The Importance of Context

A while back, we read a piece by Keith H. Basso called “Quoting the Ancestors.” We read this for the week of February 12, but I have been thinking about this piece recently. In it, Basso shares some of the stories of the names of important places to the Apache people as told to him by an Apache man, Charles. What was so interesting about this piece for me was reading these stories and reflecting on the importance of them. It made me think about how this piece really exemplifies the importance of context and different points of view. In this instance, it is one thing to just hear about sacred and important landmarks and places, but I don’t think anyone can really understand why those landmarks and place are so important without hearing about the context. A few weeks ago, someone wrote a blog post about whether it is ethical to for a white man to retell Native stories. I won’t go into too much detail on this point, but I mention it because, in this case, I think it is important that these stories are retold to provide context to people who want to understand the importance of place names to the Apache people. I would be curious about other people’s thoughts on this too!

Women and Men in American West Discussion

From our class discussion on Feb. 7th, I would like to continue our discussion of male’s writing about females in the American West. From the article we read by Everett Dick, his telling of the life and everyday experiences of women at this time was very one-sided and did not accurately depict the female’s perspective of life on the western frontier. Dick’s continuous focus of the female appearance during this time was absurd and portrayed females in an egotistical manner. To add to Dick’s absurdity, the footnotes that he used in the writing were not legitimate in the slightest. In one “reference”, Dick cited an interview that he conducted himself with someone named Romaine Saunders. The fact that Dick decided that an interview that he had complete control over, as to what to include and what not to include. into a piece he claims as a “research essay” instantly makes this source irrelevant towards the essay’s whole. The other references that Dick decided to include were from other male authors and in one reference, he states it was from the “recollections” of the source. Citing anything from simply someone’s recollection should not be included into any piece and is laughable to say the least. Overall, Dick’s writing has remarkable red flags for authenticity and should be discarded all together. I invite for others who feel as strongly as I do to comment any other strong feelings that they may have in regards towards Dick’s writing.

A View of the American West Through the Eyes of a Gamer

I will admit, when I found out that our class would be focused on the American West, I was nervous and excited. I was excited for the opportunity to learn more in depth about the American West, but nervous due to my complete lack of solid knowledge on the topic.

My view of the American West has always been skewed. In school, I was spoon fed the traditional narrative of cowboys and Indians, the struggles of the classic Western man, and the civilization of a savage land. Like many elementary students, I took this information at face value, and never really thought about it again. That is, until I really started digging into playing videogames, and came across Red Dead Redemption, developed and published by Rockstar Gaming. While it may sound corny that I learned a lot from a game, it is the truth that this particular title really made me reconsider my view of the American West, even as a young gamer.

See the source image

Rockstar Gaming is popular among many for being the driving force behind the Grand Theft Auto game series. While the morality of violent video games can be argued up and down, I always played these games for their deep stories and heavily satirical environments. When Red Dead Redemption was released in 2010, many saw it as a departure for Rockstar, and took to calling the game “Grand Theft Horse” as it gained popularity.

The events of Red Dead Redemption take place in 1911, in a fictional southern region of the United States, sharing a border with Mexico. An open world game at heart, players are free to explore a large play area that can take players into Mexican border towns, as well as across a vast frontier marked with ranches, towns, and stunning natural landmarks. The game plays to the Western fantasy in many ways, putting you in the shoes of John Martson, an outlaw turned bounty hunter tracking down the members of his old bank robbing gang.  Even though the game plays to this fantasy in many ways, it features undertones that make the player begin to question their own preconceptions of the West. The game is placed in a time where many began to believe the frontier was dying. Technology was on the rise, and railroads connected the West to the rest of the country in an unprecedented way. Red Dead Redemption toys with the dichotomy of wild Western dust roads and neat cobbled streets of well established cities. Players are introduced to the deep seeded racism directed at minority groups of the West, especially black and Native American groups. Even though I played the game years ago, I still have a memory of a particularly important sequence. The protagonist, John, works with a rather deranged college professor, who is attempting to study the apparent inherent intellectual differences between white people and Native Americans. The professor conducts this study through his assistant, Nastas, who hardly speaks for much of the sequence. After some time, tragedy strikes, and the professor ends up leaving Marston’s side. At this time, there is a very moving sequence between Nastas and John, where Nastas shares many of his qualms with the way his people have been treated. Even in a game of satire, I found it very moving to include this sequence.

See the source image

While the debate over the value of games in society continues to rage on, I cannot help but feel that games like Red Dead Redemption are important to the historiographical record of the West. To simply limit our perception of Western historiography to what has been written in books and journal articles goes against what we aim to do as historians. By examining more visual and interactive media, we get a better sense of the contemporary view of topics we wish to understand. Red Dead Redemption does not stand alone in its genre. A growing popularity in historical fiction based games shows that history is becoming more accessible to younger people in a way that school cannot provide. By giving games a degree of agency in historical discussions, we expand the already broad range of sources that can be used to discuss a topic, and begin to spread ideas already examined in this class through accessible sources.

