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Steampunks move to organize in Mitchell

Members of Nordsteam and S.T.E.A.M. pose for a photo during the Dakota Discovery Museum's Haunted Village event in October. Members, are front row from left, Lewis Langle, Aaron Gregory and Nick Campbell; back row from left, Andrew Masters, John Taylor, Alexandra Funk, Dan Snowberger, Jeremy Johnson and Lori Holmberg. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Holmberg)

Most people probably wouldn't want to be called a punk. But for steampunks, well, they're used to living outside the mainstream.

In Mitchell, a small but passionate group of steampunk enthusiasts recently gathered to set up bylaws and a charter to provide some structure to what is largely a free-spirited enterprise.

"A lot of steampunk groups are a very loose organization," said John Taylor, who co-leads the Sioux Falls Nordsteam group.

A Google search into what "steampunk" means yields a variety of definitions, most hinging on the phenomenon featuring, as the name would suggest, steam-powered machinery with a science fiction, sepia-toned twist. That idea can encapsulate everything, from engineering to clothing to cakes.

Mitchell steampunk Nick Campbell described the genre as "the idea of taking a Victorian-era setting and putting a modern innovation to it." Like a steam-powered computer, he explained, or modifying a traditional gun into a laser.

But, Victoria was never the queen of the American West, which means local steampunks look to their own heritage for inspiration -- think more "The Wild Wild West" TV series and movie than "Sherlock Holmes."

"We're trying to show the American side of what was going on during those times," Campbell said.

Mitchell's S.T.E.A.M. (Steampunk Technicians, Explorers and Aficionados of the Midwest) and Sioux Falls' Nordsteam members gathered recently to work on constructing bylaws and a charter for an umbrella organization, which they've dubbed the Northern Plains Confederation. They hope to obtain 501c3 status, and that other regional steampunk groups can eventually join the confederation. Strength in numbers, so to speak.

"Steampunk is going mainstream ... we're kind of taking it mainstream in our own fashion," Taylor said. "In the hopes that as we expand, each group will retain its own unique identity."

Because the groups tend to be loosely affiliated and centered around certain members, Taylor said some factions, particularly on the East and West coasts, have simply fallen apart when certain members didn't see eye to eye. He said he hopes the Northern Plains Confederation will help the groups work together and retain longevity.

"What we're trying to do ... is to avoid collapse brought on by interpersonal drama," Taylor said. "It will be a framework that will allow people to come and go."

He cites as inspiration groups like the Star Wars-inspired 501st Legion (Vader's Fist), which is an international Star Wars fan group that has gained a certain amount of awareness for its charity work.

The Mitchell and Sioux Falls members already volunteer frequently at the Dakota Discovery Museum in Mitchell, where steampunk member Lori Holmberg is the director of the museum.

"There's a community aspect," Holmberg said. "It's a really good place for people with an artistic bent to express their craft."

Holmberg, who has an interest in Japanese history, named her character Dr. Elizabeth Victoria Wyndham, a woman who was orphaned at a young age and raised by a Chinese couple.

"It was a lot of fun doing the research," she said.

Members come to the meeting dressed for the part. Campbell wears a leathery-looking shoulder holster for his modified gun (not real), while Taylor's ensemble, from a black Indiana Jones-style hat to a long, gray jacket and a shiny pocket watch tucked into a shinier black vest, brings to mind images of Wyatt Earp -- he even sometimes sports the mustache.

For her character, Holmberg created a black, lace leather parasol, in an Oriental fashion.

Other members show similar dedication, fashioning period pieces from leather or time-appropriate fabrics.

"It's a little bit of theater, a little bit of role play, a little bit of historian," Holmberg said.

There's also Aaron Gregory, of Mitchell, who dresses in American Indian regalia because his character, Jericho Haddon, was raised by the Oglala Lakota.

"He tries to keep that very close to his heart," said Gregory, who leads Mitchell's group, S.T.E.A.M.

Dubbing what he called his "weird little genre" as "Native punk," Haddon said there are many other ways characters can go -- cyberpunk, diesel punk, etc.

"Everybody can do pretty much what they want character wise," he said.

And, they do.

Lewis Langle, of Mitchell, and Andrew Masters, of Sioux Falls, created separate characters whose stories have intersected, with each other and various other members of the steampunk groups, despite being from different time periods.

It's a complex process, and they quickly dissolve into an involved conversation clarifying how Langle's character, Dex Raven, born in the mid-1800s, and Masters' character, Remnar Valrung, who typicaly inhabits a dystopian modern era, have met and interacted.

As they emerge from deciphering their characters' stories, the two men acknowledge it's these types of discussions that keep them interested in the group. For them, it's fun.

"Just play pretend with a bunch of adults, basically," Masters said with a laugh.

Langle agreed, saying the groups hope to expand on their personal stories into creating fan fiction, re-enactments of sorts, and perhaps a ticket to Hollywood.

"Eventually, hopefully," he said.

Chartering, and more structure, also could boost membership, they hope.

S.T.E.A.M. is still a small group, with only 16 or 17 active members -- some of whom met by chance. Gregory met Langle in Walmart when the goggles Gregory wore on his head caught Langle's attention.

The rest is written in their character biographies on the group's Facebook page.