GRAND FORKS — Monday was the anniversary of North Dakota statehood, which began on Nov. 2, 1889. That means today —Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020 — is Day 2 of North Dakota’s 132nd year.
The year 2020 had been much anticipated, especially by government planners, who appreciated the coincidence of the year and the usual description of perfect vision. States, university systems, municipalities all seized on the imagery, producing shelves bursting with documents labeled “Vision 2020.”
When it arrived, 2020 was a disappointment, and likely only a few among us will be sorry to see it go. For North Dakota, calendar year 2020 corresponds quite closely with Statehood Year 131, and not many of us North Dakotans will regret leaving that birthday behind us.
It was a year of loss. On the weekend as I write, 531 lives have been lost to COVID in the state. Other lives were diminished, some by long bouts with the disease, some by missed visits with loved ones, some by interrupted classes and canceled activities ranging from worship services to hockey tournaments.
The disease had other consequences, ending the 50-year-long services of the Charles Hall Youth and Family Center in Bismarck, a social service agency named for a missionary whose work in North Dakota began in 1876.
The Canadian Pacific’s Christmas train also became a victim of COVID. Though many may not be aware of it, the CP is a major railroad carrier in North Dakota, the successor of the old Soo Line that runs more or less diagonally across the state. Since 1999, the Christmas train had brought entertainment and collected funds and food to distribute to needy families.
As the state’s birthday passes, its hospitals remain crowded with COVID patients. For the last month, the state has had the highest infection rate per 100,000 people among the states. This cost North Dakota some of its obscurity, as national media concentrated on cases here. The publicity wasn’t welcome, especially when Johns Hopkins University, the keeper of global statistics on the COVID pandemic, figured out that if North Dakota were a country, it would lead the world in infection rates, surpassing the Czech Republic.
COVID tested the civility of North Dakotans, too, and shattered it in some cases. In Bismarck and Mandan, cities hard hit by the latest surge in cases, discussion of mask-wearing became heated, way more heated than is usual among North Dakotans.
This grim list of COVID impacts could go on, but it is not COVID alone that has brought a sense of loss to this statehood anniversary. Three important chroniclers of the state’s culture died last month.
Historian Hiram Drache was a Minnesotan who earned a doctorate in history at UND and wrote the definitive book about the Bonanza Farming Era in the state. Throughout his long career, Drache was a historian with a point of view. He regularly celebrated entrepreneurship and business success, especially in agriculture. Drache was 96 years old.
Marilyn Cross Hudson, historian of the Three Affiliated Tribes, died last week at age 84. Her untiring labor helped the MHA Nation regain its prominence in the state’s story. Hudson helped a number of chroniclers of tribal history, including Paul VanDevelder, author of “Coyote Warrior,” whose tribute to Hudson appeared in the Bismarck Tribune on Oct. 28.
Cowboy poet Rodney Nelson represented another facet of the state’s past. He was a fixture at poetry contests around the American West, including Medora, N.D. Nelson ranched near Sims, N.D. He was 71.
Of course, there were others, each of whom took part of North Dakota’s story with them.
Beyond these losses are others less tangible, honesty in the state’s political campaigns, for example. As last week’s column pointed out, much of what passes for political discussion has been reduced to sloganeering, much of it paid for by the incumbent governor. His unprecedented investment in down ballot races, initiated measures and legislative contests has effectively sucked the air out of campaigns.
It may be that Gov. Doug Burgum is set for a comeuppance, however. One of the candidates he backed has died, opening the possibility that a powerful legislator that he targeted could be back in his seat, since Republicans in the district would appoint a successor if the dead man wins, which is the likely outcome in the heavily Republican district.
Democrats, who did field candidates, could challenge that procedure, but they’ve been big losers in cases before the state Supreme Court recently, so they might be inclined to hold on to their money and enjoy the entertainment of constant clashes between Republican legislators and the Republican governor.
In the political sphere at least, the state’s 132nd year is likely to be livelier and more entertaining than Year 131. Let’s all hope that it will be less sickly, too, and work toward that goal.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.