Excerpts for Dakota : A Spiritual Geography


Dakota

A Spiritual Geography
By Kathleen Norris

Ticknor & Fields

Copyright © 1993 Kathleen Norris
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0395633206

Excerpt

PREFACE

Dakota is everywhere, at least in diaspora. In January of 1993, when I
first began traveling across the country to talk about Dakota, a woman
from a San Francisco suburb told me that her mother had graduated from
Lemmon High School in the 1950s. In New York City, a man showed me a
photograph of the old Lemmon railroad station taken not long after it
was built. His great-grandfather had helped lay the track to Lemmon in
1907, when the town was founded, and stayed for more than ten years.
In Minneapolis, a woman said that in the late 1960s her grandparents
had lost their farm to the Oahe Dam. "It killed them," she added
solemnly. "It took the spirit right out of them." In Chicago, a Lakota
man asked me if I knew anything about the Catholic boarding school his
father had attended. In Portland, a woman said she hoped the book would
inspire her mother to talk about her upbringing on a homestead ranch
near Kadoka. "She doesn"t think her story has any value," the woman
explained, "and much of it is so painful she doesn"t want to revisit
it. But I need to know about my family"s past." In Seattle, a show of
hands revealed that nearly half my audience had roots in the Dakotas.
These people and their stories point to a dilemma: the Dakotas are a
place people are from, a place that has suffered a steady outmigration
for the better part of a hundred years. What does this do to those of
us who remain? Although I explored that question in Dakota, I don"t
pretend to have any answers. I did discover that many former Dakotans
felt that my book reaffirms their sense of being glad to have escaped,
while others found, especially in the descriptions of the Plains"
physical beauty, a reminder of the place they were forced to leave for
economic reasons, but dream of returning to one day.
And I"ve received letters from people who feel that I"ve somehow
described their own "small town." A high school English teacher in New
Jersey reported that what I"d said about gossip, provincialism, and
fear of change captured the atmosphere at her school. I got similar
letters from university professors and corporate executives. I was
stunned by the variety of people the book had touched. A Mexican
American priest wrote to say that Dakota had helped him to understand
the older generation in his Los Angeles parish, mostly German Americans
who had fled during the economic depression that first hit the Dakotas
in the 1920s and intensified in the 1930s. The Methodist bishop in
Fargo began giving copies of the book to all new clergy coming into
North Dakota. Several people wrote to ask why I didn"t write more about
the Indian population of the Dakotas. I felt that many fine Indian
writers —Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Louise Erdrich, Adrian Louis, Susan
Power, David Seals —were already doing that, and I needed to describe
the Dakotas of my own experience. I wanted the book to be a portrait of
a place, the kind of small Dakota town that has had little written
about it by those who live there.
The question about Dakota I have been asked most often is "How have the
people back home responded to the book?" That was something that had
concerned me, and I am relieved that things have gone far better than I
could have imagined. The book is now available at the Chamber of
Commerce gift shop, the local newspaper, and Lemmon"s two museums.
People have told me that when they wear a name tag at business
conventions out of state, bearing the name of Lemmon, South Dakota,
strangers no longer say, "Where in the world is that?"

The story of how Dakota first fared in Lemmon makes a nice addendum to
some of the book"s observations of small-town mores. I hadn"t talked
much about Dakota while I was writing it, except when I asked two ranch
families to read the manuscript and help me catch mistakes. But when
reviews from out-of-state newspapers started arriving, sent by
relatives and friends around the country, the local gossip mill went
into high gear. My friend Alice called in a panic, asking what in the
world I had done. She told me she"d gone to a coffee party where she"d
heard that I had told a number of scandalous stories, naming names,
putting people on the spot. When she asked if anyone had read the book,
no one had. They had just heard bad things about it. And they were
upset.
As residents of my town began to read the book, they calmed down. I had
not "named names," and people were relieved to find that I had tried to
give a balanced perspective, describing the joys of rural and small-
town life as well as its less attractive aspects. When I was asked to
preach again in my home church, I sensed that all was forgiven. And I
passed the ultimate test: I did not move away once the book was
successful. That is what many had expected. That would have been the
usual thing.
Now, when I am asked about the local reaction to my book, I describe it
as a mixture of wariness and pride. Dakotans at first seemed divided
between those who delighted in my description of small towns, warts and
all, and those who were alarmed that I had written about South Dakota
in the first place. What if people read your book, one woman asked, and
think we"re all a bunch of hicks? What if all their negative
stereotypes of the state are simply reinforced?
The question reflects the honest skepticism of people whose state is
either ignored or disdained in the national media. My roots in South
Dakota go back three generations, and I have now lived here for half of
my life. I suspect I will always feel compelled to write about the
place, and for good or ill, I am especially engaged by the
contradictions I find here. In fact, I began this book because of them.
In 1984, when I saw a notice placed by the North Dakota Quarterly
calling for articles about the myths that help small Great Plains towns
to survive, I had been brooding about the self-defeating myths that
contribute to their demise.
People will confidently tell you, for example, that their small town is
a haven where "nothing ever changes." In 1920, Lemmon supported eight
lumberyards. Now there are two. Six banks, now three. Five hotels, now
two. Ten general stores, now four. Since 1970, school enrollment has
dropped by a third, and one Lemmon store estimates that its customer
base has dropped 46 percent. Its volume of business has dropped by one
half. This slow but steady attrition is not often acknowledged as a
form of social upheaval. But it contributes to the malaise I describe
in "Gatsby on the Plains," which was written at a time when a
collapsing farm economy was fast eroding the complacency of the
inhabitants of my region.
"Gatsby" was published in the North Dakota Quarterly in 1985 and caught
the attention of an editor at Houghton Mifflin, who wrote to say that
the description of my small town reminded her of her hometown in New
Hampshire. She wondered if I had a book. At the time I was working six
part-time jobs and barely had the glimmer of an idea for a book. It was
another five years before I presented a proposal to her, buttressed by
several other essays that I had published about the region. In the
meantime, the "Gatsby" essay had attracted interest in the Dakotas,
primarily among clergy, who began using it to stimulate discussion in
their congregations about the effects of the farm crisis. Pastors told
me that the groups were divided between those who passionately hated
what I had written and those who just as passionately loved it. I
received some anonymous letters telling me that if I didn"t like South
Dakota, I should leave. I was particularly moved by a letter I received
from a small-town retailer who thanked me for expressing many things he
had felt but could not say if he hoped to keep his Main Street
business. I realized that with "Gatsby" I had struck a nerve.

