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Tom Isern

Host of Plains Folk
  • Most of the EuroAmerican heroes of generations past on the Great Plains have feet — or at least toes, and some of them whole legs! — of clay. This is to say, if we look at them closely, and especially if we look at them with twenty-first century lenses, we see things that make us uncomfortable.
  • George Armstrong Custer is not a source I ordinarily would cite as to geographical terminology, but let me draw attention to a hopeful distinction he makes early in his memoir, My Life on the Plains. He remarks how schoolchildren were being taught to refer to the midsection of the country as “the Great American Desert.”
  • So maybe by now you know that I object to the lumping term, “the Dakotas,” in reference to the two sovereign states, North Dakota and South Dakota; likewise, that I regard the vernacular terms “West River” and “East River” as culturally interesting, but politically pernicious. In general, as a student of the Great Plains, I have come to believe that in our federal nation, the sovereign states are important and possess their own defining histories.
  • Certainly there are others who, like me, wince at usage of the lumping term, “the Dakotas,” in news reports and popular parlance — especially, I think, those emanating from Minnesota, where “the Dakotas” is shorthand for “beyond the horizon,” “way out there.” (Similarly, I grind my teeth when I hear disparaging, or perhaps just thoughtless, references to prairie populations as “the locals” — as in, those quaint folks living their little prairie lives and clueless about the wider world.)
  • If Teddy Blue Abbott, he of that classic memoir of the open range, We Pointed Them North, is to be believed, the song was a worn cliche among cowboys in Montana. They got sick of it; Abbott and others made up their own, new ballads to supplant it in their night-herding repertoires.
  • On May 17, 1910, the Grand Forks Herald took a forthright stance in defense of rhubarb. Its editorialist had tolerated recent Chicken-Little reports about the deleterious effects of the tail of Haley’s Comet, but when alleged scientific authorities commenced expounding on the dangers of rhubarb, he had enough.
  • It was December 1916, just about the end of a leap year, in the rural Cavalier County community of Mt. Carmel. A local wag decided to offer some free advice to single ladies of the community who might wish to exercise the waning prerogative of the leap year and latch onto a likely bachelor.
  • Where does a folksong come from? When I was a folkie, way back in the last century, we were pretty definite about being indefinite about that. A song like “The Cowboy’s Lament” or “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim” was a feral thing. Nobody owned it.
  • “Lord Byron No. 2” - yes, that’s the way he signed his work. An otherwise anonymous poet of the West River, writing for the Dickinson Press. His epic ballad was published on 13 March 1897. His subject: coyotes, or rather, the destruction thereof.
  • Anna Oien came over in 1907 from Norway to her uncle’s place at Halstad, and after celebrating her seventeenth birthday, promptly went out to work as a hired girl on the prosperous farm of another Norwegian immigrant. The scholar who interviewed her in 1954, Leonard Sackett (the interview transcript to be found in the collections of the Institute for Regional Studies), records that every night Anna took to her cot in an upstairs hallway and “cried in the dark for fatigue and homesickness.”