UND Bus Tour

One of our new faculty, Sarah Cavanah, attended the UND Bus Tour this year and had a fantastic time. The following story of her experience illustrates her induction into UND and the community:

I’ve always been fascinated by the way people, places and stories combine together. I have an innate need to understand people through the way they talk about their communities and their history. I became so fascinated by this that I have moved from being a local reporter on to studying the role of news and information in building and maintaining healthy communities.

The UND bus tour was a fantastic experience all on its own. (It’s also something that my friends and colleagues at several institutions expressed real envy about.) For me, in particular, it let me see North Dakota along with the chance to get to meet different people from different places.

Monday, Aug. 15

As we headed out, we were joined by “Expert on the Bus” John Botsford, ND Agriculture. John explained what we were see in the valley fields we passed along, and explained why the sugar beets I had expected to see — I’ve read quite a bit of Louise Erdrich’s novels — had been replaced by corn and soybeans. We also started to get an appreciation for how the changes in agriculture were affecting life in the valley, including more dependence on those two crops.

Our first stop was at the Rainbow Garden in Mayville. For me, this is where I started to meet the other members of the bus tour. While we were from all over the United States and the world, I was struck by how many were “returning” to the Northern Plains and North Dakota in particular. I think it is a good sign when people are actively looking and reaching to return somewhere after having lived in other places.

Our next stop was at the NDSU Research Station in Carrington. Here we learned about Dakota Growers. I was very impressed by the presentation. Dakota Growers was started as a local initiative to turn wheat into pasta, for the most part, in the 1990s and has grown extensively since then. I had no idea how much of the pasta I had eaten in the last decade or so came from this quiet but large operation. I struggled to think of pasta brands or restaurants that didn’t seem to be supplied by Dakota Growers.

The next stop was at Great River Energy Coal Creek Station Power Plant. While the technical operations and the sheer size was impressive, I was taken more with the story of the workers, many of whom started with the plant in the 1970s. As someone interested in rural communities, I found it fascinating how something can completely change the dynamics of community and then become completely essential to the community. I grew up in a community built on a coal mine, and have an appreciation for how fortunes can rise and fall on energy, environmental policies and consumer trends. In an environment increasing dominated by national-level conversations about energy, it was interesting to here from individual people who have their lives so wrapped in these issues. It’s always interesting to here how individual experiences are greatly impacted by what many of us consider casual conversations about hot-button topics. When an entire community hangs in the balance, how those conversations take place and what is said becomes increasingly important.

We ended the day with a visit and dinner at the North Dakota Heritage Center. First, the Center is extraordinary and constructed in a way that allows all sorts of different voices from across North Dakota and across time to ring out. I often gravitate toward American Indian information, and I had a great discussion about the history of the Mandan and their story with the Center staff.

At the dinner, it was amazing to me the status and positions of those who came to eat and visit with the new personnel at UND. The lieutenant governor, more than one justice, prominent business leaders and others sat down to tell the new personnel about what they hope for the future of UND. During introductions, I was nearly last. Three times the topic of UND’s journalism courses, the program’s past and future were brought up with hopes that we could strive back toward some of the remarkable programs and graduates of the past, not just to continue that glory, but for the good of the state and the nation. When it came time for my introduction I said I hoped I could be part of helping to bring the journalism area to a higher level of excellence.

Tuesday, Aug. 16

We left early to travel west, and were joined by State Senator Richard Wardner, who filled us on the Bakken boom, the geography of the oil wells, and what he sees as the future of the area. I’m personally fascinated by the growth and change in the communities in western North Dakota, where you have families who have lived in communities for generations joined by a large influx of newcomers. This is not common in rural areas, but it is not unheard of, either, and it greatly impacts news operations and how they determine how to serve rapidly changing communities best. The experiences of journalists in the Bakken could be a useful guide for others if we take the time to collect and analyze them.

Next we visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which, I’m sorry to say, I did not realize was a national park until I saw the bus tour schedule. This is doubly sad because I listed to 18 hours of Roosevelt’s pre-Presidential biography while forming the data of my dissertation, and knew about his experiences in Medora. That was my loss, though. The beauty and abundance of wildlife was completely counter to the stereotype I think many hold of North Dakota.

After the tour of the park, we had some time to visit Medora. While shopping for cheesy geography-based t-shirts, a hobby of mine, I had conversations with those manning the shops. I heard again how thankful they were that the boom and its unprecedented growth had slowed. One shopkeeper told me how difficult it had been to find anyone to work in his shop for a wage he could afford to pay. Perhaps those I met in western North Dakota were looking for silver linings, but it seemed that the boom had been a strain almost as painful as a bust. With rapid growth slowed, but not completely collapsed, the people I met seemed to believe that the region could form a new identity moving forward, folding together the “old families” and the newcomers to the area.