The contradictions that first inspired me to write Dakota are still
very much in evidence. We assure ourselves, for example, that cities
are far less desirable than our quiet rural area. It"s a great luxury,
after all, not to have to lock one"s doors. But when I read the
response of a councilman to the application of a policeman from
suburban Los Angeles for a job in his West River town—"If he"s so well
qualified, why does he want to come here?"—it makes me wonder. Does the
bravado of small-town boosterism mask an underlying sense of
inferiority? Having been told for so long that we are insignificant,
have we come to believe it? We suspect, sometimes with good reason,
that we are a dumping ground for those who can"t make it elsewhere, and
it doesn"t help our morale to hear an urban bank executive, telling
tales out of school, say of a small-town branch manager: "He"s as dumb
as a post. It"s no accident that we sent him there."
Memories are long in the western Dakotas. Maybe it"s the winters, which
give people time to brood, people who bear the pain of living in a
harsh, unforgiving climate where so many human institutions — schools,
churches, businesses, ranches — spring up only to wither on the vine.
Hurts linger. One local woman objected to my description of my
grandmother, during the 1920s, making clothes for my mother out of
flour sacks. Her mother never wore flour sacks! the woman indignantly
told a mutual friend, refusing to believe that my mother"s underclothes
were made of flour sacks for years. As a doctor"s daughter, a
privileged only child in the days when many rural families had ten or
more children and hand-me-down clothes, including flour-sack dresses,
were the norm, my mother had been the envy of other girls. Seven
decades later, in our happy little town, the memory still rankles.
Yet rural South Dakotans have considerable inner strength, which does
not come from the status symbols that have grown to dominate American
culture. A friend in New York City laments that five-year-olds are
demanding designer clothing, and I read that in Miami, eleven- and
twelve-year-olds are paying $200 for Kate Spade sandals, while
teenagers pay much more for anything from Prada. In the area where I
live, many teens must accept that thrift shop clothes are all their
families can afford. Their clothes, shoes, and automobiles (more likely
pickup trucks) are utilitarian rather than trendy. An outfit from Prada
would be totally wasted, and if people found out how much you had paid
for it, you would never live it down.
The western Dakotas feel like America"s shadow side, where the economy
is not booming but in free fall and rural people have been rendered
invisible in a media-driven celebrity culture. In the past twenty-seven
years I have witnessed only one television show that depicted the lives
of people like those I know: the Frontline programs entitled "The
Farmer"s Wife." The miniseries concerns a Nebraska family pushed to the
brink by the calamity of the contemporary farm economy, in which the
"crisis" of the 1980s has become everyday reality and farmers contend
with paying 1990s expenses while receiving prices for their commodities
at 1940s levels. In both North and South Dakota, which limit corporate
farming, family farm income has fallen severely in recent years. From
1996 to 1998 in North Dakota, the average income per farm went from
$33,000 to $24,000. In South Dakota, net farm income dropped 28 percent
between 1996 and 1997, and a similar decrease is expected for
subsequent years.
In human terms, these figures mean that farmers are being penalized for
growing the food Americans eat, and like rural people worldwide, they
often decide that their only option is to crowd around large cities and
take whatever jobs are available, in manufacturing or the service
industry. Yet, despite it all, many hold on in the western Dakotas,
toiling long hours for so little because they want to raise their
children in the country. They want to work the land. And they have the
resilience of a people whose religion is a bulwark in hard times.
Commenting on her family"s recent bad harvest, one friend said, "This
is a year when you have to be thankful for what you have, not what you
don"t have."
This sounds a countercultural note, even in the Dakotas, where more
than half of each state"s population now lives in a relatively urban
corridor along the eastern border, centered on Fargo and Sioux Falls. I
found it revealing that, when a pastor and several teenagers from a
Sioux Falls church stayed for a week with a Hope Church family on a
Corson County ranch, the young people, on returning home, could not
stop talking about how their trip was like a visit to another country.
They were stunned to have found such cultural differences within their
own state, among people they had assumed would be much like them. Their
shock had little to do with race —some of the ranchers they met were
white, some were Indian —and everything to do with having discovered a
rural way of life that had previously been unknown to them.
I only hope that these young people keep talking about it, and that
when Hope sends some of its youth to the Sioux Falls church, they will
learn more about the newest South Dakotans —Christian refugees from
Somalia and Sudan, immigrants from Mexico and Korea, Hindu and Muslim
physicians, families with cultures and traditions very different from
any they know. As we embrace a new century, we will need all the
goodwill that we can muster in order to better understand each other in
a more diverse and potentially more divided state. People who hang on
in the Dakotas tend to have good reason for doing so. They wouldn"t
want to be anyplace else. It is here that they live and die and fall in
and out of love, and that is the stuff of drama and literature. We have
only to value it and tell it.

January 2001

Introduction copyright © 2001 by Kathleen Norris. Reprinted by
permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.



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Excerpted from Dakota by Kathleen Norris Copyright © 1993 by Kathleen Norris. Excerpted by permission.
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