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Goodlands: A Meditation and History on the Great Plains

THE WEST UNBOUND: SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES

Series editors: Alvin Finkel and Sarah Carter

Writing about the western regions of Canada and the United States once turned on the alienation of the peoples of West from East. The mythology of a homogenized West fighting bravely for its rightful place in the sun deflected interest from the lives of ordinary people and from the social struggles that pitted some groups in the West against others—often the elite groups who claimed to speak for the region as a whole on the national stage. Seeking to challenge simplistic interpretations of the West and its institutions, The West Unbound focuses instead on the ways in which particular groups of Westerners—among them women, workers, Aboriginal peoples, farmers, and people from a diverse array of ethnic backgrounds—attempted to shape the institutions and attitudes of the region. The series embraces a variety of disciplines and is intended for both university audiences and general readers interested in the American and Canadian Wests.

SERIES TITLES

Icon, Brand, Myth: The Calgary Stampede
Edited by Max Foran

The Importance of Being Monogamous:

Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915
Sarah Carter

One Step over the Line:

Toward a History of Women in the North American Wests
Edited by Elizabeth Jameson and Sheila McManus

Expansive Discourses: Urban Sprawl in Calgary, 1945–1978
Max Foran

Liberalism, Surveillance, and Resistance:

Indigenous Communities in Western Canada, 1877–1927
Keith D. Smith

The West and Beyond: New Perspectives on an Imagined Region
Edited by Alvin Finkel, Sarah Carter, and Peter Fortna

Recollecting:

Lives of Aboriginal Women of the Canadian Northwest and Borderlands
Edited by Sarah Carter and Patricia A. McCormack

Goodlands:

A Meditation and History on the Great Plains
Frances W. Kaye

Goodlands
A Meditation and History
on the Great Plains

FRANCES W. KAYE

To Howard

Contents

Acknowledgements

Introduction

1 A Unified Field Theory of the Great Plains

2 Exploring the Explorers

3 Spiritual and Intellectual Resistance to Conquest, Part 1: Custer and Riel

4 Spiritual and Intellectual Resistance to Conquest, Part 2: Messianism, the 1885 Northwest Resistance, and the 1890 Lakota Ghost Dance

5 Spiritual and Intellectual Resistance to Conquest, Part 3: John Joseph Mathews’ Wah’Kon-Tah and John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks

6 Intellectual Justification for Conquest: Comparative Historiography of the Canadian and US Wests

7 Homesteading as Capital Formation on the Great Plains

8 The Women’s West

9 And Still the Waters

10 Dust Bowls

11 Mitigating but Not Rethinking: George W. Norris, Tommy Douglas, and the Great Plains

12 Planning and Economic Theory

13 Mouse Beans and Drowned Rivers

14 Oil

15 Arts, Justice, and Hope on the Great Plains

Conclusion

Notes

Credits

Index

Acknowledgements

I would like to extend my thanks to the Council for International Exchange of Scholars for a Fulbright Fellowship to the University of Calgary, Alberta, during the 2001–2 academic year and to the Department of English and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for a Faculty Development Fellowship during the same year. These fellowships made the research for this book possible. The libraries and staff of the University of Calgary and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and also the staff of the Local History collection at the Calgary Public Library, were invaluable. I am very grateful to my colleagues in the Department of History at the University of Calgary, particularly to Sarah Carter, Don Smith, and Gretchen Albers (who read several drafts), as well as to Jane Kelley of the Department of Archaeology. At the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, I thank the Department of English, especially Joy Ritchie and Sindu Sathiyaseelan, my very kind research assistant and computer whiz, the Center for Great Plains Studies, especially John Wunder, George Wolf, and Rick Edwards, and the Institute for Ethnic Studies. I am extremely grateful for the comments of two anonymous reviewers, who helped improve the manuscript immeasurably, and for the hard work of my editors, Walter Hildebrandt, Pamela MacFarland Holway, and Joyce Hildebrand. I would also like to thank my friend Chris Garza for his encouragement, my brother, Robert Grey Owl, for the reality checks, my son, Joel Kaye, for the distractions, the dogs who have accompanied me, especially Fireball and Autumn, and most of all, my husband, Howard Kaye.

Introduction

Wheat farmers hate gophers. The little critters cut the stalks and run off with the grain—particularly when the year is dry and the crop is light. Furthermore, to the disgust of ranchers, they dig holes in pastures, where large and commercially valuable animals like cows and horses can fall and break their large and commercially valuable legs. On the other hand, gophers are valuable members of midgrass prairie communities. In dry years, they strip the leaves and seed heads from the grasses, limiting above ground vegetation that would otherwise transfer limited moisture from the perennial underground forest of roots and rhizomes to the air through transpiration. Gophers—and their allies in drought, the grasshoppers—invented the summerfallow, but they use it selectively, fallowing the most land in the driest summers. The grasses themselves co-operate—on tallgrass prairie, the big bluestem, Indian grass, and switchgrass grow eight feet high in moist years, while in dry years they fade back and let the little bluestem, the stypas, and the other “bunchgrasses” take over and hold the soil; thus, less foliage is exposed to transpiration and little ground to evaporation, again conserving water for the perennial root forest.1 Wheat, on the other hand, is an annual grass. The gophers’ mowing may slow down transpiration, but there is no living root forest to benefit, only dead and shallow structures like frost-killed petunias in an urban flowerpot. Gophers’ incessant burrowing aerates the land and separates the root forest, thinning it out so it can breathe and grow, just as the urban gardener separates the rhizomes of iris. Gophers store their seed underground, and in the event of a long drought, these storehouses become one source for grassland regeneration after the return of the rains. Gophers are the messengers of Gaia, small piping indicators of the complex biofeedback mechanisms that mark the whole blue-green Earth as a single living organism of interlocked living systems.

The Laramide orogeny of some 65 million years ago, the great collision of tectonic plates that raised the Rocky Mountains, set up the conditions for the grasslands ecosystem in the semi-arid rainshadow of the Rockies. The grasses and the gophers co-evolved with the buffalo and other even bigger ruminants, including something with a snout big enough to munch on Osage oranges. Badgers, ferrets, and hawks ate gophers, as did coyote, the trickster. Long cycles of glaciation and warming, drought and moisture, shaped the system. Rivers and wind lay down soil and stripped it away again. Dune systems grew and moved. Prairie pothole lakes formed in the remains of the glaciers, and waterfowl thrived. The long and short cycles of weather coiled past each other, and the gophers brought forth their young. When the first humans came onto the grasslands, whether emerging from the earth as the old stories tell or coming down from the north as more recent commentators would have it, they fit themselves into the cycles of the grasslands. It may be that they killed off the megafauna, or, more likely, that the cycles of cold and heat, moisture and drought no longer favoured the giant bison, the mastodons, and the others.2 But the grass and the gophers continued their dance through the processions of the equinoxes and the tilts in the earth’s orbit that change the name of the fixed star. At some point, the people began firing the grass, pushing the woody plants back to the verge of the creeks, and removing the overburden of dead plants. The young shoots showed improbably green on the scorched earth, and the buffalo and the gophers came to feast on bounty coming, like asparagus, from the deep and long-lived roots. Women with digging sticks foraged for prairie turnip, timpsila, and other roots, and joined the gophers in the work of aeration. The people lived well—they lived well indeed. Prairie is a diverse ecosystem, offering hundreds of plants and animals for food, medicine, inspiration, and co-management. But hunger, want, and warfare came too, as part of the cycle—and hard work and danger. Peoples moved. Newcomers came. And every year the gophers brought forth their young and the bison calves looked red in the sun and the grasses turned their tender faces to the sky.

For 65 million years or so, the ecosystem of the Great Plains at the heart of what is currently called the North American continent was exactly that—a heartland. The violent extremes of climate, the stunning expanse of earth tapered by glaciers and ancient seas to meet the sky, the grassful dance of above-ground3—all stretched across an invisible underground forest of roots; the gophers, the buffalo, the people, the hawks—all were at the centre of a universe that fitted them very well. When the horse—which had evolved precisely on that grassland—returned, it initially fit in as if it had never been away.

