These are remarks I delivered during my keynote at the Midwestern History Association conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in June 2017.
I keep a stack of mapping reference books near my desk, and two in particular are important: The Historical Atlas of the New West and the Historical Atlas of the American West. I keep these handy not only because I am intensely interested in maps, but also because when I’m writing or teaching the history of the West I try to bring place into my work. The where of the past is just as key as the when.
But if you were to crack these books open, you’d notice that the Midwest is missing. If you get a glimpse of the Midwest, it’s likely to be fleeting: a transitory place notable for the Transcontinental Railroad or Bloody Kansas. But you won’t find historical atlases that explore urban places, the region’s religious history, its ethnic diversity, or its historical ecology.
Perhaps this isn’t that surprising. After all, these are atlases of the American West, not the American Midwest — perhaps it’s fine that the midwestern region isn’t included as part of the West.
But, to my knowledge, there’s no specific historical atlas of the American Midwest. There are specific focuses on states, such as Nebraska, or overlapping regions, like the Atlas of the Great Plains. But nothing that focuses on the Midwest as a region — that attempt to use maps to explore and explain something about its history, or that uses historical maps to understand how people perceived the region.
I’m here today to talk about these missing maps — this lost region. But I also want to speculate on what we should do next. I want to talk about why we need these maps; I want to argue that print maps are not the way to achieve this; and, I want to make an argument for a new historical atlas grounded in digital maps. All of this is to try and answer two questions: first, can digital mapmaking overcome the limitations of print? Second, if we were to build a digital Midwestern atlas, what are the next steps for us to consider if we build maps that are complex, nuanced, and layered in their use and understanding of the past?
Today, then, is part show-and-tell, part speculation.
There is a lot of data available to historians of the Midwest — we can use population data, we can look at religious denominations, we can look at transportation systems, at demographics. But with so much historical information available, we’re also faced with a set of limitations. And that limitation belongs to the world of books. After all, print maps can only convey a set amount of information: there’s only so much data they can contain before they become unreadable; and, we can only print so many pages in book before the expense becomes too high.
In other words, print maps make it difficult to convey the things that we as historians are interested in: change over time, and difficult to examine those changes over time at different geographic scales — region, city, neighborhood.
Interactive, digital maps provide a solution. We have a better way of using detailed sources, of changing the views very easily in our data, to build richer maps that can tell us not just more, but more humanistic, things about midwestern history. But we need digital maps to get there: to work at different geographic scales, to display change over time, to integrate maps and our sources, and to craft arguments and narrative.
This is often referred to as a deep map, a map that not only visualizes data, but permits access to sources underlying the data. Deep maps also embed narratives, guiding readers through the spatial dimensions of an analysis. Deep maps usually provide a variety of ways to look at a place.
There are two key problems with print maps, as Laurie Maffly-Kipp has argued in the context of religious atlases. First, our sources; second, definitions. She argues that data tends to be limited, that historians have tended to map the things that are easy to count and we already know a great deal about. Which leads to a problem of definition: by sticking so close to such data sources, we tend to limit a more complex and layered understanding of historical events. Print atlas as have devised clever ways to deal with complex questions when faced with the constraints of print. But print maps are still fixed in space and time. What if we could instead use digital interactive maps? How might we envision a midwestern atlas? How could we build more humanistic maps?
Part of the solution is to use animation and interactivity to identify broad trends. The map below looks at city population: the red circles represent the population of cities; the largest the circle, the higher the population. The shading indicates county population density: the darker the blue, the higher the density; the more green to yellow, the lower the density.
The above map is fairly interesting: letting us explore the broad population trends in the Midwest. By animating the map, we can see growth and decline, find cities whose populations shrink as well as those who grow. But we can do more.
Here we start the speculative section of our time tonight.
Where this map excels at is showing population trends: it’s the nature of our data, as Census records are tied to the county level and paired with the most complete set of city population data that I’m aware of. And these flows of people are big questions for the Midwest. Between 2000 and 2009, Midwestern population growth concentrated in and around metropolitan areas, while rural areas have continued to lose population. Not a single state in the Midwest has added to its rural populations in this period. Omaha ranks as the region’s 12th largest population; Sioux Falls had the fastest rate of population growth, growing by 27 percent. The Midwest’s pattern of metropolitan growth and rural decline is dramatic.
