Hancock on Shay, 'Under Prairie Skies: The Plants and Native Peoples of the Northern Plains'

C. Thomas Shay
Jonathan Hancock

C. Thomas Shay. Under Prairie Skies: The Plants and Native Peoples of the Northern Plains. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2022. 312 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4962-2338-8

Reviewed by Jonathan Hancock (Hendrix College) Published on H-Environment (January, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58204

One winter night on the northern Great Plains, two researchers huddled inside a greenhouse with a repurposed oil drum, freshly dug soil samples, sieves, and a garden hose. They pumped water and air through the soil, hoping for black specks to float to the surface before the wind whipping through greenhouse’s cracks iced over the oil drum’s contents. Those specks were burned plant remains—evidence of ancient plant cultivation and cooking preserved by fire, encased in soil, and unlocked with plumbing supplies in a hands-on approach to “ancient archives” (p. 73). This mode of inquiry is unfamiliar to historians who prefer written documents housed in climate-controlled research settings. But in C. Thomas Shay’s Under Prairie Skies: The Plants and Peoples of the Northern Plains, no splinter, soil, or story is off-limits.

Blending “a mix of science, cultural narrative, and natural history” (p. 1), Shay probes oral histories, charred seeds, ancient lakebeds, and countless other repositories to analyze the interplay between the region’s plants and people. The result of this wide-ranging survey is a model for interdisciplinary and accessible scholarship. Drawn from decades of fieldwork and reflection and teeming with rich illustrations, Under Prairie Skies moves the region’s natural setting from a backdrop to center stage. Shay guides the reader through cycles of change as vast as mile-thick glaciers carving the continental interior to those as subtle as the decay of a single blade of grass. Along the way, this study raises broader questions about what constitutes evidence in an interdisciplinary context, and as specialization within and among academic disciplines risks obscuring the bigger, interconnected picture that Shay seeks to illumine, what modes of evidence gathering, analysis, and scholarly communication are most effective for the diffusion of knowledge.

Under Prairie Skies begins with the geological and climactic forces that have shaped the land. In the last ice age, glaciers carved the land and redistributed water, culminating in the massive Lake Agassiz, which comprised much of present-day Manitoba and parts of neighboring provinces and states, as well as other waterways that give the region its “gumbo soil” (p. 10). Uniquely severe weather also has been a fixture of the region, with snowstorms, downpours, floods, droughts, and fires all foundational to the ways in which plants and people have inhabited the northern Great Plains.

After charting the prairies, forests, marshes, and paths that connect these varied landscapes, Shay shifts the focus to people and plants. He traces the changes in the science of soil study and what it reveals about Indigenous land tenure, as communities moved from hunting bison and gathering plants to building agricultural settlements and increasing long-distance trade. Goosefoot, a form of which we recognize today as quinoa, sunflowers, marsh elder, and knotweed joined the more familiar “Three Sisters” of corn, beans, and squash as domesticated plants, though each took hold in the region at separate times. People also harvested and cooked a variety of other berries, seeds, and roots for nutrition and medicine. The material and spiritual were inseparable, as Native American communities maintained an ethic of reciprocity with plants by incorporating them into rituals, communicating with them, and using them for food, healing, shelter, transportation, fashion, and play.

Shay’s ranging and lyrical perspective calls to mind the work of writer John McPhee.[1] Anecdotes about designing experiments or facing extreme weather lend a helpful, ground-level view that re-anchors the reader with relatable experiences amid material that is more challenging for nonscientists. He also synthesizes a wealth of scholarship about fundamental questions regarding human development in the Americas, including transformations in plant domestication, trade, and transportation, rendering it accessible and interesting to the general reader. Chapters end with brief lists of works for further reading, and extensive footnotes await the curious reader.

Under Prairie Skies also reflects deep engagement with Indigenous perspectives and practice, particularly those of the women responsible for cultivating plants. When an emphasis on Native Americans emerges in the book’s second half, it is neither tokenistic nor generic. Shay incorporates the words and actions of a range of Indigenous people from various tribal nations through time, and he is careful not to relegate Native actors to the distant past. He cites relevant oral histories and demonstrates the modern scientific logic behind traditional Native American engagement with plants. The writing of Citizen Potawatomi Nation author and scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer, among other contemporary Native American authors, guides the book’s braiding of Indigenous and Western scientific ways of knowing.[2] Discussions of plant personhood and human communication with plants fit congruously with explanations of their chemistry.

There should be a book like this one for each region of the United States—a “big picture” guide to landscapes, original inhabitants, and plants that anchors school curricula, welcomes visitors to new places, and invites residents to think more deeply about where they live. It is a sweeping survey of northern Great Plains landscapes and an engaging retrospective on the lives of the people and plants found there, including that of the author.


[1]. John McPhee’s similar works include Annals of the Former World (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998), and The Survival of the Bark Canoe (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1975).

[2]. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and The Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013).

Citation: Jonathan Hancock. Review of Shay, C. Thomas, Under Prairie Skies: The Plants and Native Peoples of the Northern Plains. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58204

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.