Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Whatever stories the wolves tell, they do not tell to human ears, and the songs of the earliest hunter-gatherers in the Great Plains are now lost to memory. Nonetheless, the extant literatures of the Great Plains are plentiful, rich, and diverse.

The tradition began with the oral literatures of the many Native nations who have lived in the area and with the folktales and dramas of the early European and mixed-blood peoples. The first written literature to come from the Plains was the utilitarian recording of tribal histories as winter counts and the diaries and letters from early European American explorers. In most people's minds, Plains literature is probably associated with the Wild West and with tales that pit humans against a vast and harsh environment or "cowboys" against "Indians," and certainly literature of this sort has been both extremely popular and influential in forming the American self-identity. Popular Prairie fiction in Canada, by contrast, featured order and community. Plains writers in both the United States and Canada also produced a body of realistic fiction dealing with European American settlement and ways of living on the land. Poetry flourishes, though drama has not really become naturalized on the Plains except in the Prairie Provinces of Canada. Meanwhile, the last twenty years have seen a renaissance of writing by Native peoples and other longtime cultures of the Plains, as Métis, Blackfeet, and Chicano peoples, among others, have found a voice in fiction and poetry.

Native Oral Literatures

Living oral tradition as well as transcriptions by literate observers have preserved much oral literature. Narratives of a sacred or semisacred nature explain the origins of the universe, of the particular nation, of the hero figures of the nation, and of the holy ceremonies of the people. Thus the Blackfeet tell how Napi (Old Man) created the universe, and the Kiowa tell of how that nation came into this world through a hollow log. White Buffalo Woman brought the sacred pipe to the Lakotas, and the animals in the medicine lodges gave curing ceremonies to the Pawnee doctors. Orphan Boy among the Omahas, the Tai-Me twins among the Kiowas, and Scarface among the Blackfeet are heroes with long story cycles. Trickster, called Nanabush or Nanapush among the Ojibwas and Crees, Iktome among the Lakotas, and many other names in other languages, is a ubiquitous figure in these narratives. The Winnebagos have a particularly well-developed Trickster cycle, documented by Paul Radin in the early part of the twentieth century and more recently by Winnebago storyteller Felix White. Trickster is neither good nor evil but rather a representation of the human spirit at its most basic level, creation and destruction inextricably mixed.

Songs, chants, and prayers are also characteristic of traditional oral Plains literatures. Much oral literature consists of events in the lives of the people, gossip, campfire stories, and examples of both proper and improper behavior to be told to young people. Winter counts are such ordinary happenings compiled by year, and they serve as both a calendar and a mnemonic device for remembering and recounting the history of the people. Petroglyphs (writing on stone), hide paintings, and, from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ledger book drawings are other pictorial narratives of events.

Mexican Folk Literature

Much of what is now the Southern Plains of the United States was first colonized by Spain and later controlled by Mexico, so it is not surprising that the population of the area, a racial and cultural mixture of Spanish and Indian, should support a folk literature similar to that of Mexico. Semisacred legends regarding the Virgin of Guadalupe have always been important to the Spanish speakers of the Southern Plains, as to other Mexicans. Folk pageants such as dramas based on the Spanish tradition or spectacles showing the Spanish conquest of the Moors or other heroic and romantic action were part of village life.

After the Mexican War and the partition of the territory that had been part of Mexico, the border began to play a part in folk narrative, particularly in the corridos, long ballads often printed on cheap broadsheets and sung in the streets. Typically, a corrido describes a Mexican outlaw and folk hero who outwits the Texas Rangers and other gringos sent to capture him.

Explorers and Other Travelers

The first non-Native literature of the Great Plains consists of the journals of predominantly European and European American explorers. These men ventured out into the Plains for various pragmatic reasons. They were careful to describe the terrain, its flora and fauna, its human inhabitants, and the patterns of social and economic trade and travel. Missionaries and Indian agents also traveled about the Plains in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, recording in journals and letters home what they saw and what they thought. By the mid–nineteenth century, professional travelers like Washington Irving and Francis Parkman were following in the literal steps of the explorers and writing about A Tour on the Prairies (1835) and The Oregon Trail (1849). Increasing numbers of men and women, professional and amateur writers, traveled west and recorded their experiences.

Plains Fiction

Not until James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie (1827), written in Paris by a man who had never been west of the Alleghenies, did European- style fiction and poetry deal with the Great Plains. Cooper was extremely influential for American literature in general but particularly so for Plains literature. His legacy was twofold, leading to the popular Western, beginning with the dime novel, and also to the nonformula Western, the realistic agrarian or small-town novel. The development of a written European American literature on the Canadian Prairies followed a different pattern and came later.

