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The Emptied Prairie? Denial Ain’t Just a River in Egypt.

January 14, 2008

There has been a lot of hubbub over the past few days here in Grand Forks over this National Geographic article about the declining population in North Dakota, especially in its small towns. It’s amazing to see just how riled up many people have become over this story. Much of the response from the Nodak natives in the community has been incredibly negative, with responses ranging from sheer disappointment in the author’s choice of locations to all-out rage over the scope and tone of the article and its associated photographs.

As an “outsider” to the area, I look at many of these responses as one part blissful ignorance, one part futile hope and one part sheer denial. When I left my suburban enclave in Colorado four years ago I was mostly prepared for what I would encounter here–gloves, hat, heavy coat, long underwear–but wasn’t ready for the huge paradigm shift that would come from living in a community that is made up of a mix of the cast of Fargo and of some of the nicest, most genuine, most ignorant people I’ve ever encountered. Before I’m horribly griefed by that last statement, let me explain myself a bit more.

There are many different examples of ignorance in the world today. There is purposeful and hateful ignorance by individuals and groups of people illustrated by the many radical people and groups in the US and around the world with hurtful ideals and actions. When I say North Dakotans are ignorant, I am not talking about this type of ignorance.  Most of the time the ignorance I’ve encountered in North Dakota has been unintentional and innocent, the byproduct of lifestyles, mindsets, and experiences completely unrelated to my own and to the rest of the world. In that sense of the word, each and every one of us is ignorant in our own way. Just as many people I interact with here on a day-to-day basis aren’t that attune to having someone who is Jewish in their midst, I was completely ignorant to the process that comes with eating lefse that was presented to me during my first semester at school.

The “ignorance” displayed by many people from rural Minnesota and North Dakota is unique to anything I’ve experienced in 21 years of wandering this country and many others. Much of it comes out in the article and its associated responses. It’s part small-town mentality and part Scandinavian hospitality with a rather large dash of hope and optimism. Unfortunately, with this mixture comes a fair amount of denial and deflection when things don’t go the way North Dakotans want them to. This “critical” response is a perfect example of that denial in action. The numbers clearly state that many of the towns here are shrinking and disappearing and that the population is growing older. Almost every year brings another news story about school district consolidation and the flight of young people to areas with better jobs and ::gasp:: better climates. When these are discussed on the radio, in the paper, on a local blog or in person, I almost always hear excuses about how the lifestyle here is so much better than ______ (insert city here). Is that really the case if these people are leaving?

The nice attitude, Midwestern hospitality and lack of riff-raff due to -40 degree temperatures will only go so far in keeping people here. A radical paradigm shift is needed in the state toward developing well-paying jobs and enough stuff to do in order to side-track potential residents’ minds from the cold winters and mosquito-ed summers. I’ve managed to develop a wonderful support network of people from a wide array of backgrounds and origins here–enough to make me even consider doing graduate school here–but I honestly don’t think of this city or state as home. I crave something bigger with a wider variety of culinary options. Grand Forks is a place that has given the world its most senile restaurant reviewer and myself three and a half years of incredible experiences (both educational and experiential). The one thing I feel I’ve missed out on, however, is the opportunity to travel and explore North Dakota in-depth beyond Fargo, Grand Forks and Minot. Hopefully I’ll get that chance before I move on to my next adventure.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. rickabbo permalink
    January 14, 2008 10:32 am

    Martin, I love your description of Marilyn Hagerty. You know North Dakota isn’t the best place for good food when the food critic of the local paper is reduced to reviewing a sandwich at Wendy’s (not the first time that’s happened, either).

  2. January 14, 2008 12:14 pm

    “…some of the nicest, most genuine, most ignorant people I’ve ever encountered.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  3. APC permalink
    January 15, 2008 4:12 pm

    It hurts to be so worldly, i bet.

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