Plains Folk

The Regional Project


A couple thousand times since 1983 I have opened a screen to compose an essay under the title, Plains Folk. I am thankful to the readers and listeners who have sustained the enterprise. I’d like to talk with you a little now as fellow people of the plains.

I think the last composition you may have heard from me here was called “On the Level.” It contained my half-baked thoughts about how to live well as a citizen of the region. You may have noticed by now that Plains Folk, while often preoccupied with history and folklore, is, in a larger sense, about this idea of life, living well, on the Great Plains of North America.

Sometimes I call this the “regional project”–an abstraction I got to thinking about while finishing a biography of the Osage author, John Joseph Mathews. Before I forget, I should mention that this new book, by Michael Snyder, is offered by University of Oklahoma Press.

In this biography of Mathews, author of The Life and Death of an Oilman, The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters, and other landmark works, I picked out two salient storylines.

The first is biographical. This is a critical biography, delving into both the literary and the personal sides of Mathews. In the end the story is edifying. Mathews had serious flaws, most of them owing to his privileged life, leading to self-indulgence. He was irresponsible in both sides of his life. He lived long enough, however, and acquired enough maturity to achieve literary greatness and some personal contentment.

Much of this, I confess, strikes close to home, although certainly I spring from no privileged lineage. My feet contain a comparable composition of clay to those of Mathews.

The second storyline is literary, in the sense of the literary scene in Oklahoma and the southern plains, including native identity. I was transfixed by the interactions of literary legends traipsing through the narrative–Savoie Lottinville, the legendary editor, in his piques and in his brilliance; J. Frank Dobie, the crotchety folklorist, chiding Mathews for his complacency and taking him to hunting camp; Carter Revard, the Osage scholar from a sketchy family, earning a Rhodes scholarship and coming into his own.

These names are all from the southern plains, and likely unfamiliar to listeners here, but they were part of the larger regional project of the Great Plains in mid-twentieth century. That same project, palpable in the prairie air, gave birth in 1950 to the Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota Agricultural College. The institute is the oldest regional studies center on the Great Plains of North America.

The institute has a publishing arm, North Dakota State University Press, the editor of which, I happen to know, has a copy of Savoie Lottinville’s The Rhetoric of History on her desk at home. On a good day, sometimes with a couple of fingers in hand of the same stuff that inspired John Joseph Mathews, I fancy myself in his place, or that of Mari Sandoz or J. Evetts Haley or Joseph Kinsey Howard, parleying my personal and literary lives into a broader sense of place not just for myself, but for all plains folk.

Recently I was exhorted, perhaps even chided, by my friend Clay Jenkinson to redouble efforts to invest our North Dakota with story and inculcate its sense of place. I’m paddling as hard as I can.

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