Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 2, Spring 1983, pp. 67-78.
F or the past several years, my research associate, Robert Buchheit, and I have collected recordings of German dialects spoken by people advanced in years who immigrated to the United States and settled in the Great Plains region decades ago. Our purpose has been to acquire aural records of folk languages, to study the linguistic transformations that have occurred in them, and to preserve permanently languages that will soon disappear. In the course of our research, we have encouraged our informants to speak freely of their personal experiences, family histories, customs, and culture. The numerous recordings that we have made also include many folktales' from Europe.
A large proportion of our informants, most of whom reside on farms or in small towns in Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas, are Germans from Russia. The ancestors of these people emigrated originally from Germany to Russia beginning in 1764 during the reign of Catherine the Great, who was herself a princess of German birth. Thousands of Germans were encouraged by the Russian government to form virtually autonomous colonies in the then sparsely populated districts north of the Black Sea and in the region of the Volga River. The migration to Russia continued into the nineteenth century until approximately 1860. Meanwhile the German colonies in Russia grew and prospered until the 1870s, when the government undertook a program of Russianization aimed at breaking down the cultural exclusiveness of the German colonies and integrating the people into Russian society. Objecting strongly to this cultural imperialism, more than one hundred thousand Russian Germans chose to emigrate to the United States, where they settled chiefly in the Great Plains region.
Among the folktales that these Germans brought ·to the Great Plains are wolf stories, dozens of which Buchheit and I have recorded in recent years. They fall into two distinct groups: folktales with happy, often humorous, endings and those that end tragically as packs of famished wolves ferociously attack and devour human beings.
A typical example of the first type is the story of Fritz and the wolf, told to me in German dialect by an informant in Henderson, Nebraska:
On the way home Fritz encountered a wolf. What to do? He had been told that wolves do not attack dead people. And so he lay down absolutely still. The wolf stood over him, and its saliva dropped down on his head. He grabbed the wolf's front paws and held them so that the wolf could not bite him, and so he walked home, carrying the wolf on his back. When he came home, he banged the wolf against the door and called out: "Father, open up, I've got a live wolf on my back!" Then they turned the wolf and the dogs loose, and they chased the wolf away.