Plains Folk

New Sort of History

Over the past ten years or so we have evolved a new sense of possibilities on the prairies. What I mean is, people across the northern plains are doing things that previously would have been considered foolish. They act as though they believe there might be a future in their country towns, and more important, they believe they can do something about it.

Most recently this sense of possibilities has strengthened because the economic fundamentals have fallen into place. In North Dakota we have the high-tech corridor in the east, the energy boom in the west, and a revitalized agricultural economy statewide. We are experiencing what I call the Revenge of the Resource Economy. Producers of commodities—food and energy—are now commanding prices rather than accepting them, reversing the old situation of colonial dependency.

The shift in mentality, however, the sense of possibilities, had begun before the economic fundamentals firmed up. It is a matter of certain developments having run their course, and a new era having begun.

We have completed two eras of Euro-American civilization on the Great Plains. The initial era was that of settlement, the prairies transformed, pioneers and all that stuff. This included both the so-called First Dakota Boom in the nineteenth century and the Second Dakota Boom in the early twentieth century. After the settlement booms we had the second era, the era of consolidation, as the settled country was unsettled, emptied out. This second era spanned nearly a half-century.

During the time of consolidation we people of the prairies developed and institutionalized certain habits of thought. The spokesperson for these habits of thought was the great historian, Elwyn Robinson, who identified the so-called “Too-Much Mistake” and dependency as core themes in the history of North Dakota. The message was, tighten your belts, then tighten them again. This is a poor, disadvantaged country. Don’t get your hopes up.

Legislative and opinion leaders during the era of consolidation, considering themselves realists, guided by inexorable fundamentals, came to define statesmanship according to devolutionary standards. They defined a statesman as the person who proposed to dismantle North Dakota most efficiently. By this standard, they were good leaders.

These are not, however, appropriate standards for leadership in the third era of Euro-American civilization on the plains, which began in the late 1990s and is crystallizing today. Ahead of state leaders, local citizens sensed the possibilities and realized that they need not be victims of huge, impersonal forces. They could do something about the future of their country towns.

Which demands of people like me, historians, who are supposed to supply the stories by which we live and make sense of our lives, a new sort of history. For me the guiding principles are to be found in Chapter 20, Book 1, Volume 2 of Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville. The chapter closes with Tocqueville’s ringing injunction, “Let not this principle be lost sight of; for the great object in our time is to raise the faculties of men, not to complete their prostration.”

Tocqueville rejects what he calls the “doctrine of necessity,” that is, the belief that we are powerless in the face of large, impersonal forces, and urges historians to consider the possibilities of human agency. His words have power for us today on the northern plains. I intend to explore that power right here next week.


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