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.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Twilight of Columbus Day

This clip from John Oliver reflects pretty well our new understanding of Christopher Columbus:

You probably saw where Seattle just officially ditched Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples' Day. Of course this has been denounced by some on the right as "political correctness" (by which they generally mean "being polite to non-whites").

The charge ignores the fact the Columbus Day is itself a product of political correctness from an earlier era. For most of the 19th-century, Columbus did not occupy a particularly high spot in our historical pantheon. He was certainly in every textbook, but he was lumped in with Cortez and other Spanish conquerors and explorers. Columbus only became an American hero with the rise of the Italian-American community, who by the early 1900s had gained enough economic and political clout in their new home to organize and demand a holiday of their own. Columbus Day became a national holiday in 1937. This pattern--a group is discriminated against, slowly gains acceptance, and uses its political power to push for its own holiday--is of course exactly what gave us Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and now Indigenous Peoples' Day.

Growing up in Connecticut, Columbus Day was kind of a big deal. With our strong and politically active Italian-American population, the day was observed as a general celebration of Italian culture. It was in no way controversial--though it should have been. The current unpopularity of Columbus is not a result of any new information about the man coming to light. We have always known, from his own writings, about the taking of slaves and slaughter of civilians. We just did not used to care, or thought that his skills as a navigator someone balanced things out. This period of willful blindness has come to an end, and we cannot go back.

A hundred years from now some history student will be sifting through some letters and diaries of the 20th century and find references to "Columbus Day?" and wonder--what was that?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Archives Open House in Cheney this Saturday

Did you know that the world's first built-from-the-group-up digital archive is in Cheney? It is true, and this Saturday, October 11 from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. you can get special behind-the-scenes tours to see where the magic happens.

The state had money back in 2004.
Our facility is home to both the Digital Archives and the Eastern Region Branch of the Washington State Archives. This state-of-the-art facility opened it doors in 2004. Downstairs, the Eastern Region Branch preserves precious physical historical records--everything from court transcripts of frontier-
era divorces and murder trials to glass plate photographs of turn-of-the-century Spokane parks. We also have maps and marriage licenses and property record cards and naturalization papers and city council meeting minutes and--well, you get the picture. Archivist Lee Pierce will take visitors into the deep storage to show off some of the treasures that we protect.

 Upstairs, the building houses the Washington State Digital Archives, which preserves almost 150 million digital records for state and local government. You may already know our website (, this is a chance to get to know us a little better. There will be tutorials of how to use our website, featuring some of the more fascinating and lesser-known digital records, tours of the buildings, and Network Administrator Harold Stoehr will even lead a back-room peak at the thingamajigs and whatchamacallits that keep the website up and running.

 The archives are located at 960 Washington Street, in Cheney, Washington, and you can call us at (509) 235-7500. General tours of the facility will start at 10:15 and at 1, the backroom tour of the Digital Archives begins at noon. Or just stop by for a look around. We will see you in Cheney!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Step 1: Hire a Historian!

So this came across my Facebook feed today: Native America Project: Indian Fur Trade and Trading Posts - Google Maps. Naturally, I clicked:

View Native America Project: Indian Fur Trade and Trading Posts in a larger map

A good ten years back at the Fur Trade Conference I met a couple of gentlemen who had used a GIS program to map every fur trading post in North America. The huge print they brought with them was intoxicating in its detail. I asked if I could find it online or if they would share the file. They said no--they had put a lot of work into it and meant to charge for access. When I saw the link above I thought is was that project, available at last.

Alfred Jacob Miller - The Lost Greenhorn
No such luck. This map is just a mess. For my backyard, the interior Pacific Northwest, the majority of the information is wrong. Spokane House, the fur trading post, is in two different places. The interpretive text is dry and somewhat inaccurate and seems to have been copied from Wikipedia. The military fort of Fort Spokane is mixed up with Spokane House, the description is completely wrong. Fort Okanagan and the Nez Perce people are misplaced.

Historian friends, how does this map do in your regions of expertise?

Sadly, this sort of thing happens all the time in public and digital history. Exhibits, interpretive panels, and digital projects are created by technicians who are experts in presentation. Then fuss over color schemes and illustrations and interactivity. Then they pull some content off Wikipedia or some terrible regional history book published in 1950 to fill in their interpretive captions and metadata fields. Garbage in...

