Continued Contestation: Learning Landscapes of the American West

The history of the American West is a complicated constellation of myth and reality.  In the 1980s New West historians began the process of rewriting national and “triumphal” myths of the West to reveal a history of domination, natural resource exploitation, and federal interference.[1] Since the 1990s, religious studies scholars have also turned their focus to the rich and complex stories of the region, which foreground the adaptive practices of Christian missionaries, religious innovation, and the realities of multicultural borderlands in the American West.[2] While scholars have increasingly unearthed the messy histories of the region, contestations over western landscapes continue.

Who controls the land remains a driving question of western history, which I argue is fundamentally a question about what is sacred. In December 2017, President Donald Trump reduced the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by 46 percent—a move that sanctifies state control and natural resource extraction. In the ensuing months, conservationists, paleontologists, outdoor recreators and retailers, and tribal coalitions have initiated numerous lawsuits against the President and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke claiming alternative sacred narratives. From Cliven Bundy’s insurrection against the Bureau of Land Management at Bunkerville and the Standing Rock #NoDAPL protests, the fight over the National Monuments offers yet another example of 21st century disputes over a hallowed western landscape. Although the court cases will likely remain undecided for years to come, the controversies offer an unmatched opportunity for engaged learning about the complex history and contemporary realities of the American West.

The best way to learn about a landscape is by moving within it. During the 2019 spring semester, as a key part of the American Culture Program at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia, I will lead ten students into Southern Utah as part of a field-based learning program. We will explore the tangled web of political controversy, scientific complexity, resource extraction, religious actors, and contested claims that define the National Monument controversy in order to explore the West in its many dimensions. We will travel throughout the region to meet a wide variety of people: conservationists, local officials, ranchers, park rangers, and Native leaders. Central to this program are the questions: Who counts as American? How does contestation over the land continue to define this question? And whose history is memorialized and recognized?

History and contemporary life are entangled and inseparable in the western landscape. By pairing the theoretical tools of human geography and religious studies with reflection on the experiential learning program at Randolph College, I argue the National Monument controversy is a continuation of the disparate economic, recreational, and religious claims of western history, which offers students an unparalleled learning laboratory. First, this essay traces the history of disputed landscapes of the American West by offering a brief overview of the histories themselves. From Henry Nash Smith’s 1950 Virgin Land to W. Paul Reeve’s 2007 Making Space on the Western Frontier and Paul Nelson’s 2014 Wrecks of Human Ambition, the landscape has been a central component of western life and history. Next, I contextualize the ongoing controversy in Southern Utah within this historiography, drawing parallels to early disputes between prospectors, homesteaders, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, U.S. government agencies, and Native American communities. Finally, I reflect on the West as a pedagogical haven for the engaged study of American life and history by analyzing the American Culture Program’s educational outcomes. The National Monument controversy serves as an access point for the many interconnected and overlapping cultural identities and histories of western life and the continued contestation of American landscapes.

[1] See Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1987); Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (New York: Pantheon, 1985); Richard White, Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980).

[2] See Anne Butler, Across God’s Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Religion and Society in Frontier California (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994); Quincy Newell, Constructing Lives at Mission San Francisco: Native Californians and Hispanic Colonists, 1776- 1821, University of New Mexico Press, 2009; Susan Yohn, A Contest of Faith: Missionary Women and Pluralism in the American Southwest, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995); as well as the robust bibliography of Mormon Studies works focused on intermountain history.