Generally speaking, North Dakota’s landscape is flat enough that you can see a town on the horizon long before you get there. In rare cases, there’s just enough gently-rolling hills or curved stretch of highway to accommodate a body of water, that civilization seems to appear out of nowhere. New Town is one of those before-you-know-it places. One second a pickup truck towing a fishing boat is passing you and the next you’re on Main Street. At a glance, the row of businesses could be a snapshot of an imaginary idyllic town like Mayberry – the cinderblock post office, a Tastee Freez, a “trading post” themed souvenir shop. But a quick glance means overlooking a community living very much in modern and rapidly changing times. “It’s a trip when you see a Tesla parked in front of the Jack & Jill,” says Thomas Nash, New Town city council member. He promises a tour of the newly built structure for volunteer fire fighters.
“That fire hall was ten years in the making. It took time. It took effort, and motivation, and funds. And it took someone to spearhead that and build the partnerships around that so it could become a collective effort. But look what you get after all of that. Something for the entire community.”
Initially Thomas is fairly soft-spoken and reserved. It’s apparent that his quiet nature comes from his respect for the people who live here and an innate desire to protect the things he’s helped build. Also, he might be a little shy. Thomas has served as an EMT, he’s worked at the nearby casino, he’s a volunteer firefighter as well as an instructor and trainer for the other volunteers which can range between a crew of 10 to 25 individuals. On top of that, Thomas is in charge of special projects for the MHA Nation. He was recently asked to join the MHA COVID19 task force.
“It’s all in the name of help,” he says, “if you’re a servant of the community, you’ll get more chances to see the change.”
Thomas grew up in California, but had family in the area. “I was getting tired of working body shops. The hustle and bustle wasn’t for me anymore. That’s why I like it here. You can go out and get lost. Where I was in California, there was no such thing as a quiet place.” He admits that he’s an introvert which can be a challenge (“…like 99% of my job is talking”), especially when it comes time to sit at the front of the room during city council meetings. He’s currently serving his second term as an elected city council member. “People gave me a chance,” he says of being elected, “I’m a quiet individual, but eventually I was just tired of accepting things as they were. If all you do is complain and don’t do anything about it, nothing is gonna change.” For him, it’s not about taking power, it’s about giving people space to come together and discuss what they want to create.
“You need to give people a voice, a window to say what they think. Over the years I’ve been able to see people as people. Not their titles. Just having a conversation with another human.”
New Town has a population of just under 2,000 people. It’s the largest city within the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and an important hub for the Three Affiliated Tribes: Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. “It was a bit of a culture shock when I came here,” Thomas admits, “people would just drive up and down Main Street over and over for fun.” He’s well aware that opportunities for recreation is a valuable part of a community. That’s the belief that encouraged him to run for office. “We need some family-oriented activities. We need some intellectually stimulating activities too. I wanted something better for my daughter. I wanted something other than what there was. I’d take my daughter to the park and seeing some things, drug paraphernalia, or rundown equipment: I wanted to change that," shared Thomas.
"I didn’t pay attention or understand how much work goes into infrastructure until I was a city council member.”
He pauses a moment to look around the meeting room, empty these past months due to the pandemic. “To raise a family you need certain things: you need education, a job, you need to have a community that supports you, and you need some kind of medical service. Stanley is 30 minutes away from here, Watford City is an hour away.” In a community hard-hit by the COVID19 pandemic on top of a rise in overdoses and drug abuse, Thomas is painfully aware of the struggles many members of the community face, and the toll that takes on a cultural landscape.
“It’s all perception. If you’re in a bad place, that will affect how you see things. If you have hope, that all changes.”
There’s determination in his voice when he discusses economic development and relationship-building. But once he begins to frame those needs through the lens of art, it’s clear that’s where he finds the most passion. “Art is a big thing for me. It’s the easiest form of communication. Using your natural talent to convey a point, show what you think. Everything is an art.”
One of Main Street’s focal points is a wooden fence covered in dozens of handprints. Each hand is a bright blue, orange, green, yellow, or red. They are connected by veins of brown. From a distance, they look very much like the trees they are meant to represent. And up close, you can see the diversity of the people who left their mark. The Hands on Main Street Project was part of a special initiative in partnership with Souris Basin Planning Council (SBPC). “I saw their Livable Community Program and I thought, ‘might as well try it.’ Anything to get the kids out there and doing something.” The Livable Community Program focuses on helping rural communities identify what makes them unique and provides the means to uplift the quality of life in that community. “We made a day of it. Some of the SBPC folks came to town to help out. I was so nervous. I wanted it to work so bad and we had all these kids everywhere, so the expectations were high. But we just let them go to town and it turned out so great.”
Still, Thomas strives for more. He hopes to develop an arts council. He wants to see statues, billboards, murals – anything to make creativity a visible and viable pursuit for the next generation and a legacy for the community as a whole. “I want to expose kids to working artists. Let them focus on something and see their life as something with meaning. Even if it’s just the normal day to day stuff. I’d love to have art be a part of their everyday life. If that’s a sculpture, great. If we have to start with painting a building that needs repair, that’s a start.”
Creating a place of value – and defining whether “value” is economical or cultural or some other vague definition, has its challenges. Thomas, in his humble way, acknowledges his strength is bringing people together.
“In a community you need to have someone who strives for a change. Not to be a burden on everybody, but to strive for something and show people how to stretch. I know being comfortable isn’t always a good thing. You can get complacent or disillusioned. A lot of negativity comes from fear. Fear of change, and I get that, but you have to push to understand that fear for what it is.”
He leans back in his chair, an enlarged map of the region behind him. It’s an almost too-perfect tableau of someone with the world literally on their shoulders. “I can ask. That’s all I do, is ask. The answers will always surprise you.”