The History of the American West Field Trip
by Brianna Ruffatto
Students at NSA have been trying to define what the American West is, exactly.
At first, the question seems simple enough; we’ve all enjoyed the likes of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne battling it out, mustache, boot, and spur on the arid, tumble-weed frontier.
But building on the Sophomore year history colloquium, we’ve learned better. The actual stories and lives scooped into certain periodizations and analyses are much more ethnically, geographically, and methodologically complex and diverse than their iconography suggests.
After weeks of rigorous discussion of influential historians such as William Cronon, Elliott West, Richard White, Donald Worster, and the ever-persistent Frederick Jackson Turner (who coined the term “frontier” in 1893), Dr. Chris Schlect led us on a route of local significant historical sites of the American West.
Dr. Schlect set the route for a one-night trip over September 15th and 16th.
Thursday took us to the Hanford B Reactor in Hanford, WA, Richland High School in Richland, WA, and the Whitman Mission in Walla Walla, WA. Friday, we migrated to the coast to the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, the Bonneville Dam, the Dalles Dam, and Celilo Village.
A mission field, a high school, a nuclear reactor, dams, a Celilo suburb—how are any of these part the history of the West? Why visit these places in a History of the American West colloquium?
In short, they are Moscow, Idaho’s local history.
Examining and discussing these obscure sites peculiar to our region gave us clearer insight into the broader context and narrative of history as a whole.
The remote Hanford operation bombed Japan and set the entire world on its head, and what happened in Ft. Vancouver’s trading economy hugely affected the hat-wearing in Paris and London. Each of these places was much more than it seemed, and showed that the “West” cannot be restricted to one region, landscape, or time period. When you think West you should think about WWII, and the dams that turn your lights on–because the parts make up the whole. The West is not the simplified generalities of Lewis and Clark on the Mississippi and Indians oppressed and the (actually ahistorical) idea of a pioneer in the pristine wild. By visiting these places we had a firmer grasp that the regions we call the West have long been ethnically and geographically diverse, constantly reforming and powerfully impacting countries and peoples all over the world.
History takes what you have where you are and sees the multiform ways that that fits into the whole. There’s never one way of seeing the past, but not just anything goes. That’s the glorious poetry of it. So we keep looking, and we keep telling.
Re-imagining history this way not only fights the “Nothing happens where I come from” mentality, but also promotes “I can be something and make something with what I have, right where I am.” This kind of historical imagination encourages creativity, innovation, and, most importantly, humility. It remembers, learns, and appreciates the stories of people in circumstances and cultures other than our own. We cannot be faithful slaves to Christ without this ability to look out from another person’s eyes and stand in someone else’s skin.
To be able to navigate history well is to navigate life well. And so the field trip never ends.