Friends, hire a historian. We know things, and can save you a lot of wasted effort. It is not even like we cost a lot of money!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Creek Indian Artist Todd Harder Coming to Spokane

There is something of a cultural florescence happening in Native America these days, and some of the cultural mixing is surprising and even playful. Take for example the Creek artist Todd Harder and his amazing native-themed skateboard decks:

Harder is quite prolific--you can see more of his work here. A nationally-prominent figure, the New York Times ran a piece on Harder and the annual All Nations Skate Jam that he organized--an alcohol and drug-free gathering of Indian skateboarders that takes place in Albuquerque. Harder is also a central figure in the Smithsonian exhibit "Ramp it Up: Native Skateboard Culture in America."

Harder will speaking at Gonzaga on Thursday, September 18, at 5:00 p.m.  in the Globe Room of Cataldo Hall. A map of Gonzaga campus is here.The event is free and open to the public, and is sponsored by Gonzaga’s Native American Studies program and by the College of Arts and Sciences. For more information on this event, please contact Laurie Arnold, Director of Native American Studies,

Friday, September 5, 2014

It is Time for a New State Song,,,

...and I know what is should be.

Our current Washington State song, Washington, My Home is terrible. Seriously, listen if you dare. As I have written before, it sounds like it was written by a committee of Girl Scouts. And to think we could have had Louie, Louie as the state song!

I want to propose a new state song--catchy, funny, historical, and written right here in Washington State. The song is The Old Settler. It was written by Judge Francis Henry of Pierce County around 1874 and was an instant hit. In fact when the state Constitutional Convention finished their work in 1889, they finished up by singing The Old Settler. The song was was forgotten until the early 20th century, when it was revived by Ivar Haglund--yeah, that Ivar. This charming video from MOHAI tells the story:

Additional information at this webpage from the Northwest Folklore Society. The one thing that the experts are missing is that the tune is not original--Henry set his lyrics to the tune of the traditional Irish folk (by which I men drinking) song, Rosin' the Bow.

Clearly, this is our song. Join me, Washingtonians, let's make this our state song. I know it is pretty west-side focused, but in this case we can let that pass. Acres of clams, people, acres of clams! Can't you see crowds of Washingtonians raising their voices to sing the Old Settler at Fourth of July picnics, or Seahawks games? We need to make this happen.

Here is how you can contact your state representatives. Do it today!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Nice Piece About James Glover in the Inlander

The Inlander is our mildly-alternative weekly here in Spokane. They run local history stories from time to time. Last week's cover story, Facing History  by Lisa Waananen Jones takes a hard look at the "Father of Spokane," James Glover, and the wife who he had committed to an insane asylum.

Behold my mustache, hipsters,
and despair!
I think that every western town has its Glover--the white male founding father who, despite having streets and parks and like named after him, does not bear close inspection.Our Glover was not actually the first person on the ground here in Spokane--not even the first white person. His 1873 settlement was proceeded in the proximate area by area by the Northwest Fur Company's Spokane House (founded in 1810), Tshimakain Mission (1838), Plante's Ferry (1852) and the bustling settlement of Moran Prairie which began in 1860 and had perhaps more than a dozen families when Glover arrived. Even on the very ground where Glover platted his Spokan Falls, there were two men and a sawmill. Glover would later tell everyone they had been horse thieves--though as historian Tony Bamonte says in Jones' article, they were not.

And yet a town must have a founder and he must be white and male and mustachioed and so James Glover is the Father of Spokane. To be fair, he did a lot for the community, relentlessly promoting it to settlers and to the Territorial government, all in the service of making himself wealthy. And he did strike it rich with the new town--at least until one of those pesky 19th-century financial panics stripped it all away.

Jones does a nice job in her article of poking around the seedier side of Glover--who had sharp elbows in business, abandoned a mentally ill wife and had her committed that he might remarry, and rewrote our early history to make himself the hero. He was also a key figure in the establishment of our city, like him or not. We will always have Glover.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Ghost Signs of Spokane, Part Two

EWU grad students Anna Harbine and Frank Oesterheld leading
a tour of the ghost signs of Spokane
Some time back I posted about a unique class project that I was forcing my unwilling students to do using to enrich my class on Local History Research Methods--the Ghost Sign Project. I thought I should bring the subject up-to-date.

Ghost signs are those faded, painted advertisements that you see on the sides of buildings in the historic areas of many American cities. Painted in thick layers of lead paint, many have long outlived the products and businesses they were created to advertise. In the spring of 2013, my students fanned out across Spokane and did an inventory of the surviving ghost signs.  I thought it would be fun to have my students map and record as many of the signs as they could find, then research the background of these vanished businesses.

