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35 years ago, North Dakota nearly dropped the frigid 'North' from its moniker

Posted 5/28/24 (Tue)

By Joshua Irvine

GRAND FORKS — There are a few constants in life for North Dakotans: the sky is blue, 30 below keeps the riff-raff out, and, cross-border hijinks aside, people generally wake up in the same state they fell asleep in.

But for a people not known for radical change, North Dakotans flirted with the unprecedented 35 years ago when the state Senate seriously considered a proposition that could have changed the state’s name, 100 years after statehood.

In March 1989, the North Dakota Senate shot down the second and to date most recent attempt to drop the “North” from North Dakota.

The idea — a sort of perpetual “what-if” that peaked in influence in the 1980s —collected an eclectic band of support until the last attempted revival by business leaders fizzled in 2001. (A proponent of the idea, now-Gov. Doug Burgum, chatted extensively with the New Yorker about it in 2002.)

A few people are still holding out for it.

“We will be Dakota, a simple, warm, and friendly name someday,” wrote state Sen. Tim Mathern of Fargo, in an email to the Herald.

Mathern served as the primary sponsor for the 1989 resolution, which would have put a statewide referendum on the ballot in 1990. Congress would have then been asked to allow the state to change its name.

He remains a proponent of the name change four decades later.

To Mathern, the word has an “intrinsic beauty.” Dakota, he notes, means “friend” or “ally” in the Dakota language, a variety of the Sioux language.

It’s popular with residents too: flipping through the Yellow Pages in 1989, he observed businesses were far likelier to use “Dakota” in their names than the full state name.

(A review of the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce business directory in 2024 shows 28 businesses with “Dakota” in their name, half of which exclude the “north” prefix. The other half include state and federal entities like the Bank of North Dakota and the North Dakota National Guard.)

As for the “North” part, Fuglie thinks it works against the state’s reputation by bringing the state’s weather to front of mind.

“It’s clear people like the name,” Mathern said. “It’s the adjective ‘North’ that gets in the way.”

The root of the debate goes back to the division of the Dakota Territory in 1889, when “North” and “South” were appended to the two states on either side of the 49th Parallel.

Names like Chippewa, Pembina and Lincoln were considered for the northern state, a Herald editorial from 1989 notes, as well as Winona for the southern state, but representatives from both states were unwilling to yield “Dakota,” and thus the compromise.

Efforts to restore North Dakota to its pre-statehood moniker persisted throughout the 20th century.

The first resolution to rename the state went before the North Dakota House of Representatives in 1947, pushed by a car salesman and state representative named John Fleck.

“Fleck’s effort dovetailed with an editorial crusade that the Bismarck Tribune was then waging to do something about the local weather, an endeavor that consisted mainly of complaining about it,” according to the 2002 feature in the New Yorker.

There were more serious matters than weather on Mathern’s mind in 1989, however.

North Dakota was in dire straits at the tail end of the 1980s. The farm crisis had proved punishing for a state where crop sales constituted between 35% to 40% of the state’s economic base, per a 1984 North Dakota State University report.

A multi-year drought beginning in 1988 cost the state another $5-10 billion in 2024 dollars, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.

The oil boom had peaked in the mid-1980s and then gone bust. Incomes were down, and young people were leaving the state for jobs elsewhere.

“We were struggling with losing population. We were struggling with very low incomes for our state,” said Mathern. “We were cutting programs. And my thought was, ‘let’s get a little more creative about our state where people aren’t coming and people are leaving.’”

Critics called the resolution a marketing gimmick.

The revival of the renaming debate was owed in part to a Bismarck ad executive named Milo Candee, who made national news in 1983 when he advocated renaming the state on billboards in Fargo and Bismarck.

He got the chance to make his case to the nation on CBS Morning News — where producers ran footage of a blizzard opposite his on-air remarks, the New Yorker noted.

Jim Fuglie, North Dakota’s tourism director in 1989, saw the potential in the name change to bring more attention to his oft-overlooked state. It’s worth noting Candee’s ad agency was contracted with the state’s tourism arm at the time, per Fuglie.

“The whole idea was to try to bring people here,” Fuglie said. “And if we called attention to it by doing something bold, people might want to come here and check it out.”

(On the climate connotation of “north,” Fuglie says he likes to point out there’s a whole country north of the state.)

It certainly generated publicity. The Associated Press coverage of the legislative debate was picked up by newspapers in Washington, D.C., Seattle, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, Oklahoma and Florida.

The Billings (Montana) Gazette held a competition among its readers to rename its eastern neighbor, offering a one-way ticket from Billings to Bismarck as a reward. Byron Chamberlain, of Sheridan, Wyoming, won with “Manitscolda.”

“We note in passing that the Gazette couldn’t find anyone in Montana clever enough to come up with a suitable name,” the Herald’s editorial board shot back.

Nevertheless, a joint legislative committee voted 7-3 to move the legislation forward in early March.

“We were more optimistic because it was the centennial year,” Fuglie said. “This was something we could do to mark our 100th anniversary of being a state, by changing our name. … We thought maybe we could just do this. And, you know, we came darn close.”

Mathern attributes the resolution’s failure to an editorial he remembers running in the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead a few days before the floor vote lambasting the idea. (He also maintains the record-setting two feet of snow dropped on Fargo that January had nothing to do with it.)

“There was an atmosphere of timidity in the Senate that day,” Fuglie said. “Senators were saying, ‘This is maybe going just a little bit too far.’”

The vote came down 36 to 15 against. Though the Herald apparently took a kinder tack toward the renaming than the Forum, the AP quoted two Grand Forks senators, Ray Holmberg and Wayne Stenehjem, laying into the proposed name change.

Efforts to bring the name change before voters have lain dormant ever since, though Mathern hopes to see someone try again in his lifetime.

“I’m an old man, and I wouldn’t mind before I die seeing another effort made,” Mathern said.

He noted if he were to push for a measure again, he’d need significantly more Republican support than in 1989, when Democrats controlled the Senate and governor’s office.

Fuglie noted how much the state’s fortunes have changed in the intervening years.

“We were doing it I think partly to try to drag ourselves out of the doldrums,” Fuglie said. “Maybe, because we’ve got a more positive attitude right now, the time is right.”

On the other hand, there are perhaps more reasons today to leave the matter be.

Tom Isern, a professor of history at NDSU, pointed out in the New York Times in 2002 that, regardless of the prefix, North Dakota’s settlers had taken the name from a people it displaced on its path to statehood.

“The territory’s settlers appropriated the name in the first place, and we’ve never really reconciled with that,” he said in 2024.

Having since seen the backlash surrounding the change to the University of North Dakota’s mascot — another appropriation of Sioux identity — he’d prefer to let the issue lie.

Mathern’s spin is the shortened name would honor the Native people who occupied the state before and after colonization.

“It’s a more direct reminder of the Indigenous people in our state and before colonization, and there is a greater interest in recognizing that past,” he said.

“The main issue is do we want to highlight the best of us? That is Dakota. That means warm, friendly. As far as I’m concerned, that’s putting our best foot forward.”