At a regional level, we can see population and urban transformation. But I’d like our map to do more. As I mentioned, I believe place-stories are important for how we think about history. And while this region-wide trends can be discerned, I also want to tell specific stories. I could envision, for example, a design like the one below.
The map here is an essay, tied to the visualization. The essay mentions specific places that can be interacted with: clicking a place zooms you to that spot and presents you with specific stories about human experiences. Scrolling through the essay likewise updates the map as you read, presenting readers with the spatial context of the history being argued.
What I want, in other words, are deeper maps: a way to tie together narrative and analysis with interactive maps. In this way, we can guide readers through spatial stories. How can we, with digital maps, tell more complete stories about urban renewal? About residential segregation? About infrastructure development? Politics, race, class, gender, culture, environment — interactive maps can help us tell these complicated stories, and perhaps even do so more easily than written text.
To present a useful and truthful picture, an accurate map must tell white lies. —Mark Monmonier, How to Lie with Maps
That isn’t to say that maps are perfect. There are lies, there are damn lies, there are statistics, and then there are maps. Maps, especially data maps, omit as much as they add. We must be cautious with the maps we maker. As Laurie Maffly-Kipp warnsa, maps are “still limited by data that is partial, ambiguous, and clearly slanted towards things that can be counted and people that traditionally have been seen as significant.” Our maps, in other words, too often end up being about things we already know a great deal about.
That isn’t to say that digital history is the perfect medium, either: digital history has plenty of hubris, and I don’t wish to amplify that here. But it does offer opportunities for experimentation. To take advantage of capacious historical sources, we need digital maps: we can work at new scales, display change over time, integrate maps with sources, craft new narratives. The maps we looked at today don’t solve all these problems, but it does permit us to start addressing the theoretical concerns. In effect, we’re able to make scores of maps, where before we could only make a few.
But we can start to build more detailed maps of Midwestern history, in ways that let’s us ask complex questions about space and identities. I hope you’ll agree with me that it’s time to create an atlas of the Midwest, and if we’re going to do this it needs to be digital.
By Joseph Taylor III
Living in western North America in late summer can feel apocalyptic. Inevitably, it seems, the region is encircled by fire. The 2015 wildfire season consumed a record-setting ten million acres mostly in California, Washington, and Alaska. Last year California, Arizona, and New Mexico were besieged. This year fire enveloped California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Montana, and smoke smothered the rest of the continent. It was and likely will continue to be front-page news, so as journalists focus on the moment, let us historians think about just how much the past has shaped events, and what it all might mean.
Since the 1860s, Americans and Canadians have set aside vast areas for their sublime and ecological values. Some areas became parks and monuments, others became forests and ranges. The wildest were deemed wildernesses. As the 1964 Wilderness Act put it, they were “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Such places were rarer than Congress realized. Native peoples had tended the continent for millennia. Their physical removal from these places did not so much preserve them as set in motion new ecological forces. Gazing back from our coughing, hacking, smoke-filled present, the preservationist impulse can seem ironic. The landscapes Americans most wanted to save are instead changing rapidly—in some cases more so than adjacent, unprotected areas—and preservation itself is to blame. The factors here are partly anthropogenic—resulting from the policy of suppressing fire for more than a century—but nature also plays a role.
Let’s begin with Mesa Verde, a place the New York Times once called “timeless,” but where wildfires have in recent decades burned extensively.[i] A 2000 study concluded that the fires were “within the historic range of variability,” but when the researchers examined what was happening to habitat, they found invasive “weeds” interrupting expected succession. Since then park biologists have revisited and revised such findings, concluding that recent fires did indeed burn more extensively and intensively than in previous eras, that severe drought has also altered habitat, and that half of the pinyon-juniper forest has been replaced, perhaps permanently, by chaparral and shrub. The forces at work are neither simply natural or cultural. The preservationist impulse to suppress all fires allowed fuels to build to dangerous levels, but the hotter and dryer conditions of recent decades also helped alter the trajectory of ecological succession. Fire and climate are now selecting against junipers, pinyons, and their associated biota, including pinyon jays, in favor of invasive species that only exacerbate fire conditions.
