Monday, March 16, 2015

Living History: The John Feathers Map Collection

Archivists and lovers of old maps, just sit back and enjoy!

 This video fascinates me on a couple of levels. It is a great story, of an unexpected find that doubles the map collection of the Los Angeles Public Library. It is also lovely to look at (if you are a map lover) particularly the last few minutes where the camera just luxuriates in the old maps. Oooooh--Sanborns!

The video is also a nice example of low-key public outreach, an approach that I wish more archives and humanities institutions would emulate. Nearly all of us who have spent a few years working in archives have some interesting stories in the "You will never believe what someone found!" vein. The rub is always the lack of resources--archivists are not trained to make videos or podcasts, and we don't have the time anyway. It is no surprise that though this video is about the Los Angeles Public Library, it was produced by the LA Review of Books, which had the staff and saw the value of producing a short film of local interest.

 Some time ago I posted about short videos being made by the Minnesota Historical Society. Who else is making similar videos?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Spokane's Pride: Oral Histories of Spokane’s LGBT community

Look what my friend and EWU colleague Laura Hodgman has created: Spokane's Pride, a website dedicated to the oral histories of LGBT Spokane.

Spokane has a reputation as a conservative town, but of course we have always had a gay population. The first gay bar in Spokane opened in the 1950s, and the first drag ball happened about a decade later. Spokane's Pride explores this history with transcribed oral interviewsa timeline that integrates LGBT Spokane history with national events. and a glossary of some commonly-used terms.

Spokane's Pride grew out of “The Queer History Project,” an earlier oral history effort conducted by Maureen “Mo” Nickerson and others. The interviews for that project were conducted in 2006-07 and deposited at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture. Hodgman resumed the effort in 2012, conducting her own interviews as well as transcribing some interviews from the earlier effort. Thirty-five individuals in all were interviewed.

The stories that Hodgman, Nickerson and others have gathered are by turns inspiring, harrowing, and revealing. A unique feature of the site is the Topics section, which organizes excerpts from different interviews around some common themes such as Coming Out, Parenting, and Spokane in Perspective.

Some may be disappointed to learn that there is no audio at the site. Hodgman explained to me that due to the sensitive nature of the topics and the necessary bonds of trust between interviewers and the LGBT community, she would interview the individuals, transcribe the interviews, and then allow the interviewees to review those transcripts and make sure they were comfortable with disclosing everything they said. Hodgman and the interviewees negotiated until everyone felt comfortable before the transcript went public. This is a completely justifiable way to proceed with such a project, and the method is partially explained under the Project portion of the website.

There is something of an explosion of LGBT oral history projects right now, including the ACTUP Oral History Project, Twin Cities Gay and Lesbian Community Oral History Project, and Closeted/Out in the Quadrangles: A History of LGBTQ Life at the University of Chicago. At the exhibits at the last National Conference for Public History there was entire table of brochures and handouts for similar projects.

Spokane's Pride is very much a work in progress, with additional stories being added at a regular clip. It is a great additional to our region's digital history projects.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

In Which I am Quoted in the New York Times

So Wednesday morning I checked my email to find a message from Scott Shane, a reporter for the New York Times. Could I give him a call for a piece he is writing? On the phone Shane explained he is doing a story--building off the current Hillary Clinton email brouhaha--about how the move to digital communications will change how historians do their work. "I spoke to Dolores Kearnes Goodwin and Robert Dallek and thought I would call you for your opinion," he said.

Dear Reader, I paused to savor that sentence.

We had a fun talk. Shane had come across a blog post of mine, Open Letter to the Historians of the 22nd Century: Sorry for All the Stuff. The short version of that post is that I argue against a prevailing idea that the inevitable loss of electronic records will mean a digital dark age for future historians. Far more likely they will be overwhelmed with data. I endeavored to be as sound-bitey as possible, remaking the same points as in the blog post.

So here is the story: Awash in Information, Historians Fear Loss of Rich Material.  I knew going in that at best a snippet of what I said in our 20-30 minutes of conversation would end up in the story, and so it was:

Larry Cebula, a digital archivist for the State of Washington who teaches history at Eastern Washington University, apologized in a semiserious blog post to historians of the next century for 'all the stuff.' If Thomas Jefferson were alive, he wrote, he might be commenting on his friends’ Facebook pages and posting photographs to Instagram. 

"I think historians a century from now will view this period as a time of an explosion of records,' Mr. Cebula said. 'Even if Facebook is out of business, someone will have bought the archive."

Shane also linked to my blog post, which was nice. He did not quote the one line I really had hoped he would use, where I called Goodwin and Dallek silly for their belief that the loss of hand-written letters doomed future historians to write superficial histories. I so wanted to be quoted in The Paper of Record calling Dolores Kearnes Goodwin "silly." My academic friends on Facebook took exception to the "Mr. Cebula" part, sharing one of my favorite quotes from the Austin Powers films.