Every ecological system is necessary and sufficient for the plants and animals that have co-evolved with it and for those that have migrated slowly into it in response to the cycles of climate change that characterize Earth’s history. The Arctic and the Kalahari are exactly home for the low-growth shrubs, the protectively coloured animals, and the people who hunt and forage there. Life may be hard because population is scarce and climate unforgiving, but neither the organisms nor the land is deficient. Far less deficient was the Great Plains for the first ten thousand, or forty thousand, or more years of its acquaintanceship with humans. Humans already occupied the land as it evolved from forest to grassland. Both archaeological and oral evidence agree that the Plains, away from the shelter of the mountains and the river valleys, was seldom traversed in the days when people walked and dogs carried their cargo on travois. (My travois dog sleeps beside me, her sturdy, big-chested body, which uses food so efficiently that she easily goes to fat in her latter-day idleness, bearing witness to the strength of her ancestors.) The oral history also tells us that emergence onto the Plains for the Lakota, the Blackfoot, the Kiowa, and the others was an emergence into a paradise, a garden that teemed with a diversity of prey animals, from buffalo to voles, and of vegetable treasures, from saskatoon berries to mouse beans. For people like the Mandans and Hidatsas, the Omahas and Pawnees, the Plains also provided space for riverine agriculture: corn, squash, beans, and sunflowers.4

Certainly, the hunters and gatherers and farmers could see ways to improve the Plains. Again, both archaeology and oral tradition agree that the people built buffalo pounds, especially ones that would hurtle the huge ruminants over cliffs so that they might easily be dispatched. People fired the prairies to repel bison with fire and to attract them with succulent new growth. Women knew the locations of all the berry, turnip, and other wild plant food grounds, though whether their practices actually enhanced the food grounds is not entirely clear. They did take berries, roots, and other products at a sustainable rate that left the grounds fruitful year after year. People cleared and planted riverine gardens and protected them from deer, birds, and other predators, including humans. They understood the land as part of a sacred tradition of earth and sky; they held sacraments such as the Sun Dance that expressed the courage and integrity of the people as worthy of the favour of the sun and the buffalo. Although many different groups of people lived on the Plains between their first emergence and some two hundred years ago, and although they understood various economic and sacred relationships to the region—including many that manipulated place, plants, weather, and animals for their own benefit—they worked from an ideology of sufficiency. What was there was what ought to be there. Droughts, severe winters, and even the deaths of individuals with superior skills in locating and securing food sources might bring about scarcities, even ones that lasted longer than a generation and required people to relocate in order to survive. But the human response to the Great Plains, until a few hundred years ago, was to use it, appreciate it, learn it, and manipulate it, but not to replace it or make drastic changes.5

For the Spanish who came with Coronado, the Great Plains were deficient in gold. The soft golden grass houses of the Wichitas were a mockery, not a marvel. A disappointed Coronado had his guide strangled. For the French and British fur trade explorers who came from the north and east, the Plains were deficient in fine furs and supported deficient people, like the Omahas, who demanded tolls of the traders coming through their territory, or like the Blackfoot Confederacy, who would not trap beaver and would neither trade with the Canadian traders nor allow the American mountain men to trap in their territory. But the true prophets of deficiency were the agricultural settlers and the people of their urban trade centres. They were prepped by theories of the Great American Desert and the Palliser Triangle to find deficiency. They also felt a strong sense of entitlement to something else, and they relied on theories about the “Manifest Destiny” of the “Anglo-Saxon race” to expand across the continent and to change the “desert” to the “Garden of the World,” the theory that “rain follows the plough,” and the idea that “free land,” “virgin land,” was just waiting for the touch of the “yeoman farmer” to “blossom like a rose” and bring forth wheat in the “Bread Basket of the World.”6 Tame grasses, tame water, tame cattle, land that was personal property, and a worldwide market system would end the deficiency and reclaim the empty land for civilization and Christianity, these newcomers believed.

The study that follows is a meditation about what happened when a mass of people hit a geographical and cultural region that they felt entitled to reclaim from deficiency. It is also about the intellectual resistance from groups of people, already weakened by disease and invasion, who nonetheless attempted to deal with vastly changed circumstances in both economic and sacred contexts; people who, unlike the settlers, began from the premise of sufficiency, not deficiency.

There is no single point at which the paradigm of deficiency replaced sufficiency; indeed, that shift is still not complete and might, perhaps, someday reverse. We might begin with Coronado’s entrada in 1540–42, with the grant of Rupert’s Land to the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670, with the Proclamation of 1763, or with the passage of the US Homestead Act, the Confederation of Canada, and the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. For the most part, it is this last decade that I have chosen for my starting point and that I have followed up to the present, with an outlook toward the future. My definition of the Great Plains follows that of my geographer colleagues at the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska (see map on next page). The region stretches roughly from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains and from the North Saskatchewan to the Rio Grande. It is the land that the governments gave away as not quite good enough to be sold, unlike the land to the east, and not quite bad enough to be kept in the public domain, unlike the mountains, the deserts, and the arctic. Although the area is approximately two-thirds in the United States and one-third in Canada, I have tried to treat the two countries equally because the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) differences in government policy and national narrative are useful for helping untangle environmental and cultural imperatives. Working with the paradigm shift from sufficiency to deficiency means that I have mostly omitted several narrative lines from earlier histories, such as the Wild West/Mild West dichotomy in many US-Canada comparisons, or the conflation of the Plains with the West Coast and Mountain West in one meta-region. As will become evident, I have been heavily influenced by many other writers, particularly Roger Epp, Sarah Carter, Barbara Belyea, Paul Voisey, Jim Pitsula, Angie Debo, James C. Malin, John Joseph Mathews, and Hamlin Garland.7

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Except for my great-grandparents’ adventure holding down a homestead in Colorado for a few years around 1880, my family has no farming traditions. My ancestors were coal miners and civil servants, merchants and soldiers, lawyers and teachers. Gardening, though, is a different story. My English grandparents grew bounteous vegetable and flower gardens in the long narrow lot behind their little house in South Calgary. Except for my student years, when I lived in dormitories or a co-op, I cannot remember living without a garden. True, we do not rely on our lettuce to feed us through the winter, and we know that if we don’t bother to put it in, we can supply its lack from a farmers’ market, but still, we follow the rhythm of planting and tending and harvesting at a level that, unlike the dirt under our fingernails, will not wash out. And I have lived nearly three-quarters of my life, as both child and adult, within sight and smell (I walked to school past cabbage fields in the Garden State of New Jersey) of farms. For thirty-two years, my family has lived on and with a ten-acre plot of land outside of Lincoln, Nebraska. It was a small but working dairy farm in the 1930s and a hobby farm with sheep and chickens from the 1950s to the early 1970s. We have planted vegetable gardens and fruit trees, and have watched the wide leaves of our rhubarb shrivel up after our neighbour sprayed herbicide on fields upwind from us. We have watched the tallgrass prairie regenerate in the front pasture, aided by fire and mowing, and we have watched red cedars take over the unmowed and unburnt back pasture. We mine mud from the creek to patch up the holes around the overflow that would otherwise drain our pond—the recharge for our domestic well. One year, my husband waged a war with a solitary bank beaver (we named him David Thompson) who ate up all the willows and insisted on trying to block the overflow and raise the pond up over our driveway. Great blue herons fish the pond, and green herons nest in the boggy area around the inflow. Red-tailed hawks still whistle and soar, even though the stars have disappeared from the north sky in the light pollution of the Wal-Mart and Menards that moved in across the highway about five years ago. None of this makes me a country girl, but I know farming and the land differently than I would had I always had people rather than grasses as neighbours. And so Hamlin Garland, the son of the Middle Border, John Joseph Mathews, and the others do not seem very far away to me.

Born in Wisconsin, raised in Iowa, and holding down a claim in Dakota Territory before becoming a successful author, Garland would seem to be the consummate American homesteader—and it is from him I first understood that the Homestead Act and its variations were most successful to the extent that they did not produce family farms. Mathews, the Oxonian Osage, showed me how un-inevitable—in fact, how freaky—it was that European ideologies replaced Osage ones, revelations underlined by Carter Revard and Leslie Silko. James Malin’s cantankerous opposition to the theory behind New Deal agricultural practices, his stubborn insistence on the existence of Great Plains dust storms long before the plough, his scorn about theories of climax vegetation, and his incessant questioning of what prairie restoration would restore prairie to influenced my conviction that no ecosystem is ever deficient for the plants and animals with which it co-evolved. Angie Debo showed in great detail both how Indigenous political and economic systems worked in the context of an overlain free market system and how they were systematically destroyed, both legally and illegally, during the twentieth century. Paul Voisey, like Garland but much more exhaustively, showed me that homesteading was sometimes only incidentally about farms. Jim Pitsula showed me that a market economy, operating exactly as it was supposed to, would rob the Great Plains of people and resources. Barbara Belyea awakened me to the contingency of all systems of categorizing geography, including those as seemingly “obvious” as river systems. Sarah Carter teaches me many things, but especially how receptive the Plains Cree were to farming, how skilful and inventive they were, and how government policy systematically and repeatedly scuttled their successes. Most recently, I have been influenced by Roger Epp and his theories of the political de-skilling of the rural West. Other intellectual debts will become evident as this book unfolds. All errors of fact and interpretation are, of course, my own.

