Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Folkways, the unofficial traditions of a people that are passed on informally from person to person or from one generation to another, are an integral part of the cultural heritage of every group of human beings. Yet no matter how carefully they are passed on, many folkways tend to assume variant forms with each successive performance or retelling. Even members of the same family who know a favorite story will relate the narrative in slightly different ways. Folkways mirror the forces of tradition, but they also reflect the everchanging nature of culture and the predilections of each new generation of storytellers.

The diverse number of Great Plains folkways matches the diversity and vastness of the region itself. To be sure, many folkways have gone unstudied or unrecorded. Some undoubtedly have vanished without a trace. Others exhibit incredible resilience and have persisted for centuries and even millennia.

Among the earliest known inhabitants of the Great Plains were hunters and gatherers who lived at least 11,500 years ago. These early folk, who pursued mammoths and prehistoric bison, tipped their spears with exquisitely fashioned stone points. Other than their stone-age technology, relatively little is known about the ancient people archeologists refer to as Clovis. Yet there are intriguing hints of Clovis folkways, including the use of stone tool caches, incised bone rods, and red ochre. At the Anzick site near Wilsall, Montana, a whole cache of Clovis projectile points and other artifacts came to light that were colored with red ochre. The Anzick discovery helps us appreciate not only the possible existence of ancient Great Plains folkways but also their time-depth, which extends back many thousands of years.

Definitional Considerations

In 1906 American sociologist William Graham Sumner published Folkways, a volume that focused attention on a society's common usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals. To his credit, Sumner deemed such modes of expression as worthy of study. But Sumner did not fully comprehend the complexity of the beliefs and customs that he tried to analyze. He was hindered by both his apparent lack of familiarity with non-American folkways and other prevailing schools of thought that also focused on "folk" phenomena. Nonetheless, Sumner's Folkways proved influential, especially in the disciplines of history, psychology, and sociology. The influence extended into many nonacademic areas and even business ventures. In 1949, for example, Folkways Records was established and the company produced numerous recordings that became known all over the world. The term "folkways" soon was heard in many parts of the Great Plains as well. Today, Plains dwellers who never heard of William Graham Sumner or Folkways Records sometimes characterize their traditions as "folkways."

A much older term, and one that is most often used today, is "folklore." This term can be traced back to 1846 in England, and it gained a foothold in North America with the founding of the American Folklore Society in 1888. The parameters of folklore study have been debated and discussed for decades by folklorists. In The Study of American Folklore (1986), folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand provides an inclusive but straightforward definition: "Folklore comprises the unrecorded traditions of a people; it includes both the form and content of these traditions and their style or technique of communication from person to person." Brunvand divides the subject matter of folklore into three main categories: oral folklore (e.g., folk narratives, folk speech, proverbs, riddles, traditional rhymes and poetry, folk songs, folk music); customary folklore (e.g., folk beliefs, folk customs and festivals, folk dances and dramas, gestures, folk games); and material folk traditions (e.g., folk architecture, crafts, arts, costumes, and food). Brunvand is well aware that many folk phenomena overlap (as in the case of a folk festival that incorporates folk songs and traditional foods), and thus his divisions serve more as a useful guide rather than a rigid system of classification.

Still another term that is frequently used by contemporary folklorists is "folklife." The word has its counterpart in the Swedish folkliv, which dates from 1847. Unlike the terms "folkways" and "folklore," the Europeaninspired "folklife" emphasizes traditional life within a particular society. In 1976, with the establishment of the American Folklife Center at the U.S. Library of Congress, a new definition of folklife emerged that stressed "traditional expressive culture" as found in a variety of groups: familial, ethnic, occupational, religious, and regional.

Ethnic and Occupational Folklife

Popular misconceptions about the Great Plains abound. One still hears comments that the region is unusually monotonous, in terms of both landscape ("There's not a hill in sight!") and culture ("They all look like northern Europeans!"). Such criticism is in the same vein as much earlier impressions of the region that characterized the Great Plains as the "Great American Desert," where nearly everything (wood, water, people) was found to be sorely lacking.

