The (Award Winning) Erstwhile Blog Entries of 2017

Erstwhile editor Julia Frankenbach has been recognized for the outstanding quality of her writing in the Center of the American West’s Thompson Writing Awards contest. Two of her Erstwhile blog posts “I Remember You: Wildness, Gratitude, and Western History on Horseback” and “The True Tale of Periquillo: Early Borderlands Literature, American Memory, and the Space Between” were honored this year. Erstwhile editor Sam Bock was also recognized for his paper “James Willard Schultz and the Complicated Politics of Place Names in Glacier National Park.” What follows are excerpts from our editors’ award-winning works. We hope you enjoy! 

“I Remember You”: Wildness, Gratitude, and Western History, on Horseback

By Julia Frankenbach

To work with a horse is to negotiate with a creature whose desires are unlike one’s own and whose physical size sets the preliminary stage for negotiation on vastly uneven terms. This basic principle, though it seems simple, receives a great deal of distortion from artists, writers, filmmakers, and from horsepeople themselves. A quick survey of horse-themed films released in the last fifteen years suggests the anthropocentric significance of the horse to popular narratives. Seabiscuit (2003), Hidalgo (2004), Dreamer (2005), Secretariat (2010), War Horse (2011), and 50 to 1 (2014) all feature animals whose loyal partnerships with their human counterparts make them gratifying characters for the big screen. Throughout the equine-themed film canon, viewers enjoy the horse’s complicity in human dreams of supremacy and its ability to perceive kinship in human counterparts. Watching these films, one would never suspect that equine beings are mentally and emotionally different from human beings.

Horsepeople themselves propagate these fantasies when they anticipate sympathy from their equine companions. I feel comfortable criticizing such people, because I am one of them. Even once I had managed (years ago) to accept that my horse values first safety and then food security above any kind of relationship with me, I found myself expecting absurd forms of reciprocity. I anticipated cooperation, especially, in our rides together. The horse-and-rider figure is subject to romanticization of epic proportions. Between the popularization of Western American iconography during the last decades of the twentieth century and the Zen-like assurances of horse trainers who sell “natural” horsemanship methods, the ideal of perfect horse-and-rider harmony has become highly desirable, especially for its ability to grant the feel of communion with powerful animals and the powerful western American past. To be sure, a rider should strive for harmonious, respectful physical communication with her horse. Many, if not all, riding disciplines emphasize the important of balance and clear communication. But it is important to draw a line between mutual respect and mutual mindedness. The horse does not need for me to succeed. Count on the fact that my emotional wellbeing has never entered her mind. She simply does not hug back.

This principle deflates the well-meaning aspirations of many good horsepeople, and it kills the magic of the movie theater. But it clears the way for horsepeople to locate magic of a more mutually fulfilling kind. Increasingly, I see my visits to the ranch as opportunities to think against the tendency to explain cooperation between different beings in terms that are prematurely self-congratulatory. As a young historian, I strive for the ability to look upon a landscape and see more worlds than one. To look upon the horse pasture and see two worlds—one human and one equine, distinct but intimately ingrown, marked not by wildness but by imperfect communion—seems a step in the right direction.

The True Tale of Periquillo: Early Western Literature, American Memory, and the Space Between

By Julia Frankenbach

Strange times have come for those who love and study the American borderlands. President Donald Trump’s demands for a border wall violate the sensibilities of educators, writers, artists, informed inhabitants, and others who draw sustenance from the rich, multiethnic history and culture of the borderlands, a region that, for many, includes northern Mexico. Historians balk, in particular, at the President’s habit of using incorrect or fabricated information in interviews and speeches. It is difficult to nurture hope for improved integrity of the country’s historical memory in a political environment saturated by falsehoods. The daily contrast has proved wearying, but, for me, it has also sparked new questions—and some uplifting answers—about the nature of fact, fiction, truth, and the business of each in the study and celebration of the American West and its history.