Higher in the Rockies, fire and climate are intersecting with beetles to deflect succession similarly to Mesa Verde. Wolf Creek Pass has become a conspicuous example of the mass die-off of trees due to infestations by pine and spruce beetles. As climate changed over the last century, the number of consecutive hard-freeze days declined sharply, and with them the mechanism that retards native beetle populations. The resulting beetle irruptions laid waste to alpine forests and may have made them more susceptible to fire. Large, stand-replacing fires are not new to the Rockies, but in cooler and wetter times pine and spruce could reestablish themselves. That is no longer the case, and, as in Mesa Verde, climate is the complication. Severe beetle outbreaks turn out to affect not just trees but vegetation cover, and whether the trees themselves end up more susceptible to fire—a point of debate among foresters—the ability of ground cover to rebound has become a clear casualty of beetle outbreaks. The lack of cover in turn means warmer ground temperatures, poorer moisture retention, and altered conditions for ecological succession.
Boreal forests are undergoing similar stresses. This global ecosystem, which dwarfs the size of temperate forests, has been shaped by fire for millions of years. Anthropogenic ignition is thus a relatively minor and recent factor in the taiga, yet natural or not, fire remains integral to sustaining jack pine, spruce, birch, and aspen by interrupting successional processes in much the same way that fire sustains Douglas Fir forests in the Pacific Northwest. In both the PNW and the Boreal, the dominant species is not a climax species. But in the far north, too, in places such as Yukon Territory (pdf), climate change has diminished the length and severity of hard freezes, relieving mountain pine beetles of a critical limitation on their range. These changes have also lengthened and exacerbated the impact of Boreal fires. Given how rising temperatures and aridity are driving ecosystem changes in Mesa Verde and alpine forests, it is worth wondering how increased fire and temperatures will affect the taiga as well.
We may also be witnessing this process in Oregon. The Kalmiopsis Wilderness is now the site of the nation’s largest wildfire, totaling 184,292 acres as of September 13. The Chetco Bar Fire threatens coastal and inland communities, and smoke from it and more than fifty other fires has made breathing dangerous, forcing the Oregon Shakespeare Company to cancel performances and the annual Cycle Oregon tour to cancel its entire ride. If the Kalmiopsis rings a bell, perhaps it is because it also hosted the nation’s largest wildfire in 2002, the 500,000-acre Biscuit Fire, as well as the 93,000-acre Silver Fire in 1987. Given its charred legacy, the very meaning of fire is a point of debate. One environmental group casts these fires, and by extension their damage, as unnatural, stressing how fire management and logging exacerbated the extent and intensity of the Biscuit Fire. In 2006, several researchers claimed salvage logging stunted forest regeneration. This finding was somewhat backed by other researchers in 2007, but in 2010, two of the latter team noted that the single most significant factor shaping the intensity of Kalmiopsis fires was whether an area had already burned (pdf). Put simply, the history of fire itself, whether natural or anthropogenic, changed a forest’s subsequent susceptibility to fire.
In a sense foresters and environmentalists are still learning what environmental historians grasped decades ago: “wildlands” management is a deeply historical problem, and the categories of natural and unnatural are not particularly enlightening. North America has a very long history of anthropogenic burning. In some corners, particularly the Pacific Northwest, anthropogenic burning was pervasive and sophisticated. Teasing apart natural from unnatural in such places is not only impossible but wrongheaded. Most of the continent was tended by fire, in some cases for millennia, until nation states removed indigenous peoples from their lands. Only then did humans become “a visitor who does not remain.” Only then did nature turn down evolutionary paths that seemed free from human intrusion but were still intrinsically anthropogenic. The Kalmiopsis is one of these places. Its current ecohistorical path is novel because of how fire and climate change (another form of nature that is deeply cultural) are altering successional forces.
Yet it is exactly here where history enlightens, because the Kalmiopsis has an analog to the north, a place that also burned repeatedly and that produced critical lessons about fire in Oregon’s coastal forests. The Tillamook Burn (really four fires from 1933 to 1951) consumed more than 350,000 acres. The fires burned so intensively that trees could not reseed the barrens. The state had to intervene, first foreclosing on forfeited lands and then enlisting citizens and foresters to replant the fire scar. Everyone then waited a half century for the forest to return. If there is ever an example of an anthropogenic wilderness, the Tillamook is it, and yet now, much like the Kalmiopsis, the Tillamook has become the object of a familiar tug-of-war over whether to intervene or preserve a seemingly wild landscape.
