Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Why I am Not Renewing my Membership in the Organization of American Historians

Today I received a mass email from David Hollinger, current president of the Organization of American Historians. It was an email to lapsed OAH members such as myself, asking us to renew. The tone of the email was fairly dire: "Since 2006, more than 1,000 colleagues with academic affiliations have allowed their membership in the OAH to lapse," Hollinger writes. "This continued decline in what has long been considered our core membership constitutes a serious threat to the viability of our organization."

I explained my decision not to renew with an email that I had first sent in reply to a similar plea from OAH Executive Director Katherine M. Finley, which I offer (slightly edited) to the public below. Yet I am feeling a twinge of email remorse. Am I doing the right thing here? Should I rejoin the OAH? Help me out, dear readers. Review my reasons and let me know in the comments if you agree.

Dear David Hollinger:

I will not be renewing my OAH membership. Here is why:

1. The OAH offers no lobbying or leadership in history-related public policy. When the stimulus bill was being created, the OAH and AHA made no efforts that I am aware of to secure funding for history. I blogged about the opportunity (1, 2, 3, 4) and also contacted your organization and the American Historical Association. I was told by the executive leadership of both organizations that the National Coalition for History does their lobbying for them--but the NCH did nothing either so far as I know. A once-in-two-lifetimes opportunity passed us by due to a lack of leadership from your organization. Now it looks like the Obama administration is about to eliminate the Teaching American History grants, which have pumped almost a billion dollars into history education. I have received no communication from the OAH about this, and there is not a word about it on your new website.

2. The OAH is largely unresponsive to the changing nature of the profession. I sent a long critique of the OAH Draft Strategic Plan and posted a version of it here on my blog. After the report was finalized I asked what changes had been made in response to member feedback and was told that there was no record of what had been changed. I can't see that anything was changed.

3. The committee that was supposed to issue guidelines for tenuring public historians (3 years ago?)  has not completed its work and even the draft report is no longer available. Some of us are going up for tenure and could use the voice of the OAH to convince our more traditional colleagues that our work should count in this process.

I am sorry if this is all too blunt, but I thought it would be better to explain my departure than just to drift away. When I think of the OAH I think of an uneven annual conference and--well, that is it. The conference is the tail that seems to wag the dog. I don't see where the OAH has any voice at all in the digital history world of blogs and news feeds and such, and I don't see where it does any meaningful advocacy for the profession. If I am not going to the conference, I can't see why I would join.



Friday, May 21, 2010

Not Everyone Loved Buffalo Bill

"Buffalo Bill is again in this country. Having captured millions of dollars from the fools of England who went crazy over his overdrawn pictures of our western life, he will now try to gull New Yorkers, Brooklynites, and other Eastern people into thinking that the Indians are savage beasts, fit only to be shot down like dogs or to wear paint and feathers to please the eye of an excited crowd. That disgraceful show can do more in six months, to drag the Indian down and give a wrong impression of his real character, than forty Carlisle’s could do in six years to build the Indian up and help him to stand on his own feet, on good solid ground. Buffalo Bill is rapidly tearing down what all good schools for the Indian are building up." --May 25, 1888 INDIAN HELPER

As I have mentioned before, I am teaching a course this quarter on William F. Cody (that's Buffalo Bill to you) and the Wild West. It is a fun class, since it takes in so many aspects of the American West and popular culture. Another enjoyable aspect of the course is finding the connections between Cody and other famous figures, from Calamity Jane to Teddy Roosevelt to the Queen of England. Once you begin looking for Buffalo Bill, you find him everywhere.

Including in the Indian Helper, the newspaper of the Carlisle Indian School, from which the above quote is taken. Many of the Indian reformers who supported the boarding school movement and other efforts to "civilize" American Indians by forcing them to behave more like white people hated Cody and the other entertainers who hired Indians for frontier shows. At the very same time the reformers were trying to confine Indians to reservations where they could be forced to adopt agriculture and Christianity and dress like white people. Cody was hiring Indians (at $25 a month and more!) to travel with him across America and over to Europe, where they would wear traditional costumes, ride horses, and scare big audiences of white people. Reformers repeatedly tried to deny Cody permission to hire reservation Indians for his show, but Cody cultivated powerful political contacts and always got his Indians.

I should also add that modern Indians and historians tend to see Cody as the better friend of the Indians, pointing out that he paid and treated them well and gave at least a few Indians a chance to escape the grinding poverty and cultural oppression of the reservation at a low point in American Indian history. The best single volume on the subject is by L.G. Moses, Wild West Shows and the Images of American Indians.