In chapter 1, “A Unified Field Theory of the Great Plains,” I lay out an overview of how the region has transformed since the deficiency paradigm has become the norm and why I think deficiency is, indeed, a “deficient” theory. I also deal with institutions such as the railways, cattle ranching, and the grain trade, which have definitively shaped the region but which I do not study in individual chapters. Chapter 2, “Exploring the Explorers,” looks at how the idea of deficiency was laid down by the various European and Euro–North American explorers of the Great Plains, their editors back in “civilized” locations, and subsequent historians of exploration.

The next two chapters parallel armed resistances to the paradigms of deficiency by pairing Riel’s Red River resistance to the Cheyenne with Sioux resistance to Custer’s Seventh Cavalry and then Riel’s 1885 resistance in the North West with the Ghost Dance leading up to the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. At the Forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers in Manitoba, old fur trade families, crofters “cleared” from the Scottish Highlands, Swiss soldiers, and the Peguis Ojibway-Cree had coalesced into a successful commercial settlement.8 Although Canadian expansionists from Ontario believed that the community would be happy to join the brand new Dominion of Canada on Canada’s terms, Red River (today’s Winnipeg and environs), under the leadership of Louis Riel, successfully resisted the extra-legal taking of the community and managed to secure some rights for the old settlers in the new province of Manitoba. A decade later, Lakota, Dakota, and Cheyenne warriors decisively defeated a certain show-off US colonel at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Yet both of these successful resistances turned to pyrrhic victories, as they gave the federal governments of Canada and the United States graphic images of the “savagery” and hence deficiency of the inhabitants of the Great Plains; this gave intending settlers moral permission to displace, subdue, or even kill them. In the mid- to late 1880s, various religious revivals arose on the Great Plains, from the Exovedate established by Louis Riel at Batoche to the Ghost Dance among the Lakotas. Both of these movements were suppressed by the superior force of arms of the two federal governments, and both were used to extend the already coercive material and spiritual dispossession of Indigenous and mixed-blood groups in favour of European and Euro-North American settlers. The spiritual aspects of resistance survived, however, and helped mitigate the continuing attempts to “kill the Indian, and save the man,” as Richard Henry Pratt, founder of Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, put it.9 Despite Anglo writer John G. Neihardt’s contention that the people’s dream died in the bloody mud at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota, just after Christmas 1890, resistance never failed.10

Two Indigenous historians, discussed in chapter 5, are Hehaka Sapa (Nicholas Black Elk), an Oglala Lakota, and John Joseph Mathews, a mixed-blood Osage. For them, there was no question about whether “Indians” had survived the “Indian wars.” They had. In 1932, each of these men published a book—Black Elk through the interpretation of his son, Ben, and the rewriting of John Neihardt. The volumes each suggested ways in which specifically Siouan constructs of the universe—and particularly the intricate interconnection of material and spiritual life in the specific ecosphere of the Great Plains—could frame a sustainable way of living that was completely different from the linear and progressive model of the Amer-Europeans and their historians.

To Amer-Europeans—John Joseph Mathews’ term for people of European descent who inhabited America but had failed to become naturalized to the land and its customs—the end of the nineteenth century seemed to mark the end of the frontier, the defeat of the “deficient” people who had peopled the Great Plains, and the triumph of a bicoastal Anglo-Saxon democracy, premised on a market economy and a particular definition of Christianity. Chapter 6 looks at how the saga of the “Closing of the West” was created for the United States by Frederic Jackson Turner and for Canada by Harold Innis, and how the saga has been tweaked and rewritten by our contemporary New West historians.

Yet “Indians” were not the sole history of the Great Plains during the period it was being transformed into commercial agriculture. The eastern, central, and West Coast areas of North America were never “free land” in the way that the Great Plains was purported to be. Quebec, Plymouth, Williamsburg, and other seventeenth-century settlements were sited on or near Indigenous settlements and were dependent upon Indigenous people for their survival. Land was granted to seigneurs or to compacts and parcelled out to settlers. Eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century settlers or agents purchased land or were granted it for service in war. Oregon Territory featured an early Homestead Act designed to draw settlers west (ignoring the Great Plains) in order to hold the territory for the United States against British claims. The mountain and desert Wests and the North remain largely federal lands not “settled” by agrarians. The Great Plains, however, was “free land” to be made into farm homes by idealistic young families. Or so, at least, said the backers of the Homestead Act and the Dominion Lands Act and even the Dawes Allotment Act, which broke up the reservations into individual allotments for Indigenous people and “surplus” lands for Amer-European homesteaders. In chapter 7, however, we see that the great success of the Homestead Acts was in transforming “free land” into capital for the market development of the Great Plains, not in turning “virgin land” into “family farms.”

Homestead laws both implicitly and explicitly, especially in Canada, excluded most women from homesteading in their own right. The Indian Act in Canada and other laws and treaties defined race in terms of gender. Only male persons were described as Indian—women’s Indian status was dependent upon being fathered by or married to an Indian, and could be erased by marriage to a non-Indian. The destruction of the buffalo economy and of the definitions of the sacred year around the buffalo affected men more severely than it did women. Chapter 8 discusses the ways in which deficiency definitions affected women distinctively.

The deficiency definitions of the West did not disappear in the twentieth century, nor did the Amer-European belief that it was appropriate to continue to take Indian land, lives, and culture because they continued to be deficient by Amer-European standards. Chapter 9 looks at the de-Indianizing of the state of Oklahoma, the former “Indian Territory,” from before statehood up through the 1930s; we also examine the “mixed economy” that had been re-created and rebuilt since the various “removals” of people to Oklahoma. And Indigenous peoples were not the only ones who resisted the imposition of Amer-European agriculture and farms on the Great Plains. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s—following on the depressed years of the 1920s on the Plains—forced Canadians and Americans to rethink the whole prospect of living on the Plains. The Dust Bowl reinforced the deficiency idea, of course, but it also forced people to reconsider the way they were doing things. Not all Amer-Europeans shared the belief in the deficiency of the Great Plains: there had always been people seeking to become native to the place, like Osage agent Laban Miles, of whom Mathews wrote.

Chapter 11 discusses how two unusual leaders, George Norris of Nebraska and Tommy Douglas of Saskatchewan, attempted to mitigate what was going wrong for the people who were living on the Plains. Both recognized that the extreme individualism preached by Manifest Destiny narratives simply was not working on the Plains, although their ways of mitigating both market forces and the particularities of the environment were fairly conventional. Douglas, particularly, recognized that market forces, working as they theoretically were supposed to work, would inevitably impoverish and depopulate the Great Plains. He believed that government development and a planned economy would mitigate the unforgiving hand of the market. Chapter 12 looks at how planning and growth theory can help us understand how the history of the Great Plains developed under an explicit model of deficiency that does not necessarily provide a blueprint for a better future—except for a planned depopulation of Buffalo Commons. In fact, the global blunders committed in the name of planning foreshadow a dark role for the Great Plains in terms of the global economy. “Mouse Beans and Drowned Rivers,” chapter 13, shows how, again, the theories of the deficiency of the land and of its Indigenous inhabitants intersect, this time resulting in the string of dams built to “reclaim” the Missouri River for flood control, power generation, and navigation for Amer-European market agriculture and cities, all at the expense of the subsistence, convenience, tradition, and commercial livelihood of the tribal communities that were systematically flooded.

Although we have been looking primarily at an agricultural history of the Great Plains, resource extraction has also been a significant part of the story. While the region (except for a small section near the Black Hills) has been spared consideration as a “National Sacrifice Area” (à la the uranium-producing Four Corners region of the United States), extraction of fossil fuels, and particularly oil and gas, has played a large part in the economic prosperity—and subsequent economic busts—of the region. Extraction comes with certain environmental degradations that emphasize the expendability of the place and its human and non-human residents. Alberta’s oil sands are north of the Great Plains, but the vast expenditures of water, energy, and habitat in producing oil are resonant with the petroleum industry’s history from Texas and Oklahoma up through Wyoming and the Dakotas to Alberta and Saskatchewan. Roger Epp’s consideration of how they add to the “de-skilling” of the rural West is a twenty-first-century explication of the deficiency paradigm.

