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The Idea of North Dakota

So maybe by now you know that I object to the lumping term, “the Dakotas,” in reference to the two sovereign states, North Dakota and South Dakota; likewise, that I regard the vernacular terms “West River” and “East River” as culturally interesting, but politically pernicious.

In general, as a student of the Great Plains, I have come to believe that in our federal nation, the sovereign states are important and possess their own defining histories. The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald gave a nod to the Framers when he declared that American nationhood rests on “the quality of the idea.” Likewise, if a state is to mean anything, it also must define itself in terms of ideas. This is American. It makes us different from France.

And it makes North Dakota different from South Dakota in ways that the phrase, “the Dakotas,” denies. Every such usage, I would go so far as to say, is not just an annoyance but a constitutional offense. (Whew, getting on my high horse here now.)

I may be just a farm boy, but I understand what chaos theorists are talking about when they speak of “sensitive dependence on initial conditions.” That’s scholar-speak for the folk wisdom that goes “as the twig is bent.” There were three identifiable things that made the initial conditions of the northern part of Dakota Territory, and thus of North Dakota, different than the southern sector.

The first difference was the Métis, whose lineage rooted in the land, as well as economic ties to St. Paul, established them in priority and force when Dakota Territory was created in 1861.

The second difference was the Dakota War in Dakota Territory and its denouement. The latter federal campaigns of the war, the invasions led by Major General Alfed H. Sully, targeted the Hunkpapa and the Yanktonais. These military incursions softened up (I am speaking bluntly and somewhat offensively; I know) northern Dakota Territory ahead of EuroAmerican settlement. The establishment of the Great Sioux Reservation, on the other hand, blocked EuroAmerican settlement to the south.

The third difference in initial conditions was the Northern Pacific Railway. The NP propelled agricultural settlement westward and led directly to such defining developments as bonanza farming. South Dakota had no transcontinental railroad.

Recently a friend reminded me of the 1947 book by John Gunther, Inside U.S.A. Gunther was a journalist and commentator whose books were travel narratives presented as interpretive essays. What Gunther interpreted was the character of the people in a given place--what Fitzgerald and I are calling the idea of a place. Inside U.S.A. includes a chapter entitled, “The Miraculous Dakotas.”

What Gunther finds miraculous is how different the two states are. “Nothing is more remarkable in the United States,” he begins, “than the difference between the Dakotas … What is more, the two Dakotas, though coterminous for 330 miles, have practically no contact with one another.”

In Gunther’s assessment North Dakota comes off a great deal better than South Dakota. North Dakota has a progressive impulse (many consider it downright radical), a state bank, a state elevator, a cooperative ethos, and two transcontinental railroads. South Dakota has, well, pheasants.

It is true, I think it fair to say, that since Gunther’s time, North Dakota and South Dakota have acquired some similarities. These have to do with the federalization of state political cultures, with political leaders playing to national peers rather than to their own people. It is time to reflect a bit more on the idea of North Dakota.

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