Germans From Russia: A Loving Look at a Fading
Dakota Prairie Culture
Jacobs, Mike. "Germans From Russia: A Loving Look at a Fading Dakota Prairie Culture." Grand Forks Harold, 15 July 1990.
Shirley Fischer Arends has documented a culture that many North
Dakotans might not have known exits -- the “Central Dakota
Germans.” These are the people who call themselves “Germans
Perhaps no ethnic group in the United States has had a greater
awakening of self-awareness in the last two decades than this one.
The Heritage Society of Germans from Russia, a national group, is
wrapping up its 20th annual convention today in Fargo. Since the
organization of the group, there has been a blizzard of material
published. The Institute of Regional Studies at North Dakota State
University in Fargo has catalogued much of it. Mike Miller, an archivist
there, published a bibliography of the material 1988.
But no one previously has given the Germans from Russia the substance
that Arends has. She is one of them raised at Ashley, N.D. Ashley
is about 100 miles southeast of Bismarck. This is the heart of the
“German triangle,” an area peopled by Germans who moved
How they got to Russia is a fascinating story, and Arends presents
a good historical essay -- but history is not the subject of this
book. Instead, the book focuses on the culture that the immigrants
brought with them and nurtured on the prairie.
This culture is documented in wonderful detail here. There are
chapters about religious rites, wedding customs, funerals, baptisms,
Oh! The cooking. Arends set out to gather the essential recipes
of the Dakota German kitchen. These range from ginger cookies to
home-made beer and whole watermelon pickles. This last requires
a 30-gallon crock. There are also the dishes that aren’t well
known outside the culture -- but that define Dakota German cooking
and that every grandchild of a German-Russian remembers: knepfla,
halupsy, and sauerkraut.
A particularly intriguing part of the book is devoted to the so-called
“brauchere” or healers. There is a bit of magic and
of folk medicine in the brauche tradition. There is also quite a
bit of secrecy. Arends’ work therefore documents customs that
have been unknown outside a tight circle of practitioners within
Dakota German communities.
Some of these traditions are ancient, predating Christianity. One
such is that brauche was entrusted to women -- the traditional healers
in the Germanic tribes, others are as recent as the arrival of the
Germans on the American prairie. Arends details the personification
of the Dakota wind, for example.
She also presents an intriguing theory about the origin of the
word “brauchere,” which is related to a modern German
word, but is used in a completely different sense. Spanish has a
similar word, and Fischer hypothesizes that it may be a Visigothic
word, transported to the Iberian Peninsula during the time of wandering
of the German tribes -- the wandering that led to the fall of Rome
The heart of this book is the language, just as language is the
heart of the culture. Arends is a linguist, and her book is a work
of linguistics. It earned her a doctorate at Georgetown University
in Washington, D.C.
Readers who aren’t familiar with German may be deterred by
the emphasis on language. A great deal of attention is paid to the
peculiarities of the Central Dakota dialect, and some of this is
more technical than a general reader will care for. Any one familiar
with German, however, will find it fascinating.
Here, for example, are the texts of several score of prayers and
proverbs and the lyrics of hymns and other songs. These are presented
in English; standard, literary German (the so-called “high
German”) and in the Central Dakota dialect. Thousands who
have mostly lost their connection to German language will recognize
at least some of these prayers and proverbs.
These proverbs, especially, are pithy expressions of folk wisdom.
Just one example: Noch wulf kommt bear. “After the wolf comes
the bear.” The wisdom here: If you can’t get along with
someone, expect that the one who follows will be even worse.
No knowledge of German is needed to enjoy the richness of the book,
however. The panorama of the Germans from Russia is presented here
in detail, from the historical background to the minutiae of daily
life. It should delight anyone interested in folk life, in cultural
adaptations to new environments, in religious practice, folk medicine,
regional history. Or good cooking.
“The Central Dakota Germans” is a significant contribution
to the literature about North Dakota.
It is a loving book about the culture, but it is not an optimistic
one. The Central Dakota German culture is dying. Arends believes,
because it has not been valued. She particularly laments the loss
of the language, because the language carries the culture.
Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald,
Grand Forks, North Dakota.
farmwomen sit in a polling place on Election Day, November
1940 in McIntosh County, North Dakota. The photo was taken
by John Vachon as part of the Farm Security Administration’s
farm photograph project. The print is from UND’s Chester