January 28, 2013


by Brett Hendrickson

In this day and age, the humble listserv may feel like ancient technological history, but if you are not using this resource already, I recommend you check out the family of listservs called “H-Net.”  H-Net gathers over 100 discussion networks in the humanities and social sciences, through which academics circulate calls for papers, invitations to publish, announcements, and information about fellowships and grants. Additionally, the lists allow you to issue requests relating to your research.  Looking for an obscure source or housing near an archive? H-Net can often hook you up.  Subscribing to H-Net is free, and there are various levels of interaction with the lists to choose from.
A couple of the networks relate directly to the study of religion in the American West.  Of particular interest are:

H-AmRel “History of American Religion” (There are lots of good calls for papers on this one.)

H-West “History and Culture of the North American West and Frontiers” (True to form, this forum is full of crusty old western history professors as well as cutting-edge discussions about the West.)

Among others, you may also find these forums helpful:

So, check out H-Net! If you’re like me, what you really need is one more reason to mess around online and call it “work.”  You’re welcome! 

January 21, 2013

haunting landscapes; or, to love a mountain and feel guilty about it: some thoughts on homelands and diasporas

by stan thayne

I grew up loving mountains. If you have read Jared Farmer’s book On Zion’s Mount, then you will understand why, in particular, I loved a mountain called Timpanogos, which stands at the northern end of Utah Valley. But my love was not exclusive to Timp. I also loved Cascade to the East and Lone Peak further north and Nebo to the South; King’s Peak, Baldy, Haydn’s Peak and all the granite moraines that form the Uinta Mountains; Devil’s Castle, Twin Peaks, Mount Superior, and the Pfeiferhorn in the Wasatch range. And things just got better as you moved north: the Sawtooths, the Wind Rivers, and the Tetons in Idaho and Wyoming, and Beartooths and Absarokas in Montana. And beyond those were the Canadian Rockies and the Chugach and Brooks Range of Alaska—the mountains I dreamed of.

But I felt a little guilty loving mountains so much. I knew enough of Mormon history to understand that, if things had gone as planned, I would not have grown up in the mountains, in the West. I would have grown up in Missouri, in Zion, where there are no mountains—or nothing that I, as a westerner, would have recognized as such. I knew that I was supposed to be in exile, in diaspora, and I felt that at least a part of me should lament that fact. I was supposed to be longing for the return, the long-awaited day when the Saints would go marching back with songs of joy to build Zion in Jackson County. But I sort of secretly hoped it would not occur in my life time—or at least not until I was very old and had gotten my fill. I would miss the mountains, the skiing, the trout streams, the backpacking and rock climbing and simply gazing up at them. I knew that I should be weeping by the rivers of Babylon, but instead I was fishing in them. And I was loving it.

I am not the only one to feel the ambivalence of that attachment. The Saints were not long in the Salt Lake Valley before they began referring to it in their hymns as their mountain home, their “lovely Deseret” (a Mormon word), and, even , their Zion in the mountains—even as many of them still longed to return to build Zion in Missouri and anticipated doing so in their own lifetime. There is an ambivalence in that longing that I think many of the Saints share. Our attachments to the mountains are haunted by the anticipation of another desertion of those places we have learned to love (even if we have not always cared for them as we should) and a return to a place many of us have never been (or may not care to go, for good). The Saints carried the memory of Missouri with them to the Great Basin and, for some at least, that memory has been a little unsettling. Would the return be the ending of diaspora, a re-gathering to the homeland? Or another exile? Or both?

Perhaps this ambivalent multi-valence is simply the inevitable result of people in motion over land—people who tell stories and who story the landscapes they inhabit. Those stories displace and replace, subsume, appropriate, and re-invent, co-exist, conflict, and harmonize with the stories that formed the landscapes that preceded them—and will proceed them—leaving the West a palimpsest of all who have moved across it—in exile or diaspora, to settle, unsettle, and be unsettled from the lands they shaped with their stories as well as their actions. I hope that Jared Farmer has only gotten us started in peeling back the layers of those stories upon stories upon stories that haunt the mountains and lakes and valleys and streams of the region we call the West—a region haunted by all the places people bring with them, and which haunts in turn all the places they go.

And now I find myself in exile again. Not in Zion, in Missouri, and not in the West, but in graduate school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In the American Southeast. It is a very nice place and I have nothing to complain of. I have learned to love it. But it took me a while to grow accustomed to the absence behind and above the trees. I still confess a little longing—intense at times—for some elevation and for big open spaces. But I also feel I have come to understand my relationship to the West, to the lands I grew up in, in new ways.  Zora Neale Hurston put it well in reference to her study of African American folk culture in the American South.  Adapting her words to my circumstances: “When I pitched headforemost into the world I landed in the crib of [the North American West]…But it was fitting me like a tight chemise. I couldn't see it for wearing it. It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings, that I could see myself like somebody else and stand off and look at my garment.” That in itself is a little unsettling. But hopefully Ralph Waldo Emerson was right when he said that only so far as we are unsettled is there any hope for us. And so I remain in diaspora, peeling back the layers of the landscapes that haunt me, dreaming, at times, of return.

January 18, 2013

Casual Friday: Annual Summer Seminar on Mormon Culture

For any graduate students studying Mormon culture or interested in doing so, the Annual Summer Seminar on Mormon Culture is accepting applications. The seminar is sponsored by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University, and is being directed by Terryl Givens, Bostwick Professor of English and Professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond. Applications must be submitted by February 15. Here is a link.

