FOR RELEASE: MONDAY, FEB. 4, 2002
CONTACT: Elliott West, distinguished professor of history, Fulbright College(479)575-3001, [email protected]
Allison Hogge, science and research communications officer(479)575-5555, [email protected]
RACIAL DIVERSITY OF OLD WEST OFFERS LESSONS FOR TODAY
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- When Americans think about history and race, their focus usually turns South. But as president of the Western History Association, a University of Arkansas professor hopes to turn people's attention to the West, where issues of ethnicity and power have not been so black and white.
"Recently, because of social and demographic changes in this country, we've begun to think of race more like the rest of the world does -- more in terms of ethnicity," said Elliott West, distinguished professor of history. "Few people realize that's the way we used to view it. It wasn't until the Civil War that the issue got divided into black and white."
As the United States acquired more and more western territory in the early to mid-19th century, it also acquired a population more diverse than the rest of the nation. Hispanics, Asians, new tribes of American Indians -- all became part of the American quilt, whether they wanted to or not. As a result, people in the West confronted complex questions about integration, human rights and social tolerance long before such issues became critical in other parts of the country.
At times, cultural conflict in the West was resolved, and peaceful -- if not equitable -- co-existence was achieved. Other times, such conflict sparked unspeakable violence and lingering hatred. But West believes that both outcomes can prove important lessons to America as it faces the issue of diversity today.
The need for such lessons seems especially evident in the wake of September 11, which triggered suspicion, intolerance and, in some cases, harassment of Arab-Americans nationwide.
"In the late 19th century, America responded to the diversity of the West by trying to impose conformity. It didn't work then, and it won't work now," West said. "We need to recognize that, while can expect some common ground as Americans, we cannot ask people to give up their heritage. That's too great a part of their identity. Western history teaches us that people will defend their identity -- violently, if need be."
As president of the Western History Association, West wants to remind the American public that Western history is relevant to the way we live today. He also hopes to refresh the public's curiosity about the West. He concedes that the region's reputation has staled over the past century -- constantly replaying in the popular imagination as a land of gun fights and gold rushes, Indian wars and sagebrush.
But the narrative of Western history is far more complicated than the plot of an average Clint Eastwood movie, West states.
"If you make a list of the most important issues facing the American people today, it would include ethnic diversity, environmental concerns, conservation of resources, relations with developing countries, urban planning. Well, the West has been dealing with those issues ever since it became part of the nation," West explained.
In fact, the West has always played a prominent role in American history, he said -- even when the nation's attention was focused elsewhere. Most U.S. historians would agree that the Civil War represents the most significant episode of the 19th century. It was a war that severed the nation into North and South and left, in its aftermath, the long salvage job of Reconstruction.
But West believes that the Civil War and its effects must be viewed in a greater context, as one episode in a trilogy of conflict that also includes the Mexican War and, later, the Indian Wars. Each of these wars raised fundamental questions about what this nation would be, he said. And their combined aftermath required sweeping changes, not just in the South, but across the nation.
"We need to think of Reconstruction as happening nationally," West said. "Following these wars, America reconstructed itself geographically -- adding one million, 200 thousand square miles in the 19th century. It reconstructed economically -- tapping into the enormous resources of that new territory. It reconstructed its infrastructure -- building an expansive railroad system. And it reconstructed racially and culturally -- engulfing new peoples and integrating those it already had."
The key to understanding and exploring this complex history is learning to view it from multiple perspectives, according to West. The history of the West is no longer just the story of white homesteaders, penned into journals and letters sent home. It's a rich chorus of voices that includes the history of American Indians, the experiences of Hispanics, Asians and African Americans, and the dialogue they started with the land itself.
"The West has been a stage for a variety of different narratives, each struggling to be heard," West said. "We need to accept the fact that every group has different stories about what happened. Those stories may not always agree, may not even be agreeable, but that doesn't make any of them wrong or less important."
West is the author of "Growing Up with the Country" and "The Way to the West." His latest book, "The Contested Plains" won six prestigious national awards, including the Ray Allen Billington Prize from the Organization of American Historians, the Francis Parkman Prize for best book in U.S. History and the Caroline Bancroft Prize. It was also nominated for a Pulitzer.
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