year and have people review them to catch problematic content. But we missed this one." Really? They might want to fine-tune their "problematic content" meter.
My view is that the best response to these students is not to punish them but to use this as an opportunity to teach them (and all the rest of us) to be more thoughtful about inter-cultural relations. In essence, the lesson is really simple: one culture should always be very careful about the ways it describes, depicts, or appropriates the iconography of another culture. This is a particularly important thing for historically-dominant cultures to remember when characterizing historically-subject cultures.
Meanwhile, I think we need to calm down. We are living now in the Era of Cultural Outrage—on both sides, on virtually every question. Spend half an evening hour on Fox, then half an hour on MSNBC and you will get a lifetime supply. Outrage can be fun—it is certainly good for ratings—but is almost always oversimplifies complex situations and reinforces cultural and political polarization, rather than lead to a more harmonious and enlightened community. These students did not come out of a vacuum. They are products of a certain cultural milieu. They have grown up at a time when North Dakota is groping its way towards a new understanding of the lives, the history, the culture, the religious observances, and the challenges of our Indian neighbors, whose homelands we inhabit: the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Ojibwe, Assiniboine, Cree, and Dakota. The UND incident is, among other things, an indication of how much cultural healing we still need to pursue at UND, in North Dakota, and throughout the United States. The fact that there is a substantial American constituency that still regards the name Washington "Redskins" as inoffensive is a sure sign that the road to cultural harmony is going to be a long one. It is going to take a very deep commitment to mutual understanding and reconciliation on both sides, and a remarkable level of patience and tolerance—in both the Indian and the non-Indian community.
The worst thing about the UND t-shirt slur is that it comes at a time when there is such good news in Indian Country. More American Indians are graduating from high school than ever before. More are going to college than ever before, and many are earning advanced professional degrees. There is good and hopeful economic news on the reservations—thanks to casinos, energy development, mining, increased investment in tribal businesses. Reservation nutrition programs are making progress in addressing diabetes and other major health concerns. Tribal colleges (for which North Dakota has been a pioneer) are doing really important work--at home--where most Indians prefer to be educated. A broad national pan-Indian cultural renaissance is now entering its second phase. Some Native American languages are making a slow comeback. A significant burst of new Native American literature has emerged in the past couple of decades, led by one of our most gifted living writers Louise Erdrich.
This sort of incident rattles around every coffee shop and bar in North Dakota for a couple of weeks. I heard some pretty ugly remarks from people who know better while I was writing these words. This is a golden learning opportunity for all of us, but I hope we remember that these are, after all, college students, doing the dumb stuff that college students do (remember?), and that we need to give more attention to their cultural enlightenment than to the easy art of righteous condemnation.