1999 - 2000 President's Annual Report
North Dakota State University, Fargo, North Dakota

Engages to meet the needs of Business and Industry

Historic documentary awakes pride in heritage

"The documentary has the most striking effects. People's eyes have been opened. It's had a positive effect on the culture of the region."

--- Richard Bovard


To many adults, the word "documentary" has the same ring that the words "brussels sprouts" do for children: no one usually comes running for either one. However, NDSU Libraries and Prairie Public Television found a recipe for documentary filmmaking that has left the public wanting more, and they have the resources to keep them coming back to the table.

In 1999, NDSU Libraries collaborated with Prairie Public Television and produced the documentary, "The Germans from Russia: Children of the Steppe, Children of the Prairie." The one-hour film presents an in-depth look at the heritage and culture of German settlers who moved to Russia and their succeeding generations who immigrated to America. The documentary features video from Germany, Ukraine and several locations in the United States and Canada.

Public reaction to the film was overwhelming, even to those who expected a big response. More than 7,000 copies of the video have been sold to its viewers and it won a prestigious documentary filmmaking award. But more importantly, it has left family members across several generations with a common interest in learning and sharing more about the history, genealogy and heritage of their ancestors.

Richard Bovard, professor of English, believes the documentary provides a different but important type of engagement with the community than the more obvious types of outreach the university offers.

"The documentary has the most striking effects. People's eyes have been opened," Bovard said. "It has a different way of affecting North Dakotans; it's not a financial benefit or health improvement, but it's had a positive effect on the culture of the region."

That effect is apparent in the hundreds of letters Michael Miller, NDSU Germans from Russia bibliographer, has received from across the state and country from people who saw the film.

Shona Dockter of Roseville, Minnesota, wrote, "I was enthralled every minute as I watched. What a wonderful achievement. I cannot describe the pride I felt as I watched the story of our people unfold. For my father, the most touching moment was the chance to actually see the Russian steppe where his father had walked. My mother was struck by the isolation the immigrants must have felt when they homesteaded on the prairies. Thank you for making our history come alive for hundreds of people."

According to Bovard, several of the letters indicate the interest in the video is not limited to one age group. Grandparents have bought copies for their grandchildren so the story can be passed down to future generations, but the group between those two generations is perhaps feeling the greatest effects of the video.

"Parents didn't want to talk about their heritage around or after the World War II. There was a stigma about immigrants and many stereotypes associated with Germans," Bovard said. "People in the `middle' generation may have known a little about their heritage, but suddenly feel good about their past for the first time."

Jolene Geist Ehret of Kileen, Texas, echoes this sentiment in her letter: "For the first time in my life, I am actually proud of my heritage. I only wish I could have learned more from my grandparents before they passed on. I can hardly wait for my children to watch the video."

Following the positive reaction to the film, the NDSU Libraries and Prairie Public Television collaboration continued. A teacher's guide was developed to accompany the documentary, and more than 300 videotapes and teacher's guide were sent to all North Dakota public and private schools compliments of Prairie Public and NDSU Libraries. The spring of 2000 saw the release of a second film, "Schmeckfest: Food Traditions of the Germans from Russia," which premiered in North Dakota, South Dakota and Arizona.

The library's Germans from Russia Heritage Collection also is a valuable resource for those interested in further studying their history. Much of the collection is available on NDSU's Web site at http://library.ndsu.edu/gerrus. The site contains more than 25 links to maps, oral history, poetry and cookbooks, conventions, books and photos.

Miller also organizes summer trips to the "homeland" in Russia to people interested in seeing a part of their histories firsthand.

Though not typical engagement in terms of economic development or community service, the NDSU Libraries have provided an opportunity for a cultural experience that has had an unmistakable impact on the region. Besides collaborations to produce films about Germans from Russia, the library's heritage collection is able to feed the appetites of those who wish to learn even more about their history. Through technology and the Internet, NDSU's services can reach all around the world.

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