Mike Jacobs: Optimism is hard to find as new year approaches

Darkness, depression, disease, division all are abroad this season, with the Omicron variant rampant, Russia threatening Ukraine and world peace, and with partisanship and ill-will abroad in our country.

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Mike Jacobs

The time is nearly noon on the last Sunday of 2021 as I struggle to summon some optimism about the New Year – optimism being a key ingredient in columns at this time of year.

But it’s a heavy lift, as the saying goes.

Darkness, depression, disease, division all are abroad this season, with the Omicron variant rampant, Russia threatening Ukraine and world peace, and with partisanship and ill-will abroad in our country.

Even the weather seems threatening, with storms wreaking havoc and taking lives with a severity that seems unprecedented and alarming, especially since much of it is due to the accelerating warming of the planet.

With such a disturbing picture, probably the search for optimism should begin at home, and indeed there is optimism.


My garlic crop is in the ground, and it is well mulched. The National Weather Service forecast issued a couple of hours ago suggests snowfall in double digits. That would be good for the garlic, helping the blanket of wheat straw to hold in warmth and sending a shot of moisture in the ground when spring comes, as of course it will.

My farming neighbors will welcome the snow, despite its inconvenience, especially after the problematic weather of 2021. This year brought a bewildering combination of heat and drought and sudden storms, a combination that doomed some crops and rescued others, making a very uneven year in farm fields and gardens.

But then there’s the edginess that heavy snow always prompts. Will we be able to get to town tomorrow? Or the next day? Or even by the middle of the week? Will there be so much snow that rivers will rise in the spring? This last is an especially poignant concern since 2022 will be the 25th year since the Flood of ‘97.

Flood memories should shore up our optimism. Grand Forks and the Red River Valley triumphed in the end, although it was – as the saying goes – a heavy lift. Sometimes when my back aches after an especially long day in the garden, I remember how it felt after three hours of sandbagging.

Sandbagging is heavier work.

My reading has taken a dark turn, too. After the noise about “critical race theory” in the special session of the state Legislature last month, I ordered a copy of “The 1619 Project,” a book that expands on the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of journalists at the New York Times.

I’m about halfway through the book, which is a smooth read even as it challenges many of the pillars of our national “origin story.” It’s a basis for optimism, I think, because it calls us to confront the past with clear eyes and open minds.

Unfortunately, the optimism is offset by the out-sized reaction to the book. It’s hard to find healing when the medicine is banned.


We North Dakotans cannot ignore the history that “The 1619 Project” laid bare. Our own history is under scrutiny, as Nick Estes makes clear in “Our History Is the Future,” which was published soon after the protests at Standing Rock. Estes is an enrolled member of the Lower Brule community who teaches American Studies at the University of New Mexico.

Margaret D. Jacobs – no relation – tackles the dispossession of Indigenous people from another, related perspective. She is director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska. Her book, “After One Hundred Years/In Search of Reconciliation on America’s Stolen Lands,” focuses on the Ponca People of Nebraska, who were uprooted and driven to Indian Territory, which later became the state of Oklahoma.

My own family were among the “settlers” who took land from Indigenous people, in our case, from the MHA Nation, the three affiliated tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara) of the Fort Berthold reservation. My grandfather entered the lottery when much of the reservation was deemed “surplus” and opened for settlement in the early 1910s. Later, of course, the reservation was “taken” again to make way for one of the Missouri River dams. My family’s part is now a plum patch, a small loss in comparison to the loss suffered by the MHA Nation.

Of course, this is the point of “The 1619 Project” – to bring Americans to realize how profoundly the treatment of Black slaves and Indigenous people has shaped our history and our institutions.

Rather than alarming me, this scholarship gives me hope that we can face and acknowledge the past in order to build the “more perfect union” that the authors of the U.S. Constitution foresaw, even if they didn’t create it. Other countries have shown the way, South Africa with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission and our neighbor, Canada, with its eyes-wide-open approach to Indigenous boarding schools.

Now! Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow! Not to hide our past but to irrigate our future.

That’s my wish for the new year dawning.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.

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