The Women Before the Women of the East

So looking for something to write about, I found something interesting that I was insterested in and goes along with my research topic, the borderlands. I found an article on the Time magazine website by the Zucalo Public Square. It talked about the European Spanish-Mexican descent women who were left there from previous colonies and living in what we now know as the Southwest. The article explained women’s suffrage started here as these women had rights that Anglo-American women did not. The spanish control gave them the right and opportunity to become elite as when their husbands died they got to keep the land they brought into the marriage and care for land the children would inherit until they are old enough. Many of these women became entrepreneurs and writers. The article continued to explain though that as people from the East moved in other minorities both racial and women had less freedom. The Spanish women who could keep and hold their own managed but with a society moving in that saw women as inferior and would leave them with nothing if the husband died, there were struggles. The article explains that suffrage started here, but I wonder if it kept expanding or halted? Did women from the East get to see the success and independence of the women already in the West and actually try to make changes in their own households and communities?

A Different Look on the West

So I was searching around for articles and I found an interview by Jeff Glor on CBS news with Anne Hyde and her book, Empires, Nations, and Families. I found it an interesting article and it referred to her book which focused on the history of the American West pre-Expansion era. Due to previous colonization many of the Native tribes had intermingled successfully, and peacefully with the colonizers. In some cases, looking at DNA of full Native Americans, French, Spanish, and other European DNA can be found showing the intermingling of colonizers and Native Americans. I found this interesting as it was not something I thought about in the past. We have focused on an era in class without looking at the lead ups to it.

This idea that other people were able to be more friendly with them and live in peace and not almost drive Native Americans into extinction made me wonder what the differences were? The difference in motives? Since if a nation tries to colonize a land they are trying to exploit it for some reason or another, but other nations didn’t try to drive the Native Americans out of their lands and home but instead worked with and intermingled with them. It makes me want to know more about the colonies of the North American land better.

If the class has any information about this I’d love to know! 🙂

Depictions of Violence toward Women in Media about the “Wild West”

One thing I find really interesting in depictions of the Wild West in movies and TV is how it depicts gendered and racialized violence. In shows like “West World” women exist mostly to be sexualized, or for sexual violence to be enacted toward them. Similarly, the way any people of color (whether they be “Native Americans” (because the show, by nature, doesn’t specify which groups they come from) or the people coded to be Latinx (because again in shows like “West World” they don’t tend to specify) ) are portrayed is as a vehicle for the white characters’ racism. My question is this: Is depicting the “reality of the time” (as the writers of things like this often claim) worth potentially encouraging these prejudices to continue? Also, is it fair to claim that they’re striving for “accuracy” when the women often have perfectly shaved armpits, etc. or is it just an excuse to exhibit violence toward historically (and presently) oppressed people? Especially when in many circumstances the extremes depicted weren’t actually true?

Governments Changing History

So, in my Japanese Literature class today we talked about the comfort women in Japan and watched a trailer for the movie Spirits’ Homecoming. (I would recommend watching the movie if you are interested in the topic as I watched it last term while abroad in Japan) We also discussed Unit 731 (where inhumane biological human testing is rumored to have occurred in Japan during WW2.) I knew from the past that Japanese history classes tend to leave out atrocities that occur. Going into depth on this topic made me remember our class and how historians will distort or omit facts and items from history. But learning how far in depth the Japanese government goes to cover up these war crimes made me realize there’s so much effecting a historians judgment on what to write. Not only are they catering to publishers and a target audience, in some cases, they are constrained to what the government wants to show its citizens.

It made me rethink everything that we have read so far and try to see where the government might have hidden information about Western Expansion or tried to brush over a crime as nothing important. One of the first that came to mind was none other than Native Americans and the way they were rounded up and put into reservations. Ultimately, since so much of Native American history is by word of mouth or pictures and not necessarily exact words, it would be easy for the US government to hide crimes committed by the army pushing them into reservations. Yet in comparing and contrasting the history between Japan and the US I can see that in areas where the US government would have tried to cover up things, they have now owned up to it.

An important factor in considering why the government would do such a thing is most likely just image. It is definitely a reason why current Japanese Politicians don’t want to acknowledge comfort women or the Unit 731. Their WW2 history is an atrocity that would make them look bad amongst just their citizens, let alone the world. But this brings me to a question: What is better? Owning up to trying to erase history (and Native people) that makes a country look bad or refusing to acknowledge the history that the rest of the world knows is true for the country’s image within its borders?

Back to the Future, and the Past, and the Near Future, and the…you get the picture!

