An Overview of the Great Plains

Environment and Culture

by John Wunder, Professor of History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

The Plains and its People

In many ways the Great Plains has been an enigma to the humid peoples. James Malin, Kansan, historian, and one of the godfathers of environmental history, divided North Americans into humids and arids. Arid peoples were created out of their Plains experiences; they evolved into something different from residents of other places. That difference, according to Malin, was best expressed in a respect for the land and acknowledgment of cultural change and retention.(1)Being a supreme flatland, the Plains was to many a place to cross. It still is. There have been northern migrations onto the Plains like those of the Apaches and Cheyennes, and southern migrations like the Spaniards, Mexicans, and Kiowas; there have been western migrations like the Vietnamese, Laotians, and Comanches and eastern migrations like the Germans from Russia, African Americans from the post-Civil War South — the Exodusters, Ukrainians and Poles, the Irish and the British, Icelanders and Danes, Swedes and Norwegians, and the Lakotas, and most recently Iraqis and Guatemalans, and Bosnians and Kosovars. All these peoples and more crossed the Plains; some chose to stay, and in staying those peoples made peace with the land and the land made accommodation for them. Culture and environment intertwined and changed life ways. These continuing migrations make the heartland a vibrant and dynamic place. Contrary to an often-expressed lament found in the New York Times and even shared by many of its own citizens, the Plains' population is a growing one, according to the most recent United States Census. All five of the states in the Plains region have experienced growth from 1990 to 2000; four of the five states' population increased at a rate ranging from 8 to 9%. While this increase alone is not noteworthy, the shift during this same decade in the racial and ethnic make-up of these growing numbers is. In all five states, the White population showed the slowest average rate of growth, at no more than 5%, and in North Dakota the White population showed a slight decrease. The growth in population, then, was due in large part to the increase in races other than White. The regional average shows growth rates of 18.7% for African Americans, 17.1% for American Indians, 48.0% for Asians, 50.0% for Pacific Islanders, and most striking, 107.8% for the region's Hispanic population. With these racial, ethnic, and - without a doubt, cultural - shifts, there are parallel changes in how these Plains dwellers live. Once thought to be largely rural and agrarian, those who live on the Plains are more and more occupying municipalities. The Plains is the most urbanized of all the regions of the United States; the majority of people in each of the five states is distributed in the fifteen most populated cities, which, with the exceptions of the Dakotas, all contain a population of more than 10,000. With the movement of people from rural areas, Plains commerce also has shifted from its traditional foundation in agriculture. From 1989 to 1999, the earnings by persons employed in various industries became concentrated in areas such as services, tourism, light manufacturing, construction, finance, insurance, and technology. In one state, South Dakota, the slowest growing industry during this period was agriculture, which actually decreased by 1.7%. By comparison to the rest of the country as a whole, Plains peoples are not a wealthy lot, when income is the only criterion. The national average wage and salary disbursement is $32,702. In Plains states, these figures range from $23,178 to $27, 411, in some cases nearly $10,000 less than the rest of the country. Seven of the ten poorest counties in the USA are from the Great Plains.

The Plains Mindset

Plains peoples are sensitive to misunderstandings of their mindset and place. As the Kansan Malin warns us, "In writing the history of [the grassland's] occupation too much emphasis has been placed upon the pathological, the sensational, and the merely curious. . . ."(2) For Malin the connections between Plains peoples and the land are too often overlooked or ignored. Kathleen Norris, South Dakotan, sees the eloquence and specialness of Plains living reflected in Plains language. Farmers use language with great style and precision, when they use it. "Language here," according to Norris, "still clings to its local shading and is not yet totally corrupted by the bland usage of mass media."(3) Ralph Ellison, Oklahoman, also warns non-Plains men and women to beware of mistaking the softness of Plains language for weakness. "Out there our people fought back," this African American Plainsman observes. "We were an assertive people, and our mode of social assertion was artistic, mainly music, as well as political."(4) Southern Plains jazz, for Ellison, tells it all. Louise Erdrich, North Dakotan, appreciates the far-reachings of the Plains. Being alone, writes Erdrich, a foremost Native American novelist, "doesn't bother me as much as it seems to bother others." For her, "Life comes to you all unawares . . . . Life sneaks up."(5)

Life today on the Great Plains or in the near and distant past has had to take into consideration the vast spaces. Space separates everyone and everything. It makes one confront, detach, or embrace one's humanity, as Plainsman Wallace Stegner argued so eloquently throughout his life.(6) In the mind and in the spirit can be found the freedom and breadth of Plains space.

But Plains space is not easily demarcated. Those who have tried have sought environmental markers or political drawings. Walter Prescott Webb found the Rocky Mountains and the 100th meridian to be explicit enough; others have accepted the 98th or even the 95th meridian.(7) The eastern boundary has given Plains inhabitants some grief. Political geographers have gravitated toward the Missouri River for some finality and asserted ten states as having some if not all of their boundaries located on the Great Plains. Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana must deal with a geo-bifurcation of sorts, but North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and significant parts of Oklahoma embrace the Plains front and center. Canada should not be denied, for its provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta offer truly Plains kinds of environments and cultures.