And so ends my 15 minutes of near-fame. It has been a good week, media-wise, with a flattering puff-piece in the local paper on Sunday and quoted in the New York Times on Thursday. I believe I will enjoy a double bourbon just now.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Two Upcoming American Indian Events at Gonzaga

My friend Laurie Arnold is really tearing things up at Gonzaga, where she is Director of Native American Studies. She has organized two upcoming events that look terrific:

"Clyfford Still and the Nespelem Art Colony"
March 23rd, 5:30 p.m., Jundt Museum Room 110
Micheal Holloman
Please join Native American Studies in welcoming Michael Holloman (Colville), Associate Professor of Art History at Washington State University, for a lecture and discussion about Clyfford Still and

the Nespelem Art Colony. Clyfford Still was a former Fine Arts faculty member at Washington State College (University) in the mid to late 1930’s. He was also instrumental in the development of and teaching at the Nespelem Art Colony (1937-41) located on the Colville Indian Reservation. For most Still is recognized as one of the titans of the post WWII NYC abstract expressionist movement joined by other painters such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. This talk, based on Holloman's new research project, uses dozens of drawings and paintings only recently made accessible at the Clyfford Still Museum to illustrate the impact the Nespelem Art Colony had on Still and other working artists who interacted for a brief time at the Colony. This event is free and open to the entire campus community, as well as to the public.

"Mythbusting! Native American History and Contemporary Issues"
April 8th, 5:30 p.m., Wolff Auditorium
Dr. Laurie Arnold
Laurie Arnold (Colville), Director of Native American Studies and Assistant Professor of History, will give the 2015 History Department Art and Craft of History Lecture. This talk will focus on Columbia Plateau tribes' experiences with new immigrants to the Plateau in the 1800s and will discuss cultural continuities present in ancestral traditions still practiced today. This event is free and open to the entire campus community, as well as to the public.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Lynching in Cheney

On the evening of September 7th, 1884, a group of men rode their horses from the pioneer village of Spokane Falls to even-more-rude hamlet of Cheney, in the Washington Territory. They had come to murder a man. In Cheney the men broke down the door of the county jail. They dragged out an unnamed Spokane Indian who was accused of having raped a white woman earlier that day. The rope broke on the first attempt, so they tried again. This time the Indian man was hoisted into the air. He probably thrashed about a few minutes, but was soon still. The men left the body where it hung and rode home "by separate routes."

This image of the old jail was captured by EWU professor J. Orin Oliphant
in 1923. Courtesy of the EWU Archives and Special Collections.
They murdered the wrong man. Within a few days the federal Indian Agent to the Spokane Tribe, Sydney D. Waters, stated as much (see below). An 1896 Spokesman-Review article compellingly identified a different man as the rapist. Mistaken lynchings were actually quite common in nineteenth-century America, and so was the excuse that was quickly made in Spokane--though the victim might have been innocent of the specific crime, he was probably guilty of something, and deserved his fate.

There are no official records of the arrest and lynching that I can find--just a handful of contemporary newspaper stories and a few lines in a memoir. Even the name of the victim is unknown. The two paragraphs above are most of what we know, and probably ever will know, about this terrible episode. Below are links to all of the significant primary sources I have been able to find, in order of their publication:

"The Lynching of An Indian Causes the Braves to Don Their War Paint..." Los Angeles Herald, September 9, 1884, p. 1 col. 3.
Pieces very similar to this one appeared in many western newspaper after the events. The Indians are described as "very sullen and are putting on war paint."

"Telegraph Notes." Omaha Daily Bee, September 10, 1884, p. 1 col. 3.
This very short notice reads in its entirety: "An Indian confined at Jail in Cheney, Washington territory, for raping a white girl recently, was lynched Monday night. His fellows claim he was innocent and threaten trouble."

"Spokane Outrage" The Northwest Tribune, September 12, 1884. A more detailed account.

"Neck-Tie Party: A Fable" The Northwest Tribune, Sept. 12, 1884, p. 5, col. 3. [PDF]
This article, published in the Cheney newspaper almost a week after the event, describes the murder in comic terms as "a neck-tie party given by one Joe Warren an Indian of Spokane Falls to the elite of Cheney." The identification of the Indian as Joe Warren is certainly a typo--Joel Warren was the name of the deputy who arrested the accused. The link above is to a typescript of the original, compiled by J. Orin Oliphant and included in his collection Readings in the Early History of Cheney, Washington, available at the JFK Library Archives and Special Collections at EWU.

"To the Settlers" Spokane Falls Review, September 27, 1884, p. 1, cols. 6, 7.
Indian agent Sydney D. Waters reassures area whites "need not fear that any trouble will result with the Indians on account of of the lynching of one of their number at Cheney." Waters also notes that he has been "positively assured" that the killers lynched the wrong Indian, but that he "no doubt deserved his fate." He blames the whole incident on "these devils" who were selling whiskey to the Indians.