In both popular and nonformula Plains literature, in both Canada and the United States, the land has been a major force. The vast expanse of earth and sky, at once uplifting and humbling, shapes the lives of all who dwell upon the grasslands of North America. Even in urban literature, where a distinctive Plains environment is marked more by cultural and ethnic enclaves and mixes than by the land itself, the very air proclaims a place that is unlike either East or West. In the mid. nineteenth century, when the United States was first creating for itself a national identity that went beyond the ideals of the American Revolution, poets, philosophers, and painters all postulated that while Europe might have history, America had Nature and therefore a close and transcendental relationship with a deity or first force. This sense of renewal in nature affected Plains writers most strongly. In the vastness of the Plains there was renewal and communion with nature.

Within that nature there was also the Indian, split into the "noble savage'' and the "bloodthirsty redskin." In such formulations, the Indian was always an "other" against whom the white characters defined themselves rather than a character deserving development in his or her own right. Again, Cooper set the pattern, with the "good" Mohicans and "bad" Mingos of New York State transformed into the "good" Pawnees and "bad" Sioux of the Plains who help or hinder Leatherstocking and his various white friends and antagonists.

In the United States the genre Western, from the dime novel to John Wayne and from Zane Grey to Louis L'Amour, has become a formative, though excluding, national myth, the embodiment of the "rugged individual" who takes the law into his (rarely her) own hands and plows ahead, overcoming obstacles. The conventions of the Western, of the man living without and above the law, also shaped the cop movie, the hard-boiled detective, and the space fantasy. Cooper's hero, Natty Bumppo, the eponymous Leatherstocking, a white man living outside both white and Indian society and claiming a higher moral law than the conventions of either, is the first fully developed representative of a European American type.

Leatherstocking's popularity fitted in with other frontier culture of the time, particularly that of the Great Plains frontier. Thus the fictional "autobiographies" of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett as well as of a host of lesser-known or truly fictional frontiersmen showed a hero who was close to nature. Wild and rowdy he might be, but he was also eventually a force for what an emerging society saw as an ideal of order. He venerated "good" women but saw them as representatives of an unduly moralistic and legalistic order that he repudiated. Except in the "autobiographies," he rarely married. The frontier narrative became truly formulaic with the dime novels. As the Deadeye Dick series shows, the hero could be a lawman or an outlaw or swap back and forth. Calamity Jane was a female version of this hero, but sagas featuring such heroines were more likely than those of the male heroes to be marked by unhappy love affairs.

Although the North American settlement frontier did not close in 1890, as the Bureau of the Census claimed, the massive population movement in twentieth- and twenty-first-century North America has been from the farms and small towns to the cities. The mythologized West became the setting for what was frankly escape literature only a generation after the Plains had offered a real escape. Owen Wister's The Virginian (1902) is the book that marks this apotheosis of the West as a paradise lost. Wister, a Philadelphia lawyer, found his own restorative in the clean air and vast spaces of Wyoming, and his fable of the romance between a Virginia cowboy and a Vermont schoolmarm in Wyoming proved enormously successful and durable. The Virginian, like most Westerns, reflects a great admiration for violence. In Wister's terms, his heroine, Molly, represents the overly moralistic code of "snivilization," as he called it, but she is able to come through in a crisis and rally to her man after he kills the villain, Trampas, in a shoot-out. The book reflects Wister's elitist biases as well as the Anglo-Saxon nationalism that flourished in the decade of the Spanish-American War and was built on the casual denigration of Indians that was implicit in Cooper's "noble savage" formulations. For Wister, the true noble savage was the Anglo- Saxon, whose "nobility" led to lynch laws and commercial success, while the "Indians" were only a plot convention, "bloodthirsty savages" whose attack on the hero allowed the heroine to nurse him back to health and to fall in love.

The Virginian's immediate successors were genial heroes whose appeal has been mostly to a juvenile audience. Chip of the Flying U (1906) by B. M. Bowers, one of the few women to write Westerns, and Clarence Mulford's Hopalong Cassidy, introduced in Bar 20 (1907), are charming but lack the mythic strength of the Virginian. The most successful writer to follow Wister was the enormously prolific Zane Grey. His gutsy heroines, torrid love plots, and action-packed dramas have proved endlessly popular. Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) was considered risqué in its portrayal of the two pairs of lovers and was, in a sense, innovative in its use of Mormons, rather than Indians, as the "savage" antagonists. During World War I Grey capitalized on anti-German sentiment to use Germans and Industrial Workers of the World organizers as the bad guys in Desert of Wheat (1919). And in The Vanishing American he tried in the 1922 serial version to have an Indian war hero vanish by marrying a white girl and assimilating, but a negative response to the marriage led him to return to Cooper's solution in The Last of the Mohicans, killing off his hero in the 1925 book version of the story.

