Historical parallels can offer insights for today’s challenges in the Bakken region


David L. Dodds

Document Type


Publication Date



Historical parallels can offer insights for today’s challenges in the Bakken region

There's the famous saying: "What goes around comes around." Another variation is "Everything old is new again."

Then there's this foreboding doozy: "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

They're repeated so much in modern usage that they've become cliché — probably because there's more than a shred of truth behind them.

University of North Dakota scholars who have their collective eyes fixed on the oil-producing region of western North Dakota could apply all of these sayings to the environment that exists there. Oil production, fueled by fracking in the Bakken shale geological formation, has ramped up so much in recent years, the people of the area — both natives and newcomers — have struggled to cope with unprecedented growth and, yes, wealth.

A big problem is that there's not a whole lot of good advice being given to the people who live there.

Sebastian Braun, chair of UND's Indian Studies Department, is among a group of researchers trying to change that.

"It's clear that they do not have the tools to put this in a global perspective," Braun said. "They have been basically told to 'just adapt.'"

Braun and his colleagues contend that world history — ancient and modern — is rife with examples of people and regions that have found themselves swept away in the whirlwind of a boom economy. Some have dealt with the challenges better than others. The point is, there's plenty of historical data on how other people and cultures have handled scenarios similar to what is currently playing out in the Bakken region of North Dakota.

"This is being spun in a way that this is new — but it's not — and this is something that is not just happening here," Braun said.

One way UND researchers are getting the word out is through an International Studies Lecture Series in which they connect their historical and social scientific research to the challenges of today in the Bakken region.

Recently, William Caraher, UND associate professor of history, and Bret Weber, UND assistant professor of social work, took to the lecture stage to talk about historical parallels to the current situation. Caraher, who frequently travels to Cyprus to conduct historical research at ancient sites, likened the modern-day situation in the Bakken, with its need for "man camps" to support the heavy boom activity, to temporary settlements that surrounded the copper mines along the Troodos Mountains during the Bronze Age.

But Caraher doesn't limit his discussion to just Cyprus. He says temporary settlements and their connection to extraction industries and other boom economies have been part of history throughout the world, from South America to Alaska to mining regions in Australia. He even points to unused relics of modern Olympic games in places such as Whistler, British Columbia, and Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and even abandoned military bases — some dating back to 300 B.C. — as examples in which a huge buildup of labor was needed for a relatively short-lived payoff.

"It's interesting to place what is going on in the Bakken in this larger historical context," Caraher said.

But beyond talking, UND researchers are trying to do something to promote conversations among the people in the Bakken region to learn from the historical and global examples. It's a role that UND is uniquely qualified to play, Caraher explains.

He said the Bakken region is not the only one experiencing intense shale formation oil and gas booms. It's happening in the Marcellus region across much of western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and New York, as well as in the Eagle Ford and Barnett shale plays in Texas.

The big difference between the Bakken and those other shale plays is their proximity and access to research hubs, population centers and other resources. The Bakken is relatively remote when compared to the other regions. UND and its interdisciplinary teams of researchers have tried to fill this void and give the region and its people a competitive advantage to deal with its newfound challenges.

"We're here in North Dakota; this gives us a lot more credibility out west (in the Bakken)," Caraher said.

And they're not just doing it from their offices and labs in Grand Forks. They actually go to the heart of the Bakken to examine the challenges firsthand.

Caraher and Weber, working with scholars at North Dakota State and other universities, have visited several of the man camps that have popped up across the region in an attempt to research and document the evolution of these temporary settlements.

Michael Niedzielski, assistant professor of geography, and Brad Rundquist, chair of the UND Geography Department, are also getting involved. Using a NASA grant, they and a geography class recently teamed with Fort Berthold Community College to conduct GIS mapping of the surrounding region. This will give the people of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation ready access to important geographical and mineral data of the area.

Braun says this is significant, because "the national companies have people doing that for their own purposes, but people who live there don't have those resources. The more technology and information that we can make available, the more informed the communities will be."

Another project has Ann Reed, assistant professor of anthropology, working with the community of Parshall, N.D., to compile a book about the town's upcoming centennial. Reed and a team of UND students interviewed Parshall area residents across all age ranges on what it was like growing up in the community before and during the current oil boom. The stories will be published in the town's centennial book. Niedzielski also produced a set of GIS maps of Parshall for the book.

Braun said activities like these and other research on the Bakken have been made possible because of a UND faculty seed money grant that was issued in 2012. Braun, Caraher, Weber, Reed and Carenlee Barkdull, chair of the Social Work Department, have all been able to use parts of that grant to collect preliminary data on the impact of the Bakken oil boom on social culture. The idea is that that preliminary work could lead to larger research projects involving the region in the future.

Braun said the main objectives are to promote conversations with and among the people of the Bakken region — conversations that aren't taking place now — and to establish means through which people can get access to knowledge and capabilities on how to better cope with the challenges they face.

"Nobody is talking about what is going to happen when this is gone," Braun said. "That's my concern — not what is happening right now but what is going to happen to these communities in 30 years."

David Dodds University & Public Affairs writer

This document is currently not available here.