But what does “wild” actually mean in such places? Beyond the narrow definition of “not managed,” the concept makes little ecological or cultural sense. Natural and unnatural poorly capture the combination of forces that have, are, and will shape such environments. Moreover, if Mesa Verde and Wolf Creek are harbingers, then wild landscapes may evolve from vestiges of the past into petri dishes where the ecological future unfolds fastest. Wilderness areas such as the Kalmioposis—blackened and polluting the lungs of people hundreds of miles away—seemed poised to become ironic monuments, places that will represent the very opposite of the ideals Samuel Hays summarized as beauty, health, and permanence. The central reason is that fire is intersecting with climate in ways that make the past irrelevant and the status quo untenable. Stephen Pyne—a historian too few historians, myself included, read often enough—reminds his readers that fire leaves “no neutral position possible.” Humans have to choose how they live with fire. Thus a conversation seems in order about what we humans think we mean by wildness, and whether, given the ecological forces now reshaping western North America, the preservationist ideal of hands-off still makes sense. Pyne has already warned that “If all we want is the wild, we will get it. If we expect a usable mix of ecological goods and services, we will have to add our hand to nature’s.” If Pyne is correct, and I think he is, then it seems an open question whether the wilderness ideal as codified by Congress in 1964, is culturally or ecologically sustainable.
I want to thank Lincoln Bramwell, Mike Childers, Matthew Klingle, and Steve Pyne for their responses to drafts of this piece. This is my argument, however, so don’t go berating them for what I’ve written.
[i] The short travel piece gained instant notoriety because the newspaper, in its infinite provincialism, included a photo not of Mesa Verde but of Shiprock, some fifty miles away. Nor did it help that the paper spelled the formation “Ship Rock.”
It has been ten years since we lost Hal Rothman. Rather than write a memorial, we here at BlogWest decided to ask someone who never met Hal, but uses his work extensively, to offer her thoughts on his legacy. Mette Flynt is a PhD candidate at the University of Oklahoma, where she is working on a dissertation about skiing and tourism in Utah. In addition, she has interned at the Huntington Library, University of Oklahoma Press, and has literally run the museum in her hometown of Lake City, Colorado, since she was eleven. Stop by this summer if you are in the area, it’s worth the visit.
By Mette Flynt
February 25th marked the tenth anniversary of the death of Hal Rothman, an influential scholar of the American West, environment, and public history. Although I never had the privilege of meeting him, I came to know Rothman through his work, particularly his seminal 1998 study of Western tourism, Devil’s Bargains. This work made a lasting impression on how people understand tourism, leisure, and recreation not only in the West but also in the broader world of twentieth century travel.
In the final pages of Devil’s Bargains, Rothman remarked, “I hope to offer them [young scholars] a road map that, in the best scholarly tradition, they will soon discard for one of their own making” (p. 423). Keeping that in mind, I would like to examine how others have engaged with Rothman’s book, bringing new energy to the study of tourism. In many ways, Rothman’s legacy continues just as much in his own ideas as in the debates and discussions that those ideas sparked.
First, Rothman reminded readers that tourism matters in understanding the twentieth- century West. While he certainly was not the first to think about tourism historically, Rothman revitalized the subject. In his wake, others have illustrated the importance of tourism in Western history. Each has explored a facet of Rothman’s array of subjects: Michael Childers and Annie Gilbert Coleman focus on skiing; Mark Spence and Jerry Frank trace national parks’ history; Bonnie Christensen and Connie Chiang unpack communities’ transitions to tourism; Alicia Barber and the contributors of Imagining the Big Open study the ties between image and experience; and Mansel Blackford builds on the themes of dependency and colonization.
Devil’s Bargains also provided a toolkit and language for thinking about and interpreting tourism. Rothman’s framework extended beyond the history of the American West in its influence. For example, his concept of the neo-native—a newcomer who moved to a tourist town because of its newfound appeal—persists. Readers find his ideas in Dina Berger’s work on Mexican tourism, Blake Harrison’s book on travel in Vermont, Mark C.J. Stoddart’s study of the Canadian ski industry, and J. Mark Souther’s New Orleans on Parade.