To the Plains Indians the region was and remains a powerful place for dreams and visions. When European explorers arrived in the Plains, they encountered many Native peoples who were either village-based horticulturalists or nomads who pursued bison and other animals on foot. By the late 1800s, well after the advent of the horse and other, often imposed, changes, the lifestyles of Plains Indian groups had changed dramatically. Despite forced confinement on reservations, and concerted efforts by Americans to destroy their belief systems, Plains Indian peoples and folkways have survived. Beadworking, quillworking, and the making of star quilts are just a few examples of the varied traditional Plains Indians arts and crafts that have passed down from generation to generation. Many oral traditions, like trickster tales and stories of legendary and supernatural beings, are still told by tribal and clan elders, often in the Native language, or sometimes in English with a sprinkling of Native terms to accommodate listeners who have not learned their native tongue.

Spanish-speaking groups in the Great Plains also have preserved many of their folk traditions, most notably in the Southern Plains. Mexican American folklife is enriched by use of the Spanish language, numerous folk beliefs, festive events, and folk religious practices that exist alongside Roman Catholicism, mainstream medicine, and other formal institutions.

On the Northern Plains, where Frenchspeaking fur traders were among the first Europeans to encounter Native peoples, a distinct racial and social group emerged known as the Métis. Ojibwa and Cree traditions mingled with those of the French and with other European folkways as well, most notably Irish, Scottish, and English. The "Michif " language resulted, as did a fondness for fiddling and dancing (in mocassined feet) to the "Red River Jig" and other folk tunes. Today, Métis identity remains strong, and families still converge on "Li Zhour di Lawn" (New Year's Day) and other festive occasions to play music, share stories, and feast on traditional Métis foods like "bullets" (meatballs) and "bangs" (pieces of fry bread).

A Métis group performs the Red River Jig

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Numerous ethnic groups have settled in the Great Plains and added to the diversity and richness of prairie folklife. Following the Homestead Act of 1862 in the United States and the Homestead Act of 1873 in Canada, and promotional campaigns by the railroads and other companies, thousands of families took up residence in the Great Plains. Some of these families were Anglo-Americans and Anglo-Canadians who simply migrated west, but many newcomers were immigrants who came from distant lands. One of the largest ethnic groups to settle in the Great Plains were the Germans. Their surnames and accents may have sounded similar to outsiders, but the Germans were unusually heterogeneous in terms of religious and regional traditions. German-speaking Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Mennonites, and Hutterites from German and eastern European states, for example, formed separate communities and seldom intermingled.

In the mid 1870s the first Germans from Russia entered the Great Plains. Experienced with growing wheat and living on the treeless steppes of Russia, these settlers soon put down roots in many areas of the Plains. The Black Sea Germans settled primarily in the Dakotas while the Volga Germans established communities in Kansas and other Central Plains states. Russian Mennonites also came to the Great Plains and settled in great numbers in the prairie lands of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Hutterites (Hutterite Brethren) started out in what is now South Dakota, but many migrated to Canada due to anti-German persecution (mainly because of their refusal to serve in the military) and wartime hysteria in 1918. Today, the Hutterites are the most conservative of all the Germans from Russia. They still live in colonies, use German as their primary language, and their lives are steeped in the folk traditions of their Anabaptist forebears.

The Great Plains also attracted large numbers of English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh settlers who were influential in the development of many towns and small businesses. The Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, and Icelanders were most numerous in the Dakotas and other areas of the Northern Plains, while groups like the Czechs and Poles settled mainly in Nebraska and elsewhere in the Central Plains.

African Americans were in many parts of the Plains as early as the 1860s but a real impetus for settlement occurred in the late 1870s. Thousands of former slaves known as "Exodusters" headed west and established African American communities like Nicodemus, Kansas, and Dearfield, Colorado. As with so many other ethnic groups, those who came later often took up residence in the more densely populated areas of the Great Plains.

Many British and French settlers put down roots in the Canadian Prairie Provinces, but Ukrainian, Hungarian, Romanian, and many other immigrants also established viable communities. When agricultural lands were no longer available for settlement, immigrants continued to stream into Canadian towns and cities. Prairie urban centers such as Calgary, Regina, and Winnipeg all include diverse ethnic communities where folk traditions are integral parts of everyday life. A walk through Winnipeg's historic North End, for example, will take you past the Ukrainian Catholic Saints Vladimir and Olga Cathedral, past the Wawel Meat Market with its displays of buckwheat sausage, and past Gunn's counters of bagels and knishes.

Asian Americans settled in various parts of the Great Plains and have operated farms and businesses for generations. Early Japanese immigrants, for example, worked as manual laborers in the sugar beet fields of eastern Colorado, western Nebraska, and southern Alberta until they accumulated enough money to acquire farms of their own. More recently, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and East Indian immigrants have moved into Great Plains communities, where they keep alive such folkways as silk embroidery, traditional storytelling, and Kathak (Indian) folk dance.

