Prairie Wolves in Print

—Reviewed by Eric Wendt (’99)

Women on the North American Plains
Edited by Renee M. Laegreid and Sandra K. Mathews

339 pages | Texas Tech University Press | $34

My work on this issue’s cover story (“The Places This Place Has Been,” page 16) illustrated to me the value of this lovely collection of essays compiled and edited by Professor of History Sandra Mathews and Renee Laegreid. To research and write that article, I had to overcome all the little John Waynes and Roy Rogerses whose collective gun smoke clouded my notions of the history of this place.

Where were the seedy saloons, the strutting sheriffs, sod houses and shootouts from University Place’s cowboy days? Couldn’t my research unearth a single no-good horse thief riding an old paint at night down muddy Baldwin Avenue with whiskey on his breath and trouble on his mind?

Truth be told, University Place’s “cowboy days” existed primarily in my movie-addled imagination. In helping to correct those notions, this book joins what Laegreid called a 40-year-old “imperative to challenge the masculine, heroic, individualistic, and mostly all-white perception of the West.”

If we are to truly understand the history of the Great Plains from which Nebraska Wesleyan University would spring in 1887, Mathews, Laegreid and the 16 writers with essays in this comprehensive book contend that Clint Eastwood will simply have to sidle over far enough in our minds to make room for the likes of our own great-grandmothers.

Laegreid and Mathews are methodical and organized in their approach to their vast subject, stretching as it does from Edmonton, Alberta, to the Rio Grande, and from Calgary to Kansas City.

The book’s three parts divide the Great Plains into northern, central and southern regions. Each part progresses chronologically through essays examining women’s roles in the region throughout its habitation.

The essayists here (including NWU’s Sandra McBride (’84)) don’t set out to wax grumpily over centuries of patriarchal disregard for the contributions of women. Instead, they point out that, in some ways, such disregard is a fairly modern phenomenon. In her first chapter, Mathews points to the prominent roles of women and feminine deities in several creation myths from the northern plains. Many of those stories stress the importance of balanced power between the sexes.

If we are to truly understand the history of the Great Plains… Clint Eastwood will simply have to sidle over far enough in our minds to make room for the likes of our own great-grandmothers.

 

Mathews writes:

[A] Blackfeet story highlights the benefits that come when women and men work together…. “There was once a time when there were but two persons in the world, Old Man and Old Woman.” In the story they come to an agreement on how they would decide the way in which people would live. Old Man said, “‘I shall have the first say in everything.’ To this Old Woman agreed, provided she had the second say”…. Old Woman considered his ideas, then explained why they should be modified. Since she had second say, her modifications became the final word.

Later, Mathews quoted a male Oglala elder “who lived on the plains before the reservation era [and] explained the reciprocal nature of gender relations, saying, ‘It is well to be good to women in the strength of our manhood because we must sit under their hands at both ends of our lives.’”

In the same manner, it’s good for us to populate our image of this region’s past, not with our movie stars, but with our ancestors. They are the men and women who gave us a future at one end of our lives. They are also the ones who will one day adopt us into the past at the other.

If you desire a clear picture of our predecessors on these American plains, Mathews’ book is an excellent place to put your focus.