History PhDs Outside the Academy: A Conversation with Garrit Voggesser

The return of buffalo to the Wind River Reservation in 2016, the product of decades of work by Eastern Shoshone partners and the National Wildlife Federation’s Tribal Partnerships Program. Photo by Alexis Bonogofsy, used with permission.

Erstwhile contributing editor Anna Kramer talks with Garrit Voggesser, the Director of Tribal Partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation, about having a history PhD and working outside of the academy. Voggesser received his PhD in American Indian and Environmental History from the University of Oklahoma in 2004 and wrote about the role history plays in the National Wildlife Federation’s Tribal Partnerships Program for Western Historical Quarterly in 2009.[i] What follows are excerpts from a lengthy phone conversation, edited for clarity.

Anna Kramer (AK): Would you give us an overview of your graduate school experience?

Garrit Voggesser (GV): I went to Utah State to get my master’s, up in Logan, and for a long time the Western Historical Quarterly was housed there. My thesis looked at the Yellowstone buffalo conflict and was all about tribes and interactions between tribes and organizations like the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) on efforts to restore buffalo. I interned with NWF in the summer of 1999, and that gave me access to all of NWF’s internal documents.

My belief has just further solidified that, to work with tribes, to work with any group of people, it’s really critical to understand their history. So even at that point, I was bridging the gap between history and modern issues. That didn’t always sit well with some folks and their thoughts about academia and what history was, but this was always my belief: that you’ve got to understand the past to understand the present.

The following summer, after I got my master’s in 2000, I ran NWF’s tribal buffalo program for the summer. By then I knew I was going to University of Oklahoma to get my doctorate. I learned pretty quickly as I worked on my doctorate that I didn’t necessarily want to teach. I wanted to figure out how my research and writing abilities—and the recognition of the importance of history to current issues—how I could put that into action in the real world. I was at Oklahoma from 2000 to 2004. My mentor was an environmental historian, Donald Pisani, who wrote a lot about water in the west, and I worked with folks like Albert Hurtado who did Native American history.

My dissertation looked at the Salish and Kootenai tribes, the Fort Peck tribes, and the Blackfeet tribe in Montana from about 1850 to 1950. They were representatives of many other tribes in many ways, in how the federal government pigeonholed what Native Americans should be, shouldn’t be, and how the government tried to dictate how tribes interacted with natural resources and the natural world. I looked at everything from hunting and fishing rights to the timber industry to farming to extraction of minerals, and how these particular tribes in Montana negotiated with these federal overseers that wanted to dictate how Native Americans should live their lives and how they should interact with nature and maintain their cultural connections to it. I didn’t go all the way up to the present, but there were some parts of my conclusion where I looked forward from the early 1950s and 1960s to the early 2000s and talked about how assertions of tribal sovereignty had led to current success or challenges.

AK: It sounds like there was a bit of resistance from faculty or others in graduate school to your interests in connecting the past to present issues. Was there any resistance to your pursuit of a non-academic career path, or were people supportive of that?

GV: It was both, and I would hope that has changed quite a bit. My mentor was really supportive. Because of the nature of his focus on water and agricultural issues in the West in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he tended to interact with a lot of public historians, historians at the National Park Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. I think environmental history lends itself to that interaction with public history; I think that the kind of history that you study can limit or expand your opportunities.

But I didn’t really care. This is my life and I want to do something that has an impact. I think I’m going to have more of an impact trying to work with tribes on current issues than I would just writing books. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—I’m just saying that was personally how I thought I could have the most impact.

AK: How did you go about looking for a job after receiving your PhD?

GV: As I was working on my dissertation, I just started exploring what else was out there beyond academia. My mentor had relationships with some of the historians in the different federal agencies and so I spent my first summer of my PhD working for the Bureau of Reclamation writing histories of water projects and irrigation projects, which wasn’t very exciting to me. But it exposed me to public history. I had to dig for some of the opportunities with museums or libraries, with state and local governments. I was looking at federal jobs, jobs with museums, historical consulting firms, law firms. Getting a doctorate in history isn’t totally unique this way, but those skills of researching and writing tend to be the strengths of history PhDs. Those are probably going to be your strongest skills, that kind of creativity, your writing and your ability to do basically investigative research. I looked for all kinds of different jobs, and I narrowed it down to a historical consulting firm in D.C. and another one in Davis, California. But I was about to get married and my wife said, “I’m not moving to D.C., and I’m not moving to Davis.” I’m like, “all right, well, pick a place where you want to live, and then I’ll find a job there.” We both have family in Colorado, and I had these historical connections to NWF, so everything worked out kind of perfectly.

AK: Would you tell us a bit about the National Wildlife Federation’s Tribal Partnerships Program?