The final chapter suggests a way in which we might reconceptualize our whole understanding of this region within a paradigm that does not depend on deficiency. Among the “deficiencies” of Indigenous people that Amer-Europeans attempted to rectify was the “lack” of a justice system. As innumerable inquiries into the provision of justice (or lack thereof) to Aboriginal individuals and communities have repeatedly concluded, the vaunted, adversarial, rights-based Anglo justice system has been, especially in the Prairies, a travesty for Native people, who are, from birth, more likely than anyone else to be “victims” or “perpetrators” of crimes. Although things may be getting worse for actual Indigenous persons, society is no longer uniformly proclaiming that it is Native people who are deficient. Rather, it is the imposed “justice system” that has failed. Chapter 15 looks at how social justice might improve were it framed in an Indigenous intellectual context. It argues that a similar reframing might enable us to better understand how to create a thoroughly twenty-first-century form of sufficiency on the Great Plains that satisfies human beings without devastating the non-human Plains ecosystem.

Almost every summer morning, the dogs and I leave the little house in Calgary and walk past the neatly groomed fairways of the golf course to a few acres of “natural area” park. About three or four years ago, the neighbourhood community had the park declared pesticide-free and staged a raid on yellow goatsbeard or false salsify (Tragopogon dubius), a Eurasian plant that in Nebraska is content to be a minor forb in the tallgrass prairie, but here in the fescue shortgrass is a serious invasive. So each morning we stop, I put my right foot on the leashes, and I grasp the stem of the goatsbeard. Pull steadily, straight up, so as not to break off the stem at ground level. It is best to work two days after a rain, so that the water has penetrated deep enough to soften the ground. Pull out the taproot, which looks like a skinny parsnip or real salsify. If you are patient, you can boil the roots and scrape out the edible flesh between the woody core and the skin and root hairs to make a tasty porridge. Supposedly goatsbeard, like other salsifies, is a remedy for liver and gallbladder malfunctions, but it would take a very patient herbalist to work with it. Some of the other exotics in the natural area park—brome grass, dandelions, European vetches—were deliberately introduced to North America for their nutritive values, but goatsbeard probably just came along for the ride, mixed in with the seeds of those more prized Eurasian fodder plants. No one, not even I, bothers to cook up the yellow goatsbeard. The plants are allowed to dry out and disintegrate on the paths or are carefully bagged in plastic for the trash. I can see them now at any distance across the field, their shade of yellow entirely distinct from any other yellow, their silhouette of leaf and stalk standing out, now that I have hunted them for so long, from all the other grasses, forbs, and woody shrubs.

Except for Autumn, the strong travois dog (licensed as an Australian cattle dog because the City of Calgary has no categories for Indigenous North American dogs), the dogs and I are as much invasive exotics as the yellow goatsbeard, as the brome and dandelions, as the Hungarian partridges who fill the niche once claimed by prairie chickens, as the English sparrows and city pigeons. Yet sometimes we find coyote scat or surprise a jackrabbit hurrying off with stiff-legged bounds. I give thanks for the pin cherries and strawberries, the wolf willows and wild roses, the spruces and poplars, the fescue grasses and the spring crocuses, the ears of the prairie, and I wonder by what right I uproot my fellow invasive, the pretty yellow flower that, if left alone, produces a perfect hoary globe, like a giant dandelion plume, that might delight a small child; the flower that, if left alone, could be harvested in the fall as food and medicine.

On most fall and winter and spring mornings, the dogs and I leave the big old farmhouse in Nebraska and walk down our driveway, past the pond that feeds the well, along the abandoned railroad tracks, then up the gravel service road to the tower that sends 911 signals across the southern half of Lancaster County. Red-tailed hawks perch on the guy wires of the tower and launch off to search for the small mammals who make up most of their diet. On our own land, we walk through the regenerated tallgrass prairie, where the big and little bluestem, the switchgrass, the Indian grass, and the rest are slowly taking back these few acres from the brome that was planted there some ninety years ago. Already the yellow sweet clover that came up the year after we pastured the neighbours’ horse is gone. We have wild roses and many forms of composite sunflowers and asters and daisies and iron weed, distant cousins of the yellow goatsbeard. We have the woody sumacs, whose “fire-fangled feathers” give fall colour to the field. We lack leadweed and sensitive plant and most of the other legumes of the prairie, who did not shelter a population along the creek beds sufficient to accompany the grasses back into the ploughed and seeded monoculture of the brome. The creek is the home of black willows of the kind one might cut to build a sweatlodge, and of one huge and symmetrical cottonwood tree. As we walk up to the tower, we walk between a fenceline of mulberries and Siberian elms, both deliberately introduced exotics who are now invasive, and a field that used to be sown in wheat or milo, both semi-arid plants, but that now is always given to the thirstier soybeans or corn. Only the corn is native to the Americas, but these commercial hybrids are a long way from the multi-coloured “Indian corn” of the Pawnee and Omaha and Oto corn villages that dotted southeastern Nebraska a few centuries ago. I am grateful for the properly named velvet leaf, which, exotic as it is, breaks up the monoculture. And I am grateful for the cattle who glean the fields after harvest, giving them shape and dimension. I know that on a late fall afternoon, coming home after dark, it is wise to be sure that the blacker shadow of the willow tree by the pond does not hide an Aberdeen-Angus heifer who has got through the fence. And I do not pull out the yellow goatsbeard that so modestly raises its head from the tall grass or the hedgerow. In Nebraska, it seems to have become naturalized, in equilibrium, not threatening to claim more than a sustainable niche in the floral ecosystem. Perhaps the dogs and I should aspire to the humility of Nebraska goatsbeard. Each morning I choose the highest point of our walk to face the four directions and salute the array of leafy beings against the great prairie sky.

1
A Unified Field Theory of the Great Plains

According to Janine Brodie, “Regionalism structures political conflict around the distribution of resources across geographic space.”1 All regions are imaginary—the sharp borderlines and different coloured spaces of the map are intellectual constructs, not physiographic ones—but, like most imaginary human constructs, maps control some of the ways human minds can conceptualize, in this case, place. If we look again at our particular map of the Great Plains, we can see that its outlines are an amalgam of physiographic and political features. On the land itself, elevation gradually rises and average annual precipitation gradually drops from east to west, while summer temperatures rise and summer daylight hours diminish from north to south across the Great Plains. Both native vegetation and contemporary cropping patterns spill over the edges of the region in all directions. Rural areas of the Great Plains share with the rest of rural North America, and indeed the world, problems such as depopulation, loss of political power, soil and water degradation, siting of material and human “waste” facilities, and low and uncertain commodity prices. Urban Great Plains centres are indistinguishable in their Wal-Marts, fast food franchises, and drug problems from other North American cities. Yet the variability across its area and the indistinct boundaries of the Great Plains do not negate the value of discussing it as “region” in order to structure our understanding of the political and economic tug-of-wars that have characterized this place and are rendering the rural areas—the vast majority of the land—socially and demographically unviable, except for the growing populations and high birth rates on reserves and reservations.

Let us look briefly at the geographical and human history that does unify the Great Plains and enables us to speak of it as a region that is more meaningful than either a single state or province or the larger and far more amorphous region designated “the West.” As we noted, about 65 million years ago, the great tectonic plates on which the continents ride ground together in the Laramide orogeny, pushing up the Rocky Mountains. The soil of the plains is largely derived from the weathering away of the Rockies by wind, water, and frost, and the deposition of soil wherever the wind or water slows down enough to drop individual grains. Because the prevailing winds come from the west, they tend to shed most of their water on the west side of the mountains, since the air cools and condenses out moisture as the winds rise to pass over the obstruction. The resulting rain shadow east of the Rockies determines the semi-arid nature of the plains. Glaciation, the recession of the glaciers, and the concentration of meltwater in ancient Lake Agassiz (whose remnants are Lakes Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Winnipegosis) repeatedly flattened the region, but also decorated it with ancient shorelines, lateral and terminal glacial moraines, and prairie pothole lakes, formed where chunks of ice surrounded by glacial till melted, leaving holes in the till. The Black Hills and Cypress Hills became stone islands in the seas of ice, providing refuge for a variety of species: even today, they support different flora and fauna from the surrounding plains. Huge deep beds of gravel underlie the smooth surface of the prairies: like sponges, they collect water as it flows through the flat, braided rivers of the plains south of the Missouri and seeps down to aquifers, particularly the Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies the land from Nebraska’s sandhills to the Llano Estacado of Texas. The deep, dark soils of the Great Plains, an annual average precipitation of nine to twenty inches (17 to 50 cm), and frequent lightning-caused fires allowed a characteristic vegetation of grasses and associated forbs to evolve, along with gallery forests along riverbanks and ravines.2