The President’s verbal escapades have generated broad anxiety about factuality in politics and virtually all other spheres of public conversation. Online fact checkers proliferate. As an historian in training, my immediate reaction to what seems an onslaught of misrepresentation has been to get tougher with my facts, check dates, practice lines of argumentation. For example:

Mexican people are not criminal, and Mexico is not an inherently chaotic place. Ironically, the country’s contemporary economic struggles reflect a long legacy of depredation by the United States. Beginning in the 1870s, the Mexican government under President Porfirio Díaz embarked on a plan to convert communal lands to private ownership in a bid to industrialize the nation’s agricultural sector. Small producers, who made up nearly the entire population of the north-central states, were unable to provide proof of ownership and lost their lands to American speculators. Millions of displaced farmers struggled to meet rising costs of living in Mexico’s new labor-saturated export economy. Many responded to offers by American labor contractors, boarding American-owned trains bound for the north, where the U.S. government’s covert support of undocumented labor sanctioned widespread exploitation of immigrants. By 1930, these mass displacements had emptied Mexico of ten percent of its population.

And so forth.

Most days, this exercise in recitation seems a logical response to the President’s disregard for factuality. But at times, it also seems a slight to the discipline I love, for it generates the same combative, blow-by-blow language to achieve the same small goal: proving the “correctness” of a point of view. Academic history is capable of a great deal more than this. Contrary to some popular beliefs, the field’s mission is not merely to distinguish between “what happened” and what did not. To the contrary, I think the true potential of academic history is in its ability to persuade a readership into interconnectivity and care. Master historians, in other words, have figured out the art of turning many facts into a few truths, through the vessel of story.

In his collection of essays on the reading and writing of history, historian John Clive paid homage to nineteenth-century French historian Jules Michelet’s vision for the discipline:

As far as [Michelet] was concerned, the whole point of writing history was to re-create a past that not only could, but must, be used—eventually by the historian’s readers, but in the first place by the historian himself—to satisfy his own psychic and spiritual needs, and to inspire him both to bear witness to past virtues and to do his share in the rooting out of present evils.

The trick of history, then, is not in the organization and deployment of facts but in the transformation of facts into broader ethics that can sustain us personally and guide us collectively. During this despairing political moment, I find myself yearning for pieces of writing that defend the histories I know not with that same return-fire of dates, details, and specifics, but with the more constructive, affirmative, broadly persuasive tools of literature.

All pieces of literature—which we might define as written works of exceptional rhetorical skill and stylistic power that in some way advance our understanding of the human condition—serve, in some capacity, as windows onto the past. But those works that receive wide readership also continue to speak very loudly in the present. A literary “canon” encompasses the stories and themes that reflect for a society what it considers to be its defining struggles. As a living source of instruction and inspiration, therefore, the canon actively reproduces the historical consciousness of the culture that gave rise to it. Literature, in other words, is a key cultural component of memory.

El Periquillo Sarniento is a satirical novel that praises a nascent Mexican nationalism. It does not uphold the sovereignty of the United States in the American West and, therefore, it does not mesh well with American-literature-as-usual. But if American high school students read works translated from Spanish and French, written by indigenous people, Mexicans, Mormons, Asian Americans, African Americans, Muslims, and others of varied provenance, they might be much better equipped to challenge falsehoods concerning our collective heritage—and, therefore, the nature of our common obligation.

Perhaps by attention to the power of literature, historians may begin to define a world in which academic history enters mainstream conversations more fluidly. Perhaps those of us in graduate school can envision careers in collaboration with public education policy officials. In our classrooms, perhaps we can share pieces of literature that, with our histories, teach a common transnational past. There is more than one way to appreciate a piece of early western literature. One can harvest many facts from Periquillo; it does indeed tell us a great deal about northern New Spain in the 1810s. But its truths—about the longings and achievements of Mexican nationalists and the broad scope of North American struggles for liberty—also satisfy.