Max Brand (Frederick Faust), Luke Short (Frederick D. Glidden), and Ernest Haycox were among the many prolific writers of pulp Westerns who followed Grey. Eugene Manlove Rhodes, a more sophisticated writer who, like Wister, combined his romances with keenly observed realistic details, published a number of innovative Westerns, including Paso por Aqui (1926) and the novel Beyond the Desert (1934). By the late 1930s the genre was so well developed that it could be used allegorically by Walter Van Tilburg Clark in his novel The Ox-Bow Incident (1940), in which the conventions of the lynching in The Virginian are turned upside down and the action becomes a parable of fascism and mob rule, not an example, as it had been to Wister, of the workings of a higher moral order. Jack Schaeffer's Shane (1949) also works by changing the convention. Schaeffer loosely bases his story on the same Johnson County (Wyoming) range war that Wister had used but makes Wister's rustlers his good guys, a switch that Frederick Manfred also makes in his Riders of Judgment (1949). Manfred draws heavily, though without explicit acknowledgment, on historical documents of the range war. While many of Zane Grey's books, set in the Southwest or Far West, like Clark's Ox-Bow Incident, set in Nevada, cannot, strictly speaking, be called Plains literature, the conventions of the genre do not allow for meaningful distinctions based on geography. The world of the Western is a region of the mind. The sexual revolution of the 1960s affected the Western as well, to the success of Louis L'Amour's dynastic Westerns and to such role reversals as John Seelye's The Kid (1972), in which the "kid" turns out to be a girl and the man who plays the Leatherstocking role is a mute African American man.

Whether in fiction, film, radio, or television, the popular Western hero is a loner who explicitly rejects society as it is represented by law, organized religion, and most women. For Leatherstocking and the dime novel heroes, this divorce from society is final and absolute. For the characters descended from Daniel Boone and the Virginian, it seems possible to have it all, as the hero marries, sires children, and settles down with both wealth and prominence in the community. Schaeffer's Shane, by splitting the hero into the hard-working farmer and the drifter-gunslinger who comes to his aid but then leaves, shows again that the dream of unfettered freedom and thus of violence is inimical to the dream of the garden fruitful in both crops and children.

The second strain in Plains fiction is that dream of the garden. Although it clearly has roots in the classic tradition of the pastoral, it is descended primarily from the literary realism and naturalism that flourished in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It deals not with the larger-than-life figure of the cowboy or gunslinger but with the ordinary dirt farmer and not with the individual but with the family. Hamlin Garland's Main-Travelled Roads stories, published in the 1890s, are the first fullblown members of this genre. They deal with the details and hardships of farm life on the "middle border," the area running from Wisconsin and Iowa through the Dakotas, and contrast the beauty of the natural landscape with the squalor of the built landscape and the demeaning and destructive demands of organized society. Instead of praising one individual working to bring about an abstract justice outside of the settlement, Garland's work celebrates the efforts of the community to bring about social justice within its borders. His essentially populist view of Plains life has remained pervasive. It appears in Sinclair Lewis's Main Street (1920), in which the prairie town is a parasite on the industrious farmers, and in Mari Sandoz's books, particularly Old Jules (1935), the fictionalized story of Sandoz's father, and Capital City (1939), an allegorical novel deploring the betrayal of the community by the few who have become rich.

The difficulties of Plains settlement were magnified when the settlers were outside the dominant culture. O. E. Rölvaag's Giants in the Earth (1927), originally published in two volumes in Norway in 1924 and 1925, remains the classic immigrant novel. It pits Per Hansa, at once the larger-than-life heroic pioneer and the character who does not realize the cultural loss involved in pioneering, against his wife, Beret, a Cassandra-like figure whose warnings that by losing their Norwegian culture they will lose their souls and themselves are not heeded by her fellow settlers. In two sequels, Peder Victorious (1929) and Their Father's God (1931), Rolvaag explores the emotional consequences of assimilation into an American culture characterized by materialism. While Rölvaag's work is often joyous and shows the miraculous nature of the first plantings of wheat on the Dakota Plains, nature is more agnostic and culture more vital than in either the popular Western or works following Garland's essentially meliorist vision of the Plains.