Many ethnic groups of the Great Plains often found it difficult to maintain their folk traditions due to the small number of families involved. In the late 1800s, for example, Russian and Romanian Jews established agrarian colonies in Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Saskatchewan. Most of these agricultural experiments proved unsuccessful, but the recollections of such endeavors are still kept alive in the folklore of countless families. Linda Mack Schloff, in her book And Prairie Dogs Weren't Kosher (1996), reveals a wealth of oral history material and photographs relating to Jewish farmers in the Great Plains.

Just as the Plains attracted many ethnic and religious groups, it also provided a home for individuals of varying occupations. Fur traders, scouts, soldiers, blacksmiths, ranchers, sheepherders, rainmakers, railroad workers, stoop laborers, Canadian Mounties, oil field roughnecks, and a host of other occupational groups all have left their mark on the Great Plains. In the 1800s and early 1900s the most common occupation was that of farmer. But in a region as diverse and vast as the Great Plains, the occupation of farming greatly varied. A person engaged in farming in the Great Plains might be a dryland farmer, an irrigation farmer, a truck farmer, or a part-time farmer or rancher. Farming usually involved families who, during harvest and at other times of the year, pitched in to keep things running smoothly. Farming was a way of life, not merely an activity. And this type of labor-intensive occupation gave rise to an incredible number of folk traditions. The traditions were most often seasonal in nature and ranged from planting rituals and barn cleanings in the spring, to ditch burnings and hog butcherings in the fall.

Surely no occupational group in the Great Plains has received as much attention as cowboys. This is to be expected when one remembers how important ranching is in the Great Plains. Cowboys have been an integral part of Plains life going back to the great cattle drives of the 1860s and 1870s. Since that time, the image of the cowboy has been romanticized in countless books, television shows, and motion pictures. Seldom is there an opportunity for cowboys to be seen for who they really are– hardworking men and women involved in a folk tradition that brings them into daily contact with cattle and horses. Much of what they know was taught to them by other cowboys– grandparents, parents, friends, or coworkers. Cowboy folklife manifests itself in countless ways, ranging from well-worn cowboy boots and leather chaps to community rodeos and "cowboy lingo."

Although there are many well-known cowboy songs, the popular image of the "singing cowboy" does not fit every Great Plains buckaroo. Like members of other groups, there are those cowboys who sing, others who simply sit and listen, and still others who would prefer to do something like drive cattle rather than serenade them. Recently, there has been great public interest in cowboy poetry, which has ties to the balladlike pieces recited by trail hands a century ago and more. In the 1980s folklorists turned their attention to contemporary cowboy poetry, and there has been a virtual outpouring of published and recited work relating to cowboy folklife. Anthologies of cowboy poetry also have appeared, including Teresa Jordan's Graining the Mare: The Poetry of Ranch Women (1994).

Oral Folklore

One of the richest sources of published material relating to Great Plains folkways is oral folklore. This does not mean that there has always been more oral folklore in the Plains than customary folklore or other folk traditions. Instead, it may reflect the interests of early collectors of folklore who emphasized oral forms of traditional expression (e.g., legends, myths, tall tales). In their zeal to collect certain stories, many other traditions went completely unnoticed. This is unfortunate, as the folklore of a group is best understood and appreciated within its cultural context, and this requires the serious investigator to pay close attention to the totality of traditional life.

In terms of oral folklore, one of the best indicators of group identity is folk speech. Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and European Americans all contributed to linguistic diversity in the Great Plains. Yet over time the Plains experience gave rise to a distinct form of folk speech that revealed an emerging regional identity, no matter what the ethnic or racial background of the speaker. Winfred Blevins, in his Dictionary of the American West (1993), includes many examples of Great Plains folk speech: "prairie lawyer" (a coyote); "prairie strawberries" (a humorous name for beans, an old standby); "prairie wool" (another name for buffalo grass); and "prairie cocktail" (a salted and peppered raw egg in liquor or vinegar).

