Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The lands and peoples of the North American Great Plains fall within the territorial jurisdictions of the Dominion of Canada and the United States of America. These countries are federal democracies with three distinct levels of representation and administration: national or federal, state or provincial, and local levels of government. Citizens elect legislators and other officeholders, pay taxes, and are governed by laws enacted at each of the three levels of governance. Canada's more formally centralized parliamentary system is based on the British principle of "responsible government," with members of the national executive cabinet chosen from, and accountable to, the legislature. There is no separately elected executive, as in the U.S. presidential and congressional system.

Lands of the Great Plains north of the fortyninth parallel fall within Canada's three "Prairie Provinces" of Alberta (provincehood 1905), Manitoba (1870), and Saskatchewan (1905). These provinces were formed from part of the area controlled until 1870 by the Hudson's Bay Company. The unicameral legislatures of each of these provinces have principal authority over such matters as natural resources, education, land tenure, health, property, and civil rights within their territories, and each legislature shares authority with the Canadian national government over inland waterways, railroads, external trade, agriculture, old-age pensions, and foreign immigration to their local regions. Governmental units at the local or third tier of government are formally subdivisions of the provincial governments. Partly because Canadians believed that extreme localism had been one of the precipitating causes of the American Revolution, local governments in Canada generally have been restricted to more limited roles than in the United States. However, distance from the federal capital in Ottawa, combined with the passage of time, encouraged the establishment of stronger local authorities in the Prairie Provinces than in eastern Canada. The three Prairie Provinces are subdivided into about 1,300 urban and rural municipalities. However, some three-quarters of the total population lives in thirty-five of the larger municipalities that are classed as cities. Small populations, weak tax bases, and confusing overlaps between municipal, school district, and hospital district boundaries have forced considerable reorganization and consolidation of local government units in more rural areas of the Prairie Provinces in recent years.

The Great Plains south of the forty-ninth parallel falls within the territories of ten of the fifty states of the United States. These include Colorado (statehood 1876), Kansas (1861), Montana (1889), Nebraska (1867), New Mexico (1912), North Dakota (1889), Oklahoma (1907), South Dakota (1889), Texas (1845), and Wyoming (1890). These states span most of the territories acquired from France via the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and from Mexico via the annexation of Texas in 1845. Although these states entered the Union relatively late, they all have sovereign status under the U.S. Constitution, which formally reserves all powers not expressly delegated to the federal government to the states and their citizens. While the federal government holds primary jurisdiction over several important matters, such as currency, foreign relations, and national defense, most aspects of governance involve shared or overlapping federal and state responsibilities. Both legally and practically, the powers of state governments are maintained and reinforced by governors and by legislatures whose members are independently elected by the citizens of each state. Except for Nebraska's unicameral, all state legislatures are bicameral.

Partly reflecting the strong localistic aspect of American political culture, the lowest or third tier of American governance tends to be considerably more varied and complex than is the case in Canada. In addition to the federal government and their respective state governments, most Americans also pay taxes to a county government, a city or town government, a school district unit, and several socalled special districts. Although units of local government are formally subdivisions of state governments, they often tend to have considerable legal and practical autonomy over their own local affairs. Thus, levels of local tax effort and pubic service provision can and do vary greatly from place to place within the United States. Moreover, the degree of governmental localism that is encountered in the American Great Plains is often even more intense than elsewhere in the nation. One indicator is the unusually high incidence of patriotic names given to counties, towns, or streets within the region, such as Washington, Lincoln, Franklin, Union, Liberty, Independence, Freedom, or Unity.

Another, more important indicator is the sheer number of local governmental units within the Great Plains. The ten Plains states contain more than 21,000 local governments, including 818 counties, 4,183 municipalities, 4,124 towns or townships, 4,148 school districts, and 8,600 special districts. The citizens of these ten states vote in various constituencies for seventy-eight officials at the federal level (for president, senators, and representatives) and for 2,903 officials at the state level (e.g., governors, attorneys general, judges, legislators). In addition, the citizens of these ten states elect an astonishing 110,328 local officials (e.g., mayors, sheriffs, justices, county commissioners, and members of city or town councils, school boards, and special district bodies). Indeed, in many of the more lightly populated counties of the Central Plains, more than one out of every twenty-five persons is an elected local official of some type. Among the more extreme cases is Arthur County, Nebraska, with a 1990 population of 462 persons and fifty elected local officials in 1992. In comparison, the average for the United States as a whole is about one elected local official for every 500 people. While the overall average for Great Plains states is about one elected local official for every 285 people, the rate is much higher in many rural areas. Though this indicates a very high rate of direct participation in local government, it must be recognized that efforts to maintain local government services impose substantial burdens on the residents of sparsely populated sections of the Great Plains.

J. Clark Archer University of Nebraska-Lincoln

U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1992 Census of Governments. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1994.

Zelinsky, Wilbur. Nation into State: The Shifting Symbolic Foundations of American Nationalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

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