"Twelve Years a Secret" Spokane Daily Chronicle - Feb 21, 1896, p. 3, col. 1.
This article, published nearly 12 years after the events, seems to very strongly confirm the innocence of the murdered Indian and includes the most detailed (if sensational) description of the events. The article notes that the rape victim "has always been in doubt" that the lynchers hanged the right man, and that "If the names of that mob should be published it would be found that a large number of them could be readily found in the city directory of today."

Detail from the 1884 birds-eye map,
with jail and courthouse visible.
"Indian Lynched by Citizens at Cheney" by Nelson Wayne Durham. from History of the City of Spokane and Spokane Country, Washington, Volume 1 (S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, Spokane, WA., 1912) p. 593. In this very brief account, told to Durham by former sheriff Joel Warren, some facts seem confused by time. Warren includes the information that some Indians "blamed me for the lynching, and for two or three years I was warned that these Indians were watching for a chance to kill me."

Bird's eye view of Cheney, Wash. Ter., county seat of Spokane County, 1884
This map of Cheney, made the same year as the lynching, is helpful for placing events. Can you find the jail, pictured above, on the map?

...and there the trail goes cold. I can find no other records of the arrest of the murdered Indian in 1884 or of any attempt to find his killers. Oddly, Que-to-Quin, the native man identified (and who knows if the claim was true) as the actual rapist in the 1896 article also drops from sight. Though Indians in the region were angered by the action and there were rumors of an uprising, none took place.

If the lynching had failed in its stated purpose of punishing a rapist, it succeeded in what was always an unspoken purpose of such proceedings--to inform the targeted ethnic group that they had no rights that white society respected, and their lives could be forfeit at any time. The 1884 lynching was part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing that accompanied the growth of Spokane and was designed to force Indians out of the immediate environs of the city and onto the reservations that had been set aside for them.The years after 1884 saw an increasing campaign to drive Indians from the region, and particularly from within the Spokane city limits. Indians were allowed to come into Spokane to shop and spend their money, but were expected not to stay. It was a western "sundown town" in some ways.

[Spcial thanks to EWU Archivist Dr. Charlie Mutschler and Spokane Public Library Northwest Room Libraria Riva Dean in finding the material for this post. Forthcoming Post: Remembering the Cheney Lynchings Today.]

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Mapping the Kentuc Trail

Behold, the least significant digital history project known to man--a map of the Kentuc Trail that I made last night:

The Kentuc Trail was a route used by early white settlers here in eastern Washington to travel between a crossing of the Snake River and Plante's Ferry on the Spokane River. Mentions of the route pop up a lot in pioneer narratives, including this one by John Smith who traveled on the Kentuc Trail with Colonel Wright in his infamous 1858 attacks on area tribes. I could not find a map online so decided to make one. Here is how I did it.

First, I needed a digital image of some kind of map of the trail. I reached out to area experts and Jayne Singleton of the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum came up with this map, which accompanied an article in the Pacific Northwest Quarterly:

Clearly, it is an inexact map, but that was almost better for me as it meant I could spend less time on the fine-grained details. The next step was to import the above digital file into Google Earth (desktop version) as an overlay, and fiddle with it it lined up with the modern landscape.

This was the only part of the exercise that was kind of a pain, and a case study on why Google Earth has never caught on the way many of us thought it would. Lining up this historic map and the modern landscape required finding some point in common that appeared on both maps. Rivers are great for this--you drag the image around and expand and contract it until the Snake, Palouse, and Spokane rivers on both layers line up. This is easier written than done. The trick is to 1) make sure the waterways layer on Google Earth is toggled on, and 2) mess around with the transparency slider for the image as you go.

Once I had the layers in harmony, I used the paths tool in Google Earth to draw a line along the trail. Now I had the route of the Kentuc Trail as a series of GPS coordinates. If you want to see the final result in Google Earth, here is the KML file.

Now I wanted to share the map, so the next researcher googling "Kentuc Trail"+map actually finds something. The easiest way to share would be to export the route.a custom Google Map--which is something different than a Google Earth layer. I thought I would just be able to create the map from Earth, but noooooo.... Still it was not hard. First I downloaded the KML file of my path layer from Google Earth. Then I opened Google Maps, created a custom map, and imported the file. Name the new custom map, add a short description, and set it to be visible to the public. Done.

