Dr. Eric Schmaltz Presents at Museum in North Dakota

October 2, 2019

Dr. Eric Schmaltz

Dr. Eric Schmaltz, chair of the department of social sciences at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, recently presented at the Prairie Village Museum in Rugby, North Dakota.

A generous grant through Humanities North Dakota made it possible for the museum to host this public forum.

Schmaltz gave his presentation on “A People on the Move (Volk auf dem Weg):  The German from Russia Legacy as Reflected in the American Dream.”

An audience of nearly 70 attended this event, which explored the history of ethnic Germans from Russia who settled in North Dakota and on the northern plains in vast numbers at the turn of the last century.  Schmaltz traced how this “people on the move,” a traditional expression from the group, had to navigate the great challenges and dynamic opportunities of American society. 

“This occasion also marked an opportunity for us to revisit the idea of the American Dream,” Schmaltz said. “New England writer James Truslow Adams famously coined this term in his 1931 book, ‘The Epic of America.’ Though a complex, evolving idea since the nation’s founding, many different interpretations spanning the generations have come forth concerning what it means. It has to do with more than possessing things, however. It is more concerned about opportunity and social mobility.”

Schmaltz said early generations of Germans from Russia had to work hard and to make adjustments to American life, but in time they have on the whole proved quite successful.

“They had to overcome certain stigmas for being historically associated with German culture during the two world wars, not to mention their other historical affiliation with Russia, which for a time was Communist,” Schmaltz said. “There had already arisen an earlier stigma against Eastern and Southern European immigrants at the turn of the last century. I refer to this as the ‘Double Stigma,’ being connected with both Germany and Russia at that time.”

Schmaltz said this group after nearly 150 years has become a vital part of American life and culture, leaving a profound legacy in many endeavors, whether agri-business, architecture, art, food ways, language, music, politics and faith.

Schmaltz said an estimated 30 percent of North Dakota’s population today can claim at least some German-Russian ancestry, one of the highest concentrations of this diaspora heritage in the United States.

Schmaltz listed a number of famous descendants of Germans from Russia in the United States during his presentation, including North Dakota natives Lawrence Welk, musician and TV celebrity, and Angie (Brown/Braun) Dickinson, famous film and TV actress. Others included South Dakota native Allen H. Neuharth, journalist, former CEO of Gannett, and founder of the newspaper USA Today; Nebraska native Randy Meisner, musician and songwriter perhaps best known as the bassist for rock group the Eagles; New Mexico native John Denver (born John Deutschendorf), musician, songwriter and actor; and California native Chris Isaak, musician and sometimes actor, whose father’s side had first settled near Rugby. 

Schmaltz himself has deep North Dakota roots, including Germans from Russia on both sides of his family, and he has spent a quarter of a century studying the German from Russia saga. 

“I was born in nearby Minot, North Dakota,” Schmaltz said. “My parents had attended college there as well. I had not been in Minot since 1978 when I lived there as a young child. I am glad that the event was able to bring me back there, even if only briefly.”

Schmaltz also noted that Rugby’s claim of fame is that it is located just a few miles from the geographical epicenter of North America, a fitting backdrop for a talk on the American Dream. Plans are already underway for Schmaltz to present again sometime next summer in Rugby.

Besides serving as a co-founder and co-executive director of the university’s endowed Institute for Citizenship Studies, Schmaltz has served for nearly a decade as editor of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society “Heritage Review” in Bismarck, North Dakota, and as an editorial review board member of the “Journal of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia” in Lincoln, Nebraska.   

For more information on this topic, contact Schmaltz at (580) 327-8526 or ejschmaltz@nwosu.edu.


Erin Davis, University Relations Specialist
eedavis@nwosu.edu, 580-327-8480

Northwestern Oklahoma State University

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Phone: (580) 327-1700

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