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).
Are you experimenting with ways to use digital tools in your historical research? Do you teach western history with interactive digital media? Do you work in a museum, archive, or public agency that is curating digital archives or exhibits? If so, please consider sharing your ideas, successes, and challenges in a non-traditional session with WHA members who are keen to find out more about how to get started.
The WHA Technology Committee is seeking additional presenters for its 4th annual “Six-Shooters” session to be held on Sunday, October 23rd from 8:30-10:00 AM at the 2016 conference in St. Paul, MN. The session uses a lightning round format that allows each presenter six minutes and six slides to present their work. See the “Digital Frontiers” blog for reports on the previous presentations: https://whadigitalfrontiers.com/.
Should you either be planning to attend the conference and have some time on Sunday morning to share your work, or are close enough to come to St. Paul for the day and would like to present, please contact session chair Doug Seefeldt for more information (firstname.lastname@example.org). If you are simply curious to find out what others are doing with technology in their teaching, research, or public history projects, please attend the session!
by Maggie Moss Jones
Americans experience their parks in many different ways, something not formally acknowledged until recently when the National Park Service identified relevancy and diversity as two of its primary initiatives for the 21st century. Scholars such as Lauret Savoy, Carolyn Finney, and Nina Roberts have written about the many ways in which the national park experience has been, and continues to be distinctive for people of color, involving patterns of exclusion and inaccessibility. Scholar Nina Roberts notes “what people [of color] do for leisure, historically, was not spending time in the outdoors, because they worked in the outdoors or they were killed in the outdoors.”
Slowly, the NPS has admitted that it needed to do more to bring diverse populations into national parks as visitors and employees. The 1991 National Park Service Vail Agenda sought to guide the parks into the 21st century and addressed the need to develop a diverse workforce, yet it said little about the needs and interests of people of color as visitors. More recently, the National Park Service signaled its deepening commitment to making the parks relevant and accessible to people of all races, ethnicities, ages, and genders. With park visitation in the 21st century reaching levels never seen before, park professionals must help diverse visitors connect to national parks while they continue to protect and preserve the parks’ natural and cultural resources.
In 2016, the National Park Service’s centennial year, the Public Lands History Center outreach program, the American West Program, seeks both to celebrate the NPS and to examine significant issues in the past, present, and future of our parks. On Thursday, September 29th, the American West Program will present a panel discussion on “The Color of Our Parks: Nature, Race, and Diversity in the National Park Service.” The panel speakers will share historical and contemporary perspectives on race and diversity as they affect experiences of nature, resource stewardship, and interpretation in the national parks.
Our goal for this event is to continue a conversation about diversity and the relevancy of our national parks. Event organizer and panelist, Ruth Alexander of Colorado State University’s History Department will examine patterns of erasure, exclusion, and resistance related to race and gender in the NPS in the early 20th century. Camille Dungy of Colorado State University’s Department of English will discuss her experiences as an African American female writing on and in our national parks. Colorado State University’s Gillian Bowser will share her experience as an African American woman working for the NPS in natural resource stewardship and her efforts to develop programs that will expose young people of color to careers in science in the NPS. Panelist Alexandra Hernandez of the NPS Intermountain Region will focus on NPS efforts to highlight grassroots efforts of diverse communities to tell their own stories in new park units, National Historic Landmarks and National Heritage Areas. While Hernandez looks at NPS accomplishments, Nina Roberts of San Francisco State University will ask if the NPS is willing to evolve to meet the challenges of cultural barriers and shifting cultural landscapes. As the Park Service enters its second century and addresses the challenges of opening national parks to diverse populations and making park units relevant to people of many backgrounds our panel speakers will engage the public in a meaningful discussion of park initiatives and challenges.
This public event will be held on Thursday, September 29th, from 7:30 to 9 pm in the CSU Morgan Library Event Hall. If you’re in the Colorado Front Range, we hope to see you at this essential discussion of our national parks.
Maggie Moss Jones is a graduate student at Colorado State University working with the Public Lands History Center to better understand national park experiences. She is an organizer of this event.