Now, I am no Ron Hall or anything but I thought it turned out pretty well. If you drill down the flaws become apparent--I have the trail crossing Latah Creek in the wrong place for example--but I figured that this was still a helpful map for researchers, considering there is nothing else out there online.  And I decided this would make a good quick assignment for a digital or public history class, which is why I go through the steps here. Breaking it down, here is what the classroom assignment would look like:

  1. Find a historic map that includes some kind of route or trail.
  2. Obtain a digital image of that map.
  3. Install Google Earth on your computer. 
  4. Import the image as an overlay. 
  5. Geo-reference the historic map so it lines up with the terrain in Google Earth.
    • That was a pain in the ass, wasn't it?
  6. Now use the paths feature to draw a line along your route. Try to be accurate without being obsessive.
  7. Download the path as a KML file.
  8. Create a custom Google Map. (You will need a Google account.)
  9. Import the KML file into your Google Map.
  10. Add descriptions so folks know what they are looking at.
  11. Set your Google Map to be visible to the public. 
  12. Save. You are done.
To the Google gurus out there, let me know if you have any tricks or suggestions to improve this assignment! 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Open Letter to Tom Hanks: About that Lewis and Clark Miniseries...

Dear Tom Hanks:

I see that  your are producing a miniseries about Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery. As a historian who spends a lot of time trying to communicate with the public on exactly this and other closely-related topics, I am worried. Here is what the Hollywood Reporter has to say about the project:

HBO is moving full steam ahead with its long-gestating Lewis and Clark miniseries. The premium cable network has tapped Casey Affleck to star in the six-hour mini, The Hollywood Reporter has learned. Based on Stephen E. Ambrose's book Undaunted Courage, Affleck will star as Meriwether Lewis in the story of America's first contact with the land and the native tribes of the country west of the Mississippi River. The drama tells the epic journey of the Corps of Discovery and its captains, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, as they traverse uncharted territory on a mission to deliver President Jefferson's message of sovereignty and search for the fabled all-water route to the Pacific.

Mr. Hanks, you can understand my concern. Your Lewis and Clark miniseries will likely be a huge hit, and the young people who watch it will turn up in my college classroom. I want you to get this right. Your source material, Undaunted Courage, is not good. It is the work of a plagiarist and fairly toxic with Manifest Destiny. (I know he was a friend of yours, but it is the truth.) Indeed the book has already been filmed once and it wasn't very good. Still, it is early in the project and maybe not too late to include some more accurate and interesting information. Here are eight things you ought to know, correctives to the usual Lewis and Clark story, that might be helpful--along with some suggestions of how a more historically-correct story would also be better entertainment.

1) This is an Indian story. The majority of the people involved in the story of the Corps of Discovery were the thousands of native people the expedition encountered. Indian societies were in tremendous transition in 1804-06, having experienced disease epidemics, the arrival of horses, and other extraordinary events in the generations immediately before Lewis and Clark. The Indians who welcomed the Corps of Discovery into their villages were emphatically not living the way their grandfathers had done. They were caught up in a New World of opportunities and perils, they were improvising and expanding and figuring it out as they went along. Trying to capture this changing native world (and among very different native groups) will dilute the imperialist cant that usually goes with the story. The great James Ronda, author of Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, would challenge his students and readers to view the expedition "from the bank, instead of the boat." Try and do that.

Lewis and Clark navigated a sometimes crowded Indian world,
as imagined here in Captain William Clark Meeting the
Northwest Indians, by Charles M. Russell (1897)

How will this make for better entertainment? White people love Indians right now. Take the time to delve into the different native cultural groups and contrast them with one another. Show us the buffalo hunts of the Lakota, the Mandans in their corn fields, the Nez Perces traveling back and forth over the Rocky Mountains, the coastal Chinooks, led by the clever Chief Comcomly, already caught up in the global fur trade. There are marvelous personalities, textures and subplots at work here. Make it more Marco Polo exploring China and less boy scouts hiking in the mountains.

Oh yeah, you guys.
2) The Indians were not surprised to see Lewis and Clark. There is no more tired cliche than that of the dumb-struck savage who just caught his first sight of the radiant white man and his "big medicine" technology. The native peoples of the far West were enmeshed in continental networks of trade and information. They had been hearing about white men for a century before Lewis and Clark dipped an oar into the Missouri River. In every village visited by the Corps were natives who had already met white men, on visits to British fur trading forts or trading trips to the Pacific coast. Indians did gather round to watch the Corps of Discovery, as they would any visitor, but that was about it. Lewis and Clark themselves were often disappointed that they were not held more in awe. They had a sort of magic show they would do upon entering a village--haul out the air rifle, a compass, even move around an iron object with a magnet hidden under a sheet of paper. One time Clark surreptitiously threw a piece a cannon fuse in an Indian campfire to try and convince them he was powerful.

How will this make for better entertainment? The blase reaction of the natives, and the corresponding frustration of the captains, add a comic dimension to the story while emphasizing how Lewis and Clark were exploring an Indian world that was already changing and historically aware.