Lastly, Rothman’s work generated as many questions as it answered. He made bold claims about broad patterns that he saw throughout the story of tourism of the West. One was the idea that tourism is a devil’s bargain: seeking economic opportunity, communities embrace tourism only to be disappointed and to lose their cultural identities. Historians continue to ask if a devil’s bargain best describes Western tourism. Looking at tourism on a regional scale, Lawrence Culver, Kathleen Brosnan, David Wrobel, and William Philpott see a more nuanced local experience in the tourist communities. Winners and losers, culprits and victims were not always clear.
In these ways, Rothman succeeded in providing a road map of Western tourism that others could accept, consider, or redraw.
Rothman ends Devil’s Bargains with a mixture of brief anecdotes about the intersections of history, tourism, and his own travels. For instance, he connects his book to the local/neonative divide that he observed in a tourist town’s grocery checkout line. This ending reflects Rothman’s approach to studying the American West. As a mentor, public historian, journal editor, and author, Rothman pushed people to find the bigger picture, placing the mundane within broader and provocative contexts. His challenge for Westerners today remains a call to find stories of connection within an often-fractured West.
It is not often that two western historians evoke Erico Fermi in framing the environmental challenges facing the region. Over the last two weeks, the University of Utah’s Wallace Stegner Center hosted western historians Sara Dant and Leisl Carr Childers in separate book talks in the S.J. Quinney College of Law. Both Dant and Carr Childers recommended provocative new ways of thinking about the West.
In speaking about her recent book Losing Eden: An Environmental History of the American West, Dant argued that in the face of environmental calamity caused by global climate change the concept of the West as an Eden is an illusion, and that we need to face the region as it is rather than how we wish it to be.
Pointing to the controversy surrounding Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, Carr Childers discussed the central argument of her book The Size of the Risk: Histories of Multiple Use in the Great Basin that we ignore those on the losing end of multiple use management at our peril.
Check out both talks from the Center’s YouTube channel below.
By Mike Childers
At Manzanar, in the presence of the ancient mountains, another tragic episode of history struggles for solution. Because of evacuation enforced by military order all along the coast, homes were abandoned, and trades and enterprises relinquished. Scenes of pleasant childhood draw into unreal distance; the future is only a hope, no longer an assurance. Friends and family are split and scattered with strange divergences of loyalties, beliefs and decisions.
- Ansel Adams, Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans, 1944
I have been thinking a lot about Ansel Adams lately. There are few who have had a greater influence on how we perceive our national parks than the famous photographer. Adams’s images of the Yosemite Valley, Grand Tetons, and Canyon de Chelly remain among the most recognized photographs of the twentieth century, and they continue to shape our expectations that National Parks are places of wild, untrammeled beauty. Adams was known for not including any people in his photographs, portraying a false narrative that the parks were actually untrammeled by man. Adams quibbled with criticisms that he ignored people altogether in his photographs, writing in 1979, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” A romantic vision indeed.
A notable exception to Adams’s depiction of nature sans humankind is his Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans. Published in 1944, the 112-page book includes dozens of portraits of American citizens interned at the Manzanar Internment Camp. It is a fascinating book full of portraits, brief glimpses into life within the camp, and yes, a few stunning landscapes. What makes the book notable is its publication in the final year of the war and its attempt to humanize a number of Americans largely invisible, or even hated, by the rest of the nation.
Following Highway 395, through the spectacle of rolling desolate hills, jagged and ancient rocks, chaotic areas of black lava, grey-white alkali lake-beds, blue acres of impounded water, clumps of willow and cottonwood and the slender lines of Lombardy poplars – all interspersing the bronze sage-covered plain and underlying the towering mountains on either hand – we come to the soldier-guarded gates of Manzanar and enter a little city, well-governed ad alive, mirroring in small scale an American metropolis.
Fear swept across the country in the days and weeks following the Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Those living on the West Coast felt particularly vulnerable to another assault from the Pacific, leading to widespread panic and deepening racial hatred. Seeking to calm the nation’s qualms and provide “every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 ordering the forced relocation of some 125,000 Japanese-American citizens living in California, Oregon, and Washington to internment camps scattered across the rural West.