The assignment worked better than I dared imagine. The students loved prowling the alleyways (always in pairs!) and finding the old signs. They became quite competitive, trying to see who could find the most. They took with them clipboard, cameras, and a form that we developed together to record their data. You can see the form here.

An online version of the form, created by my student Frank Oesterheld, automagically dropped their information into a Google Fusion Table. This generated a map of the ghost signs of Spokane:

Pretty cool, yes? We found signs for blacksmiths and buggy manufacturers, for early car dealerships and Single Room Occupancy hotels, for cigars and chewing tobacco, for paints and coffee and flour. All in all the signs, most created between 1890 and 1920, painted a picture of a workingman's town where people wanted an inexpensive place to stay and a cheap cigar.

Then we took to the archives to research the histories of the signs. City directories and Sanborn maps were the most valuable sources, but we also dug through Google News Archives, historic register nominations, census records, marriage and other vital records, and oral histories. I told my students to look for interesting stories behind the signs--stories of the business, stories of the owners, stories about the kind of town that Spokane was during the era in which their sign was painted. They found some great stuff, including Japanese hotel owners, the era of cheap downtown lodging, life in the rail yards, and Spokane's "cracker war." The stories were written from our local history smartphone app and website, Spokane Historical. The best of them appear there as a walking tour, Ghost Signs of Spokane.

It was a tremendously successful class exercise. And yet when class was over some of us felt like the topic was not exhausted. How else could this research be presented?

This spring two of my graduate students, Anna Harbine and Frank Oesterheld, developed a face-to-face walking tour of the signs that they would lead. Adapting the digital to the analog proved an interesting challenge. Which signs do we include? How far do we want to walk? Should the tour be one-way or a loop? Oesterheld and Harbine chose a route, developed scripts, and practiced the walk a half-dozen times. Last Friday they went live, leading a group from the Northwest Archivists Conference through the back alleys of Spokane in search of ghosts. It was a hit! Here are some pictures of the event, taken by Benjamin Helle of the Washington State Archives ~ Olympia Regional Branch. Here we are getting started:

Don't despair if you missed the tour, we are looking at ways to make it happen again, perhaps as part of a First Friday event.

As a teaching exercise in public history, I am delighted how this project has evolved. The class itself was part research seminar and part treasure hunt, both educational and engaging. They course laid the building blocks of a digital tour, and then a physical tour, also spearheaded by public history students. Four of the students in the course also presented their work as a poster session at the National Council for Public History conference this spring. The project built a lot of bridges with the local historic preservation community and most importantly brought attention to some of my students and their work.

I teach Research Methods in Local History again in the coming school year--what should we do as a group research project next time around?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Come see Spokane Historical at the Nostalgia Radio Hour

So here is something a little different. My friend Garrin Hertel, publisher of Nostalgia Magazine and band leader of the Hot Club of Spokane, is putting on a radio show.

The Nostalgia Radio hour is conceived as an variety show, with music, interviews, and etc. around the loose theme of Spokane history and historical nostalgia. The first episode will be recorded live the Wednesday at 6:30 at the historic Glover Mansion. The first episode will be recorded live the Wednesday at 6:30 at the historic Glover Mansion Some of my students will be there, along with myself, to talk about Spokane Historical.

This is the first of what Garrin plans as a monthly broadcast and podcast. The event is open to the public and there is even a no-hot bar. Hope to see some of you there!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

No, You Cannot be a Professor Part III: Survivor Stories

[This is a guest post from friend and former student Lee Nilsson, building from my 2011 post Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor. Lee blogs at The Digital Archeologist.]

Pictured: Larry Cebula
So you've finished up your fine liberal arts education and have a fresh BA with your name on it from a respectable school.  Congrats!  You did it.  Your capstone paper, History of the Salt Trade in Western Sahara from 1870-1922, was called "riveting" by your favorite professor.  You've moved back in with your parents.  No big deal.  That is common these days, and you'll be out of there soon.  Because you have your sights on something grander.  You are going to graduate school.  You are going to be a college professor.  

And why not?  The local craigslist job openings category is a depressing list of technical work you are in no way qualified for and high-level executive stuff which requires eight years of experience and an MBA.  You don't want to work in medical administration.  You don't want to work in a toll booth.  Sure, your favorite professor gave you a pained expression and mentioned something about the "tough market" when you told him/her about your dream.  But s/he wrote the letter of recommendation anyway.  So s/he is probably not that concerned...Right?  
Your future? 

