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The Louisiana Purchase

North Dakota: Where the accent is on friendship

The miles separate, yet draw together, the hardy folk who make their home in the badlands and the vast prairies, where a stranger is just a friend you haven't yet met.

By ROBIN McMACKEN
Published May 9, 2004

An aerial view of the badlands inside Theodore Roosevelt National Park, just north of Medora, N.D.
Go to North Dadoka photo gallery

Go to Louisiana Purchase series


The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of our young nation. Here is the 13th in a series of articles reporting, state by state, what the Louisiana Purchase represents today.

If a North Dakotan travels outside the state line, he or she is bound to be asked about "that accent," the singsong manner in which the locals speak. "Say something from the movie Fargo," well-meaning people will say, thinking they have struck the perfect conversation opener. They are all ears for the classic "Yah, you betcha' " line, or "You're darn tootin' " from the 1996 crime thriller.

As a native of North Dakota - and former resident of South Dakota - living in California, I have been asked many times to recite those lines. I find it wearisome.

But I usually respond politely - another telltale sign of a Dakotan - by pointing out that though the grisly movie, mostly set in the similarly cold state of Minnesota, was oddly enjoyable, North Dakota should be known for things such as its incredible badlands, bountiful prairie, verdant Sheyenne River Valley and 19-story Capitol designed in an art deco style.

The 39th state, home to about 642,200, should be relished for qualities that seem to have missed the prairie schooner that apparently delivered all Dakota images to Hollywood scriptwriters.

There are fascinating story lines based on the lives of real people: Theodore Roosevelt, who first arrived in North Dakota as an asthmatic young man; enigmatic warrior Sitting Bull, whose remains were robbed from his North Dakota grave and moved to a locale in South Dakota; and Roger Maris (he was from Fargo, yah), who broke Babe Ruth's season home run record in 1961.

And there was Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who was once stationed at Fort Lincoln in what was then the Dakota Territory. You can see his home, which he designed with no regard to Army standards but complete adherence to his wife's genteel tastes, and the remnants of that fort at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park near Mandan.

But the strongest character in the list of North Dakota notables is Mother Nature, who variously sends forth hailstorms, blizzards, droughts, tornadoes, floods and even an occasional earthquake. The weather is a constant worry in a state that comprises mostly rural land and is the nation's leading producer of durum wheat, barley and sunflowers.

Though winters can be bitter, the state is not America's version of Siberia. It's more likely that being way up there on the map, and being more full of land than people, North Dakota has a gotten a bad rap.

The kindness of strangers

Yet Fargo was correct about Midwestern nice: Kindness is one of the few choices when you live in a state such as North Dakota, which is wickedly cold and windy in the winter and where modern-day conveniences are not always close.

Such conditions demand sturdy souls who will give the shirts off their backs to neighbors and strangers. You only have to break down on a rural road, as I did once, outside Belfield, on a dreary November afternoon, to appreciate this.

It's as if there is an emotional GPS system in Dakotans, who seem quick to find and aid stranded motorists, ailing neighbors or merely the kid who seems to be out past acceptable hours.

There is also an unspoiled appeal to North Dakota that even South Dakota lacks in some areas. Case in point: Motorists aiming for the Badlands National Park in South Dakota encounter road signs ad nauseam along Interstate 90, but in North Dakota, the trails (I-94 and Highway 85) to the badlands - and also to parts of Theodore Roosevelt National Park - are virtually clear of signs.

That can help you to look at the savage beauty of the land and think, "This is how it must have appeared to Teddy in the 1880s." To sample the feeling of being in his boots, visit the village of Medora, which celebrates Roosevelt's time there and his friendship with the village's founder, a Frenchman.

Legacy of the first settlers

Indelible on this land is the legacy of the American Indian. Lewis and Clark met Sakakawea (they spell things differently in North Dakota), the young Shoshone Indian woman who served as an interpreter for the Corps of Discovery. Their original encounter took place in a settlement of 4,500, now called the Knife River Indian Villages, in western North Dakota.

Her husband, a fur trader named Toussaint Charbonneau, sought employment with the expedition as an interpreter. Sakakawea, pregnant at the time, spoke Shoshone. The explorers not only hired the couple, but Lewis delivered their son. North Dakotans hold a reverence for Sakakawea, naming a river after her and erecting a statue of her and the baby in Bismarck, the state capital.