3) Lewis killed a kid. In July of 1806, on the journey home, a party led by Lewis (who always was a terrible diplomat) met a Blackfoot Indian group consisting mostly of teenage boys, near present-day Browning, Montana. The two groups camped together and spent an evening gambling and sharing stories. During the night, there was a scuffle over some property and two of the Blackfoots were shot, including a teenaged boy who Lewis chased after and killed with his pistol.
Lewis killed a Blackfoot boy with a gun like this one. He later
committed suicide with a pistol, likely the same weapon.

White historians tend to gloss over the incident, describing the boy as an Indian "brave," i.e. an enemy combatant. Native sources tell the story differently. In one version of the story the Americans lost heavily while gambling and refused to pay up, killing the Indians who tried to collect. In another version the Blackfoot youths were told to try to steal the horses of the Americans, but were not prepared for the violence of Lewis and his men when they were caught. "These were boys who were horse herders," according to Darrell Robes Kipp, director of the Piegan Institute in Browning, Montana. "They weren't warriors." In either case, Lewis shot a 13-year-old boy, and then decorated the body with a Jefferson peace medal as a mocking calling card. Then he and his men ran like hell to get away from the Blackfeet before the shit hit the fan.  Lewis killed a kid.

How will this make for better entertainment? Imagine what a dramatic scene this would make--the confused fighting in the half-light, Lewis charging at and shooting a fleeing figure, and then turning over the body and looking into the face of a dead boy. His men are horrified and an awkward Lewis tries to compensate, making a joke by putting a Jefferson peace medal around the dead child's neck. Fresh blood wells up over the medal as Lewis sets the boy back down into the prairie grass. After a moment of horrified silence, Lewis looks up at his men. "Men, we need to get out of here. Now." Later Lewis tells Clark a self-serving version of what happened, while the men who accompanied Lewis give each other significant glances over the fire.

4) Lewis was gay. Really. Blogger Frances Hunter lays out the admittedly-circumstantial case here. Lewis was a dandy, Hunter points out, was uncomfortable around women and squeamish about sex, he never so much as had a serious girlfriend, women who he did try to court went "screaming in the other direction." I would add to these that Lewis was particularly horrified by female anatomy, his descriptions of men were sometimes charged with homo eroticism, he never seems to have taken advantage of the plentiful opportunities for sex with native women on the two-year expedition, and after the journey he went to extreme lengths to try and reignite his former closeness with newly-married Clark, even trying to move in with the couple in a tiny house in Saint Louis.
Absolutely fabulous.

Meriwether Lewis' sexual orientation is a source of regular private  speculation among historians of the expedition, though very little of the discussion has seen print. At a history conference dedicated to the Corps of Discovery a few years ago I broached the subject to a panel of three historians who were experts on William Clark. All three readily agreed--explaining that they could not write about it after all because there was no absolute proof. Non-academics have been more bold. Bryan Hall's novel about the expedition I Should be Extremely Happy in Your Company assumes that Lewis was gay. A 2004 piece in The Advocate by Bob Smith argues that a close reading of the letters and journals "should trigger the gaydar of open-minded readers."

How will this make for better entertainment? Are you kidding me? The longing looks across the campfire, the awkwardness when the other men pair up with native women and Lewis sits at the fire alone, the fumbling attempts of Lewis to restore his closeness to Clark after the expedition--the scenes write themselves. A gay Lewis will also give the story a contemporary relevance. Bonus points, Mr. Hanks, if you get Lewis to say "I wish I knew how to quit you" to Clark.

5) Clark left at least one child behind. Though Lewis did not get any, there was tons of sex on the expedition. This was entirely expected and planned for--the Corps of Discovery's gear included "Penis syringes, salves, and other items were taken to treat syphilis and other sexually-transmitted diseases." The sexual exchanges left some of the men with syphilis (an Old World disease which had been introduced on the Northwest coast by European sailors a generation before) and a few native women with child. There are any number of native oral histories describing children of the expedition. Best known and documented is the life of Tzi-kal-tza, or Daytime Smoker, Clark's son with a Nez Perce woman. Tzi-kal-tza never learned English beyond the two-word phrase he used to introduce himself when he met white people: "Me Clark!" In 1877 Tzi-kal-tza joined with Chief Joseph's resistance fighters in the Nez Perce War. He was among those captured at Bear Paw and he died in captivity in Oklahoma.

Nez Perce infant
How will this make for better entertainment? Penis syringes, Mr. Hanks, penis syringes. Also, the story is a great opportunity to contrast the attitudes towards sex between American and different native societies. Clark wrote of the Chinook, "those people appear to view sensuality as a necessary evil, and do not appear to abhor it as a crime in the unmarried state." There are many great potential scenes here--the Mandan women offering themselves to capture the spirit power of the strangers, the forced prostitution of the slave girls of the Northwest coast (with the obvious parallels to modern trafficking and sex slavery), the genial pairing up that took place during the two extended periods when the Corps were guests in Nez Perce villages. And though it is nowhere described in the journals that I can remember, the expedition very likely would have been shown some mixed-race babies on the return journey, which would make for a great scene. Clark, meet Little Clark.