Rölvaag's work not only presents the Scandinavian experience on the Plains but also serves as a model for the fiction of other ethnic groups. Texas writer Tomás Rivera explicitly patterned his classic of Tejano migrant life, . . . Y No Se Lo Tragó la Tierra (. . . And the Earth Did Not Part, 1971) on Rölvaag's trilogy. Chicano culture is more problematic for Rivera's characters than Norwegian is for Rölvaag's, however, and Rivera's revolt against the social system that virtually enslaves the migrants is closer to Garland's than to Rölvaag's. Other portraits of ethnic settlers such as Sophus Keith Winthur's Danes in Take All to Nebraska (1936) and Hope Williams Sykes's Germans from Russia in Second Hoeing (1935) detail the same conflicts between the ethnic culture, the pressures of assimilation, and the oppressive social and economic system in which Plains agriculturalists live and work. Oscar Micheaux's two Plains novels, The Conquest (1913) and The Homesteader (1917), show the particular pressures on African American settlers.

The two most popular authors in the agrarian tradition are undoubtedly Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Both explicitly reject Garland's populism in favor of stories of the trials and ultimate triumphs of the great individual. Their heroes parallel the traditions of the popular Westerns except for two crucial differences. Their conquests are nonviolent, and their transcendent individuals are women. Willa Cather's first two Nebraska novels, O Pioneers! (1913) and the perennial favorite My Ántonia (1918), feature strong heroines possessed of an almost mythical sense of oneness with the land. They create true homes in a demanding environment that stymies most of the men who surround them. Cather is a superb stylist, justly noted for her ability to describe the prairie and to capture its beauty, actually creating a new aesthetic for a landscape that had none of the features of the sublime and picturesque conventions of beauty. Long read as a sunny and feminist hymn of praise to the land and to the pioneer tradition, Cather's work is now being reinterpreted, not least importantly as lesbian literature.

Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, children's classics and the basis for an extremely popular television series, are also more than simple autobiographical narratives of one family's experiences pioneering in the upper Midwest and South Dakota. Reflecting the influence of Wilder's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, they are libertarian parables about individual liberty within the roles of masculine and feminine provided by the culture. In a somewhat similar vein, L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz books are a popular children's series with an explicitly feminist point of view. Like Cather and Wilder, Baum relies on the great individual, his plucky Kansas heroine, Dorothy, to right the wrongs that selfproclaimed reformers have been unable to conquer. The Wizard of Oz (1900) is thus both a great American fairy tale and a political parable. Not surprisingly, the works of all three writers include a subtle strain of erasing or undercutting Native claims on the land.

Radicalism made its way into Plains fiction, as into so much else in American culture, in the 1930s. John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939), though it actually takes place in Oklahoma east of the Plains and in California, is deservedly the classic Plains novel of the period, expressing both the determination and despair of the farmers who were forced to leave the Plains by the twin disasters of Dust Bowl and Depression. For all their heroism, Steinbeck's characters cannot win until they manage to lick the system and change it to work for them, not to oppress them. Meridel LeSueur and Tillie Olsen expressed the radicalism of the 1930s from the Plains fringe, LeSueur primarily from Minnesota but with some descriptions of Kansas among the stories in Salute to Spring (1940) and Olsen from Omaha, although the city is not explicitly named in Yonnondio (a novel actually written in 1934 but not published until 1974). Frederick Manfred's Chokecherry Tree (1948) and The Golden Bowl (1944) also present the plight of the inarticulate, ordinary man during the Depression on the Plains. Manfred is realistic and sympathetic to his male characters–his female characters are another matter–and presents a radical point of view, though he is not as explicitly ideological as the other writers mentioned in this paragraph.

Since World War II, Plains fiction has occupied a rather peculiar position in American letters. The enormously prolific and talented Wright Morris published a host of favorably reviewed novels, appeared frequently in the New Yorker, and yet regularly shows up on lists of the most underrated authors. Morris is little known and little read even in his home state of Nebraska, where almost every schoolchild has read something by Willa Cather. His photo text The Home Place (1948) provides in pictures and a spare narrative a powerful look at what has become of the pioneer generation, while Ceremony at Lone Tree (1960) examines the legacy of the Western in sanctioned and unsanctioned violence in a West that has both come of age and degenerated. North Dakota novelist Larry Woiwode has suffered something of the same fate of critical acceptance unaccompanied by commensurate fame or readership. Larry McMurtry, on the other hand, has been successful not only with novels much like the formula Western, including Horseman, Pass By (1961) and Lonesome Dove (1985), but also with the merciless yet tender portrayal of the contemporary Great Plains (his hometown, Archer City, Texas) in The Last Picture Show (1966) and its sequel, Texasville (1987). Meanwhile, hundreds of extremely talented writers produce and publish short stories and novels that depict the Great Plains with clarity and insight but receive little attention or readership.