A delightful view of the reformer's anti-Cody propaganda can be found on this web page: References to "Buffalo Bill" in the Carlisle Indian School Newspapers. The above quote is taken from this page. The page was created by public historian Barbara Landis, who also has a nice blog about the Carlisle Indian School. For a different view, see this excellent Wikipedia page on "Show Indians" created by University of Nebraska graduate student Jason Heppler.

[Image: Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, Montreal, QC, 1885, via WikiMedia Commons.]

Thursday, May 13, 2010

THATCamp Pacific Northwest

THATCamp Pacific Northwest will be at the University of Washington this year, October 23rd & 24th. THATCamp PNW is a "digital humanities unconference" where participants "show, tell, collaborate, share, and walk away inspired." Last year I attended the main THATCamp at the Center for History and New MEdia in Georgetown as well as THATCamp PNW in Pullman and came away with so many great new ideas and contacts. THATCamp PNW is by application, and the deadline is June 7. See you there!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Charles Kuralt on the Road to the Whitman Killings

Here is an interesting piece of video that came my way--a four-minute segment from Kuralt's "On the Road" series:

1976 Charles Kuralt "On the Road" Segment on the Whitmans. from Larry Cebula on Vimeo.

Charles Kuralt criss-crossed the nation for twenty-five years, producing his gentle homey On the Road segments for CBS News from forgotten towns far from the interstate. "Before there was Ira Glass, there was Charles Kuralt," wrote Seth Stevenson in Slate recently, and that is exactly right. As a boy I was always entranced by the far-flung places that Kuralt brought into our living room. Little did I know that he had his reasons for staying on the road so much--two separate families, each unaware of the other.

The segment seems to be from 1975 or 76 and was converted to video by the Washington State Archives in 2005. Kuralt tells the story the way it was traditionally told in that era--as a tragedy for the white missionaries who were savagely killed by the Indians. There is not much attempt to understand native motivations or the suffering and death that were experiencing at the time. And it propagates the idea that measles were spread to the Cayuse via white emigrants on the Oregon Trail--recent research shows that the Cayuse themselves brought the disease back from a cattle raid in California. Still it is a charming little piece.

Bonus: Hunter S. Thompson reading a letter to Charles Kuralt, after the jump:

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, and . . . Mickey Mouse?

La Legende de Buffalo Bill: "Five thousand miles from Cody, Wyoming, 30 minutes outside Paris, France, there is a man who plays one of the most iconic Western figures in American history." This a fun story about one of the most popular attractions at EuroDisney's Mainstreet USA attraction, a "90-minute dinner performance modeled directly after Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows."

I am not sure what "modeled directly" means in this case, though there are a lot of grainy tourist videos of the show on YouTube (see below). If someone could please watch them all and report back, that would be great. Especially interesting is this nugget from the article:

At the beginning of the show, Vance introduces four different “ranches,” or sections of the arena, each with its own cowboys and Indians. Buffalo Bill greets Sitting Bull, and after a series of rodeo games, Vance gallops in on a white horse to save the guests, who have been robbed in a stagecoach attack.

In its 18 years (Vance performing for 15 of those), the show has only changed once. A little rough around the edges, the show is different than what a typical Disney audience would expect, Vance said. So last year, the management team asked that Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Chip and Dale be incorporated.

Vance was worried these additions would mess with the integrity of the show. “I wouldn’t have thought it would work, but the way it’s done, because of who we are – we’re just real guys – when you put that out there, we make the characters look more real,” he said. “Instead of us becoming a Disney show, it gives Mickey a bit of an edge.”

Here is a brief video from the show--sans Goofy, alas:

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Fellowship at the Center for Columbia River History

Here is an exciting announcement from the Center for Columbia River History: "The Center for Columbia River History announces the James B. Castles Fellowship to support original scholarly research that contributes to public understanding of the history of the Columbia River Basin. The $3,000 Fellowship is open to graduate students, professional historians and independent scholars. CCRH encourages proposals from diverse historical perspectives, including social, ethnic, political, cultural and environmental studies."

The deadline for applications is June 1, 2010--follow the link for more information.

[Image: "Beach seining salmon, Sand Island, Columbia River, Oregon," (1897) Washington State Archives, Digital Archives item # AR-07809001-ph001915.]