6) York got screwed. His story is tragic. During the expedition York seemed to have enjoyed comparative equality with the rest of the Corps, such as he had never experienced before in his life. He was treated with respect, he had a voice in the decision-making process, and the Indian women loved him. As they came back down the Missouri in 1806, however, York was abandoning freedom and returning to slavery. When the other members were rewarded with money and land, York got nothing. He was not permitted even to return to Virginia where he had left behind a wife and children. And when York protested against his treatment, Clark had him whipped. The usual story of York's demise is that Clark gave him his freedom and he later died of smallpox--but that story does not wash. The only evidence is an account that Clark gave to Washington Irving in the 1830, and even then only after Irving repeatedly pushed the question. A more likely explanation is that York met the fate traditional to disobedient slaves in Missouri--he was sold "down the river" to one of the new plantations opening up in Mississippi or thereabouts, where he died alongside thousands of his race digging ditches to drain the swamps for cotton.

There are no portraits of York from life,this
Louisville statue is an artist's rendering.
How will this make for better entertainment? Imagine the scene. On the trip back down the Missouri the expedition members are paddling hard, living off whiskey and paw paws and making as many miles a day as possible in their eagerness to reach Saint Louis. Only one guys does not seem so happy. Over the campfire  York asks his owner what is to become of him when they return home? "You will serve me," Clark replies curtly, "as you have ever done." It is a powerful counterpoint to the triumphalist narrative.

7). There is humor in the story. The primary item in the Corps' medicine chest was Rush's thunderbolts--gigantic horse pills that caused explosive diarrhea. On the journey back down the Missouri the near-sighted French hunter Pierre Cruzatte accidentally shot Lewis in the ass, and the captain made the rest of journey lying face-down in one of the canoes. (Cruzatte, by the way is a great character--an exuberant fiddler, and half-French half-Indian child of the fur trade, a linguist with geographic knowledge, and a hunter who could not see very well). On the Great Plains the men of the expedition gained a taste for the native dish of roasted dog. When they got to the Columbia Plateau, where the Indians did not eat dog, a Nez Perce man made fun of Lewis--well, let's let Lewis tell the story: "while at dinner an indian fellow verry impertinently threw a poor half starved puppy nearly into my plait by way of derision for our eating dogs and laughed very heartily at his own impertinence; I was so provoked at his insolence that I caught the puppy and thew it with great violence at him and struk him in the breast and face, siezed my tomahawk and shewed him by signs if he repeated his insolence I would tommahawk him, ther fellow withdrew apparently much mortifyed and I continued my repast on dog without further molestation."

How will this make for better entertainment? Humor is another way to overcome the forced solemnity that smothers so many iconic historical moments. Give us a Corps of Discovery that laughs, plays practical jokes, and is laughed at by the Indians. These were high-spirited young men having the adventure of their lives, and they knew it.

8). Lewis and Clark don't matter. This is a great story, and worth telling, However, we should remember that Lewis and Clark had little to no impact on the course of American history. Their contemporaries did not seem to consider the expedition particularly important. The course of American empire had already been tracing its way up the Missouri. British Explorer Alexander MacKenzie had crossed the continent in 1793, twenty-one years before Clark wrote "Ocian in view!" in his journal. The expedition failed in their primary mission to find a practical water route to the Pacific (because no such route existed). They missed South Pass, and their route over the Rocky Mountains was so impractical it is a dirt road to this day. They did not make a strong American claim to the northwest, it was American settlement in the 1840s that did that. Their "scientific" contributions were mere 19th century cataloging. And Americans were surging west anyway. (David Plotz laid this all out in a 2002 piece in Slate: Lewis and Clark: Stop Celebrating. They didn't matter.)

Think of it this way--if the tense standoff between Lewis and Clark and a group of Lakota in 1804 had gone the other way, and the expedition had been wiped out on the banks of Missouri, how would American history have been different? We do not have to speculate too hard, because that is exactly what most Americans, and even President Jefferson, thought had happened when they did not return in 1805. And yet when the presumed-dead explorers finally descended the Missouri late in the summer of 1806, who did they meet but a steady stream of trappers, traders, and others coming up the river to open up the western lands? The Corps of Discovery had no perceptible impact on American history.

All of this is not say you should not make your mini series, Mr. Hanks. When you strip away the myths, you still have a fantastic story, one of the best in American history. I would argue you have an even better story without the myths, one with more moral ambiguity, conflicted personalities, and emotional depth and richness. And you have an unequaled opportunity to honestly present American Indians at what really was a key time in their history. This could be great.