Before the nineteenth century, the Plains had supported human societies for millennia—longer in the south than in the north, for the most part. The people had blended horticulture in corn villages along the rivers with hunting and gathering. Their travois pulled only by their sturdy dogs, they could neither follow the buffalo nor ride them down, but they could predict where they would be and painstakingly herd them into pounds or over cliffs.3 In the nineteenth century, it was the Great Plains that had the distinction of becoming, in a way not true for any other region, Amer-European “free land”—despite being the heartland of flourishing and expanding horse-bison-Sun Dance cultures. As early as the 1820s, the US federal government was eying the Plains as land too far west or too arid for Amer-European settlement and as a dumping ground for Indigenous peoples until such time as they either assimilated or died out. Before the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the whole eastern tier of the US Great Plains was Indian Territory, and Oklahoma and the Dakotas retained this distinction until statehood, though actual Indigenous occupancy was progressively more restricted. Starting with the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862 in the United States and continuing with the passage of the Dominion Lands Act in 1872 in Canada, the Great Plains in both countries was the main area opened to homesteading—in which the intending settler bet three (in Canada) or five (in the US) years against the government for 160 to 640 acres of land. In reality, more land on the Great Plains was purchased (through pre-emption, from railroads, from the Hudson’s Bay Company, from government entities, or from other settlers) than was actually proved up in homesteads. In any case, this segment of national land policy—although it was also used in the southern United States, the upper Midwest, and the Pacific Northwest—overwhelmingly centred on the Plains, introducing the land to free market economies in a most incongruous way. The land and the terms of its incorporation into the current market system distinguish the Great Plains from the US Midwest and the St. Lawrence/Great Lakes lowlands, which were sold for money or in exchange for military service or which were granted or sold to seigneurs or other landlords who intended to tenant them for a profit. At the same time, the Plains differed from the Shield, the mountains, the desert, and the North, which never entered private ownership.

In The Fur Trade in Canada, Harold Innis laid out an enduring relationship between the European metropolitan centres, the Canadian entrepôt cities, and the fur-producing staples hinterlands. J.M.S. Careless developed the theories, Paul Voisey modified them for the Canadian Prairies, and William Cronon, in Nature’s Metropolis, further modified them for the US Great Plains. But “hinterland” is a purely economic and relational status. The Great Plains of both Canada and the United States are now economic hinterlands—even if Calgary now boasts more corporate headquarters than any other Canadian city but Toronto. During Blackfoot and Lakota times—when many nations shared the culture marked by the bison, the Sun Dance, and eventually the horse—the Great Plains was the centre of the universe, the place where creation began. Full of sacred sites as well as both faunal and vegetal abundance, linked to trading routes that provided any wants the Prairies did not produce, this region was no hinterland until it was encountered by Europeans. But the connotation of “hinterland” is not simply relational—it implies some kind of deficiency, as in the title of the play “If You’re So Great, Why Are You Still in Saskatoon?” It is important to reiterate that no region in the world is deficient—or excessive—in terms of the organisms that have co-evolved with it. The Great Plains is grassful, not treeless.4 The Great Plains is semi-arid, its weather as variable as anywhere in the world, and often violent, but these are conditions that promote a complex grass and grazing ecology. Drought is a recurring condition on the Great Plains, a deficiency for a sedentary agrarian society but an advantage for a pastoral lifestyle in ways that contemporary whitestream plains society does not yet seem to have fathomed.

The movement of peoples onto the Great Plains between the 1860s and 1914 is an epic of one of the great migrations in human history. It is more (and less), however, than the valorized saga of “conquering” the land and establishing the breadbasket of the world and the home of millions of valiant family farmers where once had been a desert occupied by a few nomadic bands of Indians. “Desert” is, first of all, an unreliable term. Remember, no ecosystem is deficient in terms of the organisms that have co-evolved with it. The Great Plains is a complex and dynamic ecosystem with biofeedback mechanisms—such as gophers and grasshoppers—that keep it viable in the face of one of the most extreme and variable climates on earth. “Nomad,” in the sense of a non-planning, erratic wanderer, is as suspect a term as “desert.” Plains people before the advent of the horse visited various areas on a regular seasonal cycle, anticipating bison, elk, and other animal migrations as well as utilizing roots, tubers, berries, and other vegetable foodstuffs in season and preparing and storing them for winter. The return of the horse to the Great Plains increased the distance the people could cover and the materials they could carry with them, freeing them to use the whole Plains instead of being tied to the general vicinity of major rivers.

After the European “discovery” of North America but before any prairie schooners had crossed the Missouri or cart brigades had set out hopefully from Red River, numerous migrant peoples had entered the Great Plains from the east, south, and northwest. Although, as Vine Deloria suggests, the Siouan peoples may have come from the Black Hills area, by 1492 they seem to have been living in the Great Lakes/Ohio valley region, from whence they migrated west. The Osages settled in the southeast (Missouri and Oklahoma) and the Lakotas and Assiniboines in the northwest (Montana, Dakotas, Manitoba, Saskatchewan), with other groups strung out in between. Partly they responded to a push from the east, as European settlement and trade patterns started a train of displacement, and partly to the pull of the hunting and gathering opportunities of the Great Plains; perhaps they were merely returning to an ancestral homeland. By the 1810s, the southeastern peoples who had assimilated far too successfully for their Amer-European neighbours—the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles—began moving west, mostly to escape Amer-European encroachment. By the 1830s, the bulk of these people, including mixed-blood (with white and black) and African-Americans both enslaved and free, had been forcibly removed by the US government to Indian Territory (Oklahoma); in the following decade, numerous midwestern and eastern groups such as Shawnees, Miamis, Wendats, Senecas, Ottawas, Delawares and others were less violently but still forcibly removed to Indian Territory (Kansas and Oklahoma). When the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 opened the land to “squatter sovereignty” and set off “Bleeding Kansas,” a long-running prelude to the American Civil War, no land in Kansas was legally available for either free-state or slave-state settlers—it was all set aside in treaties or in trust for Native nations.5

Coming south from Hudson Bay and west along the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes, mixed-blood descendants of the fur trade settled at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. Their numbers were augmented by both the children and the retired workers of the fur trade, and eventually by Scots and Swiss immigrants. In the south, another mixed-blood community, of Spanish, Native, and Moorish descent, moved slowly into the Llano of West Texas and New Mexico, surrounding and to some extent blending with the long-settled Pueblo agriculturalists and the Athapascan-speaking pastoralists from the northwest. Similarly, the Kiowas moved, over several centuries, from the northwest down through the Black Hills to central Oklahoma.6

Euro/Afro/North American settlement of the Great Plains, then, came into a complex and diverse ecosystem that at many places may have been at or near the carrying capacity of the land. Mounted hunter-gatherer cultures both competed with and complemented older corn village/hunter-gatherer societies, such as the Pawnees and Mandans, who were established in many river valleys. The Canadian prairies, with a shorter ice-free history than the United States and a much shorter growing season, for the most part lacked the corn villages, but this ecological niche was accounted for by Scots and Métis horticulturalists in Red River and by Ojibwa (Anishinaabe) wild rice harvesters to their east. Euro/Afro/North American settlement did not introduce agriculture to the Great Plains, but it did introduce large-scale commercial monocultures in both field crops and animal husbandry. Eco-historians question the sustainability of bison herds even before commercialized bison hunting led to the collapse of the herds in the 1870s and theorize that even by the 1830s, the bison were both overstocked and over-hunted. Indeed, it is likely that bison numbers were never stable. Despite theories of climax vegetation (implying also climax fauna), the Great Plains is marked by variability—even instability. As James Malin has pointed out and contemporary ecologists such as Don Gayton have emphasized, the grasslands have developed symbiotically with crisis—dust storms, prairie fires, long droughts, floods, and population explosion and collapse. The sunflower-bordered roads of which Willa Cather writes so fondly are less examples of J.E. Weaver’s progression to climax than of the alternations among various forbs and grasses in adaptation to changing conditions.7

Once Euro-North Americans encountered the Great Plains, they imaged it alternately as desert or garden, responding less to dry or wet conditions in the place itself than to ideas of what they wanted it to be. Thus, various reincarnations of the wishful thought that rain follows the plough lasted from the 1870s in Nebraska, through the localized dam building and irrigation era of the early twentieth century and the mainstem Missouri dams of the 1940s, until at least the early 1990s and the building of the Oldman Dam in Alberta. Global-warming denial is the most recent and least imaginative version of the mantra. Nonetheless, once the collective decision was somehow made that the Great Plains was to be a garden, settlement and transformation of the region from what Scott Momaday called a “lordly society” of “fighters and thieves, hunters and priests of the Sun” to a society of production agriculture linked to world markets happened extremely rapidly.8 Unlike agricultural frontiers to the east and to some extent the west, which had undergone a period of subsistence agriculture as described by such pioneers as Ontarian Susannah Moodie or Michigander Caroline Kirkland, the Plains jumped into global competition in two generations. The process began in the 1860s with the original US Homestead Act, the end of the US Civil War, Canada’s Confederation, the completion of the Union Pacific, the first transcontinental railroad, and the cession of Rupert’s Land to the Dominion of Canada. The taking of the Great Plains was completed in the first decade of the twentieth century with Alberta and Saskatchewan becoming provinces in 1905 and Oklahoma achieving statehood in 1907.