Naturally, you're first move is obvious, you Googled "how to become a history professor."  That is how you came across a depressing, cynical screed by a mean-spirited and sarcastic history professor named Larry Cebula called "Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor."  You read it a few times. You read the follow up "No, You Cannot be a Professor--the Reactions."  At first you were skeptical.

But the reaction pieces are dripping with wishful thinking, and the article confirmed all the doubts in the back of your mind.  Maybe it's all hopeless.  Maybe the toll booth wouldn't be so bad.  I mean, at least you won't have Larry Cebula as a graduate advisor.  What kind of deflated, depressed, and broken students must he be graduating every year?

Hope is good!
Well dear reader, look no further.  I am one such.  And I've been tasked with giving you hope.  Not that you will become a history professor (no, that still ain't happening), but that it is possible to have an interesting and fulfilling career in the humanities.  You don't even have to have a Ph.D. either!  You can do it with a simple MA.  The key is making yourself as well-rounded as possible in this new economy.  Here are a few lessons I've learned which may be helpful to you.

Lesson 1:  Take advantage of every opportunity during grad school, and don't be afraid to take risks.

Grad school is about resume building.  A good academic department will have trips, internship opportunities and job openings you should take advantage of.  While in grad school I went on an archaeological dig to Cyprus, worked in the Washington State Archives as a researcher/writer, served as associate editor of the local history website and mobile app, and went to Portland, Oregon to present a paper with the Phi Alpha Theta history society.  All of this is great resume fodder.  It also gives you experiences and contacts you would not otherwise have if you had spent all your time in the library staring at black and white photos of early-period Saxon pot shards. 

NDSR second cohort starts January 2015. 
In this economy it is often going to be more important to have some real work experience than it will be to have a paper published in a journal read by literally tens of academics (though being published does not hurt).  It may take some risk or sacrifice in the short term to make yourself more employable down the road.  I had to give up a graduate teaching assistantship (and quite a lot of money) to work at the state archives, but it paid off.  My work at and the Washington State Archives led directly to me being chosen as the first ever National Digital Stewardship Resident for the Library of Congress (an amazing program, by the way, check it out).  

You will want to accumulate a large set of skills that do not fall into the traditional "liberal arts academic" framework.  You want a huge advantage right now?  Learn to code.  The future is in the digital humanities.  People with those skills are already in high demand.  Most of all learn how to teach yourself new skills.  If you take anything away from grad school.  Let it be that. 

Lesson 2: If you want to be successful after grad school, you must be mobile and flexible.

Its a big country...
This is increasingly true in nearly all fields these days.  Being able to pack up and move to Bozeman, Montana at a few weeks' notice can be a real strength when looking for work in the humanities.  Cast a very wide net.  You may not be able to get that amazing job in New York City right out of grad school.  Look for parts of the country where your skill set-may be in more demand.  Don't limit your search to the "dream job" you've been pining for for years.  Having trouble getting a curatorial job in a city museum?  Try administration and communications.  Failing to get a federal writing job in the black hole of  Try contractors and vendors.  Can't get that archivist position with your local state archives?  Try the private sector.  Be flexible.  You may find you'll like where you end up better than if you'd gotten your "dream job."

Lesson 3: Be creative.

"I am a hard worker with lots of experience in content management.  I've managed content on a weekly basis for one year at Content Management LLC. and for two years at Content Dynamics Industries, Inc.  I have been instrumental in increasing productivity over five percent in..."

Asleep yet?  Yeah, don't be like that.  Hopefully, you got into the humanities to be creative.  Sometimes its valuable to take a risk to stand out.  Don't go off the deep end and be unprofessional.  But the people who do the hiring at cultural institutions are looking through stacks of identical cover-letters and resumes.  All of them have the same two to five years experience in "whatever" that you do.  Hiring managers hate reading those letters just as much as you hate writing them.  Sometimes it's okay to make a high risk, high reward move.  Take for example this:

The job was for the Civil War Trust, a group of people almost certainly familiar with the mammoth Ken Burns documentary "The Civil War."  One hour of late-night video editing later I had a short and ridiculous parody of Burns' style which served as a fun addendum to my traditional cover letter.  I submitted it at midnight and by eight-o'clock the next morning I had the interview.  High risk, high reward.

Lesson 4: Be personable. 

Not you...Right?
Jokes aside, you could not ask for a better advisor than Larry Cebula.  He works like hell to get his students employed in their fields and is tireless in the networking that requires.  Indeed your graduate advisor and other professors can be an incredible support system when looking for work.  But all of that is dependent on you not being a jerk.  