If our greatest truths do, indeed, lie in our fictions, as Alan Charles Kors urged in 1998, then I take some solace today in the creative, questioning words of the people who preceded me in this region. Fictions guide us all—those who hope for integrated, equitable societies, and those who would advocate return to what they perceive as a once-“great” American society premised on apartness. As we seek the way forward, we would do well to become better acquainted with the truths in all of our fictions.

James Willard Schultz and the Complicated Politics of Place Names in Glacier National Park

By Sam Bock

James Willard Schultz was born on August 26th, 1859, to a well-off family living in Booneville, New York. Schultz’s father died early in his life, leaving him in the care of his mother. Already a rebellious child, Schultz’s father’s death brought out a contrarian streak in the young boy that often manifested when his mother made him attend Sunday school at the local Presbyterian church. Schultz was fond of running away from home, and on more than one occasion hopped aboard passing trains or barges bound for nearby cities. At a loss for how to handle her rebellious child but recognizing his love for adventure, Schultz’s mother packed him up when he was fifteen and sent him to Peekskill Military Academy in Peekskill, New York. Schultz excelled in English and history, but disliked the academy’s constraining atmosphere of militaristic discipline. Finding himself on an undesirable path towards West Point, a sixteen-year-old Schultz was only too happy to accept his uncle’s invitation to visit the hotel he managed in St. Louis.

Once in St. Louis, Schultz found himself surrounded by unfamiliar people. Trappers, traders, men of mixed French and Indian ethnicity all frequented the hotel, which was by all accounts a hub for activities of dubious legality. For a young man from New York, it all must have been terribly exciting. Entranced by the stories of buffalo, bears, and Indians he overheard in the lobby, Schultz made up his mind to travel up the Missouri River to Fort Benton where he might get the chance to join a bison hunt. Supplied with letters of introduction from his uncle and funds from his mother, Schultz left St. Louis bound for Fort Benton, high up on the Missouri river in what is now Montana. It was there in June 1877 that Schultz met Joseph Kipp. Kipp was the grandson of Mahtotopa of the Mandan, a central figure in George Catlin’s writings on American Indians. Through Kipp, Schultz was introduced to several members of the Pikuni Blackfeet who were leaving for a summer bison hunting expedition. Seeing this as the path towards adventure among the Indians, Schultz eagerly joined the party and headed out on his first hunt.

Over the next five years, between 1877 and 1882, Schultz would participate in dozens of buffalo hunts and daring raids against the Assiniboine and Cree peoples. In this time, Schultz reports that he was welcomed into the Pikuni tribe, given the Pikuni name Apikuni (which Schultz translates as Far-Off-White-Robe), and was married to a Pikuni woman. Schultz reports that these were the happiest years of his life.

Yet by 1882, as the railroad crept into Blackfeet territory, the bison on which the Blackfeet economy depended began to die out. Though the Blackfeet had been living on what was technically reservation land since an 1855 treaty with the U.S. government, the tribes were coming under mounting pressure to cede even more of their homeland to Euro-American settlers. By 1885, disease, famine, and war had decimated the Blackfeet population, leaving just two thousand people to experience the trauma of being forced into semi-permanent communities on reservations along the eastern foothills of Montana’s Rocky Mountains. The 1888 and 1895 treaties between the Blackfeet and the U.S. government further reduced the size of the reservation and brought about yet more changes to the Blackfeet way of life, as they required tribes to cede their claims to the mountain areas on the reservation’s west side.

Living as he did in the liminal space between Indigenous and American worlds, James Willard Schultz saw and lived out the implications of these historical events. Yet, because he was Euro-American and not Blackfeet by birth, Schultz found himself in the enviable position of being able to profit from the dispossession of Native peoples. Between 1882 and 1907, Schultz mainly made his living as a rancher while writing short stores for the popular weekly reader Forest and Stream on the side. But Schultz also found lucrative work as a wilderness guide for wealthy tourists looking to escape the confines of modern American society, and it was in this capacity that Schultz came to know George Bird Grinnell, one of Glacier National Park’s most influential founding fathers.