There were a number of interlocking ideas involved in these two generations of taking of the land. One was the assumption, so basic as to be unstated, that had governed westward expansion from Europe since before the time of Columbus. An ideology still embraced by some neo-conservative thinkers, it held that a Christian society with an expanding population, an agricultural land-use ethic based on individualism and private property, and an increasing mastery of science and technology had an inherent right to land and natural resources, a right that naturally trumped the rights of anyone else with whom such a society might come in contact. By the 1860s, this basic belief had also evolved to require, quite explicitly in the United States and more hesitantly in Canada, a free market economy buttressed with an infrastructure—internal improvements and a banking system—provided or facilitated by the federal government. For Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, using “free” land to attract immigrants and building a railway to get them to the Prairies was part of what came to be called the National Policy. The railway would fulfill the promise to British Columbia that it would have a land link to the Dominion of Canada, would hold the newly acquired Rupert’s Land territories against US expansionists looking north and Fenians looking to avenge Ireland by taking England’s North American territories, and would transport the settlers to the “free” land. Once there, these pioneer farmers would create a market for machinery made in central Canada, thus developing an industrial base for the new country.

The square survey that enabled the hopeful homesteader to stake a quarter section is a perfect blend of federal infrastructure and individual enterprise. Thomas Jefferson had dreamed of an America based on yeoman farmers, each tending his own plot of ground and practising virtues that would lead to a settled and happy democracy. Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, envisaged a commercial and urban America that would be a financial power in the world. Philosophically, the various Homestead Acts were purely Jeffersonian—contented families living in white houses with green trim and looking out on red barns with white trim would live happily ever after on their 160-acre farms. In practice, the Homestead Acts were a lot more Hamiltonian. As Alberta historian Paul Voisey has shown in his wonderful study Vulcan, some settlers were genuinely interested in putting together family farms of 160 acres or more. A few were seriously involved in constructing much larger farms. Many were engaged in speculation, perhaps holding down a homestead and dabbling in town lots, changing both profession and residence with bewildering speed and frequency. In fact, the Homestead Acts were the greatest instruments of middle-class capital formation ever invented. It was not wheat that made Alberta and Saskatchewan magnets for immigration of both capital and people, it was the land itself. The land became capital and wheat was the obvious, if temporary, mechanism. As a long-term wheat-producing asset, the land would never be worth what mortgage companies and intending buyers poured into it, a truth that continues to haunt the Plains in terms of perennial grain surpluses.

Turning land into capital was also crucial for the free-grass ranching that flourished on the Great Plains in the margin between Indigenous people assigned to reserves and the entrance of the homesteaders. As ranching historian Warren Elofson has shown, the inherently unsustainable open-range cattle operations could never be economically viable, but they siphoned large quantities of money into the country.9 As they went belly up after the big Die-Ups, the money stayed with the sellers of cattle, the ranch hands who had been paid for bogus homestead and pre-emption entries to secure water rights for the ranchers (a practice more common in the US than in Canada, where leases provided a somewhat more rational basis of allotting land), and the various other payees and middlemen who handled the cash or started small viable herds of “orphaned” cattle. While the homesteaders focussed on the deficiency of the land, the open-range ranchers claimed the pastures as a paradise for cattle; they underestimated, though, the deficiency of both southern range cattle and the beefier British imports to sustain themselves on the northern prairies without shelter, protection from predators, or supplemental feeding.

The Homestead Acts were more successful at creating capital than at creating viable family farms; they were also extremely successful at moving land first from Native sovereignty to the public domain and then to private ownership. Like the Land Ordinance of 1785, which set out the form of the square survey, based on astronomical observations rather than on the lay of the land, the Homestead Acts commodified land, moving it from the commons to individual plots for individual ownership. An obsessive belief in the magic of fee simple ownership of land, including surface and usually mineral rights in perpetuity, fuelled the Homestead Acts as well as the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887 and its variants from 1885 to 1906. Although allotment was supposed to make it easier for Native families to hold onto their land, in practice, it resulted in massive land losses: from 1887 to 1934 (when allotment was repealed), Indian land in the United States dropped from 135 million to 47 million acres.10 The Dominion Lands Act was an inevitable result of the US Homestead Act. Canada could compete with settlers, particularly immigrants, only if it also offered them “free” land on even easier terms than in the United States. The gut-level commitment to owning land, particularly on the part of European peasants who had never been able to secure tenure on the soil they worked, as well as the ideological commitment to private property, especially in contradistinction to the radicals of 1848 in Europe, who extolled variations of communism, obscured the truth that the Great Plains was not free land in the nineteenth century.

Before the homesteaders, the Great Plains was purposefully occupied and used in ways that countered climate variability with geographic mobility. Indigenous people did not follow the buffalo herds—rather they anticipated buffalo movement and stationed themselves where experience told them the bison would be moving. Or, if their forecast was wrong, they moved toward alternate or supplementary food sources, such as deer, elk, berries, or prairie turnip. Allotment of specific small parcels of land, for both Indians and homesteaders, meant that modifying the effects of a variable climate and producing a uniform product for a world economy would substitute for modifying place of residence to sustain a plentiful subsistence living. And even if fee simple had been the key to a more prosperous life for humans on the Great Plains, the 160-acre homestead, laid out arbitrarily on the grid system, was by no means the most propitious choice. The river lots that the Métis had borrowed from the Laurentian valleys in Quebec granted each landholder access to water, wood, and transportation along the river; a kitchen garden; fields for grain; and finally, communal hay and pasture lands. Because they included both river frontage and uplands, the river lots allowed, on a small scale, the geographic mobility that had marked successful human adaptation to the Great Plains and took advantage of the micro-climates that affected everything from subsoil moisture to frost-free days.

To the extent that Indigenous people could control their allotments, they, too, chose river frontage mixed with upland to provide a source of indigenous food plants, access to hunting land, and access to pasture and crop land. The completely arbitrary nature of the range and township system that assumed all land was essentially interchangeable was singularly ill-equipped to help the Native family or the settlers adapt, within the confines of their own homestead, to extreme variability. Although the implied uniformity of the land was amenable to commercial agriculture for global export, it was not a particularly intelligent way to utilize the Great Plains. As James Scott has shown in Seeing Like a State, the square (or cadastral) survey was not really in keeping with peasant agricultures in Europe, where it was introduced for the benefit of state administrators and tax collectors, but it was even less suitable to the Great Plains. Yet neither lawmakers nor homesteaders questioned whether the allotment of the commons through the square survey was a superior form of land use—it was, by that time, self-evident. Indigenous people throughout the Great Plains did question the assumption during the whole allotment period, both by opposing allotment in general and by trying to secure plots that combined riverine and upland acreage and adjoined land held by other family members. Neither government nor incoming settlers, however, credited their arguments.

