Perspectives Sanford Levinson's* Response

Multiculturalism and Great American West: Some Ruminations

The highlight of 2009 was a driving trip that my wife and I took through parts of the “Great American West,” beginning (and ending) in Denver after a circumferential that included Cheyenne, Wyoming; Mount Rushmore and the Badlands in South Dakota—unfortunately, we did not have time to go to North Dakota—the Little Bighorn National Monument in Montana; Yellowstone National Park; and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming.  Though it was not in fact the very first time I had been in those states, it was nonetheless a genuine revelation, raising a number of issues relevant, I hope, to the subject matter of the Journal of Law and Interdisciplinary Studies, a welcome new journal being published at the University of North Dakota.   It goes without saying that the topography is endlessly fascinating, sometimes awesomely beautiful, sometimes almost frightening in its sense of desolation.  But that is not the principal message I took from the trip, nor does it explain the fervor with which I urged friends to visit (at least) two stops on our itinerary—the Little Bighorn National Monument and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.  Both capture as well as any sites I am personally familiar with the true complexities (and tragedies) associated with “multiculturalism” in America. 

It is obviously true that “multiculturalism” is a national phenomenon.  It is not only the case that Texas, for example, where I have lived for 30 years, is often divided into “Anglo,” “Mexican-American,” and “African-American” communities; more relevant, perhaps, is that over 100 “first languages” are spoken by students in the Houston public school system, and a full quarter of its over 200,000 students are taking courses in English as a second language.1  And, as a 2008 story in the New York Times indicated, “There are an estimated 170 foreign languages spoken in New York City, and in nearly half of all households, English is not the primary language, according to the census in 2000.”2  For better or worse, this particular kind of linguistic multiplicity—and the cultural pluralism that underlies it—is, relatively speaking, absent from the states of the Upper Midwest that I toured.  Over 93% of North Dakotans speak only English,3 and I would be surprised if more than a fraction of the 6.3% who speak another language would classify that language as their “first language” that is, for example, spoken at home by immigrant parents who are lacking in basic English-speaking skills.  It might be worth noting, that I was struck on my first visit to South Dakota, about three years ago, to learn that there was a Spanish-language radio station in Sioux Falls, presumably directed at the immigrant community working especially in meat-packing plans in the area.

So what special quality does “the Great American West,” especially that portion found in the Upper Midwest, bring to debates about multiculturalism that differs from what can be found in much of the rest of the country?  The answer, I believe, involves the history (and present realities) of the encounters between and among the various American Indian tribes and nations and the invading population (almost exclusively) white settlers and the supporting power of the United States Army.  It is obviously true that this history can be found throughout the country.  My own home state of North Carolina includes a Cherokee Indian reservation less than a hundred miles from where I grew up, and I became familiar as a youngster with the “Trail of Tears” symbolizing the forced relocation of Cherokees from Georgia and North Carolina to Oklahoma during the administration of Andrew Jackson.  One can find similar traces in almost any of American states, including Texas, where Comanches were a significant presence into the 19th century.  All of that being easily conceded, I know of no places quite like Little Bighorn and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center that attempt to come to grips with this aspect of American multiculturalism.  I can testify that the National Museum on the American Indian doesn’t come close to equaling either of these sites either in emotional power or intellectual illumination.  Both should be treated as national treasures, even if many may well be disturbed at what they teach the serious visitor.


*Sanford Levinson is the W. St. John Garwood and W. St. John Garwood Jr. Centennial Chair in Law, University of Texas Law School; Professor, Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin.

, e.g., Sheryl E. Taylor, A Better Way to Teach, The University of Houston Magazine (Fall 2006),

2Fernanda Santos, Mayor Orders New York to Expand Language Help, New York Times, July 23, 2008,

,, (last visited Jan. 12, 2011); see also Modern Language Association, Language Map, (detailing in great detail, through an interactive languages map, the various languages spoken in, among other places, North Dakota).

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