The history, culture and struggles of the Indians are honored in the Three Affiliated Tribes Museums on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, the Five Nation Arts Museum in Mandan, the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Heritage Center outside Belcourt and the Whitestone Hill Battlefield State Historic Site near Kulm.

Though the romantic notion of the cowboy-and-Indian lifestyle is palpable in North Dakota, especially in western towns such as Williston, a cosmopolitan style is increasingly evident in such cities as Grand Forks and Fargo.

Fargo, the state's largest city, with about 90,600 residents, is slowly undergoing a renaissance, spending more than $9-million the past three years to polish its downtown look. Even the selections on local restaurant menus are expanding from traditional red meats, starchy vegetables and canned beer to sushi and martinis.

Though the big-city accoutrements are fun to witness, I ultimately find the fresh air, stunning sunsets and shimmering fields of wheat to be North Dakota's greatest assets. It is refreshing to travel through a state that doesn't have a Starbucks on every block. There is sweet room for the soul and the mind to stretch and expand.

And my favorite thing to hear is that accent. It immediately signals to me the inherent goodness of North Dakotans.

- Robin McMacken is the author of "The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path, A Guide to Unique Places" (Globe Pequot Press, $12.95).

DID YOU KNOW THIS ABOUT NORTH DAKOTA?

The top two annual festivals

The Norsk Hostfest, which promotes itself as the largest Scandinavian-American festival on the continent, is held annually in Minot. The dates this year are Oct. 5-9. For information, call 701 852-2368 or go to www.hostfest.com .

The United Tribes International Powwow in Bismarck is one of the largest events of its kind in the nation, featuring American Indian dance, song, food and more. More than 70 tribes are represented, and about 1,500 dancers and drummers take part. This year's dates are Sept. 9-12. Call 701 255-3285 or go to www.unitedtribestech.com

Three must-see places

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is nearly 70,500 acres of ruggedly handsome badlands and is the state's top tourist attraction. This is where Theodore Roosevelt pursued his ranching ventures in the 1880s. Call (701) 623-4466.

The International Peace Garden comprises more than 2,300 acres nestled in the Turtle Mountains. For 72 years, the garden has celebrated the peace and friendship between Canadians and Americans. Call toll-free 1-888-432-6733 or go to www.peacegarden.com

Bagg Bonanza Farm, 45 miles south of Fargo, near Wahpeton and boasting 21 buildings, is the lone remnant of the boom for "king wheat" in the 1800s. This is the last restorable bonanza farm in the United States, so named for the huge, highly profitable wheat farms that once covered vast areas of land in the Red River Valley. Call (701) 274-8989.

Three places to avoid

* The one-pony town of Medora (population 101) closes up shop for the fall-winter season. It's strictly a summer destination, although the surrounding Theodore Roosevelt National Park is accessible year-round.

* Big stretches of prairie or badlands during electrical storms.

* The town of Parshall during the winter. Parshall set the state's lowest-temperature record, 60 below zero, on Feb. 15, 1936. Visit the community during the summer, spring or fall to be on the safe - and warm - side.

The best place to taste regional cooking

Steak-and-potato lovers, and those fond of wild game, should stop at Peacock Alley in Bismarck, at the corner of Fifth Street and Main Avenue. Formerly the Patterson Hotel, the venue was the off-hours headquarters for state and national politicos. Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson made presidential campaign stops at the hotel. The ambience is refined yet down-to-earth. Call (701) 255-7917.

Famous native sons and daughters

Actor Angie Dickinson, singer Peggy Lee, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, author Louis L'Amour, Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson, baseball legend Roger Maris and entertainer Lawrence Welk.

A major problem residents face

Agriculture represents a significant portion of North Dakota's economy, and its performance can by influenced by such factors as weather, price changes, farm policy and foreign trade.

A joke North Dakotans tell on themselves or their rival state

In North Dakota, winter lasts nine months and summer lasts three months.

On the Web

Readers can find all the articles in our Louisiana Purchase series, which ends this month, by going to the Web site www.sptimes.com/lapurchase There are links to the installments and interactive features.

[Last modified May 7, 2004, 11:24:09]

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