January 14, 2013

“The Burden of Church History”… in the American West

by Cara L. Burnidge

Celebrating 125 years of the American Society of Church History in New Orleans last weekend, fellow Religion in the American West contributor Laurie Maffly-Kipp gave fellow ASCH members plenty to ponder in her presidential address, “The Burdens of Church History,” at the Society’s Winter Meeting.

Drawing inspiration from C. Vann Woodward’s The Burden of Southern History, Maffly-Kipp asserted the continued importance of “church history” despite theoretical problems it carries within Religious Studies. While noting her interest in expanding the focus of church history to include people, events, and objects outside of a traditional notion of a “church,” Maffly-Kipp admitted that she cannot avoid the “nagging feeling” that she must hold on to the “church” part of “church history” because it mattered to historical actors she studies. Drawing on her own work on African American religions, Maffly-Kipp pointed to the tension that often gets overlooked within African American Christianity: even though Jim Crow weighed heavily upon churches, many African American Christians sought membership in and gave value to belonging to a church. In a short paraphrase of Maffly-Kipp’s remarks: it mattered to them, so it should matter to us.

What, you might ask, does this offer for scholars of religion in the American West? More than you might think. As her address drew to a close, Maffly-Kipp emphasized the significance of collectivities, networks, and institutional structures that shape historical actors’ individual experiences. Rather than choose between “fight or flight” with a traditional “church history” method, Maffly-Kipp pointed ASCH members to a renewed interest in institutions—and institutional memory—as a vantage point for scholarship. This, it seems to me, can be of great interest to RAW readers. How do collectivities (be they formal institutions like churches or not) and networks of collectivities shape religion in the American West or, alternatively, the notion of the “west” itself?

At first blush it may seem that RAW readers have a healthy distance from “church history,” both the physical spaces and the outdated model of scholarship. There may be much to gain, however, in reconsidering the relationship between the two. 

January 11, 2013

Casual Friday: Redd Center Grants

For those of you doing field research or archival research on (American) Western topic that requires travel and find yourself in needs of some funds (which means all of us!), the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, centered at Brigham Young University, offers a number of grants for students, faculty, and independent researchers. Here is a list of the awards they offer. Applications for awards will be available beginning Monday January 14. Here is the link: https://reddcenter.byu.edu/Pages/GrantsAwards.aspx

January 7, 2013

Book of the Month

Orin Starn, Ishi’s Brain: In Search of America’s Last “Wild” Indian (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004)

Reviewed by Brandi Denison

The Native American Grave and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990 was the result of years of advocacy work by Native Americans. In returning Native American remains and sacred objects from museums and criminalizing the sale of such objects, NAGPRA was meant to resolve long-standing disputes and extend an olive branch in efforts of reconciliation after centuries of violence. However, the implementation of the law has resulted in complex contestations over identity and definitions of the sacred. Many of these contestations have taken place in the American West. There are many excellent books investigating NAGRPA, including our own blog contributor, Greg Johnson’s Sacred Claims: Repatriation and Living Tradition. Today, however, I’m revisiting an old friend, Orin Starn's Ishi's Brain, in honor of the Native American Religions course I will start teaching today.

Starn’s Ishi’s Brain is to be read with caution: upon reading, undergraduates may consider a life in the academy in order to emulate Starn’s work. This text chronicles Starn’s involvement in the repatriation of Ishi’s remains, a California Native American who captivated early twentieth century Americans as the last “wild” Indian. Ishi, who some claimed was the last Indian of the Yahi tribe, was found in 1911 in the Sacramento Valley and brought to San Francisco, where he lived in a museum and was taken care of by the leading anthropologist Alferd Kroeber. Upon Ishi’s death, doctors performed an autopsy and removed the brain to weigh it. While some historians claimed that the brain was cremated with the rest of Ishi’s remains, in the late nineties, some Native American groups were not so certain. Starn’s quest to locate Ishi’s brain is infused with the elements that make a good detective novel: intrigue, deception, and cryptic clues. That many of the events occur in San Francisco (a favorite location of film noir) only adds to the book’s alignment with the mystery genre. The search for Ishi’s brain sets the stage for Starn to reflect on the historiography of United States anthropology, the tangled history of California pioneer and Native American interactions, as well as United States government efforts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to confront and reconcile a troubled past “without any costly or personal sacrifice of their own” (168).

Starn also chronicles with a gently critical eye the meaning of Ishi’s remains and his past for a variety of groups wishing to connect with a “pure, primitive” past. Repatriation is a central issue, but the law remains in the background as Starn focuses on the human implications and complications of NAGPRA. By comparing Native American groups focused on burying Ishi to white American nostalgia for the “last wild Indian,” Starn reminds readers that funeral ceremonies are often not for the dead, but for the living. He suggests that the process of repatriation is an avenue for expressing Indian identity and reclaiming something that had been lost, reflecting “the decline of the assimilation model of leaving behind the old Indian ways and embracing a brave new American future.” Through remembering and honoring ancestral remains, groups could “insist on a distinctive apartness from the American mainstream” (277). The text also hints at the necessity of invention of tradition, as “no prescribed ‘traditional’ ceremony existed for reuniting a dismembered body” (266). The Native Americans who interred Ishi’s brain with his cremated remains, thus, did their best to honor “traditional” practices with the circumstances at hand. This text is highly effective at raising complex questions about the nature of the sacred, the relationship between science and ethics, tradition and law, and at humanizing people of the past that could all too easily be dismissed as “bad people.” 

I’m anticipating that this will be a popular book to close out the semester. 

January 4, 2013

Casual Friday: Call for Papers

The Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association has a call for papers for their August 8-10, 2013 conference in Denver. They are due January 15.

See this website for more information!