Published collections of Great Plains proverbs and folk expressions are unfortunately rare. Nonetheless, examples of these types of oral folklore can be found in various regional compilations like S. J. Sackett and William E. Koch's Kansas Folklore (1961) and Louise Pound's Nebraska Folklore (1987). In an essay on Nebraska snake lore, Louise Pound includes a number of folk expressions dealing with snakes, varying from "As crooked as a snake" to "Madder than snakes in haying." Great Plains riddles also are a much-neglected genre, but examples of riddles told and enjoyed by prairie dwellers can be found in Kansas Folklore and in more comprehensive collections such as John Greenway's Folklore of the Great West (1969). Greenway includes a number of traditional riddles that reflect the realities of rural life: "What walks in the water with its head down?" (Answer: "The nails in a horse's shoe when he walks through the water") and "What goes 'round the house with a harrow after her?" (Answer: "A hen with her chickens–all engaged in scratching up the ground").

Unlike proverbs and riddles, folk narratives have received considerable attention, for the Great Plains is a region of great stories and great storytellers. Among the earliest collections of Great Plains folk narratives are those compiled by anthropologists and other researchers who did fieldwork for the Bureau of American Ethnology. Numerous narratives were recorded in the native languages of Plains Indian storytellers, and these texts comprise a valuable folkloristic and linguistic resource even today. Early writers like George Bird Grinnell, who were intimately familiar with Plains Indian folkways, added richly to narrative collections. Grinnell's early books, including Pawnee Hero Stories and Folk-Tales (1889) and Blackfoot Lodge Tales (1892), are still in print and widely read.

Plains Indian folk narratives continue to be a focus of interest, both on the part of scholars and the general public. In recent years, collections have appeared that include contemporary narratives told by Native storytellers. An example of one such collection is Keith Cunningham's American Indians' Kitchen Table Stories (1992). Native writers also have published a growing number of works that include folk narratives. In many cases, Native American writers provide the all-important cultural context for understanding the role of narratives in contemporary Plains Indian life. A recent example is Delphine Red Shirt's Bead on an Anthill: A Lakota Childhood (1998), in which she describes the influential way that Plains Indian stories about "Double Woman" and "Iktomi" (Spider) inspired and strengthened her.

For the many ethnic and occupational groups who make the Great Plains their home, folk narratives serve as a rich source of local knowledge that strengthens group identity. But the Great Plains also has folk narratives that transcend ethnic and occupational boundaries. Legends are clearly a case in point. These folk narratives are localized and are related in a conversational style as "true stories." They range from narratives about haunted farmhouses and prairie ufos to much more mundane subjects, such as cattle theft and runaway tractors. One legend heard all over the Great Plains concerns a rancher who traps a troublesome coyote. He suspects the coyote is a predator and so he ties a stick of dynamite to the coyote's leg, lights the fuse, and quickly releases the animal from the trap. The coyote, confused and frightened, runs under the rancher's new pickup truck. Legend expert Jan Harold Brunvand, in his book The Choking Doberman (1984), refers to this folk narrative as "The Coyote's Revenge" and notes its similarity to Native American stories in which the coyote is a perennial trickster.

Another genre of folk narrative that is common to the Great Plains is the tall tale. While not confined to the American and Canadian Plains, the tall tale is completely at home in the land of big skies, baseball-size hailstones, and sizzling summer temperatures. But unlike the legend that elicits gasps and a sense of dread, the tall tale prompts chuckles and belly laughter. The telling of tall tales enables Plains dwellers to poke fun at the larger-than-life forces that face them almost daily. When asked if they are getting enough rain, sunblackened Great Plains farmers might reply: "No, not much at all. Even the carp and crawdads are down to their last canteen." Folklorist Roger Welsch relates this favorite Great Plains tall tale: "Three farmers all died at the same time. All of them wanted to be cremated. One was from Texas, one from Kansas, and the third from Nebraska. The guy from Texas was ashes in two hours–ditto for the Kansan. But they left the guy from Nebraska in for two days, and when they opened the door he jumped out and said, 'My God, two weeks more like this and there won't be any corn crop this year.'" A number of tall-tale publications dealing with the Great Plains and the American West have appeared. Roger Welsch's Shingling the Fog and Other Plains Lies (1972) and Robert E. Gard's Canadian classic Johnny Chinook (1945) are among the most amusing and comprehensive.

Prairie dwellers have sung songs for centuries and danced to the sound of many musical traditions. Although Native American folk music in the Plains is extremely diverse, intertribal powwow celebrations have done much to bring Native peoples of different backgrounds together. At such gatherings, Indians from the Canadian Prairies and those from the Southern Plains come into contact and realize there are many similarities they share in common. Numerous powwows take place throughout the Great Plains each year. One of the largest is the Crow Fair at Crow Agency, Montana, which attracts thousands of participants and spectators.