Some common jerk moves:  Acting childish and raising your voice.  Getting mad about little issues and burning bridges.  Showing absolutely no interest in them as human beings and demanding all attention be on yourself.  Treating professors like they are your servants.  The list goes on.  Always remember that these people can be your colleagues and friends after school ends.  Act like it.

Another pro-tip:  Dress for the job you want.  Not the job you have.  It pays off in spades to show some appreciation for the fact that other people are forced to look at you.

Lesson 5: Have some ambition, but be smart about it.

The future is bright!
The "millennial" generation is positively drowning in cynicism.  While our parents and grandparents imagined a glorious future in outer space and flying skateboards, our generation is focused on predicting how civilization will collapse, whether it be zombies, super-volcanoes or something else.  It's important to stay positive.  Government institutions, historical societies, archives, libraries, museums, journalism, think-tanks, publishing etc. etc.  All of these and more are open to you with a simple MA or less.

My humanities story has taken me from a small suburb of Detroit to the Library of Congress and eventually the  U.S. State Department.  There are literally thousands of great opportunities for people with our weird interests.  Very few of them will involve teaching students at research universities.  But that should not stop you from doing something you'll love.   You might even like where you end up better than you would have liked being a college professor.  Because again, you aren't going to be that. 

Some Resources for the Humanities Job Seeker:

  • USAjobs - Yes, it may be a black hole where resumes go to die, but its essentially the only way to get direct federal employment.  And it is possible to get responses.  Write a very good resume with their resumebuilder app.  If you can find any way to justify making yourself an "expert" in every question a position asks, do it.  Do not lie.  But really think hard about it.  Every Library of Congress, Smithsonian, or NARA job might get 400+ applications.  At least 50 will have veterans preference.  You have to really stand out to get passed the folks at the Office of Personnel Management.   Make use of the Saved Searches feature: "National Archives," "Library of Congress," "Historian," "Archives," "writer," etc.  Check daily.  These change fast.   Dont put off applying.  They  will sometimes end an open period early.  
  • Code4lib - For those with library science and archival experience as well as some tech savvy.  
  • American Library Association Job List - All of these will say "MLS required."  Ignore that.  If you have the skills, demonstrate them with your application.  I've met librarians in the federal government with backgrounds in archaeology, medieval studies, computer science etc. etc.    Can't win if you don't play.  
  • H-Net - For general discouragement.  Try looking up your area of expertise in the location you want to work in.  Cry.  But dont worry.  You are going to be fine.  Especially if you take my sage advice.  If you see that list and think, "Gee, there are so many professor jobs!"  Remember that every job posting will have hundreds of applicants, many are not tenure track, and that site is literally global.  
  • AdjunctNation - For those who have taken the dark path of the adjunct.  Some people just have to teach.  If you are one of those, the best approach may be the old fashioned style.  Every community college gets a stack of adjunct applications.  Go there personally, meet the head of the department during his/her office hours.  Hand them your packet (syllabi, CV, etc.) personally.  If he/she likes you, it may get you to the top of the pile when they need someone to teach a course.  Also, professors in your department will often know professors in other schools.  Don't be afraid to ask for an introduction.  Remember, this path lacks security and basic benefits.  You spouse or partner better have a great job and be cool with you making less than a fry-cook at McDonald's.            
  • - Idealist has many of the sorts of jobs you will get a call-back for.  Its all non-profits and most of them are east coast.  But these are the sorts of writing/editing/administrative jobs that a humanities MA can get.  Beware of low non-profit wages.
  • Historical Consulting Firms such as History Associates or The History Factory do for-profit research on behalf of government and corporations.  I've known some people who have gone this route.  Many of these jobs are on a project basis and will be temporary.  
  • A lot of organizations don't post to these sorts of lists.  So check the job listings pages of organizations you might want to work for.  If the Gates Foundation or Coca-Cola is hiring a historian or archivist, they may not be as familiar with these sorts of lists and just throw it up on their website.  Look for yourself.  
One last thing:  Apply.  Don't be discouraged by the fact you only have 7/10 of the requirements.  If you think you can do the job, apply.  Many people hamper their own success by undervaluing themselves.  This is especially true for womenwho tend to have less bravado and stupid confidence when applying for jobs. Be stupid.  Be bold.  Apply.  You deserve it.  Now go be successful.  

Lee Nilsson earned his Masters in History at Eastern Washington University in 2013. He was a National Digital Stewardship Resident at the Library of Congress from 2013-14. In August Nilsson begins work as a Junior Analyst for the U.S. State Department.