What Happens To The Culture Once It’s Over?

“The lasting change to North Dakota won’t be a physical one, but a cultural one. It’s not what happens to the land, but what happens to the culture of the people once it’s over.

Wow, that gives me pause. They’re the words of freelance writer Chip Brown, who wrote the lengthy article “North Dakota Went Boom,” about our oil boom and its effects, in the New York Times Magazine in January.

We can reclaim the land, I guess. At least, we should make sure we have laws stiff enough so that every well pad and every road to every well pad are returned to what they looked like before Bakken. That’s surely possible. I’ve seen what the U.S. Forest Service requires on well sites on their land. They require the oil company to stockpile the topsoil that is moved to level an area for a well pad, and then replace it when the oil well is done pumping, and they take pictures before the construction starts, so they can be sure when it is over, the land looks the same, right down to the contours that existed before any dirt was moved.

The Forest Service also requires planting native grasses, although there’s no way they can replicate what was there before they started. It’ll take the prairie a couple hundred years to once again become as diverse as it was before the earth was moved for the well pad and accompanying roads.  Still, they do pretty well. By the time the next session of the North Dakota Legislature rolls around, we should have the strictest reclamation laws in the nation drafted and ready to pass.

Reclaiming a culture isn’t going to be as easy, but no one seems to be talking about that. Well, a few are. My friend Clay Jenkinson writes about it pretty regularly in his weekly columns. My friends and relatives in the oil patch worry about it. There’s a reason, for example, that my brother Jay chose Williston for his home more than twenty years ago. He loved the culture of the place. Golf, the outdoors, the Elks, golf, friends, quiet and solitude, golf. Loved. Past tense. I had an e-mail from him Thursday morning: “Last night someone broke into a car dealership and stole a car off the showroom  floor. Drove it right through the front door.”

Chip Brown was in Grand Forks this week for a public presentation sponsored by UND. He said many western North Dakotans seemed to have a sense of resignation about them when it came to the growth of the oil industry surrounding the Bakken Formation. If he’d spent much more time here, he’d have realized that resignation is nothing new for North Dakota. In January he wrote:

“For many years North Dakota has been a frontier — not the classic 19th-century kind based on American avarice and the lure of opportunity in unsettled lands, but the kind that comes afterward, when a place has been stripped bare or just forgotten because it was a hard garden that no one wanted too much to begin with, and now it has reverted to the wilderness that widens around dying towns. In a way, of course, this kind of frontier is as much a state of mind as an actual place, a melancholy mood you can’t shake as you drive all day in a raw spring rain with nothing but fence posts and featureless cattle range for company thinking, Is this all there is? until finally you get out at some windswept intersection and gratefully fall on the fellowship of a dog-faced bar with a jukebox of songs about people on their way to somewhere else.”

I’ve lost track of my old friend Austin Gillette. Austin spent many long hours trying to tell me how his people (Austin is Arikara, I think—he’s been a longtime Tribal leader of the Three Affiliated Tribes) must have felt at two critical points in history—when white men came west and destroyed the culture of the Plains Indians, and, more recently and personally, when the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people were uprooted from the valley of the Missouri River with the closing of the Garrison Dam.

Only now, as I watch the Bakken Boom transform western North Dakota, can I even get a tiny hint of what Austin was talking about—what we did to the Plains Indians’ culture, and how they must have felt. Austin has long worked as a Tribal historian, seeking to preserve native culture, but the last time I saw Austin he was contentedly playing a slot machine at an Indian casino. “Indians love to gamble,” he used to tell me.

Thing is, it’s pretty hard to define the culture that we are losing. For western North Dakota, it was mostly a culture of despair, a great wringing of hands as we presided over a dying prairie economy. But some, many of them friends of mine, saw that trend as an opening, to try to reclaim some parts of our West as true wilderness, places where those of us left here could go from time to time to be COMPLETELY away from the outside world, to commune with and appreciate the flora and fauna of halcyon days.

There are still little patches of unofficial wilderness (small w) in the Bad Lands, which would benefit from an official Wilderness (big W) designation by Congress, and there’s some effort underway to do that, but for Senators and Congressmen, explaining why they would want to support an effort by the federal government to keep people OUT of any part of a dying prairie state has always been, as they say in Washington, “a heavy lift.”

Not so much now. Now it might just be politically palatable to try to protect some small parts of a state being overrun by unchained development. So I suspect some efforts will continue to adopt the Prairie Legacy Wilderness proposal.

More likely, our generation is going to have to mostly surrender the Bad Lands to the rapacious greed of an industry who sees its mission to supply an oil-thirsty world in the 21st century. And then, when the landscape is quiet gain, to reclaim those Bad Lands, make them look as much as possible like they did when our generation first discovered their beauty. We can continue to fight the XTO’s who want to drill beside national  parks, and we can continue to put pressure on federal landowning agencies and state regulatory agencies to require industry to do as little harm to the land as possible, and to fix it when they are done using it.

That’s doable. I can foresee a day when the entire Little Missouri River Corridor has been reclaimed and turned into a National Park, for example. But I will never physically see it, because that time is 40 or 50 or 60 years away. Our great-grandchildren’s generation may get a chance to see the Bad Lands the same way Theodore Roosevelt did, (and the way we saw it in our youth) but you and I never will again.

But that is the physical change, as Chip Brown says. The cultural change is way different. It is a little—no, a lot—harder to put a finger on. What is it that we are losing? Is it hunting and fishing? Is it gathering around round tables in small town cafes? Is it helping our neighbor change a tire? Is it dancing at the Lonesome Dove on Saturday night? Is it lutefisk and lefse church suppers? Is it sowing and reaping a crop? Are any of those things really so much different—or important—than what the Plains Indians gave up? Maybe, like Austin, we all just find a slot machine at a casino. Don’t white folks love to gamble, too?

3 thoughts on “What Happens To The Culture Once It’s Over?

  1. Reminds me of John Prine’s song Paradise–“well I’m sorry my son, but Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away”.


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