Of those interned, nearly two thirds were naturalized American citizens. They were business owners, farmers, fishermen, college students, husbands, wives, and brothers and sisters. And like their fellow citizens, they had meet the news of the attack Hawaii with shock and fear as their nation was suddenly thrust into war. Yet, as fear turned to hysteria, the American public looked for ready scapegoats to blame for the war. Like many recent immigrants, most Japanese-American lived in small self-contained communities in western metropolitan areas. Many living in such “Little Tokyo’s” were naturalized citizens. They have never known any country but the United States. This proved no defense to the boiling hatred that had seized the country, and like generations of migrants before them, western communities of Japanese-American became targets of nativist politics.
The responsibility of the Military was tremendous; the spectacular victories of Japan, the crippling of our fleet at Pearl Harbor, the possibility of invasion of our west coast – all were facts of tragic import, and ta the time were considered more than ample justification of the mass exodus. In addition, there was the threat of public retaliation against the Japanese-American population. We may feel that racial antagonisms fanned the flame of decision that political pressures were of no little consequence in supporting the military action. In the light of retrospection and true evaluation the evacuation may have been unnecessary, but the fact remains that we, as a nation, were in the most potentially precarious moment of our history – stunned, seriously hurt, unorganized for actual war.
Adams spent most of the war fretting about how to best contribute in some meaningful way to the war effort. The government had no real need for a landscape photographer, and Adams refused to be just a sergeant in the army. He had hoped briefly that he would work for his friend Edward Steichen in the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, but the job never materialized. At a loss as to what to do, Adams expressed his frustrations to fellow Sierra Club member Ralph Merritt. Recently appointed as the director of Manzanar, Merritt asked if Adams would be interested in visiting the camp and documenting the amazing resilience of those being held there. Adams agreed, and the two arranged his visit to the internment camp.
Adams was not the first to photograph those interned at Manzanar. Known for her work during the Depression, Dorothea Lange had been hired by the military to make a photographic record of the forced evacuation and relocation of Japanese-Americans to Manzanar. But after viewing her depictions of American citizens being forced to stay in old horse stables before being loaded into buses, with nothing more than a small suitcase of belongings, by soldiers, the government impounded her images. In addition, Japanese immigrant Toyo Miyatake was among those interned at Manzanar. An award winning photographer, Miyatake smuggled in a camera lens into the camp, using it to build a rudimentary camera in which to clandestinely document life within the camp.
Unlike Lange and Miyatake, Adams was less willing to portray the plight of those imprisoned at Manzanar as desperate. Rather, he saw the internee’s story as one of resiliency and optimism. Discussing Manzanar years later, Adams recalled how positive internees were. “They’d rejected the tragedy because they couldn’t do anything about it,” he said. It was a troubling interpretation of the camp. While he certainly called the imprisonment of hundreds of men, women and children based solely on their race abhorrent, Adams’ chief story was resilience in the face of injustice and the continuing opportunity America offered.
How could Adams come away from his time with those families with such a story? My first impression on reading Adams’s account was to agree with each of those accusations. But on reflection, I am not so sure that it is so simple. As Dorothea Lange later commented, Adams’s treatment of the camp was “far for him to go.” While that was not nearly far enough for her, to argue that Adams’s work ignored the injustice of internment is equally untrue. In curating the images for a show at the Museum of Modern Art, Adams had included a quote from the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing due process of law to all citizens in criticism of the government’s violation of the Constitution. The federal government censured the panel, arguing it failed to accurately depict the relocation program.
Yet, reading through Born Free and Equal you cannot help but remark on how the portraits and candid shots tell a starkly different story than that told by those who endured living in communal barracks through blazing hot summers and freezing winters, all while under the armed gaze of the U.S military. Manzanar was not a relocation camp it was a prison camp.
As we go about Manzanar meeting some of the people and observing how they live, work, and play, we are impressed with their solidity of character, the external cheerfulness, and their cleanliness. I have not been aware of any abnormal psychological attitudes, such as one might expect to find in a group, which has suffered such severe alternations of its normal life. There is no outward evidence of the “refugee” spirit, no expressed feeling of an endured temporary existence under barracks-life conditions . . . I do not recall one sullen face in Manzanar. Many, of course, are bitter, but that bitterness is expressed in terms of argument and discussion – not in terms of an unpleasant reaction to life.
