Wright on Smoak, 'Western Lands, Western Voices: Essays on Public History in the American West'

Gregory E. Smoak, ed.
Brian Wright

Gregory E. Smoak, ed. Western Lands, Western Voices: Essays on Public History in the American West. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2021. 240 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-64769-034-2

Reviewed by Brian Wright (Princeton University) Published on H-Environment (June, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57465

History, of course, is all around us—in our memories, in our institutions, in the landscape itself. The American West’s landscapes are imprinted in equal measure with the cost of conquest and the allure of myth. The region’s many national parks, historic sites, museums, and universities wrestle with this violent and complicated past to make sense of how we got here and where we are going. If history is all around us, what is “public history” anyway? Is academic history, the assumed alternative, private? Western Lands, Western Voices: Essays on Public History in the American West takes up the premise of public history not by trying to define the term—a notoriously slippery concept—but by showing where public history happens and what it can do for communities, institutions, and the practice of history.

Western Lands, Western Voices emerged from a conference organized in 2014 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the American West Center at the University of Utah. The American West Center, as its current director and editor of this volume Gregory E. Smoak writes in the introduction, has for decades accomplished historical work outside the typical prerogatives of academic scholarship. An enormous oral history project, funded by a donation from tobacco magnate Doris Duke in 1967, forged ties between the center and Native American tribes long before academic-tribal collaboration became common. Continuing this trend, the center has more recently worked with Indigenous groups to develop curricula, digital archives, and other educational resources, like the Utah Indian Curriculum Project and the Utah American Indian Digital Archive. As Smoak writes in the volume’s introduction, however you might define or delimit “public history,” the work at hand is ultimately defined less by intellectual ownership and more by “collaboration and application” (p. 7).

Together, the chapters tackle three primary themes: the utility of public history itself, especially in the West; public history's interaction with tourism and recreation in the region; and the potential benefits of public history to marginalized communities. Academic history is, much of the time, proprietary, individualistic, and directed toward other members of a certain guild of expertise. A public historian might have to persuade not only laypeople but also even hostile audiences; Leisl Carr Childers describes in her chapter the awkward task of persuading state governors to respect historical precedents attached to federal-state powers, and Virginia Scharff and Stephen Aron write of the skepticism expressed by academics toward “career diversity” programs for graduate students pivoting toward “alt-academic” career paths. But even if the audience is not hostile, a given “public” may simply not share the same intellectual priorities as academics. Jedediah Rogers writes of the challenges facing the Utah Historical Quarterly, a scholarly journal that, despite its attachment to academia, has long attracted a lay audience fascinated by a kind of Mormon triumphalism rooted in pioneer hagiography. “The core of public history,” Richard White writes in his chapter, reprinted from a 2014 lecture, “lies in who asks the questions rather than in who gives the answer” (p. 21). So while Smoak argues rightfully that “public history cannot and should not be reduced simply to a matter of audience,” the application of historical work must remain front and center (p. 8).

Much of the public history happening in the West happens at playful places—national parks, deserted boomtowns, ski resorts. Mette Flynt writes of the resurrection of Lake City, Colorado, from a sleepy ghost town to a tourist town, all organized by a local historical society and museum in the late twentieth century. Flynt’s chapter highlights a key irony of public history oriented toward play: places that package their “authentic” history for economic gain risk sacrificing local community life to Disney-esque tourist exploitation. Leighton Quarles identifies a similar tension in his chapter on historical work within the National Parks System (NPS). While historians have richly analyzed how the national parks curated a false primitive beauty, ultimately concealing dispossession and Turnerian hubris, Quarles argues that the NPS itself has not fully grappled with its own history or its own interpretive responsibilities. Beset by erratic funding and a scientistic worldview, the NPS remains focused above all on the management of its physical resources and its tourists than its historical work. And only recently has the NPS begun to work closely with the tribes whose ancestral lands lie within park boundaries. These ironies abound too in the work of Hal Rothman, a beloved and biting scholar of western recreation memorialized thoughtfully in a chapter by Michael Childers.

Five chapters in the middle of the volume illustrate the power of public history to protect the stories—and the basic rights—of dispossessed and marginalized westerners. E. Richard Hart writes of his decades-long work as an expert witness historian in legal cases for the Zuni tribe, the Coeur d’Alene tribe, and the Klamath tribes. Hart’s work combines historical scholarship and legal maneuvering to successfully argue for the tribes’ traditional water usage and formal territorial rights. Yvette Towersap Tuell and Brittani R. Orona explore some the reparative challenges of tribal collaboration with the federal government and museums to narrate Indigenous history and navigate Indigenous resource rights. Tuell’s experience working on “the dark side” for tribal property within the Bureau of Land Management highlights how government agencies often meet only legal requirements with little regard for historical or cultural nuance working with tribes. Orona’s chapter notes that close collaboration with Native tribes can yield both historical and practical successes: museum exhibitions and legal representation helped Klamath Basin tribes reclaim water rights from dammed rivers and display their culture through “visual sovereignty.” Trisha Venisha-Alicia Martínez and Vanessa Fonseca-Chávez explore the ironic mix of rootedness and displacement central to the identity of Manitos—Hispanic New Mexicans resettled north in Colorado and Wyoming. Neglected by local government and peripheral to mainstream Latino discourses, Manito communities have had to conduct oral history and infrastructural projects themselves. Finally, Laurie Arnold’s chapter brings the reader back to the academic-public divide, illustrating the challenges of building a Native American studies program at Gonzaga University in close collaboration with tribes on the Columbia Plateau.

Western Lands, Western Voices provides an excellent overview of the power and promise of public history in the West. Each essay should be considered a model in its particular field: how to navigate federal-tribal relations, how to collaborate with communities to develop museum exhibitions that represent their history, how to bridge the gap between academia and the “public,” and so on. Each essay delivers its vision of best practices while acknowledging that public history is all about adapting to each situation, understanding your audience(s), and focusing above all, as Smoak puts it, on “collaboration and application.”

Citation: Brian Wright. Review of Smoak, Gregory E., ed., Western Lands, Western Voices: Essays on Public History in the American West. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. June, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57465

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