Ingredients: History, preservatives

by Dave Phillips

Preserving Western History is "the first college reader to address public history in the American West." "Public history," explains the introduction, means history presented outside classrooms.

All of us consume public history, by visiting parks, watching TV shows and reading magazines. Behind the scenes, even the most basic presentation of history can involve slicing, dicing, and packaging as artificial as that of a hot dog. If you care enough about Western history to go beyond passive consumption, this book will teach you how much of what you see is what others prepare for you.

Take the Shoshone woman, Sacagawea: Although her role in Lewis and Clark’s expedition was important, her elevation to paragon began with the suffragist movement’s need for heroes. Sally McBeth traces Sacagawea’s appropriation by early 1900s white females (and by three different Indian tribes). Or consider those scenic pull-offs in national parks. Thomas Patin explores their roots in the nation’s "lack, when compared to Europe, of a long and established artistic, architectural, and literary heritage." The conscious substitute was America’s natural wonders; park managers sought out vistas for the public, and even subtly altered them to increase their impact.

The writing in Preserving is uneven and sometimes pedantic, but it covers a great variety of topics, including the Sand Creek massacre, the Santa Fe Fiesta, and Route 66. In the end, some of the best lessons of this book are unintended: As authors try to correct bigotries of the past, you’ll see them put a fierce new spin on the same events.

© High Country News