March 19, 2013

troubling wests, troubling landscapes

by stan thayne

I am often curious about what leads people to their topics of study. Often I don’t think we know just what it is that pushes us to the topics we choose to study. It seems that for many of us who end up studying the American West as an academic field, the impulse do so has something to do with having left, often quite literally, the West we grew up in. Such reflection often involves looking back, often with a westering gaze, and with new eyes. Laurie Maffly-Kipp made this recognition in the opening lines to her book Religion and Society in Frontier California: “Like many westerners, I became interested in the history of my native region only after leaving it.” That recognition could apply to many who look back on homelands with a new perspective. Jared Farmer, for example, whom I referred to in my previous post on haunting, wrote about a mountain and a lake that frame the landscape he grew up in. William Cronon began his book Nature’s Metropolis with a memory of family vacations from Wisconsin to Chicago—a city he came to see as an integral connecting point of “the Great West.”

For some the decision to write about the West may come with moments of disconnect between a new, historicized West and the West they grew up with. Brandi Denison, my co-conspirator here at the RAW blog, begins her dissertation on Ute land religion with a recognition that, for twentieth-century Utes who traveled to Meeker, Colorado—from whence their ancestors had been removed and relocated to the Uintah-Ouray Reservation in Utah—the site has quite a different meaning than it does for many local Euroamerican kids who grew up watching the annual fourth of July “Meeker Massacre Pageant,” which, as she explains, “diminished the specifics of Ute removal in order to emphasize the horror of the Meeker Massacre and the ultimate success of civilization” (12).

I imagine all of us have those moments, when suddenly something we grew up with, or within, suddenly appears in a new light; at times tainted, or haunted, or simply made more real by the sudden presence of a disquietung past. And speaking of the Uintah-Ouray Reservation, I had this realization not long ago when—I don’t remember the source—I came to the realization that the reservation at one time encompassed a good deal of what is now the High Uinta Wilderness Area, which was one of my favorite playgrounds as a kid growing up in Utah. That realization made rather concrete for me just what William Cronon meant—or, if it isn’t what he meant, it’s what it suddenly meant to me—when he titled his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness.” Our romanticization of wilderness as the pristine, untouched, uninhabited, virgin forest (and recreation area)—nature—overlooks the fact of human habitation and land use that European eyes have not always been trained to see (or respect)—or which they chose to ignore.[1] Of course, the Uinta Basin was not the exclusive site of Ute residence and land use prior to European settlement. In the 1860s the federal government, with the cooperation of Brigham Young, removed a group of Ute people from Sanpete and Utah valleys in central Utah and relocated them to the Uinta Basin. Later Ute people from Colorado were removed there as well. In the wake of the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887, a lot of that land was opened to non-Ute settlement, mining, or was taken into public domain as national forest land. In 1984, twenty years after the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, a large chunk of the land was designated as the High Uintas Wilderness Area—the same land that one hundred years before a settler had described as “one vast ‘contiguity of waste,’ and measurably valueless, excepting for nomadic purposes, hunting grounds for Indians and to hold the world together.”[2] A far different estimation from that of Americans viewing the basin through lenses that shaped the alpine romanticism that informed the Wilderness Act of 1964.

And it is here that I come to an ambivalence that often characterizes such haunting. I have very fond memories of the times I spent in the Uintas Wilderness; I feel a sense of attachment to that land, to that landscape. And, as a product of the same impulses that created the Wilderness Act of 1964, I don’t think that setting aside wilderness, to protect from privatization and commercial development, is a bad idea. And yet, there still remains “the trouble with wilderness,” the problem of the multiple removals that have taken place, the whittling down of homelands and sovereignties through acts of force and broken treaties that remain, if not always visible, somehow there, in the landscapes, those intimate creations of human action and the land itself that is somehow an accumulation—a palmipsest, as I called it earlier—of all who have dwelt there or moved across, and of those who remain or return. Which brings me to, if not a conclusion, an observation: If the realization that, as Jared Farmer put it, there is “no such thing as an innocent landscape”[3] does not suggest an immediate solution to the problem with wilderness—or agricultural land, or mines, or national parks, or private property—such troubling of the landscape does provide a greater context and a more complicated picture. It is a place to begin.

[1] On this point also see Richard White, “Indian Land Use and Environmental Change,” Arizona and the West 17.4 (Winter 1975): 327.
[2] Qtd. in Jared Farmer, On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 101.
[3] Interview at Religion Dispatches, April 22, 2010.

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