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Dakotan Disagreement  
Who knew the word ‘north’ would provoke such controversy?  

    July 23 —  Would you want to live in a state with the same name as a Dodge pickup truck? That’s the debate raging throughout North Dakota right now, thanks to a hearty band of activists who want to take the “North” out of “North Dakota” and leave us with a state that gets 12 miles per gallon.  

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  OF COURSE, everyone from residents of both Dakotas to hack magazine columnists (hey!) are getting plenty of mileage out of the debate.
        At the “heart” of the “issue” is the longstanding perception of North Dakota as flat, cold and boring. Supporters of the name change believe that the adjective “North” is the very embodiment of all three negative attributes (although geographical adjectives signify different things in different parts of the country; the “North” in North Carolina, after all, means “emphysema” while the “West” in West Virginia means “toothless, inbred jerkymakers”).
        “‘Dakota’ is a beautiful word,” said State Sen. Tim Mathern (D-Fargo), who first proposed the name change in 1989, the state’s centennial. “It reflects our heritage as a clean, wholesome, friendly land of peace. We ought to lead with the noun, not the adjective.” (Judging from how long Mathern has been working on this issue, the noun that comes to mind is “futility.”)

        Mathern, who called me from his car phone and was sure to tell me that he was on Dakota Avenue in Fargo, said that it will take “people of courage and vision” to pass the name-change initiative and see it through Congress.
        If that’s true, then Gov. John Hoeven must lack these important attributes. We already know he doesn’t have enough work, seeing as he called me back less than an hour after I left a message with his secretary (Can we get the governor some bills to sign or ribbons to cut or something?).
        Hoeven said he opposes the name change because “we have a good name and we should keep it.” Instead of talking about changing the name, Hoeven said North Dakotans need to “talk about our strengths,” which he proceeded to list as if I were a potential voter: the “educational” system, the “clean” environment, the “work ethic,” the state’s “productivity,” “world-class” hunting and fishing and even downhill skiing at Frost Fire Mountain, elevation 1,350 feet (and to think they gave the 2006 Winter Olympics to Turin).
        My keen journalistic instincts told me that Hoeven’s list was only part of the story. So I did a little digging and found a cache of internal documents to remind me that a) things aren’t so great in North Dakota and b) just saying “cache” makes my discovery sound even more impressive.
        “Overall, North Dakota trails most of its peer-group in quality of life,” one document said. “Long winters and fairly poor housing affordability detract from the state’s attractiveness. Among its peer group of neighboring states, ND had the highest number of days (180) at or below freezing.”

        Upon reading that cold fact, the Greater North Dakota Association, which supports the name change, declared that a “coordinated marketing campaign” would “change people’s perceptions about winter in North Dakota.” (So would altering the orbit of the planet, but other states might object.)
        Faced with such overwhelming evidence of North Dakota’s frigidity, Hoeven backtracked. “OK, so it’s cold, but it’s not colder than any other northern tier state,” Hoeven said. “The bottom line is that I’m getting letters and calls from North Dakotans all over the country who tell me that they’re proud of their state and its name.”
        Really? Then why are the letters and calls coming from “all over the country,” Governor?
        “Well, people move around a lot nowadays,” Hoeven said. “Most of those people will move back to North Dakota some day. They love North Dakota.”
        Now, before you jump on the “Let’s Ridicule North Dakota” bandwagon (there’ll be plenty of time for that later), this name-change proposal is serious business. The Greater North Dakota Association included it as one of 44 “New Economy Initiatives” that are designed to get the state of 640,000 moving again (or at least to stop the state’s 640,000 people from moving out).
        “Shortening the name—that’s what we call it, by the way—will attract new businesses, employers and tourists to our state,” said Katherine Satrom, a travel agent (hmm, how convenient) who is championing the idea.
        But shouldn’t South Dakota be consulted? After all, in the proper historic context, it’s unclear which state has the better claim on the name “Dakota.” In other words, we interrupt this column for a special report: “A Somewhat Abridged History of North and South Dakota.”
        Long before North and South Dakota were admitted to the Union, they existed as the geopolitical version of a stem cell called “Dakota Territory,” whose capital, Yankton, was in the extreme southeast corner of the territory.
        Population in the northern part of the territory boomed first, prompting the relocation of the capital to the north-central city of Bismarck. Residents of the southern half of the territory were offended, and petitioned Washington to be admitted into the union as a separate state. Like a long-suffering employee who tells his boss, “You can’t fire me, I already quit!” the northern part made similar preparations for the inevitable: the admission of both states—North and South Dakota—into the union in 1889.
        For some reason, Satrom thinks the moral of this story is that her state has the historical claim to the name “Dakota.” After all, “Dakota” is also the name of a hard red spring wheat that was grown only in the northern part of the Dakota Territory. And the Native Americans who lived there called themselves “Dakota,” while their counterparts in the southern part called themselves “Lakota.”
        “Plus, in our state’s phone book, there are hundreds of businesses already using only the name ‘Dakota,’ like the Dakota Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks,” she said.
        I pointed out that there are hundreds of businesses in South Dakota who also want to follow the lead of such single-named celebrities as Cher, Madonna and Charo—everything from Dakota Abstract Title Company in Brookings to Dakota Zone, a gift shop in Sioux Falls.
        Dakota Zone owner Margaret Cunningham was pressed into the role of speaking for her state because South Dakota governor William Janklow was too busy to call me back.
        “Everything they’re talking about up there escapes my logic,” said Cunningham. “Why do they think they own the name ‘Dakota’?”
        Cunningham added that she bears no animosity towards her neighbors to the north, whom South Dakotans typically lampoon with broad, slapstick barbs that resemble jokes told about the residents of a large, Central European country where, it is said, it takes an astounding number of people to screw in a light bulb.
        “Why can’t you get ice cubes in North Dakota?” one joke asks. “Because the old lady who had the recipe died.”

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        Animosity exists on both sides of the border, however. Former North Dakota lieutenant governor Lloyd Omdahl supports the shortening—if only to “peripheralize” South Dakotans.
        But if “Dakota” is ultimately rejected, Omdahl argued that the state should rename itself “Pembina,” which was the name of the territory’s first settlement.
        I don’t know. “North Dakota” may sound like cold, flat and boring, but would you buy a Dodge Pembina?
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Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post and the author of “HAIR! Mankind’s Historic Quest to End Baldness” (Random House). Visit him at http://www.gersh.tv/
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