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Plains Folk: North Dakota's Ethnic History

Book review by Edna Boardman, Minot, North Dakota

Sherman, William C. and Playford V. Thorson. Plains Folk: North Dakota’s Ethic History. North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, Fargo, North Dakota, 1988.


This book is so useful because authors and editors, using black and white pictures and a highly readable writing style, give a short course on German-speaking groups who came to North Dakota. Writing for a general audience, scholars linked with the Institute for Regional Studies name the various immigrant groups who settled in North Dakota and deal not just with their origins but with their experiences and problems. The book's designers' original idea was to devote the most space to the largest groups in the state and reduce the length of the treatments in proportion to their numbers. Then they discovered that that much information was already available about some groups but very little about others. They struggled with the problem of what to call various groups because the members did not agree, even among themselves, as to labels.

Warren Henke, in a section called "Reichsdeutsche: Germans," deals with persons who came directly from Germany--and there were quite a few of them. Timothy Kloberdanz took on the labor of writing the extensive section on "Volksdeutsche: The Eastern European Germans." He projects a panoramic view of the German-Russian people who settled in North Dakota. He tells us why they came, what they were like, where they settled, and how they fitted themselves into the culture of the region. He writes separate essays on the Black Sea Germans in Russia and in North Dakota. He then ranges more widely to discuss, each in its own essay, Mariupol German-Russians, Dobrudja Black Sea Germans, German-Russian Mennonites, Hutterites, Caucasus Germans, Volga Germans, Volhynian Germans, Galician Germans, Bohemian Germans, German-Hungarians, and Burgenland Germans.

Those who find that they are missing from general books that deal with the Germans from Russia may find themselves reflected in this book. Theodore Pedeliski authors essays on the Ukrainians, Poles, Czechs, and Bulgarians. Playford V. Thorson treated Scandinavians. Then William C. Sherman picks up quite a variety of other immigrant groups. A graph called "Ethnic Persistence" compares the use of foreign languages in North Dakota churches. Native Americans are not generally within the scope of this book, but appear on the language graph. Sources are handled through bibliographical essays. This is super social history and useful background both for general reading about ethnic groups that settled North Dakota and for persons assembling family histories.

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