The folk musical traditions of the Great Plains often reveal evidence of cultural borrowing and sharing. In the sugar beet region of the Central Plains states (western Nebraska, northeastern Colorado, and southeastern Wyoming), a distinct type of polka music known as "the Dutch Hop" is still popular. The fastpaced music represents a Volga German folk tradition that exhibits many Russian and other eastern European influences. One of the central Dutch Hop symbols is the hackbrett (hammered dulcimer), a handcrafted instrument with eighty wires that the player strikes with two wooden "hammers." The Dutch Hop is perhaps most pronounced in northern Colorado, where, despite an influx of population and unparalleled urban growth, the folk tradition continues to hold its own.

In Spanish-speaking areas of the Central and Southern Plains, many folk musical traditions are in evidence. One of these traditions reflects interesting cultural borrowings. The Mexican American music known as conjunto is characterized by a reliance on the button accordion. Those who dance to the lively music of conjunto cannot fail to recognize its similarity to German-style polkas and schottisches that are interspersed with the other numbers. Although conjunto is perhaps most popular in Texas, its influence in the Great Plains extends at least as far north as the prairie lands bordering the Red River in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Canada.

While the musical tastes of Great Plains residents are rich and varied, there are folk songs that have come to be strongly identified with the region. A classic example is the song "Home on the Range," which has its roots in the heart of Kansas. Oceanlike images of a huge, waving sea of grass sometimes appear in the folk songs of the Great Plains. "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie," for example, is based on the old English folk song "Ocean Burial."

Many folk songs of the Great Plains have undergone modification to make them more suited to specific locales. Inspired by the tune "Beulah Land," Plains folksingers simply change the opening line (depending on where they reside) and sing something like:

Nebraska Land, Nebraska Land,

As on thy desert soil I stand

And look away across the plains,

I wonder why it never rains. . . .

In the Plains of Saskatchewan, a similar folk song is sung and lyrics are added that give it a distinctive local flavor. Michael Taft, in his Discovering Saskatchewan Folklore (1983), includes this verse:

Saskatchewan, the land of snow,

Where winds are always on the blow,

Where people sit with frozen toes.

And why we stay here no one knows. . . .

Customary Folklore

Folk beliefs ("superstitions"), folk customs, weather lore, folk medicine, folk games, seasonal traditions, and life-cycle customs are a few of the many phenomena folklorists refer to as "customary folklore." While these often involve elements of oral lore and even material folk culture, customary folklore typically manifests itself in traditional belief or behavior.

One of the largest collections of Great Plains customary folklore is William E. Koch's Folklore from Kansas (1980). This unusually detailed compilation, which includes more than 5,000 individual folklore texts, focuses on folk customs, beliefs, and superstitions. Koch's material covers a wide range of topics: illnesses, making wishes, dreams, luck, plants and planting, hunting and fishing, and even a section detailing beliefs and customs relating to domestic animals and wildlife. Some of the latter traditions reflect an intimate familiarity with cattle country and the Plains environment (e.g., "If you grease a fence after a cow gets cut on it, the cow won't get an infection"; "During a storm, horses always stand with their tails to the wind, and cattle stand with their heads to the wind"; and "Grasshoppers come only in dry years").

Koch also presents many examples of weather lore, and this is indeed a rich source for Great Plains folklore. Plains residents read a variety of "signs" in natural phenomena of all kinds: phases of the moon, the color of the Great Plains sky, the shape of thunderheads and other approaching clouds, even the sudden appearance of bubbles on a stream or pond (which are believed to portend an approaching rainstorm). Louise Pound, in Nebraska Folklore, includes a fascinating section on rain lore and rainmaking. From time to time, Great Plains residents believed that rain could be coaxed from the sky by plowing acres of prairie, planting trees, shooting explosives into the sky, and even by setting fire to the prairie itself. Pound does not overlook perhaps one of the most common folk beliefs relating to rainmaking: "Wash and polish your car and you may be sure rain will follow."

Folk medicine also is an important and integral part of customary folklore. Home remedies, herbal recipes, and traditional faith-healing techniques are examples of folk medicine found in the Great Plains. It is not uncommon to find Plains residents who treat certain ailments at home while seeking treatment for other ailments from either folk healers or licensed medical practitioners. Evidently, a range of factors comes into play when deciding how to treat an ailment and whom to seek for appropriate treatment. David E. Jones, for example, worked with a Comanche medicine woman in western Oklahoma. The resulting study, Sanapia (1972), provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of a Plains Indian healer who combines elements of Christianity and peyotism alongside traditional Comanche beliefs relating to guardian spirits and vision quests.