GV: Our work with tribes is very relationship-based. It’s about building relationships around common values when it comes to wildlife or natural resource conservation. As those relationships deepen they turn into partnerships that then lead to direct outcomes or conservation objectives. We focus on the relationships first. We share a lot of common values with tribes when it comes to wildlife conservation, and we recognize the importance of tribes’ cultural ties to those ecological resources. We bring a lot of expertise when it comes to natural resource and wildlife management, but we’re mostly a facilitator of those relationships, working to create a network of broader relationships for tribes to advance their conservation objectives, whether it’s national legislation that would provide conservation funding for tribes, legislation around climate issues that would support tribal efforts to adapt, or something species-specific, like building the expertise, the networks, and the support systems for tribes that want to bring buffalo back. We’re really a support system and a facilitator of these broader networks of relationships that can help tribes when they need it and how they need it from their perspective, to build their role as sovereigns to manage wildlife.

Jason Baldes (far left), the buffalo representative for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, and others drum and sing to welcome ten buffalo back to the Wind River Reservation for the first time in over 130 years. Voggesser has been leading the work of the National Wildlife Federation’s Tribal Partnerships Program to partner with tribes to return buffalo to tribal lands. Photo by Judith Kohler, used with permission.

AK: How has your training as a historian informed and shaped the work that you do as Director of the Tribal Partnerships Program?

GV: I still have to do research, though it’s not necessarily in archives or in the library. There are two levels of research: understanding the current issues surrounding that particular natural resource or wildlife issue, what are some ways to approach that issue while keeping what the tribe wants in front, and then having that understanding of the tribe’s historical, cultural and ecological connections to that place or that animal or that issue.

I expressed it earlier, but it’s just common sense, it’s part of being a human being: to build a relationship you have to have an understanding of what they’ve gone through and what they’re going through. While you can’t put yourself in their shoes, you still need to have that understanding to build a respectful and deep enough relationship that you can work together.  You need to understand that history and what’s going on, to the extent you can, in order to have a truly meaningful relationship that actually can form a partnership to reach your shared objectives. I don’t want to sound philosophical, but it’s just part of understanding the human condition, really.

People think it’s so complicated: they say, “Well, I don’t know how to approach a tribe, I don’t know how to work with them, I don’t know how to start a conversation.” I ask, “Well, how do you talk to anybody that you meet for the first time?” It’s really not that complicated. You listen, you’re respectful, you try to understand, and so to me, whether it’s cultural history or ecological history or what have you, that helps you create that understanding.

I was more involved with the American Society for Environmental History and Western History Association and others, as well as doing more academic work, for the first seven or eight years I was at NWF, but over time that transitioned to more non-academic work. I still do a lot of writing, whether it’s for magazines, websites, social media, or NWF reports. But it’s not as academic, so there’s a transition there if you want to write more for a lay audience.

Teachers and children from a school on the Wind River Reservation came to watch the buffalo release. Photo by Alexis Bonogofsky, used with permission.

AK: Is there any other advice you would give to history graduate students, whether they’re exploring careers outside of the academy or are interested in the academic career track but want to stay engaged with issues and organizations outside of the academy?

GV: I don’t know about advice on how to do this, but I think ultimately you’re a storyteller, right? There are all the nuances in how you have to document your work, get the facts and the footnotes and that sort of thing, but you’ve got to tell a good story. Like I’ve said already, I think research and writing are really marketable skills. You’re an investigator, you’re a researcher, you’re a writer. You have to be extremely creative. Those characteristics and skills can apply to so many different jobs.

There’s no shame in not going into academia. There’s no shame in not having a job directly related to history, either. I fashioned my job to be what it is, but it’s not focused on academic history. Yet it still has a deep connection to history. So you could end up writing for a magazine, and all the skills you learned in your history PhD would apply: you have to be creative, you have to do research, you have to tell a good story. Think beyond the boxes of academia.

For those that want to stay in academia: it sounds like CU Boulder is doing a really good job of at least trying to take some steps forward to connect their students to opportunities outside of the academy. I’m glad to hear that that transition is happening. But professors have to remember, whether it’s an undergrad or a graduate student, most of those people that they are teaching aren’t going to do what they do. So it’s really incumbent upon the professors—if they truly are teachers and that’s their calling, whether they’re a current professor or someone who wants to stay in academia—that they have an obligation to help their students find the opportunities to explore those students’ passions.

There are also spaces that didn’t exist when I got my PhD. Now you could start a podcast on history, on the connection between Native American history and what’s going on today. I mean there are technological tools and opportunities that didn’t exist when I graduated. That’s thinking outside the box.

[i] Garrit Voggesser, “When History Matters: The National Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Partnerships with Tribes,” Western Historical Quarterly 40, no. 3 (Autumn 2009): 349-357. Kramer worked alongside Voggesser when she was interning for the National Wildlife Federation’s Rocky Mountain Regional Office in Denver, Colorado from 2016 to 2017.


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