Good luck, Mr. Hanks, and call me if you'd like to chat.



Friday, December 19, 2014

Ye Olde Toxic Waste Disposal, 1947

In January 1947 the War Assets Administration dumped a trainload of metallic sodium into Washington's Lake Lenore. This is why we can't have nice things:

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ghost Signs, Ghost Town

Last fall I did a quick exploration of Sprague, Washington. Like most of the towns of the wheat country of eastern Washington (and for that matter the rest of rural America), Sprague is a long demographic and economic decline. The wheat still grows on the rolling hills around the town, it just takes far fewer hands to harvest that wheat. This and a host of other reasons have driven the population of Sprague steadily downward for more than a century, from almost 1700 in 1890 to 446 as of 2010. Last summer one of the Main Street buildings just fell down.

There are faint signs of life in Sprague still--a post office, a motel that has seen better days, one grocery store, one tavern, and an antique shop with a note on the door asking you to call the owner if you would like her to open the store.

What really struck me about Sprague, though, were the amazing ghost signs. Regular readers of this blog know my obsession with spotting these faded painted signs on the signs of brick buildings. Sprague has a remarkable collection of surviving signs. Some have been repainted by preservation-minded citizens, others appear to be original. Forgive the quality of the following images, taken with the phone on my camera: 

This obviously repainted sign greets you as you come into town from the east.
The advertised wares point to an earlier time.
See this picture on Flickr
for how the sign appeared in 2012.
Not open on Sunday mornings!

The building owner told me this sign had been "touched up" some years ago.

I tried to frame this shot with the boom from the wheat elevator and
reflections in the puddles. Didn't quite work.

Really well-preserved original sign.

Hertrich and Moylan General Merchandise, plus a Bull Durham.
This undated photo from the WSU Library shows the
sign in better shape.

Most of the buildings are boarded up, waiting for the next boom.

Mostly too faint to read

I would love to know more about the history of Sprague and the efforts to preserve it. Who repainted some of the signs? Was there ever a historical society? Are there important historical papers in any of these buildings that should be rescued--maybe in the church or town hall or a former fraternal organization? If anyone knows more, give me a call.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Nez Perce Tribal Culture and Oral Traditions at the MAC

Interesting event coming up tomorrow night at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture. Josiah Black Eagle Pinkham, cultural resources ethnographer for the Nez Perce (Nimiipuu) tribe in Idaho will be giving a presentation supplemented by a display of cultural material used by his family. The presentation is at 6:30 p.m. at the MAC Auditorium, $5 Suggested Donation.

By the way--what is up with that YouTube video? I wanted to enhance this post with something beyond the bare-bones event description on the MAC website, so I googled the presenter and found the clip. The first bit is a nice introduction by Pinkham, but I am surprised to hear a relation of Chief Joseph say "we are very thankful" that the Chief Joseph Dam was named "in his honor." This is the dam that completely blocks salmon migration--no fish ladder was included. I am teaching tomorrow night so won't be at the MAC, or I would ask him about it.

The above video seems to a spinoff from this six-minute documentary about the dam, which is narrated by Pinkham. It is extremely-well made, though very biased in favor of the dam and downplaying its negative impacts on the environment and on native cultures:

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

No, You Still Cannot be a Professor

The one post I still get comments and emails about is something I wrote three years ago: Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor. It is a dark and intentionally strident post, meant to dispel any illusions that impressionable young people might have about joining a vanishing profession:

No, my esteemed student, you are not going to be a history professor. It isn't going to happen .... you are not going to win the lottery, you are not going to be struck by a meteorite, you are not going to be a professor. All of these things will happen to someone, somewhere, but none of them will happen to you.

The post went viral by the modest standards of this blog, with links from Reddit and MetaFilter and the Atlantic Monthly and eventually racked up over 100,000 page views. It still gets about 1200 views a month, and at least once a month I get an email from some plaintive undergrad, still trying to hold onto some thread of the dream, asking if my advice still stands.

Alas, it does, and this report from the American Historical Association confirms it. The number of academic history jobs has dropped again this year, for the second year in a row. "This decline is especially disconcerting when we consider that the overall economy has been improving and the US jobless rate declining. It raises the possibility that this downturn in academic positions for historians is not entirely attributable to the recession, but may be with us for some time." Here is the data in a chart:

Positions Advertised with the AHA
The thing to remember about this chart is that even the peaks represent a terrible job market, with hundreds of applicants for many jobs. There are far more new PhDs every year than there are jobs, and such has been the case for years, and so there are perhaps thousands of recent PhDs who have not landed a permanent academic position but have not stopped trying either. A friend of mine said "I used to tell students that earning a PhD and landing a tenure-track job was like running a marathon. Now I tell them it is like winning a marathon."