The Humanities and the Great Plains

Space, wind, climatic extremes, and the paucity of populations in the Great Plains have caused and continue to influence a special relationship with the humanities. Perhaps it is because the environment cannot be avoided; that the big sky, the big blows - tornadoes, blizzards, and chinooks - or the even bigger landscape place one's humanity directly in one's face. It is intimidating and yet empowering, and there is an appreciation of the humanistic elements of life.

The Plains features the diversity of the humanities. The linguistic Plains offers expressions in numerous languages, from German and Spanish, from Ukrainian and Czech to Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota, and these are just a few samples. The Plains environment encourages community and retention of traditions. The religious nature of the heartland is equally diverse. It is home to monasteries and sacred monuments; Christian religious revivals; the Native American Church and Mennonite traditions; and birthplace of Oral Roberts, Malcolm X, L. Ron Hubbard, Crazy Horse, and Martin Marty. Numerous Jewish communities are located on the Plains. The writings of Calvin Trillin and Tillie Olson attest to this experience.

The Plains has also played a significant role in the development of ethics, philosophy and jurisprudence. Hartley Burr Alexander, the philosopher who molded the Nebraska State capitol building, and Roscoe Pound, famous legalist and Harvard law dean, walked the same path. The Western Philosophical Association was founded in Lincoln in 1900 and will celebrate its centennial in Lincoln next year. Perhaps a book, The Cheyenne Way(8), symbolizes this development. Penned by Karl N. Llewellyn, a founder of legal realism who taught for over thirty years in law schools at Yale, Columbia, and Chicago, and E. Adamson Hoebel, legal anthropologist at the University of Minnesota, this book traces through Cheyenne stories and case studies the jurisprudence of a Plains Indian society. Ethics and philosophy are interwoven with dispute resolution. Of particular note is the role environment and culture play in ethical dimensions. Plains disputes have contributed to powerful jurisprudential and ethical advances, such as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), Meyer v. Nebraska (1923), and Ex parte Crow Dog (1883).(9)

The strength of the humanities is demonstrated in Plains literary and historical contributions. The list is long, and each state has major contributors. Carl Becker and Malin, both Kansans, and Stegner and Webb head the historian's list; Willa Cather is a fiction writer of cardinal distinction. In Nebraska alone, its literary tradition celebrates the "six writers" - Cather, Mari Sandoz, John G. Neihardt, Loren Eiseley, Bess Streeter Aldrich, and Wright Morris. The Indian renaissance of twentieth-century fiction is grounded in Plains Native American writers. The historical sciences of the Plains are also rich. Plains archaeology has uncovered the crucial timing of the cultural crossroads by the first peoples of the Plains and demystified the habitation of the Americas. Plains geology, particularly in the Sandhills of Nebraska, the Black Hills of South Dakota, and the Flint Hills of Kansas, has led to a greater understanding of the glaciation and formation of the continent that we know today.

The relationship of here and there, region and world is accentuated in a flat land. For its residents, the inescapable vastness of the Plains has fostered a sensitivity to the humanities as they are centered in Plains society. People travel hundreds of miles to hear a concert or a recitation of cowboy poetry, to renew their heritage at a powwow, or to watch the annual chautauquas sponsored by the Plains humanities councils. Not surprising to Plains residents, their states are homes to five of the strongest humanities councils in the USA. So important are the humanities that when threats to NEH and NEA federal funding occurred, the Nebraska State Legislature created the first-ever state endowment fund for its humanities and arts councils.


  1. James C. Malin, Grassland Historical Studies: Natural Resources Utilization in a Background of Science and Technology, 2 vols. (Lawrence, KS: The Author, 1950), 1:1.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1993), 19-20.
    4. See Ralph Ellison, "Remembering Richard Wright," Going to the Territory (New York: Random House, 1986), 208.
  4. Louise Erdrich, The Blue Jay's Dance: A Birth Year (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995), 83-84.
  5. See Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1955). See also such Stegner works as Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954); Angle of Repose (New York: Doubleday, 1971); and The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), among many others.
  6. See Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1931). See also Webb, The Great Frontier (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952). For further discussion, see also David J. Wishart, "The Great Plains Region," in "Encyclopedia of the Great Plains," grant proposal manuscript to NEH, September 1, 1994, 8-21, and Appendix Document 4.
  7. Karl N. Llewellyn and E. Adamson Hoebel, The Cheyenne Way: Conflict and Case Law in Primitive Jurisprudence (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1941).
  8. See Kermit L. Hall, "The Legal Culture of the Great Plains," in John R. Wunder, ed., Law and the Great Plains: Essays on the Legal History of the Heartland (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 9-28 as well as other essays in that volume. A recent historiographical survey of the literature found in John R. Wunder, "What's Old About the New Western History? Part 3: Law," Western Legal History 10(Winter/Fall 1997): 85-116.