I first visited Manzanar National Historic Site in summer of 2004. The National Park Service had just opened its interpretation center in what had been the camp’s high school. The newly constructed displays told the history of the camp, as well as the surrounding Owens Valley. Nothing I did not expect to see in a National Park museum. But towards the back of the gymnasium that served as the main gallery stood a large display condemning all attacks on civil liberties, including the recently passed Patriot Act. Astonished at the brazen, but correct, connection between the Patriot Act and the internment of American citizens sixty years earlier, I walked out the back door into the heat of the day. There, I stood staring at the parched landscape full of scrub oak and sagebrush that had once been home to thousands of prisoners of war. This, I thought, is what a national monument should be: a place of remembrance, conversation, and reflection on our history, our land, and who we as a nation want to be.
I believe Adams came away from Manzanar with similar insights. A clear critic of government’s violation of the internee’s civil liberties at a time when open racial hatred and fear of imminent attack kept most American’s from opposing the interning of thousands of citizens, Adams did speak out. But I also believe that his limitations as a landscape photographer and wilderness advocate were the same in his depiction of life at Manzanar. He was a romantic. Adams did not view the world in the black and white of his photographs. Instead, he often ignored reality as it was in favor of an idealistic version that removed him from the frame. It is a powerful vision, one worth reflecting upon on this Day of Remembrance commemorating those imprisoned because of their ancestry by a fearful nation unwilling to do the hard work of democracy. In a time of building of walls and banning of Muslims, it is essential to remember Manzanar and the cost of casting our fears and bigotries onto others who bear those costs.
With those thoughts, I will let Ansel have the last words.
Who is to rise among us capable of dynamically interpreting democracy to those who profess it but do not truly practice is? We have the chance now—and never has a better change been offered us—to establish the true American structure of life. The treatment of the Japanese-Americans will be a symbol of out treatment of all minorities.
Chances are that if you traveled on the Southern Pacific railroad in December of 1904 you would have spent some time thumbing through the pages of Sunset Magazine. The cover of this particular issue depicting Santa Claus embracing an Anglo cowboy and Hispanic farmer sharing a smoke not only captured the spirit of the season but also the American West at the turn of the 20th century.
The Southern Pacific Railroad created Sunset Magazine in 1898 in order to bolster tourism on it lines throughout the Southwest. Early editions focused on California destinations – the first issue detailing the wonders of Yosemite National Park. But the magazine’s scope quickly expanded to include much of the rest of the region. Artists such as Maynard Dixon and Will James provided dramatic and modern cover illustrations, while writers and poets including Mary Austin, Jack London, and Zane Grey published poems, short fiction, and travelogues. As historian Kevin Starr has noted, Sunset shaped the manner in which many westerners viewed and understood the very psychological center of the region in which they were pursuing their lives.
At once nostalgic while highly modern, Dixon’s work was distinctive. His earliest illustrations, of which the Christmas cover was one, included traditional Western themes done in a stripped down and vivid form – a perfect fit for Sunset’s look. Dixon’s 1905 cover, What an Indian Thinks depicting a lone Native American wrapped in a blanket standing on a mesa embodied a style he would return to later in his career, in paintings such as Earth Knower (1932) and Open Range (1942).
Few travel by rail through the Southwest today, but Sunset Magazine, now a part of the larger Time Warner empire, is still a reflection of the American West’s identity and Dixon’s vision of the region remains as poignant to today as ever. Modern but nostalgic, diverse yet unique, the Southwest is a special place, particularly during the holidays.
From all of us at Blogwest, have a happy holidays and see you all in the new year.
Our colleague Elizabeth Sutton was recently in North Dakota at Standing Rock. She returned to Cedar Falls with a story that we share with you here. Posted today on ANtiDoTeZine.com, her article “Thanksgiving Reflections on Standing Rock” offers insight into the ongoing actions/reactions against Dakota Access, police forces, local communities, Native American tribes, and water protectors. She writes:
“What I observed at and around Standing Rock is symbolic in the sense that so many people—white, Native, young, poor—are disaffected, disenfranchised, alienated, and seek a sense of purpose. They seek empowerment through finding community in caring for each other and in direct action.”
With the national media hesitant to conduct in-depth reporting on this ongoing crisis, Sutton’s piece is a welcome contribution to the conversation.
Dr. Elizabeth Sutton is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Northern Iowa. She is author of Capitalism and Cartography in the Dutch Golden Age (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and the forthcoming Art, Animals and Experience: Relationships to Canines and the Natural World (Routledge, 2017).