We had lunch at Bully Pulpit Golf Course with several great alumni and then headed back east to make the 4 p.m. Fort Lincoln Trolley. Our first event at Fort Lincoln was in the Council Lodge with alumnus Russ McDonald, who told us about the history of the tribes in North Dakota, as well as the present, including the tribal college system. McDonald certainly didn’t set out to make a topic of the UND mascot, but when asked, he gave an answer that made me understand it better than I have. I also went to the “big” university in a state where a significant amount of the population had American Indian heritage. My alma mater, Oklahoma, also changed its mascot, and is also now in discussions about the slogan, “Boomer Sooner” and whether it is disrespectful to Native Americans. (“Boomers” were those who pushed for the opening of Indian territory to whites, and “sooners” were those who cheated in the land runs that marked the end of Oklahoma as Indian Territory.) I, of course, have an interest in how people and communities are represented in media, and have followed these cases closely.

But here is how McDonald explained it to the new personnel: As a North Dakota teenager, he didn’t really think about the name Fighting Sioux. It didn’t offend him. He didn’t have strong opinions on it either way. But then he came to UND and started going to the games. And it wasn’t the UND fans that bothered him, but the fans of the opponents. They would shout negative things about “the Sioux” and even connected the name to some truly nasty language. He would drive down the street and hear shouts of nastiness about “the Sioux” and “Sioux women.” Of course, this was about the teams, but it didn’t mean that those words didn’t register and hurt. He spoke about hearing those things said and thinking of his grandmother and other women in his family, and how awful it made him feel. I couldn’t imagine going down a street with my grandmother and hearing terrible things shouted about her. In the study of media representations of groups we often discuss aspects of pride or power or social status. This story showed just how personal and individual it could be. For McDonald, he only began to dislike the mascot name based on those experiences. It wasn’t abstract for him any more.

We ended with dinner at the Fort Lincoln Commissary with a group of incoming Presidential Scholars. I was very excited to meet an incoming student wishing to study communication and minor in space studies. (Shae) is the daughter of two professional communicators and has a passion for space exploration. She already has been working in the science communication field and has big plans to make a difference. To me, she exemplified the future for North Dakota: Not losing touch with the agrarian past and not rejecting the energy/agriculture present, but capitalizing on the strength of the region in aerospace to do something entirely new. We talked about starting a plan right away to make sure she is getting into good internships to make sure this becomes her reality.

Wednesday, Aug. 17

We started Wednesday with a tour of the State Capitol. Enshrined in the hall of fame were more professional communicators than I expected. Of course, there were the great writers Louis L’Amour and Louise Erdrich, but North Dakota has a proud heritage of supplying national-level journalists, including Life editor Edward K. Thompson, broadcast pioneer Eric Sevareid, and Ebony editor Era Bell Thompson. Thompson’s story in particular is fascinating to me. She grew up in the only black family in Discoll. While isolating, being the “other” in a community can lead to an explosion of interest and indentification later on, which is what Thompson described in her path to being such a prominent member of the African American journalism scene.

For lunch we stopped at the golf course in Oakes. I’m sure there are some who would think a small town golf course, nine holes and largely unassuming, would not be the most interesting thing on this trip full of the greatest scenes and places in the state. For me, though, Oakes was my favorite. I heard the story of this thriving community and was able to ask questions about how the community understood and learned about opportunities that they might take advantage of. I learned about the social structure and the flow of information. Maybe not breath-taking stuff, but for my particular type of nerd, it was fantastic. I could have stayed and asked questions all day.

We left Oakes and crossed the river back into Minnesota to visit the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead. I loved the story of the small town guy who built a replica Viking ship in a potato facility. I’m always fascinated by those singular ideas that can take over a small community. Without the population to offer the whole smorgasbord of choices in life, some choose to make their mark in the most creative and usual ways.

We ended the trip at the Sons of Norway in Fargo. Not being from a Scandinavian-settled area, I was largely unfamiliar with the Sons of Norway, but I soon recognized that it was part of the fabric that keeps communities together. These organizations for socializing and mobilizing communities are vital, and unfortunately have been under pressure to keep membership. A noted political scientist, Robert Putnam, in the early part of this century gave much of the blame for the withering of community social organizations to mass communication. He had solid evidence, but since then there has been a lot of positive work on how media, particularly social media, can reverse these trends and allow even greater communication within communities. These are issues I hope to explore through research in North Dakota in my position here.

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