North Dakota Radicalism:
A sampling of the past and present of radicals, socialists, anarchists, and populists in the Peace Garden State
by Dana Williams


There’s not too much that I’ll say that can’t be learned via your standard Internet search engine these days. Yet rarely do people try combining search terms like “North Dakota” and “radical” together. If there were to do so (along with a bit of digging), they’d find a plethora of documents, essays, and histories that would show the long history of radicalism, populism, and progressive thinking that runs through this state.

But, what is a “radical”? The root of the letters ‘rad’ (yes, there’s a pun coming up...) mean “root”. Therefore, to be “radical” is to get to the root of something. In most situations and applications it refers to having a highly critical analysis, looking for original causes, and challenging the structural contributing factors of a problem or situation.

So, anyways, there are a lot of ugly, distinctly non-progressive things that have happened in North Dakota. The KKK is a prime example of this fact. It thrived in Grand Forks, oddly enough, for quite awhile during this past century. There’s an unfortunate history of racism that spans from African-Americans to Native Americans—and it ain’t pretty. Theodore Roosevelt, that noted jingoist and imperialist, seems to have developed a creepy following over the years, mainly due to his praises of the state’s natural resources. And so forth.

At the same time, for those who are looking for positive examples of their North Dakotan ancestors, there’s quite a few to choose from. Elwyn Robinson, a former UND History professor, observed six themes in the state’s history, one of them being radicalism. He said, “North Dakota viewed its dependent state as exploitative and responded politically to outside controls through populism and the Nonpartisan League and economically through cooperatives.”

The Nonpartisan League was by far the most influential political organization the state had ever seen, its mark still being seen in the state. The Bank of North Dakota and State Mill & Elevator were successful endeavors initiated by the League—although completed in their present form after the League had cannibalized itself. (Like much of the socialist movement in the early 1900’s, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia further split the reformists from the revolutionaries, the authoritarians from the egalitarians.)

One can easily feel the paranoia of the ruling classes of the time, when the New York Times referred to North Dakota as the epicenter of “Bolshevism on the prairie”. We can look back and laugh now, because we know how well the radical idea of a state bank has served North Dakota—thousands have gone to college because of the Bank who otherwise would not have been able to. We can thank the radicals of the time for this.

However, there is a disconnect in the role of the League and even the North Dakota Socialist Party to conduct itself in a revolutionary fashion; instead the League was more content to carry-out reformist policies via the state’s legislature, leading the Grand Forks Herald to melodramatically declare North Dakota as “the socialist laboratory of the country” (Robinson, 1966, 343).

Outside of the League and “the Party”, there’s Kate Richards O’Hare, dubbed “Red Kate”, who was given five years in prison thanks to the Anti-Sedition Act, because she made an anti-war speech as the US was about to enter the European “Bloodbath-O-Insanity” known as World War I.

We can look to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) who—although there was very little “industrialized” about North Dakota—got their members $6 a day as opposed to the average $3 or $4 as farm hands during harvest time.

A large portion of the membership of the American Indian Movement (AIM) stemmed from North Dakota—the famous political prisoner Leonard Peltier actually grew up in Grand Forks. AIM attempted to defend against attempts by the US government and its corporations to destroy treaties and steal resources from Native Americans.

In even more recent memory, there’s Carl Kabat who landed himself in jail for his role in a dismantling action at one of the many Minutemen III silos that dot the state’s landscape.

A Bismarck-based, consumer-owned energy collective called the Basin Electric Power Cooperative supplies a total energy capacity of 3,323 megawatts, illustrating to many the power (no pun intended) that can come when people pool their resources together and work for common goals without the motivations of profit.

A family farmer named Tom Wiley, active in the Dakota Resource Council, was angered by cross-pollination from a neighbor’s genetically modified soybeans so he helped mobilize an attempt to ban agro-giant Monsanto’s GM products from the state. Then in mid-November 2001 he sailed on a Greenpeace boat as a witness to the World Trade Organization’s meeting in the democratic-bastion [ha-ha!!] of Qatar.

These people and organizations played a role in advancing the notions of “radicalism”—which as the word states—strived to get at the root causes of society’s problems in progressive, humanistic ways. The resulting work advanced the specter of justice, egalitarianism, peace, cooperation, and freedom. These are the true heroes of North Dakota. And we should learn the lessons they teach as we create our vision for the future of North Dakota.