Whenever we talk about the story of the Wild West, I like to think of it as just that: a story.  I think when it comes to history, just as much if not more can be learned from the way we remember it as opposed to what actually happened.  Take the 50s for example—if you google images of 1950s America, you’ll see happy teens laughing over milkshakes in their favorite diner, or a family in front of their lovely home with its white picket fence.  You don’t see the racism, the sexism, or the wars in those smiling people’s faces.  But by looking at the way we remember the 50s, we can find another, more hidden, story underneath.

To me, this same rule can be applied to the story of the Wild West, only tenfold.  That story is one we’ve heard time and time again, in about a thousand different reiterations, all with the same characters we’ve become far too familiar with.  But for right now, I’d like to focus on one of my favorite retellings of the mythos of the Wild West—and oddly enough a great one to look back through an academic lens—the third movie in the Back to the Future trilogy.

In this installment in the franchise, Marty McFly must travel back to the year 1885 to save his beloved Doc from an untimely dueling accident ending in his death.  The movie is chalked full of good old western comedy fun, from saloon duels to nighttime festivals with square dances and more gun fights galore.  We even end the movie with a duel in the street at high noon.  Overall, the movie depicts a version of the Wild West we’ve seen in every stereotypical western movie to date, but with a comedic twist that brings a lighter, more entertaining vibe to the entire thing.

That being said, this lighter tone doesn’t take away the fact that the movie itself highlights the same archetypes of people we are used to seeing in the Wild West throughout all its storytelling depictions.  Marty McFly is very much the archetype of the cowboy, with his headstrong nature and his sometimes toxic masculinity when it comes to people calling him “chicken.”  Together, he and the Doc also come across a clear “damsel in distress” in Clara, the movie’s main love interest.  We first meet her as she’s being almost hurtled off a cliff, unable to control her horse drawn wagon, but thankfully our heroes sweep in just in time to save her from an impending doom.  The whole scene with them running after her on horseback and getting there just in time is ridiculous when you think about it, but it makes for an exciting and tension filled moment in the movie regardless.

And for me, this is where an interesting commentary on our world’s history is able to be drawn.  The Back to the Future franchise deals heavily in archetypes, ranging from Marty McFly’s everyman archetype to the Doc being the eccentric outsider of society with a quirky job and a dog named Einstein to fit his personality.  However, each movie takes place in different time periods.  The first takes place in the 50s, the second takes place in 2015, and the third takes place in the 1880s, whereas the 1980s continue to be our grounding time period throughout the series.  Each of these movies, despite their very different time periods in which they’re set, have almost identical storylines.  This is done purposefully by the writers to both bring a familiarity to the story playing out before the audience, but also—if I may read into it a bit more—to reveal something about our history as a whole.

In each of these time periods there is a Marty McFly; in each of these time periods there is a bully character—a straight up bully in the 50s, all the way to an outlaw criminal in the Wild West—and in each of these time periods there is a damsel in distress that our everyman has to protect.  Despite how different these time periods may be, the archetypes of people in them are easily transferable among them all.  And for me, this is because of the mythos of the Wild West and the way we have used the storytelling abilities we first used on Dime Novels and Western movies to journey from then to now.  The way stories are told has remained very much the same, and for that reason the three Back to the Future movies are also told in very similar formats, nearly swapping out stereotypical  elements of other time periods when it’s convenient.

Personally, I don’t think this is a bad thing.  In fact, I think it’s one of the reasons why we can read stories from so long ago and still find things to relate to in them.  Human beings have a wonderfully bizarre way of compartmentalizing their fellow people, and when it comes to storytelling this compartmentalization is oddly convenient.  It allows for people to relate despite time periods or borders to whatever story is being told.  And with all the talk of finding the “you” in history’s greater narrative, I think looking at the similarities between time periods is a potentially one way to get closer to being able to do that.

DAPL

We have mentioned in a couple of our class discussions about how Native American history can often be ignored as part of the history of the West. Which made me think of recent Native American events and I thought of the Dakota Access Pipeline. I remember it being such a talked about issue a while back but haven’t heard anything recently. I remember being surprised that mainstream media had picked up the story. So looked up any recent news about the pipeline and I found this recent article about the pipeline. It looks like President Trump is backing the pipeline to be built. However, the Standing Rock Sioux are preparing to fight that decision. I hope this story does not get swept under the rug like many other important events in the Native American community. 

TV Westerns

While doing the Boag and Sears I remember being surprised about the amount of information they had about these transgender and cross-dressing people in the West. I remember thinking while reading ‘wow this never made it into a Bonanza episode.’ Which then made me think there were a lot of western shows that aired on American television and most of those portrayals are not accurate. I think that is one of the reason’s today we have such a skewed idea of what the western frontier should be. TV can be very powerful so when you are shown that these white cowboys living off the land and I think people tend to believe that to be true. When really there all these faucets that are totally ignored. Not all cowboys were white and the land they ‘owned’ was actually stolen by Native Americans. I think this just shows you that TV can also push a false narrative that can spread lies for many generations.