Grinnell was the son of a wealthy New York family, and was a product of the kind of thinking that put Indian presence in National Parks at odds with the wilderness ideal. Trained in zoology but with a keen interest in anthropology and history, Grinnell was also the editor of Forest and Stream and an advocate for Indian policy reform. Through his editorship, Grinnell had run across Schultz’s writings on the Blackfeet while looking for contributors to the magazine’s “Natural History” section. After meeting Schultz in 1885, Grinnell hired Apikuni to guide a mapping expedition in what Grinnell hoped would become the nation’s next national park.

Over the next several summers, Grinnell and Schultz traversed the park mapping features and recording adventures for publication in Forest and Stream. Meanwhile, Grinnell reveled in the experience of finding a place that bore no apparent mark of human habitation. Of course, Grinnell and Shultz had frequent encounters with the Indian peoples living nearby. But for Grinnell, the absence of buildings and roads marked the area as a wilderness—an idea that has historically depended on willfully ignoring the presence and rights of Indian peoples. So powerful was the impulse to wipe the Blackfeet off the map that Glacier National Park, upon its founding, literally did just that. The U.S. board of Geographic Names and the National Park service in 1910 embarked on a campaign of place-naming that re-christened the park’s topography to honor wealthy and influential Euro-Americans.

For the Blackfeet, to whom place names carry moral and historical lessons, the loss of these place names was a most frightening and egregious act of imperialism. Speaking through James Willard Schultz in his book Signposts of Adventure: Glacier National Park as the Indians Knew It, Apikuni’s friend Tail-Feathers-Coming-Over-the-Hill describes the rechristening campaign as simply “the most recent wrong the whites have put upon us.” According to Schultz, Tail-Feathers-Coming-Over-The-Hill acknowledged the Euro-American right to sell Blackfeet lands, but not the right to erase Blackfeet history. Schultz’s introduction to Signposts of Adventure further recounts Tail-Feathers-Coming-Over-The-Hill’s frustration with the situation in a transcription of a speech given one evening in 1915 at a Pikuni hunting camp:

“It is true that, nineteen winters ago, we sold to the whites this Backbone-of-the-World portion of our reservation. But did we at the time sell to them the names that we – and our fathers before us – had given to these mountains, lakes, and streams? No! We did not sell them! And now the whites have wiped them out and upon the map of the country have put their own names; foolish names of no meaning whatever! Our names, for the region were, in a way, the history of our people to far-back times. My friends, the whites’ names should at once be wiped out and our names restored to the maps of the region, that our children who come after us may be reminded of the bravery, the dignity, the in-every-way fine character of their once powerful ancestors, and so be ever proud of the blood in their veins!”

Though it is unlikely that Schultz’s account of Tail-Feathers-Coming-Over-The-Hill’s speech is entirely accurate to the Pikuni elder’s precise wording, it does reveal anxiety and resentment towards Americans’ efforts to erase Native history and refashion the area into a playground for whites. This message must have been particularly important to Tail-Feathers-Coming-Over-The-Hill for him to take such a strong stance on the issue as his people were being systematically robbed of their treaty-guaranteed rights to hunt and gather traditional medicines inside Glacier National Park. Furthermore, this passage reveals the complexity of Schultz’s character and of his relationship with the Blackfeet. While it would be easy to simply write Schultz off as yet another in a long line of Euro-Americans who appropriated Indian stories to make a quick buck, his story is too complex for such accusations. Taking another look at Signposts of Adventure, Schultz’s proudest and most important book, in the context of the author’s life reveals a complex tale of cultural hybridity that is better defined by the bonds of kinship and affection than by dispossession and appropriation.

 

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