February 10, 2014

Considering and Re-Considering "the West"

By Cara L. Burnidge

Recently High Country News, and its wonderfully titled"The Goat Blog," (with "News and Views From High Country News Writers and Editors), considered and re-considered an issue that is familiar to readers of this blog: What is meant by "American West"?

In her post "What the West would look like with state boundaries drawn by culture, population, or watersheds," Jodi Peterson noted that "our definition of the West has morphed over the years." She writes that they "cover the 11 Western states, and for us, one of the key characteristics of those states is their high proportion of public land."
You can see their map of the West here, which leaves out Texas, because of its few public lands, but also leaves out Alaska, despite its allotment of public land, as shown on the right.

This working definition, of course, hasn't stopped High Country News from considering other states and regions in its discussions about the West. Peterson draws attention to Colin Woodard's American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America , a national map drawn according to watershed boundaries, and other possibilities of reconsidering regional identity in the West and the U.S. more broadly.

Peterson didn't include it in her piece, but I'm reminded of this map included in Max Fischer's "40 More Maps that Explain the World."
 "North American languages, before colonialism" highlights the diversity, but perhaps more importantly, the presence of languages and cultures prior to colonialism. It also brings attention to "America," "the West," and "the American West' beyond its current U.S.-state borders, an endeavor that I imagine Petersen and  RelAmWest readers agree on.

After their discussions, Peterson notes, High Country News decided to stick with their slogan “for people who care about the American West.”    Even though the conceptions and representations change, depending on one's orientation, she says, "our mission"--and therefore the name--"stays the same."

While our name--Religion in the American West--has stayed the same and our interest in "the West" continues, I am not satisfied in the same way Peterson is with the essence of "the West," as geographic space or place, as scholarly subject, or as subfield. I'm looking forward to the coming weeks on the blog, where we will highlight our contributor's interests in and approaches to "the West." Perhaps it won't be the essence alone, but the questions at hand that will gain interest as well.

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