The truth about North Dakota

So you thought Prof. Elwyn Robinson told the whole truth when he wrote his 599-page “History of North Dakota” printed at the University of Nebraska because the boat carrying the UND Press missed a turn in Montana and sank near Williston. That’s the varnished truth.

Because he planned to stay in the state for a few more years, he thought it unwise to talk about the state’s warts. He knew that four NDSU professors had been fired for being truthful. They all went to better jobs but Elwyn loved North Dakota winters too much to leave.

It would have helped our image immensely if we had adopted the suggestion to change our name to “Dakota” and leave out the “North”. It had overwhelming support, at least among four friends boarding a plane to Florida.

At least, Doug Burgum was for it when he was still a citizen.

Many Name Changes

Changing names is really hard for some people. Even my two daughters have kept their last names. But considering the implications of being “North” should have carried a name change on the first windy day. After all, we have had many names.

First, we were Missouri (1812-1824). Then we were Arkansas (1824-1834). Then we were Michigan (1834-1836).

And so it went – at one time we were Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Dakota and then in 1889 North Dakota.

While the name has been nothing but a curse, it hasn’t been only the name that killed the prophetic prediction that North Dakota would be as heavily populated as Pennsylvania. It’s the relentless northwest wind that even makes the sunflowers look to the southeast.

Clergyperson Demoted

The clergyperson who made the prediction was demoted from Prophet I to Soothsayer III.

We were just a territory with the name of a state. Actually, we invented 18 counties without people to help the Northern Pacific sell bonds.

The Native Americans knew there was a North Dakota long before the first white man, Pierre Verendrye, discovered us in 1738 while looking for the western sea. Lots of things are discovered while looking for something else – at the University of North Dakota we call that research.

Pierre took only a quick look. It wasn’t until 1804 that Lewis and Clark went through but they overlooked the Red River Valley. In 2004, Grand Forks celebrated the bicentennial of being overlooked.

Glacier Leaves

A few centuries earlier, the glacier slowly retreated to Canada, thereby setting the pace of life in North Dakota, especially the government. Left us a few rocks and a river that runs the wrong way – freezes on the wrong end, causing perennial floods in Fargo, Grand Forks, Oslo, Drayton and Pembina. With our $8 billion frozen in the “Legacy Fund” we could change the direction of the Red River as Illinois did with the Chicago River.

We will not talk about the embarrassment of the millennium, the idea of bringing water from the Missouri River cross country with canals and coulees to save Devils Lake. When first proposed, it was supposed to compete with the Garden of Eden with lush growth for miles on both sides of the waterway – a million acres.

Devils Lake Gets Fresh

The debate lasted so long that the parched Devils Lake up and got fresh by itself. There were a lot of red faces and long explanations but Congressman Mark Andrews did get a multi-million buyout in the end.

In 1899, hoping to develop a model citizenry, the legislature ordered public schools to give “moral instruction tending to impress the minds of the students the importance of truthfulness, temperance, purity, public spirit, patriotism, and respect for honest labor, obedience to parents and due deference to old age.”

That grand plan didn’t work either.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.


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