In the southern portions of the Great Plains, one still finds much evidence of the Mexican American folk-healing tradition known as curanderismo. Unlike the medical care provided by hospitals and licensed practitioners, the Spanish-speaking world of curanderismo is more accessible and personal. Formal appointments and office paperwork are unnecessary and "payments for services" are never demanded. Patrons who are comfortable with the mix of natural remedies and spirituality that the curanderos (healers) provide typically leave a donation.

Far to the north, in the Dakotas, a folkhealing tradition very similar to curanderismo is found among the Germans from Russia. Brauche is a type of folk healing that makes use of prayers, religious verses, herbs, massage, the "laying on of hands," and other faith-healing techniques. Much like Mexican American curanderos, German Russian "brauchers" accept donations but never demand payment.

Games and traditional forms of recreation in the Great Plains are subjects not overlooked by scholars. Jim Hoy and Tom Isern, in their volume Plains Folk (1987), devote attention to many prairie traditions, including folk games and other favorite pastimes. Among them are "Dare Base" (also called "Prisoner's Base"), recess games (like throwing a ball over the schoolhouse and referring to it as "Annie Over" or a similar term), "Fox and Geese," and six-man football.

Seasonal customs and celebrations are common throughout the Great Plains and often are linked with specific ethnic and religious groups. In Lindsborg, Kansas, for example, Swedish Americans celebrate the feast day of Santa Lucia (on the second Saturday of December) with ethnic food, Old Country fiddling, roving carolers, the crowning of Santa Lucia, as well as a number of other activities. Folklorist Larry Danielson offers a richly detailed description and analysis of the celebration in his essay, "St. Lucia in Lindsborg, Kansas" (1991). In Texas especially, but also in Oklahoma, African Americans celebrate "Juneteenth" on June 19, commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation that was read in Galveston on that day in 1865. Public speeches, picnics, parades, ball games, displays of African American arts, and musical entertainment are all part of the celebration.

Life-cycle customs also are found wherever there are families and traditional communities in the Great Plains. An incredibly diverse number of folk traditions surround the various stages of the human life cycle: conception, birth, infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age, and death. Sometimes, certain life-cycle events provide an occasion for family members and friends to come together and celebrate, as in the case of christenings, bar mitzvahs, Mexican American quinceañera (fifteenth birthday) festivities, weddings, and funerals. Not uncommon in the Great Plains is the tradition of mock weddings, a form of folk drama linked to life-cycle celebrations such as anniversaries and weddings. The mock wedding is characterized by individuals who dress up in old wedding attire and reverse gender roles. Thus, a man may don a bridal gown and tattered veil while a woman will wear a man's oversized suit and even paste on a funny-looking mustache or sideburns. A folk parody of the marriage ceremony takes place, often with some rather colorful and even risqué components.

Michael Taft has documented the mock wedding tradition in his lively and richly illustrated study "Folk Drama on the Great Plains: The Mock Wedding in Canada and the United States" (1989). Taft discovered that while the mock wedding tradition can be found in other parts of North America, this particular folkway has found fertile ground in the Great Plains. One explanation Taft offers for this rather unusual regional phenomenon is that the mock wedding provides a way for Plains women to "express their ambivalent and conflicting roles as farm wives." By means of a humorous and even outrageous parody, the traditional roles of men and women in agricultural communities are turned upside down, played with, and thus reexamined.

Material Folk Traditions

Unlike oral and customary folklore, material folk traditions manifest themselves in tangible ways that can be touched, measured, and even photographed. Yet folklorists do not concern themselves only with the tangible results–or artifacts–for there is always a much larger body of tradition that surrounds a Plains Indian flute, a Doukhobor spinning wheel, or an African American family quilt. Material folk culture takes many forms and includes such wide-ranging traditions as foodways, folk architecture, folk crafts, and folk art.

Traditional foodways of the Great Plains vary tremendously and reflect a rich mosaic of ethnic and occupational tastes. Roger Welsch, in A Treasury of Nebraska Pioneer Folklore (1984), includes examples of many regional and ethnic dishes, including "corn coffee," buckwheat cakes, Indian meal mush, wild rabbit, green corn pudding, currant jam, and rhubarb tarts. Traditional foodways serve not only to provide bodily nourishment but also to evoke and maintain a strong sense of group identity. Thus, while certain foods like Bohemian pressed blood sausage, Mexican menudo (tripe soup), or the cowboy dish "prairie oysters" (fried calf testicles) might repulse outsiders, these same culinary creations serve to reinforce feelings of group uniqueness on the part of those who willingly–and happily –indulge themselves.

