Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


State/Provinces Nickname Animal Bird Flower Tree
Colorado Centennial State bighorn sheep lark bunting columbine blue spruce
Kansas Sunflower State bison western meadowlark sunflower eastern cottonwood
Oklahoma Sooner State bison scissor-tailed flycatcher mistletoe redbud
Montana Treasure State grizzly bear western meadowlark bitterroot Ponderosa pine
Nebraska Cornhusker State white-tailed deer western meadowlark goldenrod eastern cottonwood
New Mexico Land of Enchantment black bear roadrunner yucca Piñon
North Dakota Peace Garden State western meadowlark wild prairie rose American elm
South Dakota Coyote State coyote ring-necked pheasant pasque flower Black Hill spruce
Texas Lone Star State longhorn and armadillo mockingbird bluebonnet pecan
Wyoming Equality State bison western meadowlark Indian paintbrush plains cottonwood
Alberta great horned owl wild rose lodgepole pine
Manitoba great gray owl prairie crocus white spruce
Saskatchewan sharp-tailed grouse western red lily white birch

The Great Plains region has had many symbols thrust upon it, generally from the outside. Often they are pejorative, including Great American Desert, flyover country, and, in its dismissal of the reality of residents in the region, buffalo commons. But the states and provinces that make up the Plains have also chosen their own symbols, from birds and flowers to nicknames and slogans, and, as might be expected, these reflect their environments more accurately than the imposed images. They also present a more positive face to the world.

Quite a few of the symbols, particularly those emblems of identity drawn from the physical environment, are widely represented. For example, the western meadowlark, whose joyous, flutelike song enriches the Plains aural landscape, is the official bird of five Central and Northern Plains states; the honeybee (even though it is a foreign import) is the official insect of four states; the bison, historically the defining symbol of the Plains, is the official animal of three states; and the wild prairie rose of roadsides, pastures, and meadows is the official flower on both sides of the fortyninth parallel in North Dakota and Alberta. Other environmental symbols–New Mexico's roadrunner, for example–are more geographically specific.

The range of representative symbols is extraordinarily broad, especially in the U.S. section of the Plains. (The approval process in the Prairie Provinces is far more bureaucratic and stringent, resulting in fewer official symbols.) Texas has three state mammals, large (longhorn), small (armadillo), and flying (free-tailed bat); Nebraska has a state soil, the Holdrege series; Texas, North Dakota, and Colorado recognize square dancing as their state dance; New Mexico claims the bizcochito as its state cookie; and Colorado has a state tartan, which, generously, "may be worn by any resident or friend of Colorado, whether or not of Celtic heritage." More ubiquitous icons include state and province flags, seals, mottos, and songs, the last of which have a tendency to nostalgia.

How are these diverse symbols chosen, and why? Economic influence plays a role; hence, milk is North Dakota's official state beverage, in recognition of the importance of the dairy industry. Official flowers and birds are often promoted by women's clubs, and agricultural and conservation societies are often behind the selection of state grasses. Selections are sometimes made more democratically: Nebraska schoolchildren chose the western meadowlark as the state bird, and in 1982 55,000 school-children in 425 Montana schools selected the grizzly bear as the state animal by a two-to-one margin over the elk. Sometimes symbols are chosen by happenstance. In 1956 the North Dakota Motor Vehicle Department put the words "Peace Garden State" on its license plates in recognition of the International Peace Garden, which straddles the international boundary with Manitoba. The name proved so popular that the 1957 legislature made it official. It certainly beats Great American Desert.

David J. Wishart University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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