Thirty-five years ago, North Dakota almost gave up on the “North.”

GRAND FORKS — There are a few constants in the lives of North Dakotans: The skies are blue, temperatures of minus 30 degrees keep the mob away and, border-crossing escapades aside, people generally wake up in the same state they went to sleep in.

But for a people not known for radical change, North Dakota residents flirted with an unprecedented event 35 years ago when the state Senate seriously considered a proposal that could have resulted in a name change for the state 100 years after statehood.

In March 1989, the North Dakota Senate rejected the second and most recent attempt to remove the “North” from the name North Dakota.

The idea—a kind of perpetual “what if” that reached its peak in the 1980s—found an eclectic following until the last attempt by business leaders to revive it fizzled in 2001. (One proponent of the idea, current Governor Doug Burgum, spoke at length about it with The New Yorker in 2002.)

A few are still waiting.

“One day we will be Dakota, a simple, warm and friendly name,” State Senator Tim Mathern of Fargo wrote in an email to the Herald.

Mathern was one of the main initiators of the 1989 resolution, which would have called for a nationwide referendum in 1990. Congress would then have been asked to allow the state to change its name.

Even four decades later, he is still a supporter of the name change.

For Mathern, the word has an “inner beauty.” Dakota, he notes, means “friend” or “ally” in the Dakota language, a variant of the Sioux language.

It's also popular with locals: While browsing the Yellow Pages in 1989, he noticed that businesses used “Dakota” in their names much more often than the state's full name.

(A review of the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce's 2024 business directory shows 28 companies with “Dakota” in their name, half of which do not include the “North” prefix. The other half include state and federal entities such as the Bank of North Dakota and the North Dakota National Guard.)

As for the “north” part, Fuglie believes it has a negative impact on the state’s reputation because it puts the state’s weather in the foreground.

“It's clear that people like the name,” Mathern said. “The adjective 'North' is the problem.”

The origin of the debate lies in the division of the Dakota Territory in 1889, when the two states on either side of the 49th parallel were given the names “North” and “South.”

A 1989 Herald editorial said names such as Chippewa, Pembina and Lincoln were considered for the northern state, as was Winona for the southern state. But representatives from both states would not budge on “Dakota,” and a compromise was reached.

A newspaper clipping about the state name from the Jamestown Weekly Alert of July 14, 1882.

Courtesy of Jamestown Weekly Alert via

Throughout the 20th century, efforts continued to restore North Dakota's pre-statehood name.

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

“Fleck's efforts fit perfectly with the Bismarck Tribune's editorial campaign to do something about local weather, which was largely an exercise in complaining about it,” the New Yorker's 2002 article said.

In 1989, however, Mathern was concerned with more serious issues than the weather.

North Dakota was in dire straits in the late 1980s. The farm crisis was a heavy burden on a state where crop sales accounted for between 35 and 40 percent of the state's economic base, according to a 1984 North Dakota State University report.

A multi-year drought that began in 1988 cost the state an additional five to ten billion dollars in 2024, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.

In a March 20, 1989, clipping from the Bismarck Tribune, the idea of ​​renaming North Dakota “Palm Dakota” is discussed.

Courtesy of Bismarck Tribune via

The oil boom peaked in the mid-1980s and then ended. Incomes fell and young people left the state to find work elsewhere.

“We were struggling with population decline. We were struggling with very low incomes in our state,” Mathern said. “We were cutting programs. And I thought, 'Let's get a little more creative if people aren't coming to our state and are moving away.'”

Critics called the resolution a marketing gimmick.

The renaming debate was reignited in part by a Bismarck advertising executive named Milo Candee, who made national headlines in 1983 when he appeared on billboards in Fargo and Bismarck advocating for the state's renaming.

He got his chance to make his point to the nation on the CBS Morning News, where producers showed footage of a snowstorm during his on-air remarks, the New Yorker reported.

Jim Fuglie, North Dakota's tourism director in 1989, saw the name change as having the potential to bring more attention to his often-overlooked state. It's worth noting that Candee's advertising agency had a contract with the state's tourism department at the time, according to Fuglie.

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

(Regarding the climatic connotations of “north,” Fuglie says he likes to point out that there is an entire country north of the state.)

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

News of the idea to change North Dakota's name made national headlines, including in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on January 27, 1989.

Courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch via

The Billings (Montana) Gazette held a reader contest to rename its eastern neighbor and offered 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 could not find anyone in Montana intelligent enough to suggest a suitable name,” the Herald's editorial board responded.

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

“We were more optimistic because it was the centennial,” Fuglie said. “This was something we could do to celebrate our 100th anniversary as a state by changing our name. … We thought maybe we could just do that. And, you know, we were pretty darn close.”

Mathern attributes the resolution's failure to an editorial he recalls publishing on the Fargo-Moorhead forum a few days before the vote that sharply criticized the idea. (He also claims that the record-breaking two feet of snow that fell on Fargo in January had nothing to do with it.)

“There was an atmosphere of fear in the Senate that day,” Fuglie said. “Senators said, 'This may be going a little too far.'”

The vote was 36 in favor and 15 against. Although the Herald appeared to be more supportive of the name change than the Forum, the AP quoted two senators from Grand Forks, Ray Holmberg and Wayne Stenehjem, as being critical of the proposed name change.

Since then, efforts to get the name change through voters have been on hold, but Mathern hopes that someone will try again during his lifetime.

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

He pointed out that if he were to push for such a measure again, he would need significantly more Republican support than he did in 1989, when Democrats controlled the Senate and the governorship.

Fuglie noted how much the state's fortunes have changed in recent years.

“I think we did it in part to pull ourselves out of the doldrums,” Fuglie said. “Maybe the time is right because we have a more positive attitude now.”

On the other hand, there may be more reasons today to let the matter rest.

Tom Isern, a professor of history at NDSU, pointed out in the New York Times in 2002 that North Dakota settlers had adopted the name, regardless of the prefix, from a people they had displaced on the road to statehood.

“The settlers of the territory appropriated the name, and we never really came to terms with it,” he said in 2024.

Given the strong reaction to the University of North Dakota's mascot change – another appropriation of the Sioux identity – he would rather let the matter rest.

Mathern's interpretation is that the short form of the name was intended to honor the indigenous people who inhabited the state before and after colonization.

“It's a more direct reminder of our state's indigenous peoples and pre-colonial times, and there's a greater interest in acknowledging that past,” he said.

“The main question is whether we want to highlight the best of ourselves. That's Dakota. That means warm, friendly. To me, that means showing us at our best.”

Anna Harden

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