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Dakota :a spiritual geography

by

Dakota :a spiritual geography Cover

 

 

Excerpt

<div>PREFACE<br><br>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.<br>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 doesnt think her story has any value,” the woman explained, “and much of it is so painful she doesnt want to revisit it. But I need to know about my familys past.” In Seattle, a show of hands revealed that nearly half my audience had roots in the Dakotas.<br>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 dont 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.<br>And Ive received letters from people who feel that Ive somehow described their own “small town.” A high school English teacher in New Jersey reported that what Id 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 didnt 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.<br>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 Lemmons 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?”<br><br>The story of how Dakota first fared in Lemmon makes a nice addendum to some of the books observations of small-town mores. I hadnt 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 shed gone to a coffee party where shed 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.<br>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 exxxxpected. That would have been the usual thing.<br>Now, when I am asked about tthe local reaction to my book, I describe it as a mixture of wariiness 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 were all a bunch of hicks? What if all their negative stereotypes of the state are simply reinforced?<br>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.<br>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.<br>“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 didnt 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.<br><br>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. Its a great luxury, after all, not to have to lock ones 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 hes 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 cant make it elsewhere, and it doesnt help our morale to hear an urban bank executive, telling tales out of school, say of a small-town branch manager: “Hes as dumb as a post. Its no accident that we sent him there.” Memories are long in the western Dakotas. Maybe its 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 mothers underclothes were made of flour sacks for years. As a doctors 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.<br>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.<br>The western Dakotas feel like Americas 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 Farmers 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.<br>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 familys recent bad harvest, one friend said, “This is a year when you have to be thankful for what you have, not what you dont have.” This sounds a countercultural note, even in the Dakotas, where more than half of each states 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.<br>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 wouldnt 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.<br><br>January 2001<br><br>Introduction copyright © 2001 by Kathleen Norris. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.<br></div>

Product Details

ISBN:
9780395633205
Subtitle:
A Spiritual Geography
Author:
Norris, Kathleen
Author:
Norris, Kathleen
Publisher:
Mariner Books
Location:
New York
Subject:
General
Subject:
Social life and customs
Subject:
United States - General
Subject:
United States - State & Local
Subject:
Customs & Traditions
Subject:
North dakota
Subject:
South dakota
Subject:
Inspirational
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Series Volume:
9452
Publication Date:
20010406
Binding:
Electronic book text in proprietary or open standard format
Language:
English
Pages:
256
Dimensions:
8.55x5.96x.92 in. .93 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Biography » Religious
History and Social Science » Americana » Great Plains
History and Social Science » Americana » Midwest

Dakota :a spiritual geography Used Hardcover
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Product details 256 pages Ticknor & Fields,1993. - English 9780395633205 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by ,
"A book of stories, a book of prayer, a book to be read meditatively and well," DAKOTA offers a timeless tribute to a place in the American landscape that is at once desolate and sublime, harsh and forgiving, steeped in history and myth. From the award-winning author of AMAZING GRACE, DAKOTA is Kathleen Norris at her most thoughtful, her most discerning, her best. She gives us, once again, a rare "gift of hope and balance, a place to begin" (Chicago Tribune) and assurance that wherever we go, we chart our own spiritual geography.
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