In terms of Great Plains folk architecture, one of the most enduring symbols of the region is the sod house of the homesteader. This dwelling, as befits its name, was constructed from strips of prairie sod. The thick earthen walls ensured that the occupants would be comfortable during sweltering summers and brutally cold winters. The sod house has its counterpart in the earth lodge of early Plains Indian settled peoples, including the Pawnees, Arikaras, Mandans, and Hidatsas. Adobe-style houses can be found in the Southern Plains, and they remain an integral part of Mexican American folk architecture. In the Northern Plains, the Black Sea Germans and the Ukrainians built homes of sun-dried clay brick that served them especially well during the long cold winters. These homes usually were low earthen structures that blended in well with their grassland surroundings.

"House-barn" structure in a small Mennonite community in southern Manitoba

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In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Mennonites from South Russia often built long wooden "house barns." This unique type of prairie dwelling consists of a house, barn, and stable– all connected under one roof. In some cases, a "summer kitchen" is built between the main dwelling and the barn, thus connecting the structures in a slightly modified fashion. This type of folk architecture was particularly well suited to the rigors of a northern climate, for the settlers could tend to their horses and other livestock during fierce winter storms without leaving the safety of the connected buildings. Today, a number of these "house barn" dwellings still can be seen in the Canadian Prairies.

Individuals knowledgeable in folk crafts can be found in every Great Plains community. At one time, of course, folk crafts enabled many families to be as self-su.cient as possible. Agricultural tools, cooking utensils, branding irons, wagon wheels, and various other items were made by hand or were crafted by local blacksmiths and wheelwrights. When the desired items were made by folk artisans or other specialists, barter often was possible.

Great Plains ranchers and farmers came up with ingenious devices for making life easier and more satisfying. One such innovation is the cattle guard, which simultaneously serves as both a gate and a fence. While people and vehicles can pass over the horizontal metal bars of the cattle guard fairly quickly, cattle refrain from crossing. Jim Hoy, in his book The Cattle Guard (1982), convincingly demonstrates that cattle guards first appeared in the Great Plains about 1905. Like so many folk crafts and folk innovations, the name of the original craftsman who made the first Great Plains cattle guard is unknown.

Just as the makers of various folk crafts often remain anonymous, the same holds true for many types of folk art. There is a thin dividing line between folk craft and folk art, but many scholars argue that in the realm of folk craft, the utilitarian function outweighs aesthetic considerations. A quilt might be considered an example of folk craft if the item is used for purely utilitarian purposes. Yet a quilt that is displayed only on special occasions and is the object of much admiration may be considered folk art. As is so often the case with folklore, the cultural and situational contexts are vitally important in determining the true nature of a folk tradition.

Folk art in the Great Plains takes many forms. Plains Indian artistic traditions, for example, manifest themselves in items like drums, porcupine quillwork, carved pipes, parfleches, and in numerous other ways. Quite often all or most of the raw materials come from natural materials within the Great Plains. Groups who later moved into the Plains, especially European Americans, often had to adapt their artistic traditions to the new surroundings.

Throughout the Great Plains, from the Mexican border to the Prairies of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, numerous examples can be found of a distinctive form of folk art: wrought-iron grave crosses. Usually made by blacksmiths or other metal specialists, these crosses range in size from small children's markers to elaborately crafted iron crosses that stand several feet in height. Although iron grave crosses can be found in many parts of the world, they seem particularly striking when viewed against the open, uncluttered horizon of the Great Plains.

Wrought-iron cross on the plains of southwestern North Dakota

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In the Southern Plains, iron crosses are most common in Mexican American cemeteries. In Kansas, they are numerous in the many Volga German settlements around Hays. In the Dakotas and Prairie Provinces, the so-called iron spirits are associated with the Germans from Russia, Ukrainians, Métis, and other ethnic groups. As might be expected, handcrafted iron crosses include an array of ethnic-based and religious symbols, but some crosses also include decorative features strongly reminiscent of the Great Plains: symbols of the sun, sparkling stars, abundant open space, and waving wheat. Most wrought-iron crosses are unsigned and include few words other than the names and dates of the deceased. Yet, like other works of art, the "iron spirits" of the Great Plains compel travelers to stop, take a closer look, and ponder the great mysteries.


