Finding an Intellectual Home: Recap of the 2018 WHA

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Photo of the front of the Alamo by the author.

Contributing editor Kerri Clement recounts her time spent at the Western History Conference in San Antonio. 

The Western History Association held their yearly conference in San Antonio this year. The organization, founded in 1961, promotes the history of the American West, in the broadest sense. Over the years, the conference has grown to encompass histories that range in temporal scope and geographic locations. The growth and diversification in topics encompassed by the conference emerged in large part from the growth and diversification of the conference attendees and presenters. In step with those changes, the 2018 conference centered on race and ethnicity in the American West and included a wide variety of topics, which ranged from Indigenous history to food history to panels dedicated to transnational gender history. The multitude of panels, as well as the numerous workshops, receptions, and plenary sessions, demonstrates the vibrant and growing community of the WHA. For this post, I will explore several of the conference’s more memorable moments that I experienced.

Please indulge me in a moment of self-aggrandizement as I write about the panel I was on this year. The panel, titled “Race and Sovereignty: Bringing Critical Indigenous Theory into the American West” brought together several participants (though not all of them!) from the 2017 summer institute at the Newberry Library. The panel drew upon a number of case studies, with each participant building upon their work from their time at the Newberry. The seminar explored the intersections of critical Indigenous studies, U.S. law, and gender, with the panelist’s papers reflecting these themes in diverse and interesting ways. Both the seminar attendees and this year’s panel participants have had direct impacts on the direction of my personal research and writing. In particular, the seminar and panel have driven me to think deeply about the communities to which I answer, as well as rethinking history through a critical Indigenous studies lens. The panel participants’ individual case studies all asked the audience to reconsider the nexus of Indigenous history, law, and gender in significant ways. In reflecting on this panel and my time at the Newberry, I come away with a helpful lesson for other graduate students: take opportunities as they come for one never knows where these opportunities might lead.

Some of the other panels I attended addressed Indigenous history in the Puget Sound and the transformative power of war. But alongside the papers from the fine scholars at the WHA, it was the workshops, receptions, and luncheons that stood out. The many highlights of these events included the Indigenous scholars’ lunch, the “Presidential Plenary: Reimagining Race and Ethnicity in the West Since 1968,” and the poster sessions. Many of these sessions honored prominent scholars in the field, such as the Presidential Plenary, which invited preeminent scholars—namely, Ignacio Garcia, Madeline Hsu, Albert Broussard, and Phil Deloria with moderation from WHA President Dr. Don Fixico—to reflect upon their personal experiences with changes in the field of western history relative to race and ethnicity. The panelists’ conversations, questions, and stories were interesting and required that the panel attendees think deeply about changes, or the lack thereof, to the study of race and ethnicity in western history and the United States. The topics of the panel ranged from a broad conversation about the historical growth of inclusivity in the field of western history and academia to commentary and questions about the historical roots of contemporary issues plaguing American society. As the panelists’ life experiences and their conversations demonstrated, this much-needed conversation is far from over.

A particularly welcome surprise was judging the high school and undergraduate entries of the poster competition. At a last-minute request from a fellow former high-school teacher, I spent several enjoyable hours conversing with high school students who submitted posters. Their topics ranged widely in time and space. One student interrogated the portrayals of historical depictions of Indigenous beauty standards. Another poster examined the differences in societal memories of historical figures between Indigenous and Euro-American contemporary social groups. And another student explored how distinct memorialization efforts of Mexican-American veterans played out in post-war San Antonio.

The students produced excellent posters, with engaging visuals—including one poster with artwork that several observers wished was on a t-shirt so they could purchase the artwork. The students’ arguments, often based on an interesting mix of contemporary and historical sources, demonstrated sophisticated historical cause-effect thinking, with interesting conclusions and theses. If this is the future of the WHA, then it is in excellent hands.

Photo of Dr. Kent Blansett as his book release at the WHA. Read Erstwhile’s interview with Dr. Blansett here.

Finally, perhaps one of the most amazing panels I’ve ever had the privilege to attend was held on the last day of the conference. This panel, “Traditions of the Southwest: Tamale Making and Storytelling,” involved several prominent borderlands scholars—Maria Montoya, Lore Flores, Mary Mendoza, and Rachel St. John—and many of their family members. The panel instructed attendees in the process of tamale making by providing a hands-on experience.

The panel hosts went to significant lengths to ensure a successful experience by working for several weeks prepping the materials. Attendees were shepherded through the tamale making process, with precise instructions about how to spread the masa, add the fillings, roll, and tie the tamales. But significant takeaways from the panel (besides the wonderful smell) for me were the essential nature of family and community in food preparations and consumptions. Additionally, throughout the panel, the hosts wove intricate and informative stories recounting the history of tamales and tamale making, both within their individual families and in a greater historical context.

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Enjoying the process and history of making tamales. Photo by author.  

Finally, indicative of the success of the panel, all the participants I shared a table with recounted their family foods and their family members they would bring if they hosted a similar panel. Some of the possible food preparation activities mentioned at my table included dumplings and Butte mining pasties (my family’s food). All the food discussed around the table I joined and at the tamale making panel more generally involved communal work, family recipes, and historical anecdotes, all of which would help pass the family foodways on to the next generation. Simply, the panel highlighted the centrality of family and communities in history. That the tamales were delicious was a significant benefit. One can only hope that this panel has started a new wave of panels centered on family and food.

This conference was a truly delightful experience. From the diverse panels and workshops to the wonderful receptions, this conference was one of the best that I have attended.

 

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