Out West student blog

In Historical Research, Context is Key

Weekend backpacking trip in the Sawatch Range. “Sawatch” derives from the Ute word saguguachipa, meaning “blue earth.”

By Callan Showers
American Studies, 2019
Historical Research Intern, Galatee Films

 

 

In my internship with Galatée Films, I am researching the latter half of the nineteenth century, with much of the research centered on 1871 and 1872. These years mean everything for the creation of Yellowstone National Park, but they also mean much more in a broader view of American History.

When analyzing the environmental philosophy movement of the 1800s, I was confronted with the work of George Catlin, a mediocre American artist until he met a group of American Indians in 1828. He became obsessed with indigenous culture and made it his mission to create portraits of members of each Native American tribe in the United States.

If we zoom out, 1871 was the heart of the Reconstruction era, six years after the end of the Civil War and a year after the 15th amendment was ratified, giving African American men the right to vote. 1871 also saw the election of the first African American Senator and multiple African American Representatives. This information, although it could be seen as tangential, was crucial when I wrote a research report about the congressional timeline of the passage of the Yellowstone Bill. Even if it just results in a historically accurate depiction of Congress in the film’s scenes about the bill’s passage, it says something much more significant about historical responsibility and representation.

George Catlin, Pipestone Quarry on the Coteau des Prairies, 1836-1837, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr., 1985.66.337 [https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/pipestone-quarry-coteau-des-prairies-4319]
George Catlin, Pipestone Quarry on the Coteau des Prairies, 1836-1837, oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum

Similarly, when analyzing the environmental philosophy movement of the 1800s, I was confronted with the work of George Catlin. Catlin was a mediocre American artist until he met a group of American Indians in 1828. He became obsessed with indigenous culture and made it his mission to create portraits of members of each Native American tribe in the United States, traveling and living amongst tribes from 1830-1836. On one hand, Catlin certainly held an unusually sensitive view of indigenous peoples than most white Americans at the time, especially in the year of President Jackson’s Indian Removal Act that forced the brutal “Trail of Tears.” He is also one of the earliest figures on record to suggest the federal preservation of parkland. However, Catlin’s work undoubtedly exploited Native lands and people. In Minnesota, my home state, Catlin ignored protests of Sioux leaders and entered a sacred quarry. The red pipestone he found there still goes by the name “catlinite.”

It is easy to focus on the good things about people like Catlin or the feel-good nature of the history of National Parks. But to be an honest student of the American West, it is necessary to complicate this surface-level interpretation and to re-center the history of the genocide, displacement, and political manipulation of American Indians who populated western lands for thousands and thousands of years before the arrival of European colonists.

It is easy to focus on the good things about people like Catlin or the feel-good nature of the history of National Parks. But to be an honest student of the American West, it is necessary to complicate this surface-level interpretation.

My last blog post was centered on the idea of place, and that concept continued to shape my experience in Colorado. With another month under my belt, though, I would add the word context. Context is key. Even in my weekend explorations, like a backpacking trip in the Sawatch Range. “Sawatch” derives from the Ute word saguguachipa, meaning “blue earth.” Knowing this reminded me of an important piece of context: that I am still a visitor in western lands that were never meant to be mine. I am thankful for this internship, Galatée Films, and the Bill Lane Center for helping me add this deeper sense of place and context to my life and professional development.

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