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 from Russia.”

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 from Russia.

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, cooking.

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 476 A.D.

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.

German-Russian 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 Fritz Library.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller