clock menu more-arrow no yes

I'm from South Dakota, and I promise you the Great Plains are part of the Midwest

They're more Midwest than Ohio, for God's sake.

Oh beautiful for spacious skies.
Oh beautiful for spacious skies.
Tom Reichner/Shutterstock

Since I started working at Vox, I have come to realize that many of my colleagues believe a particular lie, one they have either been told or convinced themselves of.

This lie is that the so-called "Great Plains" states — the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas — are not in the Midwest, but instead comprise their own geographical region.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I am from South Dakota, and I have discussed this matter with a colleague from Kansas. We have always believed ourselves to be from the Midwest. Everyone we know from back home believes we are from the Midwest. And when I worked for the Chicago-based A.V. Club, no one batted an eye when I described my Midwestern upbringing — and Chicago is the Midwest's unofficial capital, so you'd think they would know.

Yet my friends and colleagues in the ivory towers of the East Coast media continue to perpetuate the myth of the "Great Plains." In the wake of Vox's "Which states do you think are in the Midwest?" interactive feature — which revealed that most of my fellow Americans agree with me — I am here to explain to these East Coast elites why the land of flat prairies is very much a part of the Midwest as a whole. I have five hopefully compelling arguments.

1) The US Census Bureau says the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas are part of the Midwest

The US Census Bureau defines the Midwest as such:

Census midwest
The census knows what it's talking about.
US Census Bureau

See? The "Great Plains" states are right there, included with everybody else. Frankly, I would argue they have more of a claim to "Midwest," as they are literally in the middle of the country and are (mostly) in the Central time zone. That's more than Ohio can say.

And, indeed, in our interactive map, most voters selected the 12 states above as those that comprise the "Midwest." That's also what my fourth-grade social studies textbook said was the case, and it wouldn't have lied to me.

2) The "Great Plains" are like New England — a subsection of a larger region

The debate over which states make up the Midwest likely stems from the fact that "Midwest" is a vague descriptor, one that the census eschewed in favor of "North Central" for many years. Thus, there is a lot of argument about the "true" Midwest.

But I would argue that the 12 states above actually feature three diverse subregions, which combine to form the Midwest.

First, we have the Great Lakes states:

Great Lakes region
The Great Lakes region.
Vox

Next we have what I dub "Corn Country," though I should probably come up with a better name, since every state in the Midwest grows corn:

Corn Country
Corn Country!
Vox

Finally, we have the Great Plains:

Great Plains
The Great Plains.
Vox

There is, of course, overlap. And Indiana doesn't really fit comfortably with the "Great Lakes" states. (Arguably, Minnesota is a better fit, at least on a cultural level.)

But what's consistent here is that while there are some interesting geographical differences — like the flatness of the Plains, or the shorelines of the Great Lakes — the cultural differences are relatively minor. A small town in South Dakota and a small town in Iowa are virtually the same place, not to mention vastly different from a small town of the same size in, say, California, where I now live.

The Midwest is more of a cultural region than a geographical one. These are the states where agriculture was, historically, the major industry. They're states where people say "pop" instead of "soda" (except for around the Great Lakes, where "soda" holds sway). They're states where the dominant religion is some branch of Protestant — often Lutheran or Methodist. And they're states where Scandinavians and other Northern Europeans settled in droves. All of those cultural similarities produce a distinct region — with smaller geographical subregions.

In short, the relationship of the Great Plains to the Midwest is similar to the relationship of New England to the Northeast or the Deep South to the South: They're smaller pieces of a larger whole.

3) While the Great Plains states and Missouri act as border states, they belong more to the Midwest than the West

It's famously been said that the top half of Missouri is Midwestern, while the bottom half is Southern. And this is largely true — and part of the state's history, as it was one of a handful of states where slavery was legal but that didn't secede from the Union in the Civil War.

The Great Plains serve a similar function. For the most part, their eastern halves (or the halves in the Central time zone) function as a sort of "Diet Minnesota." Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for instance, is basically just a smaller Minneapolis. The same goes for Fargo, North Dakota. Their cultural values and major industries are similar.

Once you get out West — handily demarcated in the Dakotas by the Missouri River — the landscape and cultural beliefs begin to resemble those of the Rocky Mountain states, with lots of wide open spaces and politics that trend toward libertarianism. (East River Republicanism in the Dakotas is much more in line with the religious right.)

Nevertheless, many more people live in the eastern half of these states than the western half (though the North Dakota oil boom may change that). Since we can't split states between regions, it makes far more sense to slot the Great Plains with the Midwest than with the Rocky Mountains.

4) The Great Plains don't really have enough people to count as a culturally distinct region

Maybe if the Great Plains were simply teeming with citizens, everything would be different. But the most populous state of the four — Kansas — can't even crack 3 million people. Neither of the Dakotas has more than 1 million.

Becoming a culturally distinct region requires a lot of people who've formed their own unique culture, one that's separate from the culture of other places. Think of how South Florida, which is densely populated and features heavy Caribbean influences, feels very different from the rest of the American South, almost to the degree that it can seem like a completely separate state.

There's really nothing like that in the Great Plains, which are, again, pretty much Diet Minnesota. It's a whole area settled by people who got to the freezing cold of Minnesota and Iowa, then didn't have the good sense to stop — not its own place with completely distinct immigration patterns.

5) The Great Plains are closer to the "middle west" of the country than Ohio, for God's sake

Just looking at a map proves this to be true. Ohio and Michigan, having been the "Midwest" the longest (thanks to being grandfathered in over the years as the US expanded westward), should remain within this homey region's warm embrace. But hell if I'm going to let anyone cast us hardy Great Plainsers out into the cold. Because it gets very cold in the Dakotas.


VIDEO: 220 years of population shifts in one map

Be sure to subscribe to Vox on YouTube for more explainer videos