Canadian Prairie Fiction

Prairie fiction in Canada developed quite differently from Plains fiction in the United States. While some dime novels were set or written in Canada, mostly by British or American authors quite ignorant of the terrain, the beginning of popular Prairie fiction came from the writers who were explicitly excluded from the popular Western, women and preachers. Ralph Connor's (Rev. Charles Gordon) books of Christian uplift, particularly The Sky Pilot (1899) and Corporal Cameron of the Mounted (1912), were bestsellers, along with Nellie McClung's Sowing Seeds in Danny (1908). Although some later American versions of the Mountie story are nothing but variations on the Virginian, clothed in a scarlet tunic, the homegrown Mountie story, as it starts with Connor's Corporal Cameron, tells a very different story from that of the Western. Here the hero is not the man who stands outside the law but rather the man who represents the law of his country and imperial order. McClung's best-sellers were rooted very firmly in the realities of the Prairie communities in which she lived. Her Purple Springs (1921) is a triumphant account of the woman suffrage movement in Prairie Canada, a cause that she also championed in essays and political activism. Other primarily realistic novels include Arthur Stringer's Prairie Trilogy, The Prairie Wife (1915), The Prairie Mother (1920), and The Prairie Child (1922), a curious amalgam of the purest romantic invention and a shrewd and barely sympathetic look at the self-delusions of the Prairie settlers. Robert Stead's several novels move toward a realistic portrayal of homesteading and Prairie farming, culminating in Grain (1926). Martha Ostenso's Wild Geese (1925) is, like Stringer's works, a combination of brooding realism and equally brooding romanticism of a gothic sort. Frederick Philip Grove (nee Felix Paul Greve, a truly self-made man) put the seal on the Prairie novel as dour, brooding, and doomed with Settlers of the Marsh (1925) and Fruits of the Earth (1933). At the same time, his autobiographical sketches, Over Prairie Trails (1922), like Cather's work, found a new voice and vocabulary for describing and hence creating for the reader the beauty of the Prairies.

Sinclair Ross's As for Me and My House (1941) is a turning point for both Canadian literature and Prairie/Plains literature. Its deceptively simple form–ostensibly, it is the diary of a clergyman's wife during a year in a small Saskatchewan town during the mid- 1930s–masks an extremely complex book that asks whether art, as defined by European conventions, is possible in the Prairie Provinces of Canada. The book is open-ended, and the answer is provided at least in part by the subsequent success of Canadian Prairie literature. Like Cather, Ross also provides a homosexual voice in Plains literature.

While American Plains literature has remained either popular culture or a high culture removed from the literary centers of the United States, Prairie literature is at the very center of the Canadian literary canon that has been emerging since As for Me and My House. Although Ross's novel vanished almost without a trace until it was republished in 1957, Prairie writers such as Grove, Margaret Laurence, Adele Wiseman, Robert Kroetsch, Rudy Wiebe, and others have consistently won Canada's most prestigious literary awards and are central figures in Canadian literature. Laurence's The Stone Angel (1964), like As for Me and My House, is one of the acknowledged classics of the canon. Paradoxically, while the Western is perhaps the most enduring form of the American national myth of identity, serious writing by Plains authors is at the fringes of the contemporary American tradition, while Canadian Prairie literature, which from its inception rejected the popular American form, is central to Canadian literature. Not surprisingly, The Stone Diaries (1993), written in and about Manitoba by a former American (Carol Shields), is the only recent Plains novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. (It had already won the Governor General's Award for fiction.) Canadian Prairie fiction continues to flourish. Among the many contemporary writers are Sharon Butala and Guy Vanderhaege.

Implicitly or explicitly, Canadian Prairie literature rejects the themes of the Western–the noble savage, the rugged individual, the two-gun man–in favor of community and to some extent of women and family. Women as both writers and characters are central to this fiction, and Ross's choice of a woman's diary for his form draws attention to the diaries and letters by women that have always been part of the literature of European American settlement in the Great Plains. The themes of Prairie fiction are heritage and community. Rather than an American Adam, concerned with starting anew in a new world, the Canadian Hagar (the name of the heroine of The Stone Angel) is a wanderer in a desert that she makes a home partly by connecting it with her ancestors. This is also a theme in the American agrarian novel, both the ethnic novel, in which a European culture fails in transplantation to the New World, and works by old stock Americans such as Garland and Cather. But Canadian literature emphasizes creating a past through stories or art. This is most clear in Margaret Laurence's The Diviners (1974), a novel that deals with both the Native and European histories of the land and recognizes both the complicity in oppression and the cultural significance of European settlement in the Great Plains.