Canadian officials were not as obsessed with allotment as were Americans, probably because the original reserves were much smaller than American reservations, so there was less need to create the idea of “surplus” land that must be captured for intending homesteaders from the East. Prairie reserves, however, lost about half of their land between 1896 and 1928. Nonetheless, officials were equally deaf to the pleas from peoples such as the Dakotas of Saskatchewan for promised hay and pastureland. And, as Sarah Carter has shown, Indian Superintendent Hayter Reed’s obsession with the idea of the inevitable progression from “savagery” through “barbarism” to “civilization” fatally hampered Cree adaptation to farming by equally foreclosing both communal and individualistic adaptations of sedentary farming techniques to northern Plains climate variability, thus eliminating Crees as economic rivals to neighbouring Canadian-European farmers.11

If the Homestead Act was the advertisement, the railroad was the vehicle for the intending settlers. The construction of the railroads was high drama, especially the first transcontinentals in each country, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Both lines gobbled human lives, money, timber, stone, and iron. Both were exercises in what economists call “premature enterprise”—too risky to build for the normal economic gains to be expected at the time. As Robert Fogel explains, in the United States, a handful of entrepreneurs developed an elaborate kickback scheme centred around their Credit Mobilier company to raise the rate of return enough to attract investors. In Canada, John A. Macdonald’s still unfinished CPR would almost certainly have fallen into bankruptcy and ruin had it not been for the Northwest Resistance in Saskatchewan (or the Northwest Rebellion, as MacDonald would have called and understood it) and both England’s and Ontario’s perceived need to ship soldiers out West to put down the “Indians.”12 Though it may be a metaphor to call the Euro-North American settlers of the Great Plains an army of occupation, the first passengers on the CPR were quite literally soldiers sent to affirm Canadian sovereignty over the Great Plains.

The saga of building the CPR across the muskeg of the Shield, over and through the mazy mountains of the Rockies and the Selkirks, and down the gorges of coastal ranges is definitely a national saga. Although the railway was originally built to tie British Columbia to the rest of the newly confederated Canada, in terms of loss of sovereignty, mono-crop settlement, and economic development (or exploitation), the effect of the railway was greatest on the Plains. The railway became one of the most vivid ideas—positive or negative—in the intellectual repertoire of the Plains. Settlement of the sort that occurred was impossible without the railroads, yet the railroads, grain elevators, and markets, and Macdonald’s National Policy, were also the scapegoats for the prairie pioneers’ indomitable sense of entitlement. Both countries paid for the railroad building partly through granting each rail company land in a checkerboard pattern on either side of each completed mile of track. Where the land did not seem to be of sufficient quality that its future sale would pay off the rail-building costs, the rail companies could select “lieu lands” in a more promising area. Settlers looking for free land who found that half the most valuable areas were railroad property, and for sale only, felt themselves to be victims of a “bait and switch” scheme. They were even more incensed when the railways were slow to choose their lieu lands, leaving settlers uncertain, sometimes for decades, about what lands would turn out to be “free.”13

The gospel of the Homestead Acts is enormously appealing: by sweat equity, deserving families would create farm homes for themselves while helping to feed a hungry world. That such an enterprise was also a gamble, a lottery, was acknowledged both by the homesteaders, who frankly stated that they were betting Uncle Sam five years of their lives versus 160 of his acres, and by the actual lotteries that parcelled out the right to claim farm land or town lots after the seemingly endless “free land” ran out. The sense of entitlement that came from capturing and taming land—the belief that your five years on the land in the United States or three in Canada entitled you to a farm, including enough water to grow crops—plus that trust in gambling, in lotteries, has remained part of the idea bank of Great Plains thought today. Farming is always a gamble, but nowhere more than on the Great Plains, where the only constant in the climate is its variability and its “too-ness”—it is always too hot, too dry, too windy, too wet, too cold … It is not a place that breeds caution.

Homesteads, allotments, and the rigid assignment of farmland on Canadian reserves, then, succeeded in transforming the Great Plains from Buffalo Commons to fee simple agriculture in two generations. As Irene Spry has noted, it was the last chapter in the loss of the commons that had begun in medieval England. While the popular image of this human movement onto the Plains was, and is, that it civilized wild land and wild people and made the desert blossom like a rose, feeding a hungry world, the underlying economic interactions were somewhat more complex. As Hamlin Garland astutely pointed out in the 1880s and 1890s, the pseudo-homesteader who sold a relinquishment of a claim and moved to town or to an eastern city was more likely to prosper than those who stayed on the farm. Rates of return in agriculture are usually lower than those in commerce and manufacturing. The wet weather booms followed by the dry weather busts of the 1870s, 1890s, early 1900s, and 1920s and 1930s resulted in massive farm consolidations and a rise of tenantry—which, somewhat paradoxically, because it allowed for more flexibility than land ownership, was often more humanly and economically successful than hunkering down on the family homestead. Landowners, as Voisey points out, were likely to be cash poor because everything had gone for more land and equipment to work it.14 As men and animals were replaced by machines, farming became more capital intensive and more tied to the commercial market.

In a market system, more risk is supposed to yield more potential gain, but as is the case in any kind of gambling, more risk always leads to more loss. Newspapers publish excited stories about the people who win the lottery—they do not publish long lists of people who lose the lottery. Farmers worked, in most cases, extremely hard. They kept clean fields and they planted and tilled and harvested. Writers and politicians praised them as the salt of the earth. As Patricia Limerick has shown, they felt entitled to succeed, to hit the pot of gold that had to be at the end of the double rainbow of hard work and high risk. Their chosen role became that of the “injured innocent.”15 Many Great Plains farmers were successful and prosperous, establishing farms that stayed in the family and sustained it for generations. Most were not. The economics of Great Plains farming have called for fewer people and more capital on larger and larger spreads of land. Since rates of return are lower on farming than manufacturing, commerce, and other kinds of extractive industries—such as petroleum—the consistent mismatch between expectations and return enticed farmers to keep on insisting that they ought to succeed. The old joke about the farmer who won the lottery and explained that he’d just keep farming until he lost it all shows a wry rural appreciation of the nature of the operation. Perhaps the problem was not with the land or the farmers but with the way society defined success.

Certainly, the Great Plains has been a hotbed of resistance to the commercial market. On both sides of the border, agrarian discontent has bubbled in waves. From the Grange, to the Populists, to the Nonpartisan League, to United Farmers of Alberta and the United Grain Growers, to the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and Social Credit, to the Progressives, to the New Democratic Party, to Reform and Alliance, to the Saskatchewan and Wild Rose Parties, the lineage of western and agrarian discontent, on right and left, is strong. Yet in many ways, the Reform slogan “The West Wants In” may be the truest comment of them all. With the partial exception of the Non-Partisan League, the UGG, and the Progressives, and the almost total exception of the CCF in Saskatchewan under Tommy Douglas, agrarian protestors have been determined to make the market economy work for them. But the genius of free enterprise under the old pure Adam Smith definition of the elusive “free market” is to make decisions that exploit hinterlands for the sake of metropolises. The much-reviled National Policy, the CPR, the elevators, the grain merchants in Winnipeg and Chicago, the bankers and mortgage brokers, and all the other favourite targets of agrarian protest, along with Ottawa and Washington, are behaving exactly as they should—without even mentioning, as William Cronon has shown, that middlemen such as grain elevators actually provide a useful service to grain growers.16

The Great Plains should export its soil and water (in the form of grain and meat), its other natural resources, and the best and brightest of its children elsewhere: that is the way the free market is supposed to work. Someone like Tommy Douglas, who makes a reasoned plea for sustained sufficiency rather than the jackpots and busts promised by the free market, may succeed temporarily in constructing the Co-operative Commonwealth, but it is true that in the long run, Great Plains people have refused to accept governmental reforms that mute booms as well as busts and strive to abolish poverty before establishing wealth. And so Great Plains people support a market system that, working as it should, is bound to diminish the rate of return to the region as a whole. Furthermore, because capital is more mobile than labour, people are left behind in small towns of the Great Plains that dry up until there are more people in the nursing home, the only economic diversification in town, than in the school. The countryside produces more crops with fewer people and expects governments to find markets for them.

Except during wartime, the Great Plains has produced more wheat and corn than the market can absorb, at least at prices that return to farmers their cost of production plus a small profit—and certainly not at prices that would mitigate the mining of soil fertility and water for the production of grain. After World War II, the Great Plains supplied grain for the rest of the world and avoided both starvation in the war-torn countries and the collapse of grain prices that had so devastated farmers after World War I. But by 1948, there was a world surplus of grain that the US Department of Agriculture and the Canadian Wheat Board contrived to control by keeping their prices low enough to discourage other countries from going into the wheat export market. By 1963, however, this agreement had fallen apart, and the United States was gaining control of more of the world wheat market. In 1968, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau asked President Richard Nixon to help salvage the year-old International Grains Agreement, which had set a minimum world price for wheat. Nixon declined, and Canadian wheat farmers, who had an even smaller domestic market than the United States, were in deep trouble.17

Not surprisingly, farmers believe deeply in the Great Plains as the breadbasket of the world and in the inherent nobility of producing beautiful, wholesome grain to feed hungry children everywhere. There is enormous joy in the “straight, dark rows” behind the ploughs of spring, in the intense green fields that follow, and in the steady stream of plump golden kernels the combine pours into the waiting grain hoppers.18 Although USDA subsidies favour agribusiness at the expense of “family farms,” American farm rhetoric from television herbicide commercials on up pay homage to the old Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer. Trudeau’s 1969 federal task force on agriculture may have been realistic in its acceptance that family farms were being squeezed out and that Ottawa would not be able to sell all the wheat that farmers were producing, but it was arrogant and ham-handed in suggesting that the farm population should be reduced by two thirds and the grain acreage by half in about four years.19 When Trudeau flippantly asked Prairie grain growers why he should sell their wheat, he badly misjudged not only the economic realities of wheat marketing since the beginning of Prairie grain farming, but also the importance of the entire breadbasket motif of western settlement. Ottawa should market the West’s wheat because that is the basic premise of settlement and all the history of markets and the Great Plains since then.

