PAM COSTAIN: You Wooed Me Back, You Broke My Heart, I Still Love You, North Dakota

After a 40-year hiatus, the stark beauty of North Dakota captured my heart and drew me home. I was awestruck by the vast ineffable horizons, the wheat and sunflowers undulating in the wind and the other-worldly color of the Badlands and buttes. Returning to my roots, I remembered why I loved the landscape, the land itself and the powerful Missouri River coursing through its immense plains.

Missouri River at Bismarck.
Missouri River at Bismarck.

Though I had stayed away for decades, when I did go back, I realized I was still tethered to North Dakota by a sense of place, deep and lasting friendships and a profound connection to my youth.

As a child I had been happy in that simple place  —  walking to and from school with a gaggle of girls, picnics in the local park, ice skating on winter evenings, basketball and football games that drew the whole town, a small and unpretentious church community, great teachers who instilled a love of learning and dear friends who were the first to engage me in conversation about the mysteries of life. I loved my state and the place that raised me.

However, in late adolescence, after a trip across the Atlantic Ocean that revealed a much wider world than I had ever known, I began to grow restless and bored. I wanted more than North Dakota could give me and was even embarrassed at times by her. I wanted to leave her, and I did. I went away to college and made another state my home. I would not return for several decades.

In late middle age, I began to miss the state that had once nurtured me. I was drawn back to her first by the extraordinary sweep of the land and then by the people whose steadfastness, simplicity and familiarity fueled my longing for home.

But like many attempts to return to an old love, disappointment and heartache soon accompanied the joy of my homecoming. I had to finally look honestly at things long hidden or at best ignored in our past. I had to squarely face the cruel, abusive and dishonest relationship between my beloved state and the Native people who for centuries have also called it home. I had to confront my own blindness to realities that had been there all along.

What made me finally see the state I loved in all its beauty and ugliness was the struggle by members of the Standing Rock Tribe to protect their water, their sacred sites and their cultural identity.

As they stood up to the rapaciousness of the oil profiteers building the Dakota Access Pipeline and the government officials who had sold their souls for short-term financial gain, they awakened me from my slumber. Their courageous actions prompted me to look deeply, to listen with an open heart and to confront both historical grievances and contemporary lies, the provocations and dehumanizing greed that characterize much of North Dakota reality today.

No longer able to shield myself from the truth, I saw some of the disturbing realities of my home state, and I was truly heartbroken. I felt betrayed.

At the same time, standing with my Native sisters and brothers at the Sacred Stone and Oceti Sakowin encampments also gave me a profound experience of community, connection to the land and water and the power of solidarity among people. I saw the best of humanity as people gathered to peacefully protest the coming of the Black Snake. They cooked and cared for thousands, attended to the physical, psychological and spiritual needs of one another, shared stories of the past and dreams for the future. I was able to live within an ethic that honored the earth and the water and the unity of all people and that directly challenged the notion that “The only thing that matters is what I personally get today.”

Oceti Sakowin encampment, 2017.
Oceti Sakowin encampment, 2017.

This sacred experience of human community at Standing Rock stands right alongside my disappointment with North Dakota. It is still raw and unresolved. For that reason, I refuse walk away from her.

Late life love is different than the naiveté of youth. It requires more honesty and humility, the acceptance of ambiguity and nuance, forgiveness and accountability. It also requires listening to pain and suffering, as well as joy and possibility.

Now when I return to North Dakota, it is in full awareness of her faults and strengths. I see her as both broken and whole, simple and complex, intransigent and forgiving, capable of denying the past and desperately trying to heal the present. I will stay in relationship with her because as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, “If we look deeply it is possible to heal not only the present, but also the past.”

Sacred Fire that burned continuously at Oceti Sakowin.
Sacred Fire that burned continuously at Oceti Sakowin.

Now I can honestly honor the hardscrabble struggles of both Native and non-Native people to survive in such a harsh climate. I appreciate the sense of kinship that has developed over both generations and shared experiences. I admire the strength of people who till the soil, tend the cattle and bison, drill the wells, teach and care for the children and work for the common good. I appreciate how intensely the wind blows, how warmly the sun shines, how completely the snow covers the landscape and how much the rivers, especially the Missouri River, have shaped the destiny of the people. That river has both given abundantly and taken away from those who rely on it.

I am held firm in my belief in redemption, the capacity to change, the healing power of rivers that are the source of life and the rootedness of place. I will not walk away from North Dakota but neither will I ignore her transgressions.

I love and honor you, North Dakota, and I want more from you.

This piece will be published in a collection called “Fierce Lament” in the fall of 2018.

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Pam Costain

Pam Costain grew up in Minot, N.D., where she graduated from high school. She in a retired nonprofit executive director and has led organizations in Minneapolis that support public education, immigration reform, international human rights and civic engagement. She recently returned to Minot for her 50th high school reunion and was delighted to reconnect with dear friends and the community that molded her values and beliefs.

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