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Minnesota exploited North Dakota as a colony

"The flat truth about NorthDakota" by Dan Malotky of St. Olaf College (Commentary, July 1) is one more example of intellectual snobbery by the big-city press toward the hinterlands of the empire known as the Twin Cities.

As a native North Dakotan I take issue with the assistant theology professor from Northfield, who seems to feel it is OK to violate the sacredness of the "spirit of place" that each of us carries as part of our identity.

Malotky's point that NorthDakota looks foolish trying to one-up other states in the region as a tourist attraction by changing its name to Dakota would have more validity if he indicated any knowledge of the region's geopolitical dimensions and how the name NorthDakota came to exist.

Apparently a group in Fargo wants to change the state's name to Dakota to avoid the connotations of cold that the word "north" implies. This group may or may not be aware that the concern with the name NorthDakota predates them by over a century.

Look at history

We should not forget that it is from the labor of the multitudes in the surrounding states, especially NorthDakota, that the Twin Cities metro has acquired its large population and its identity.

The reason NorthDakota has fewer people now than 80 to 100 years ago has to do more with the imperialism -- yes, imperialism -- of large corporations headquartered in Minneapolis, St. Paul and the East Coast than it has to do with cold weather or flat land. The large grain companies based here have treated NorthDakota as a colony to be exploited for at least the last 120 years.

Nehemiah G. Ordway, sergeant of arms for the Dakota Territory House of Representatives in the 1870s in what is now Yankton, S.D., was concurrently a member of the state Senate of New Hampshire. His appointment in 1880 to the Dakota Territory governorship was made through the influence of New Hampshire businessmen with investments in Dakota.

The next Dakota Territorial governor in the 1880s, Alexander McKenzie, managed his first political coup by removing the territorial capital from Yankton in southern Dakota to Bismarck in the north.

The Northern Pacific Railroad maintained McKenzie in offices in St. Paul and Bismarck in order to veto any Dakota Territory Legislature bill that would move toward more favorable railroad grain shipping rates for northern Dakota farmers and in order to maintain control of the northern part of Dakota Territory for the railroad.

The Minneapolis grain millers' main interest was also in the northern part of Dakota territory because of the rich wheatlands. They had formed an alliance by the early 1880s to prevent competition among themselves in the buying of wheat.

The resulting low prices forced farmers to start leaving the land even before statehood was declared in 1889. The national Republican oligarchy, through the corrupt Ordway-controlled government in Yankton, preferred to keep Dakota either a territory with weak railroad regulations or a single state called Dakota.

The oligarchs who controlled the region at that time and decided on the name NorthDakota admittedly were not concerned with tourist dollars but with lining their own pockets with profits from cheap wheat from the northern part of the territory. Their actions allowed them to maintain NorthDakota as a colony -- leading to conditions that created NorthDakota's reputation as an exporter of people.

If not for this exploitation of NorthDakota farmers, hundreds of thousands of us ex-Nodaks would not have been forced to migrate to find jobs in the Twin Cities and beyond.

To defend themselves from the robber barons, our great-grandparents in the 1920s created a state industrial commission to oversee a state bank and a state mill that allowed some control over our resources. Those institutions still function today. At the same time they formed the Non-Partisan League, which became the basis for the DFL in Minnesota.

Let us not forget that the quality of life we pride ourselves on in the Twin Cities, including cultural events at the Ordway, was bought and paid for by North Dakotans, and continues to be made possible by exploitation of the state's coal, oil, natural gas, hydro power, grain production and, yes, its people.

The "change the name" group in Fargo may be exhibiting something like a collective memory drawn from ancestors who just wanted to be known as Dakota. This is the "spirit of place" that compelled President Theodore Roosevelt to choose the NorthDakota Badlands as the location for his Western White House and inspired him to create the National Parks Movement.

Roosevelt gave well-deserved credit to the state when he said, "I never would have become president if it weren't for my experiences in NorthDakota."

Source: Minneapolis Star Tribune July 13, 2001