Understanding Nebraska

Understanding Nebraska: Pride, Geography and Self-Deprecation

By Becky Gailey

What makes Nebraskans proud? What makes them stay, generation after generation, in what some call "flyover country"? What makes them stay through long, cold winters and long, hot summers, often hearing someone say, "It could be worse"?

Conquering geography

"A Nebraskan...is attached to a place that many other people might not be attached to because of its wide horizons, what is perceived as a lack of detail in landscape by many people," said David Wishart, a University of Nebraska- Lincoln geography professor and editor of the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.

Many of Nebraska's settlers found the wide horizons lonely and difficult to cultivate. So many of them left that Wishart called 19th century Nebraska a place of "chronic impermanence."

But some people stayed. They stayed through the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and the farming crisis of the 1980s. They stayed and helped cultivate the Great Plains, a region Wishart described as "the most successful agricultural region in the world over the last 100 years."

"The self-deprecating boast"

Despite the dependence of America and other countries on Great Plains agriculture, many people view Nebraska as one of those flat states somewhere in the middle of America.

Wishart said that in the Great Plains "there is a sense of perhaps inferiority, a sense of feeling rural and maybe out of the stream of life that's going on in New York and San Francisco and the bigger metropolitan [areas]."

Wishart believes, however, that this feeling of inferiority also creates a sense of pride in Nebraskans, which is one of their major characteristics. They are proud to live in this land that was too harsh for others, and out of this pride comes an interesting reaction - the "self-deprecating boast" - a way of showing pride in the concept of being unpopular, of being proud of traits others would not find attractive.

Instead of struggling to "fit in" with the rest of America, Wishart said Great Plains people react to America's view of their geography with a sense of humor. Wishart found an example of a self-deprecating boast when he visited a bar in Yates Center, Kansas. The pub, Earl's Tavern, was one of the most ramshackle looking places Wishart had ever seen, and hanging on the side was a sign saying, "We only look expensive."

Wishart, who was born and raised in northeast England, has visited several restaurants in rural Nebraska. Rural Nebraska still has insular characteristics, despite the fact that new communication technology is bringing the world to rural communities, Wishart said. When he enters one of these restaurants, conversation often stops because he is someone different.

"People are not unfriendly; people are almost shy," Wishart said. "Whereas it might be difficult to get a conversation going there, if I were to get in my car and break down a mile down the road, any one of those people would stop and fix it... so I see it as a generous place."

David Wishart
Dr. David Wishart

A sense of place

Nebraskans' humorous response to being thought of as "rural" is partly due to their strong attachment to the land. According to Wishart, it is much easier for people to develop a strong sense of place in a rural area where chain restaurants and gas stations have not taken over Main Street, where family businesses still thrive.

"It's difficult to have a sense of place where houses all look the same, the lawns look the same and it's all so modern. Sense of place, I think, takes time, generations perhaps, on the land," Wishart said.

But studies show that the newest generation of Nebraskans is leaving the land behind. A 2009 study by UNL sociology professor Randy Cantrell for the University of Nebraska Rural Initiative reported that 73 of Nebraska's 93 counties experienced population loss between 2000 and 2007. Douglas, Sarpy (the Omaha metropolitan area) and Lancaster county (including Lincoln) all experienced growth during this time period, so rural population loss can perhaps be explained by immigration to urban areas.

More young people may be leaving rural Nebraska, but Wishart said they still retain their attachment to the land. In Lincoln and Omaha, unlike many other American cities, numerous residents are only one or two generations removed from rural communities. Nebraskans still return to their rural roots to visit family for holidays, and their sense of place, their attachment to the land, still exists.

Loss of the Reproductive Population

Nebraska's rural youth leave home for a variety of reasons, but they leave behind the same two things: peers who have fewer options for life partners and an elderly population that does not want to leave.

"The social amenities of small towns are not great, but young people are full of ambition and enterprise. So I think that young population's going to continue to leave, which means the reproductive population, the population capable and likely to have children, is gone. Therefore, you get a population structure which is top heavy," Wishart said.

In the United States, there are two areas with concentrated populations of people who are 75 and older: Florida, because people move there, and the Great Plains, because people want to stay there. While this attachment to the land is a core characteristic of a Plains person, it can have economic consequences when combined with a leaving reproductive population because a dwindling work force must struggle to support an aging population.

The Past

Nebraskans' deep attachment to rural areas seems even deeper when considering the number of people who have left the land. European immigrants established towns along the newly-built railroads, but the Sand Hills discouraged western expansion. Early farmers did not have the technology to survive in the more than 19,000 square miles of semi-arid land that stretches down from the South Dakota border, and many of them returned to the more fertile land of the East when their crops failed.

Today there are still remnants of the divide that formed between settlers who stayed in western Nebraska and those who left. Geography helped separate different cultures as people chose to settle parts of the state based on how they thought they could use the land. This divide evolved as western ranchers and urban businessmen developed different lifestyles.

It is always easiest to identify differences among the various geographical regions of Nebraska, but Wishart said that Nebraskans share more similarities than differences. For the most part, all Nebraskans eat the same food, watch the same TV shows, and, most importantly, define themselves as Nebraskans.

"There are a lot of similarities around the state, not least of which, probably the preeminent regionalism, is identification with the state and iconic things like the football team," Wishart said.

The Future

Although people left Nebraska in the past, the population of the state is now growing, and Wishart predicted that Nebraska's population will become increasingly urban in the future.

"Two-thirds of the population lives in the standard-statistical metropolitan areas of Omaha and Lincoln," Wishart said. "At a certain point you hit rock bottom. You do have to have farmers on the land still, but I can't see any option... What are young people going to do?"

Young people may be leaving their agricultural roots, but this does not mean some rural centers cannot flourish in the future. Towns with attractive locations, enterprising citizens and effective advertising will always be able to attract new residents. Despite the increased social and job opportunities in urban areas, rural Nebraska has many attractive traits: parents walk their children to school instead of commuting; friendly neighbors watch over children playing outside when mom has to run down the street to the grocery store; and the vast beauty of the Great Plains always lies nearby.