Like Laurence, many European Canadian writers have used Native or mixed-blood characters in their fiction. In part this reflects a larger percentage of Native peoples on the Canadian Prairies than on the Plains of the United States, and in part it represents the Canadian search for themes that differentiate Canadians from Americans. It also represents the Canadian commitment, at least in theory, to multiculturalism and the tendency of Prairie writers, unlike American Plains writers, to be toward the left of the political spectrum. In The Scorched Wood People (1977) and The Temptations of Big Bear (1973), Rudy Wiebe has attempted to show the Red River and North-West Rebellions from the viewpoints of the Metis and the Crees, endeavors that have drawn mixed reactions from critics and Native readers. W. O. Mitchell has used many versions of the noble savage, particularly in Vanishing Point (1973), while in Dance Me Outside (1977) and subsequent Silas Ermineskin stories W. P. Kinsella has updated the noble savage to a streetwise and astute kid of nineteen. Laurence was most cognizant among these writers of the Native point of view in her decision never to speak for Native people in her characters, while Kinsella is the most controversial of the writers among both Native and European American critics.

Fiction by Native Peoples

Native peoples have shown themselves more than capable of speaking for themselves, not only in oral traditions but in writing. While short writings by Indians and as-told-to autobiographies have existed ever since European contact with the peoples of North America, the first flowering of Native writing in English occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, a period when legal restrictions on cultural, religious, and political freedoms of Native peoples began to be lifted. Cogewea, the Half Blood (1927) seems to be the first Plains novel published by an Indian or mixed-blood author, although the author, Mourning Dove (or Hum Ishu Ma or Christine Quintasket), had to work through a fairly intrusive European American editor. In the next decade D'Arcy McNickle published his classic novel of western Montana, The Surrounded (1936), and Black Elk (via white poet John Neihardt) and Luther Standing Bear published autobiographical accounts that described and praised traditional Lakota ways.

While Native authors continued to write and sometimes found publishers for their accounts throughout the 1940s and 1950s, it was not until the 1960s that a true cultural renaissance began among the Native peoples of North America. While N. Scott Momaday's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel House Made of Dawn (1968) is set primarily in the Southwest, his formally innovative The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969) deals specifically with the Kiowas' relationship to the Plains. James Welch's Winter in the Blood (1974), The Death of Jim Loney (1979), and Fools Crow (1986) form a trilogy of great power that traces the survival of the Blackfeet from the late 1870s to the present. In the Southern Plains a similar cultural renaissance has produced a flowering of Chicano fiction, which draws upon oral traditions of both Spanish and Native origins. Rudolfo Anaya's limpid Bless Me, Ultima (1972), set in the llano of eastern New Mexico and self-consciously combining Native and Hispanic traditions, is perhaps the best known of these works. More recently, Louise Erdrich's novels of the North Dakota Chippewa, including Love Medicine (1984), The Beet Queen (1986), Tracks (1988), The Bingo Palace (1995), and Antelope Wife (1998), have been popular best-sellers as well as highly acclaimed. Her use of Nanabush, the trickster, is an example of how the oral tradition is being subsumed into the new written literature.

The Native Canadian renaissance in Plains literature lagged nearly two decades behind that of the United States. It began with nonfiction by two Métis writers, Maria Campbell's Halfbreed (1973) and Howard Adams's Prison of Grass (1975). Beatrice Culleton's In Search of April Raintree (1983) became the first prairie novel by an author of Native descent, followed by Thomas King's Medicine River (1989) and Green Grass, Running Water (1993). King's infectious humor and ability to blend Native oral tradition and everyday life with history as well as the European–North American literary tradition have enabled him to create a new Great Plains aesthetic. Buoyed by the political resurgence of First Nations peoples in Canada and the creation of Native newspapers such as Windspeaker (Edmonton) and First Nations publishing houses such as Theytus and Pemmican, Native Canadian Prairie writing continues to grow in both quality and quantity.

