Filling in neglected parts of history is ongoing and necessary work.
Patricia Limerick helped start a revolution in how historians think and write about the American West. In Seattle Tuesday, she said she’s been dismayed to see how often an understanding of history is missing as we struggle with racism, terrorism, climate change and other issues that cry out for a more complete understanding of our past.
The University of Colorado historian is best-known for her 1987 book, “The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West,” for which she was both vilified for destroying myths of the West and praised for presenting a history in which Indians, Asians and Hispanics figured prominently.
In a talk at the University of Washington, she addressed a statement often voiced by critics of her work: “You can’t change history.”
History doesn’t change, but a better understanding of it can change a person. And she said history is relevant to the problems we face today because good hindsight can lead to better foresight.
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“When amnesia strikes an individual,” she said, “that is not an occasion for celebration. People don’t say, ‘How great your life must be, every second is fresh, so open and full of opportunities.’ Instead, you rush them to the neurologist. And when a society has amnesia, that’s just as bad, that’s just as dire, and so I’ve said and I still believe, you rush them to an historian.”
Limerick is co-founder and chair of the Center of the American West and has served as president of several professional organizations, including the Organization of American Historians.
She was in Seattle to help celebrate the work of fellow historian Quintard Taylor, who’s newly retired from the UW, and who, along with Limerick and Richard White of Stanford University, have led in enriching our understanding of the West.
Limerick said she was surprised by how much she didn’t know when she wrote her book. There were only three pages that dealt with African Americans in the West, but she’s learned a lot since then. (She and Taylor, who specializes in the history of black Americans in the West, said they’d both learned and drawn inspiration from each other’s work.)
As an example of how history could serve present needs, she talked about often forgotten intersections of environmental justice and racial justice. She said environmental groups have labored for years to expand their base, while ignoring history that might help broaden the movement beyond mostly white people.
She spoke about the writer Wallace Stegner, revered by many people who care about the West. She, like most people, thought of him as someone who wrote with concern about the environment.
But she sat next to him at an event and listened as a speaker talked about Stegner’s work, and quoted from his writings about race, including the book, “One Nation.”
“I whispered to Mr. Stegner, ‘I didn’t know that you wrote about that,’ and he said, ‘Nobody remembers that.’ ”
In 1945 he wrote, “The law and order which the police are sworn to protect is the law and order of the ruling class in color and faith … the reason behind the frequent indifference of the police to the rights of minorities is the collective will of the society which hires them.”
The late Stewart Udall is known for his environmental work, but he came home after serving as a tail gunner in World War II believing society had to change in this country. He fought segregation in Arizona, and later, as interior secretary, he created an outreach program for students at historically black colleges. One of those students, Robert Stanton, became the first African-American director of the National Park Service.
Environmentalists should talk about Stanton and those passions of Udall and Stegner, she said.
And she’s looking for more ways to use the past to illuminate the present, researching the role of bureaucrats in the West and looking back at guns and gun control in American history.
One thing she does in her work should apply to everyone, and that’s to keep reading and keep learning. The past may not change, but our understanding of it can evolve.