Great Plains folkways are so diverse that it is difficult to summarize the region's traditions in a comprehensive fashion. Yet one theme does run through many of the songs and stories of Great Plains people, no matter what the ethnic or occupational background of the folksingers and storytellers. In a land of big skies and seemingly endless horizons, there is a tendency to celebrate and even exaggerate the immensity of the region itself, as well as the numerous challenges it poses to all who call the prairie their home.

Rather than ignore the harsh side of Great Plains life, prairie dwellers tend to confront and even "play up" such hardships as blizzards, droughts, severe heat, extreme cold, hailstorms, and other realities. This tendency manifests itself in a number of distinctive folkways, including the telling of tall tales and the singing of humorous folk parodies about life in the Great Plains.

This emphasis on hyperbole in Great Plains folklore also manifests itself in the large number of "roadside colossi" that can be found throughout the region. As Karal Ann Marling's book The Colossus of Roads (1984) illustrates, roadside sculptures are not unique to the Great Plains, but they do assume humorous and rather spectacular forms there. From the Texas Hill Country to the Canadian Rockies, various types of folk monuments can be found along Great Plains highways.

All of this perhaps is to be expected when one considers a Great Plains state like South Dakota, which includes such visual wonders as Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Monument (near Custer), the Corn Palace (Mitchell), and Dinosaur Park (Rapid City). Other Great Plains states are not to be outdone. Near Alliance, Nebraska, numerous old automobiles and other vehicles form "Carhenge," a gigantic circle of iron and steel that is hauntingly reminiscent of the ancient Stonehenge in England. In Fort Stockton, "Paisano Pete," a statue of a twenty-foot-long roadrunner, welcomes travelers to West Texas.

In Wyoming, a huge likeness of the mythical jackalope (a jackrabbit with antlers) can be viewed in downtown Douglas. Near Rothsay, Minnesota, "the world's largest prairie chicken" stands guard at the eastern edge of the Great Plains. In Jamestown, North Dakota, "the world's largest buffalo" dwarfs a herd of live buffalo that graze nearby. East of New Town, North Dakota, an eye-catching statue of the tall, lanky cowboy Earl Bunyan– the legendary Great Plains brother of the lumberjack Paul Bunyan–waves a branding iron and braces himself against the strong northern winds with a walking cane.

Folk monuments also dot the Canadian Plains, ranging from the twenty-two-foothigh western painted turtle in Boissevain, Manitoba, to the gigantic replica of a Ukrainian pysanka (decorated Easter egg) in Vegreville, Alberta. One of the most unusual Canadian folk monuments is the "World's Largest Bunnock" that rises more than thirty feet above the rolling prairies near Macklin, Saskatchewan. The curious onlooker soon learns that a "bunnock" is one of fifty-two horse anklebones that are used in a centuries-old folk game transplanted from the Russian steppes to western Canada. To create the World's Largest Bunnock, the image of an actual horse anklebone was enlarged nearly 100 times and then formed into shape out of metal pipe, chicken wire, and fiberglass. The bunnock monument is illuminated at night and is visible for miles around. As one might expect, Macklin is also the site of the "World Championship Bunnock Tournament," which has been held yearly since 1993.

The presence of so many roadside colossi and folk monuments in the Great Plains should come as little surprise. Plains dwellers know their region is often referred to as "tall tale country." Instead of fighting such a label, many storytellers chuckle and quickly share some favorite "windies" of their own.

Great Plains folkways are as diverse and as dynamic as the region itself. The traditions mirror the experiences of many different groups who have grown accustomed to the great vistas and the even greater uncertainties that surround Plains dwellers on an almost daily basis. Through it all, Plains folk have developed a fierce and begrudging appreciation for their home. The numerous tall tales and humorous folk songs and roadside monuments reflect something else: the ability of Great Plains folk to laugh at adversity and, on occasion, to laugh most heartily at themselves.

See also ARCHITECTURE: Roadside Architecture; Sod-Wall Construction / EUROPEAN AMERICANS: German Russians; Jews / IMAGES AND ICONS: Cowboy Culture / LITERARY TRADITIONS: Cowboy Poetry; Oral Traditions / MUSIC: Hispanic Music; Polka Music / NATIVE AMERICANS: Métis / SPORTS AND RECREATION: Crow Fair / WATER: Rainmaking.

Timothy J. Kloberdanz North Dakota State University

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