Trudeau’s arrogance hurt all the more because he had hit upon the real weakness of the Great Plains. The cheap food policies of both Canada and the United States and the encouragement and exportation of highly inefficient practices such as the transformation of multiple pounds of grain into single pounds of fatty meats, do not protect North American food safety or sufficiency and certainly do not protect the land, the water, or the human communities of the Great Plains. While it was impossible in 1969, and remains so now, to stop all food aid to the rest of the world, especially Africa, overproduction and export harms both the Great Plains and the areas that receive its grains. As Stan Rowe bluntly asks, why should Canadian or American governments or larger societies try “to save and maintain an exploitive, industrial, export-based agricultural system that has poorly served a large sector of the farming population, while at the same time running down the soils, diminishing surface and subsurface water, destroying natural landscapes and decimating native fauna and flora?” Nebraska, the Cornhusker State, grows far more irrigated corn than all the humans and animals in the state could possibly consume. Some of it ends up as high fructose corn syrup in carbonated beverages and thousands of other processed foods; some is distilled into ethanol—if oil prices are high enough. But under various farm plans, the US government markets it—or sometimes simply gives it away as food aid—all over the world. In Mexico and Central America, this cheap corn tends to displace subsistence farmers who had sold small corn surpluses in local markets.20 And if they turn to high-priced coca crops, which then return to Nebraska as cocaine, a recreational drug for displaced farm boys and girls and others in Great Plains cities and towns—well, isn’t that the way the market is supposed to work?

Traditions of agrarian discontent and western protest have settled down into a voting pattern in which the Great Plains states, which theoretically should never benefit from a free market, always support the Republican free market candidate for president, while the rural areas of Saskatchewan, which should theoretically benefit least from a free market, back the Ross Thatchers and Grant Devines and the Saskatchewan Party. Given the almost religious intensity of the belief in individualism and market forces that led to the commodification and settlement of Great Plains land, it is not surprising that this belief should remain so strong, especially as most economic diversification attempts on the Plains have failed. The US farm subsidy programs overwhelmingly support the largest and most capital-intensive farmers, while propositions from Liberal Ottawa setting out deliberate farm depopulation or a National Energy Policy—no matter how intelligent or defensible—have conditioned Plains people to distrust “government intervention.” So American farmers “farm the mailbox,” waiting for subsidy payments, and funnel more and more corn into ethanol despite the contention of some agronomists that it costs more petroleum to grow the corn than to buy gasoline.21 The essentially conservative nature of agrarian discontent manifests in voting behaviours that can only reward farmers with subsidies of one sort or another—the exact opposite of a free market or of any rational system to protect the environment or the long-term economic viability of farmers or the rural West.

Although, as David Jones shows brilliantly in Empire of Dust, the twenties were economically disastrous for the Great Plains, it was the 1930s that exposed the failure of governments to deal with drought and depression, even though the New Deal and the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act permanently inserted the federal governments into agricultural decision-making. The American documentary film The Plow That Broke the Plains is an artistically effective condemnation of the farming practices that left delicate land uncovered by grass or crops and susceptible to the blowing of the Dust Bowl. The backlash against the film from Great Plains farmers, incensed that the government would censure or restrict their farming methods or “knock” the region, was so intense that the film was withdrawn from circulation until 1961, and then was shown only as art, not as history.22 What farmers asked for, and eventually received, were crop supports and foreclosure moratoriums, which, however needed in the immediate crisis, were not alternatives to a free market system. While both Canadians and Americans reluctantly acquiesced to returning environmentally sensitive land to grass, including parks and leased and community pastures, Great Plains farmers and ranchers would not tolerate a wholesale assault on the fee simple cropping system, even though it did not work for the majority of them.

Diversification has become a watchword of western protest. To some it may mean simply diversification into different crops—canola instead of wheat, for instance. In Alberta, it usually means diversification from gas and oil. But most often, it means diversification into some form of manufacturing or “value-added” economic activity, not just the exploitation of natural resources. One of the West’s great complaints about Macdonald’s National Policy was that westerners were saddled with buying low-quality, high-priced farm machinery made in Ontario, while high tariffs kept out cheaper, better, American-made implements. American farmers of the same era complained of the banks and moneylenders who made them pay off their high-interest machinery loans in deflating currency.23 One apparent answer would have been diversification into farm machinery fabrication in the Great Plains, but a dispersed market, a distance from materials, and especially the lack of the synergy of the “rust belt” industrial concentration doomed any such hopes. The 1960s and 1970s were the heydays of regional planning and economic development worldwide, as “more developed regions” attempted to stabilize their population growth by directing development to “less developed regions.” The theory was simple enough—set up “growth poles” by importing industry and develop the economies around them. For the most part, such development failed because it never engaged the host economy. Economic enclaves flourished as long as they had development support and faded as soon as it was withdrawn. In fact, as we shall see later, economic development has failed in many ways in the Global South, and, although development theories are useful in explaining the Great Plains in the nineteenth century, they do not provide much sustenance for the twenty-first century.

Frank Popper, a planner from New Jersey who at first supported regional development but later became an astute critic, responded to the failure of most regional development projects by proposing Buffalo Commons. Originally an intellectual puzzle—how does one plan for de-development?—with the aura of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” Buffalo Commons attracted so much attention that Popper and his geographer wife, Deborah, built a cottage industry around elaborating it. Briefly, Buffalo Commons is reverse development planning, an orderly program for the depopulation of the Great Plains, the clearing of the dying towns and the economically unviable farms, and the re-establishment of native grasses, buffalo, and Aboriginal people—with a few grizzled old homesteaders for their pictorial value for the new crop of eco-tourists who would be drawn to the new/old Great Plains. Like The Plow That Broke the Plains and Trudeau’s plan for reducing farm populations, Buffalo Commons aroused a good deal of hostile interest in grass country. Perhaps the best response came from a pair of planners in Minot, North Dakota, who suggested working out the orderly depopulation of New Jersey so it could become a parking lot for New York City. Others, such as Maxine Moul, the former economic development director for the State of Nebraska, take Buffalo Commons very seriously as a useful instrument for rural planning. But like the regional development theories that it parodies, Buffalo Commons is firmly rooted in a free-market-with-government-tweaking model and bases its calculations on homogeneous space rather than distinctive places. Buffalo Commons is essentially conservative. Tyler Sutton and the Grassland Foundation have more recently proposed a variation on Buffalo Commons that would be developed by community groups, but the procedure is still in a hypothetical stage.24

In contrast to the underlying free market conservatism of most agrarian revolt on the Great Plains is a deeper and perhaps more valuable strain of resistance. The first resistance comes from the land itself. Except perhaps for truck gardens, land and growing things are resistant to the conformity and uniformity of production agriculture. Hydroponic greenhouses and hog confinement sheds grow more uniform “products” than crops grown in dirt and reliant on rainfall or than animals let out to “root, hog, or die.” The Great Plains, with its enormous climatic variability and an evapotranspiration rate that usually exceeds natural precipitation, is a pretty chancy environment. Even seventeenth- and eighteenth-century peoples such as the Pawnees and Osages who combined riverine horticulture with large-scale bison kills and small-scale hunting and gathering could not always balance the various resources and environments available to them to avoid scarcity.

Although both rowcrop horticulture and cattle ranching (after the demise of the “free range” system) have produced much larger and more stable harvests in any given spot than did subsistence horticultural regimes based largely on hunting and gathering, their long-term sustainability, as Stan Rowe notes, is questionable. On the other hand, as Geoff Cunfer points out, Great Plains agriculture is as sustainable as any North American agricultural regime, which has tended toward being primarily a large-scale slash-and-burn regime. In fact, Rowe points out that there are no precedents elsewhere in the world for sustained agriculture in a semi-arid region. The row crops grown from Texas to Saskatchewan are the largest and longest experiment of their ...

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