“Because a place can do many things against you, and if it’s your home or if it was your home at one time, you still love it. That’s how it works.” 

 Cristina Henriquez

I spend an awful lot of time defending North Dakotans from accusations of being backwards and ignorant. People from most of the fifty states and as many foreign countries have been on the receiving end of my crash course rebuttal on how yes, North Dakota is pretty homogenous and people don’t leave the area much, but North Dakotans are thinkers, doers, and always willing to lend a hand.

When it comes to shiny objects, I’m a bit like a cat. So, when given the opportunity earlier this year to play with a sword that had been used by the Valley City chapter of the KKK in the 1920s (and had since turned up in the rafters of a local home before being donated to the Barnes County Museum along with a blank membership card and Book of Klannishness), I did just that. Fencing, hate, or theft isn’t really my thing though, so I gave it back. There’s nothing in the ground that ensures North Dakotans are nice to one another, and this was a definite reminder of that.

I’ve dealt with ignorance, annoying curiosity, and aggression based on identity and appearance for a really long time. I could just be interpreting my childhood naively, but I really feel that the balance has shifted from the first two (not great) to the third (really bad) in recent years when I’ve been home. For the record, I am American, was born in Fargo, and was raised by my birth parents who are also American.

Some fairly dumb incidents happened while I was growing up, including being challenged to show off my foreign language skills and then getting the cliché Ching-Chong mockery when I complied. I have no idea why one of my teachers thought it was necessary to single out four-foot-tall me for a disclaimer that I didn’t have to say the Pledge of Allegiance if I didn’t agree with it, but rest assured it had the effect of basically announcing me as a Wiccan to my classmates. When my full biological brother popped out looking like the Gerber baby (genes do funny things), some folks really thought I must be the adopted one. But that was in the early ‘90s in rural ND, and I thought we had moved on from that sort of thing. Forgive and forget.

You can probably understand how I surprised I was at the frequency and intensity of the stupidity I’ve encountered recently in North Dakota. This is a brief list of things I found myself having to explain while on the road for work:

1) My father did not rescue my mother during the Vietnam War, which wrapped up a good twelve years before I was born.

2) I don’t know why I would go back to the ‘Rez as I was told to do – I swore off gambling a few years ago.

3) Similarly, I appreciate random strangers’ concern regarding my employment status by yelling at me to get a job (idle hands are the devil’s workshop), but tacking on the “you dirty Mexican” suffix kind of undercuts the argument.

4) Who said I’m a dyke? I just got a haircut. It looked good on Halle Berry.

5) You’re my favorite kind of mix” is a nice compliment for a labradoodle, but not really for a human.

6) “Oh, you must not be from around here. You’re different.” (Within the first five seconds of a conversation)

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]Not one of these classifications prevents any individual from being a good North Dakotan if the latter term is still defined as working hard, obeying the law, being willing to help your neighbor shovel the drive, and bringing over a hot-dish in times of need.[/mks_pullquote]

Different” is North Dakota-speak for something you can’t quite wrap your head around but it catches you off guard and you don’t want to offend anyone, so “different” is a very good choice of adjective in such a situation. Bison and Sioux fans are different. Gun-owners and non-gun owners are different. Migrants and refugees are different. Democrats and Republicans are different. Christians and Muslims are different. Sexual identities and orientations are a spectrum of different. Not one of these classifications prevents any individual from being a good North Dakotan if the latter term is still defined as working hard, obeying the law, being willing to help your neighbor shovel the drive, and bringing over a hot-dish in times of need.

I wonder though, if I am just longing for a time that doesn’t exist anymore. (An excellent time capsule can be found here – Michael Moore’s presence is irrelevant, and there is some amusing footage from Ed Schafer and Kevin Cramer 20-25 years ago.) Do kids still learn about the importance of helping the poor and sick in Sunday school and take UNICEF boxes trick-or-treating? Do tags on the Giving Trees that pop up around the holidays have listings for ethnicity now in addition to age and gender? Do churches still send volunteers on mission trips and listen to their experiences upon their return?

North Dakota counts as home for me – family and friends, the people and places that fostered my early education and personal development, mentors that took me in, and those that nursed me back to health. I wish I could telepathically transmit how thankful I am for them. Words aren’t sufficient. This is also true for the Arabs, Israelis, Indians, Pakistanis, Kosovars, Bosnians, Serbs, Russians, Ukrainians, Brits, Argentinians, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Mongolians, and many, many more who have offered me advice, directions, stories, food, shelter, and really, really good conversations in recent years.

Generally (and I know this bothers my grandmother who makes better caramel rolls than yours), the only time I hear the Lord’s Prayer is when I am in North Dakota, where it is said a lot. The Archbishop of Canterbury (Most Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams) has some insightful analysis of the Lord’s Prayer:

Every single bit of the Lord’s Prayer is radical because every single bit of it challenges our assumptions about who we are and who God is and what the world is like.

And what it’s praying for, and again this is something we forget because we use it so often, what it’s praying for is the most revolutionary change you can imagine in the world we live in.

 A change to a situation where what God wants can happen, to a situation where all the hungry are fed, to a situation where forgiveness is the first imperative in all our relationships.

And, as people will notice, that’s not exactly like the world we inhabit at the moment. So if radical means looking for change from the roots up, yes, then it’s radical.


Note: My blog post last week erroneously stated that the North Dakota Class 2 concealed weapons permit had no reciprocity. Thank you to readers who pointed out that it is accepted by a limited number of other states (less than Class 1) and apologies for the error.