Plains Poetry

Poetry, chant, and song have always been part of the oral literary tradition on the Plains. The contemporary powwow circuit and access to inexpensive, high-quality recording equipment have produced an outpouring of both traditional and newly created songs and chants. A contemporary sacred tradition including both Native American church and Gospel songs has spurred the writing of lyrics in both English and Indigenous languages. Individual performers such as John Trudell and Keith Secola have now written and recorded significant bodies of work.

Written European-style poetry on the Northern Plains undoubtedly begins with Henry Kelsey's doggerel narrative of his fur-trading expedition in 1690, though similar narratives probably exist in Spanish for the Southern Plains. The monument of the long poem tradition on the Plains is John Neihardt's five-part Cycle of the West: The Song of Hugh Glass (1915), The Song of the Three Friends (1919), The Song of the Indian Wars (1925), The Song of the Messiah (1935), and The Song of Jedediah Smith (1941). These poems, all in heroic couplets and ranging from 110 to 179 pages, are Neihardt's attempt to provide America with its own Iliad and Odyssey, looking at the struggle for the West from the point of view of the mountain men and the Indians, particularly the Lakotas. Although the work is an impressive achievement, the unidiomatic quality of the heroic couplets has discouraged both readers and successors, while the explicitly Christian imagery works against the Indian content. Tom McGrath, Ed Dorn, Robert Kroetsch, and others, using contemporary speech patterns and such nonliterary genres as seed catalogs (in Kroetsch's 1977 poem of that title), have written long poems both more experimental and more accessible than Neihardt's.

Lyric poetry rather than narrative has been characteristic of the Plains as it has of the rest of the English-speaking world for the last two centuries. For the most part it began with popular newspaper verse. Like butter-and-egg money, pay or prizes for newspaper poetry often helped the farm or small-town wife round out the household budget. This tradition of vernacular poetry is now represented by the "cowboy poets," who work in ballad styles and present their frequently humorous verses to aficionados at "cowboy poetry" gatherings all over the West. By the 1920s the literary magazine, or little magazine, was starting to supplant the small-town newspaper as the major venue for the publication of lyric poetry. Frequently connected to a college or university and more recently to a creative writing program, little magazines such as Prairie Schooner, Midlands, Frontier, and Dandelion and small local presses have both provided an outlet for local poets and connected Plains writing to the rest of the continent. Like most writers in English in the twentieth century, Plains poets have frequently chosen variable feet and sound patterns other than end rhymes, although poets like William Stafford manipulate blank verse, slant rhymes, and other traditional forms with marked success.

The differences in theme, outlook, and national audience that distinguish Canadian and American Plains fiction are much less evident in poetry. Neihardt's cycle is similar to Canadian documentary poems such as E. J. Pratt's Towards the Last Spike (1952), which sounds the same blend of pride and chagrin at "progress" onto the center of the continent. McGrath's social justice themes are not dissimilar from those of Manitoban Dorothy Livesay. Like William Stafford, Robert Kroetsch is concerned with the past and its traditions, with the domestication and violation of the land and its inhabitants. Contemporary Plains women poets such as Hilda Raz and Lorna Crozier are particularly strong voices whose concerns with naming, with birthing, and with identifying the land as female and as mother are similar on both sides of the border.

The renaissance in Native writing beginning in the 1960s is evident in poetry as well as fiction and frequently involves the same writers. N. Scott Momaday's Angle of Geese (1974), James Welch's Riding the Earthboy 40 (1971), and Louise Erdrich's Jacklight (1984) are all highly sophisticated in image, allusion, and technique and unquestionably represent some of the best contemporary Plains poetry. Emma LaRoche is probably the best known of the contemporary Native Canadian poets, while Paula Gunn Allen, Linda Hogan, and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn are among the best known on the U.S. side.

Writers of Asian and African descent in any genre are still extremely rare in the Great Plains. Novelist and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux was a rare African American voice at the beginning of the twentieth century, and Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes both grew up on the Plains. Fred Wah has become an important contemporary Chinese Canadian writer. Increased immigration, especially to the Prairie Provinces, continues to add new voices to the Prairie mosaic.

Plains Drama

Drama has to a large extent been an import to the Plains. In the nineteenth century touring companies from New York and Chicago followed the railroad lines to present versions of the latest plays and operas from the East and of the classics to city and small-town audiences. No Plains drama comparable to Plains fiction or poetry has developed in the United States, though there are notable local exceptions. Folk drama has remained important on the Southern Plains. Often, as in the Christmas posadas, these dramas are religious, but secular patriotic fiestas also include drama. Town pageants, somewhere between mass and folk art, have also attained popularity in some locales throughout the Plains. They may be produced somewhat formulaically by outsiders for a specific occasion such as a town's centennial or written and regularly produced by townspeople.