So no, my hopeful correspondents, you are still not going to be a professor. The good news is that there are jobs for people with historical training. You need to play all of your cards exactly right, and you need to be geographically flexible, but it can be done. Check out this great guest post by my recent MA student Lee Nilsson, on how he parlayed an MA in history into jobs at the Library of Congress and now the Department of State. There is life outside the classroom.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Invested in a system that renders us irrelevant

Perhaps you have seen this bit of academic click bait: 10 Reasons Professors Should Start Writing BuzzFeed Articles by Mark Marino. There isn't anything there really (and that is kind of the point), just a listicle with a few poorly-chosen memes with some halfway funny headings: "No one Believes that “The Next 450 Pages will Blow Your Mind!" and "The RT is the purest form of peer-review." This Chronicle of Higher Education article unpacks Marino's listicle with more gravity than perhaps is warranted, and includes a link to a meritorious example of an academic using social media, Post-Structuralism Explained With Hipster Beards: Part 1, by Chris Rodley. Now that is some worthy link bait.

The idea of academics publishing on Buzzfeed is both a great idea and nothing new. The calls for academics to engage the public with shorter, more accessible writing in different venues have been around for decades. With new platforms the old arguments get rehashed--often by people who seem perfectly unaware of how unoriginal they are being. Hell, tens of thousands of us have been doing exactly this sort of writing with academic blogging.

The argument also misses the essential truth--it assumes that the irrelevance of academics is because of the way we write. You know--bloated, impenetrable, designed for an audience of 40 people (and finding an audience of ten). This argument is wrong. The irrelevance of academic writing is not because of the way we write, it is because of the way we publish.

The illustration for this piece at the CHE--the Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka "tell me more" meme where he is saying "And I can read more about this in your 30 page article in JSTOR?" points at the real problem that prevents academics from finding a public audience. It isn't just the poor quality of so much of our prose, plenty of poor-quality prose sells like hotcakes. It is that there is NO FVCKING WAY for most human beings to get to our academic articles on JSTOR. Most people are not a currently enrolled student or a university employee, and are not willing to pay $20 to read a 30 page article. And even if you are one of the tiny portion of humanity that theoretically has access to JSTOR article, clicking on a link on a blog will still most likely take you to a pay wall. And you will back up, then go the website of your university, and use the godawful search engine there to find the article, and click through a half-dozen screens to get to the full text. Or not.

I think that actually a lot of people would be willing to wade through academic prose to learn more about topics that interest them if they would get to the damn prose in the first place. We could seed social media with abstracts of what we are doing--in the form of BuzzFeed listicles or whatever--and some people would follow the crumbs back to our academic writing. It would not take a lot of readers to double the readership of most academic article in the humanities, after all. But we cannot do it, because you can't provide an open, public link to most academic articles.

The problem is not how we write but where we publish. We are invested in a system of publication and copyright that renders us irrelevant.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Corporate History of Washington Water Power--in Video

I just discovered this series of short videos about the history of Avista, formerly Washington Water Power, online at KSPS. There are ten in all, covering topics from the earliest years of the company to (my favorite) the cartoon advertising icon Reddy Kilowatt.

There is hardly a more historic company in the Inland Northwest than Washington Water Power. Established before Washington was even a state, the company has been at the center of everything from the Great Spokane Fire to the building of hydroelectric dams to modern architecture to Expo 74. In recent decades, as the company changed its name to Avista, it seemed to move away from its history as well as its former name.

Now, on the 125th anniversary of Washington Water Power, there is a renewed commitment to that history. The company produced a rather good 40 page booklet on its history, and has additional historical materials on the company website. And then there is the ten-part series of minute-and-a-half documentaries.

These are well-made, but very much from the company point of view. The first details the role of WWP in the Great Spokane Fire of 1889, it is interesting and full of wonderful images. I especially like this one about the 1940s Home Service Program, in which female WWP employees fanned out across the region to show homemakers how to use the latest electric home appliances. Others show early dam building, electric-powered streetcars, and other aspects of WWP history.

Overall, the videos feel more like historically-tinged advertisements for Avista than historical documentaries. This is local history through the rosiest of lenses. An episode named The Fight for Survival even details how WWP fought off the "threat" of becoming a public utility district in the 1950s. Thus was socialist tyranny averted. And the two videos that deal with dam construction have literally no mention of the environmental impact of such projects, or the terrible blow they were to native peoples. None of the videos show any awareness of the larger historic picture of their times--the Great Depression, Cold War culture, or any of the other topics that could have enriched these pieces and made them more interesting.

I suspect that what happened here is that the videos were produced with internal expertise and an outside advertising firm--but they forgot to hire a historian. Still, perhaps these are petty complaints about what are after all a set of 90-second infomercials. It is good to see Avista once again interested in and promoting its own heritage.