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Manitoba History: Book Review: Frances W. Kaye, Good Lands: A Meditation and History on the Great Plains

by Simon M. Evans
University of Calgary

Number 71, Winter 2013

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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History, they say, is written by the victors. Well, here for a change is a “meditation and history” written from a different perspective: from the viewpoint of the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains. This is a demanding and far-reaching book, which introduces many new ideas and covers a wide range of topics. It is not easy to summarize the content without trivializing it. The central theme running through this intriguing book is that incoming Europeans mis-evaluated a new and challenging environment as being deficient in many ways. They ignored the fact that the varied ecosystems they were encountering had been a bountiful and sustainable home for indigenous peoples for millennia.

In the first two chapters, Kaye explores the perception of “deficiency” and its implications. From that particular point of view, it was the manifest destiny of the incoming agricultural settlers to overcome obstacles and to transform the grassland “desert” into the “Garden of the World.” Among these obstacles were the native peoples who occupied the plains. They did provide resistance to the process. The chapters, which describe first the armed confrontations and then the cultural and spiritual survival of indigenous ideas, are particularly innovative and seminal.

The next section of the book deals specifically with the settlement period. The author weighs the shortcomings of the Homestead Act and its unexpected success as a means of generating capital on the frontier. Analysis of the 1920s and 1930s, with its dust bowls and the attempts to cope with calamity, leads to a consideration of two “extraordinary Prairie progressives”: Tommy Douglas of Saskatchewan and George W. Norris of Nebraska. From here, Kaye evaluates some of the planning issues pertaining to the plains, and the economic theories on which they were based. Chapters on damming rivers and exploiting oil follow.

The last section of the book starts by recalling the “Terrible Summer” of 1990 and the Oka crisis. The author reminds us of the plethora of painful cases in which First Nations came into conflict with the Canadian justice system, and of the equally numerous inquiries and commissions, instigated by different levels of government, to right the wrongs and come to grips with the underlying problems. Tragically, it seems that the assumption of “deficiency” is still clouding our vision and paralyzing our will to take effective action.

This book has three characteristics, which set it apart: its spatial range, its temporal depth and its interdisciplinary approach. This is truly a book about the Great Plains. The author achieves a balance in her coverage of the Canadian prairies and the broad sweep of the grasslands from Montana and the Dakotas to Oklahoma and the author’s home state of Nebraska. While we all laud and advocate the comparative approach, few of us actually embrace it, simply because it involves so much work. This author slips effortlessly across the international border, and illuminates the contrasting contexts within which European re-settlement took place. She does not simply describe a situation in Canada and then move on to the USA—in almost every case, she deftly integrates the two.

The temporal span of the book is equally broad, reaching back to pre-contact days and forward to the present. However, there is no doubt that it is rooted in the second half of the 19th century; to what was done then, or more importantly what was not done. Kaye describes the choices which were made in the past and the implicit and explicit arguments behind these choices. Given the author’s background, it was no surprise to find that her historical analysis was enriched by her knowledge of the literature of the plains. She uses writers like Hamlin Garland, John Joseph Matthews and Margaret Laurence as sources of regional wisdom. I was impressed by the author’s ability to write about climate, geology and ecology on the one hand, and politics and economics on the other. The book illustrates the advantages of an interdisciplinary approach.

I must confess that I do not feel that I have “digested” this book yet. I think it is one to which I will return often to mine the details of a particular chapter. The author assumes that we are all well informed and up-to-date in our reading of the scholarly literature on the plains. She often refers to points made by others authors, confident that the reader will know the context and the contribution. She frequently left me in the dust! But that is my problem not hers. I was grateful to be introduced to some new voices, which I look forward to listening to more in the future. It was also intriguing to get a new slant on familiar and respected authorities. For example, the author refers frequently to Doug Owram’s Promise of Eden, Paul Voisey’s Vulcan and David Jones’ Empire of Dust, but she draws new insights from them and recalibrates their ideas in evocative ways. This book is a tour de force, a distillation of a lifetime of quiet scholarship and compassionate thought.

Page revised: 6 January 2018

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