Community-based drama has been far more successful in the Prairie Provinces, particularly Alberta and Saskatchewan, than in the Plains states. The Banff School of Fine Arts in Alberta began in the 1930s to promote and produce community theater, written and often acted by members of the community. Gwen Pharis Ringwood emerged as the premier playwright of the movement. While the Banff School has moved away from community-based theater to a more traditional and less regional focus since the 1950s, Saskatchewan has more recently become the venue of a vibrant and popular community-based theater that often includes dramas about carefully researched incidents in the province, often improvised or workshopped instead of written by a solitary playwright. These include Theatre Passe Muraille's The West Show (1975) and its successor, the Saskatoon 25th Street Theatre's collective creation of Paper Wheat (1982), about the formation of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, and, perhaps most remarkable, Linda Griffiths and Maria Campbell's Jessica (1982/1986), about a mixed-blood woman's successful attempt to come to terms with her heritage and ancestral spirits in a racist and sexist society. The communal/cooperative nature of this sort of theater, though directly descended from Paul Thompson and the Theatre Passe Muraille of Toronto, seems especially well suited both to Saskatchewan's political history of cooperatives and democratic socialism and to the ethos of Native peoples. An alternative form of documentary by a single playwright is exemplified in the works of Rex Deverell of Regina's Globe Theatre, including No. 1 Hard (1978) and Medicare (1980). Despite perennial financial problems, theater continues to flourish in the Prairie Provinces. Sharon Pollock and Brad Fraser are among the most successful contemporary playwrights, but many theater groups and the almost endless creativity of the summer fringe festivals guarantee that Prairie theater remains an extremely accessible literary art.


As the world has moved, rockily enough, on into the twenty-first century, it seems likely that the Great Plains will cease to be regarded as the cultural hinterland it has seemed to be in the United States and will become, as it is in Canada, a region generating a particularly innovative and high-quality literature. The popular Western, if it is to become anything other than an endlessly repeating formula, will become more ambiguous and less purely heroic. As an environmentalist consciousness becomes more necessary and accepted for survival, the progress that Owen Wister and his heirs had presented as positive–—even as it destroyed the wilderness Eden–will seem more purely destructive. The communitarian ethic and the multicultural point of view characteristic, at least in theory, of Canadian and Native peoples will become the norm, and the search for ancestors in the land will continue and be amplified. The myth of the vanishing American that has haunted portrayals of Native peoples for the past 500 years will pale and recede as it becomes more clear that demographically, politically, economically, and culturally Native peoples are very decidedly not vanishing, despite the often genocidal invasion that was Native peoples' experience of the "pioneering" of the Great Plains. But the land will remain, and the harshness of a continental climate will remain. And the starkness of land and sky will encourage dreamers to write more of what we call Plains literature.

See also AFRICAN AMERICANS: Micheaux, Oscar / EUROPEAN AMERICANS: Giants in the Earth ; Kelsey, Henry / FILM: The Last Picture Show / GENDER: McClung, Nellie / MUSIC: Trudell, John / PROTEST AND DISSENT: McGrath, Tom.

Frances W. Kaye University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Bredahl, Carl A., Jr. New Ground: Western American Narrative and the Literary Canon. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Etulain, Richard. Re-Imagining the Modern American West: A Century of Fiction, History, and Art. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996.

Fiddler, Don., ed. Looking at the Words of Our People: An Anthology of First Nations Literary Criticism. Penticton, British Columbia: Theytus, 1993.

Filwod, Alan. Collective Encounters: Documentary Theatre in English Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.

Harrison, Dick. Unnamed Country: The Struggle for a Canadian Prairie Fiction. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1977.

Larson, Charles R. American Indian Fiction. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1978.

Meyer, Roy W. The Middle Western Farm Novel in the Twentieth Century. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.

Milton, John R. The Novel of the American West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.

New, W. H., ed. Native Writers and Canadian Writing. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1990.

Olson, Paul, ed. Broken Hoops and Plains People: A Sourcebook. Lincoln: Nebraska Curriculum Development Project, 1976.

Probert, Kenneth G., ed. Writing Saskatchewan: 20 Critical Essays. Regina, Saskatchewan: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1989.

Quantic, Diane. The Nature of Place: A Study of Great Plains Fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950.

Thacker, Robert. The Great Prairie Fact and Literary Imagination. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.

Tuska, Jon, ed. The American West in Fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

Western Literature Association. A Literary History of the American West. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987.

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