Patty Limerick is the Faculty Director and Chair of the Board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she is also a professor of environmental studies and history. In addition, Patty served as the Colorado State Historian and served on the National Endowment for the Humanities advisory board, The National Council on the Humanities. She is the author of Desert Passages, The Legacy of Conquest, Something in the Soil, and A Ditch in Time. A frequent public speaker and a columnist for The Denver Post, Limerick has dedicated her career to bridging the gap between academics and the general public, to demonstrating the benefits of applying historical perspective to contemporary dilemmas and conflicts, and to making the case for humor as an essential asset of the humanities. A recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and the Hazel Barnes Prize (the University of Colorado’s highest award for teaching and research), she has served as president of the American Studies Association, the Western History Association, the Society of American Historians, and the Organization of American Historians, as well as the vice president for teaching of the American Historical Association. She received her B.A. from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and her Ph.D. from Yale University.
Editor’s note: These newspaper columns have been republished in their original form. The opinions expressed in them are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Colorado Encyclopedia.
Prodding a historic friend to do better
The Denver Post, July 13, 2018
History Colorado and I are old friends. Thirty years ago, still a newcomer to Colorado, I gave the keynote speech at the society’s annual members meeting. Over the years, to use the classic Western phrasing, I have not been a stranger to that organization; my deepest mission in life is reaching members of the public to persuade them to find value in history.
Before my role as Colorado State Historian became reconfigured, I had four intense months to observe the inner workings of the state agency and nonprofit that manages the History Colorado Center located in downtown Denver.
I am not a person known as uncommunicative or secretive, but I have nonetheless confined my criticism of History Colorado’s operations and actions to a small circle of friends and colleagues.
Maintaining public silence is no longer tenable. Personal and professional integrity demands a more forthright approach and a more open statement of my disappointment in and my hopes for the performance of the state historical society.
So here we go.
The current exhibits, as well as the ones on the near horizon, do little to provide historical understandings of issues that concern Coloradans today. On the contrary, most of them register in a genre we would have to call “history lite.”
Hence, my current hope: that History Colorado’s leadership will join me in a spirited public discussion of the ways that historical thinking can serve as a remedy for the bitter polarization and antagonism of the Trump Era.
Is it practical and fair to ask a state historical society to offer such a remedy?
But History Colorado has not stepped forward to provide that service to the state’s citizens.
Two weeks ago, Colorado Public Radio’s “Colorado Matters” ran a story about the challenges facing History Colorado four years after it underwent a major reorganization. In the double feature of a long-form article and a radio interview, the reporter Ann Marie Awad explored issues involving management, budget, workplace climate, and high levels of staff turnover. The report noted accomplishments in, for instance, balancing the institution’s budget, but it brought attention to other matters that might evoke concern among Colorado’s citizens.
An opportunity to unite
Two and a half years ago, I had a crystal-clear vision of what I would be doing in the hot summer of the midterm election year of 2018.
Right about now, I would be joyfully writing to invite you to visit a new historical exhibit called “Parting Ways with Partisanship: The Up-and-Down Story of Civility and Collaboration in Purple Colorado.” Even better, in the opening weeks of this exhibit, I would be hosting a series of lively discussions with pairs of prominent Republicans and Democrats who had forged friendships and alliances that permitted them to work together on common causes.
When I was appointed as the Colorado State Historian, I was theoretically given the authority to direct the planning of exhibits and programs at History Colorado; this celebration of our tradition of bipartisanship led my priority list.
I was already alarmed by the intensity of the nation’s polarization. Since then, and accelerating with President Donald Trump’s inauguration, polarization has acquired a fearful intensity. Our need — for institutions and organizations capable of and willing to provide us with historical perspective on controversial issues — grows ever more urgent.
However, not long after my exuberant priority list for exhibits came out of the chute, it came to a halt. (Indeed, the story of the evaporation of my authority over History Colorado’s exhibits is breathtaking in its tedium. We can save this story for the unlikely day when Denver Post readers express interest in a tale rich in detailed summaries of meetings and memos.)
Rather than making a purposeful effort to advance the cause of civil conversation in these troubled times, this state institution has been forfeiting and bypassing multiple chances to present exhibits and programs that would convene people who hold clashing positions on current issues and mobilize historical perspectives to invite those disputants into productive conversations and even into alliances. Even more important, it is passing up opportunities to provide the majority of citizens with a chance to hear well-moderated discussions that would help them figure out what they think.
Instead, separately and collectively, the current exhibits evoke the word “jumble.” From “Denver A to Z” to “Colorado Stories,” from “Legorado” (a mash-up of Colorado’s landscape constructed from Legos) to “Zoom In: the Centennial State in One Hundred Objects,” History Colorado leaves it to visitors to walk among disjointed fragments from Colorado history and to guess where they might fit in a bigger picture of the state’s history.
With an exhibit on the history of beer in Colorado in preparation, “history lite and effervescent” seems to be maintaining its central place on the menu. Given that History Colorado’s most consistent visitors are young children on school field trips, there is something mystifying in the decision to create a major exhibit on the history of a beverage with many festive dimensions but also with unmistakable connections to human tragedy. Will some parts of the exhibit feature the miseries of alcoholism? Will touch-screen videos present representatives from Mothers against Drunk Driving telling their stories of loss? At the least, very careful thought will have to go into preparing the script for tour guides and docents to use as they conduct fourth-graders through this complicated dimension of Colorado’s — and humanity’s — history.
While the beer exhibit looms on the horizon, the disordered character of past exhibits lingers in the museum. Four years after the budget-crisis-induced regime change, newer exhibits still appear as compilations of pieces from unrelated jigsaw puzzles, placed next to each other as if proximity would give them coherence.
Reckoning with a troubled institutional past
The current leaders of History Colorado might, with some accuracy, claim that the jumbled quality of exhibits was an intractable inheritance they received from their predecessors. And yet, as all readers who remembered to strap on their irony detectors are now thinking, when a historical society struggles to reckon productively with its own institutional past, observers will find the phrase, “physician, heal thyself,” begging for attention.
Leaders of History Colorado, you have inherited your own difficult legacy from the past. It is truly your privilege and honor to deal with this legacy in a manner that sets a model for your fellow citizens.
Why not, for instance, display an honest and forthright statement everywhere in the building? “
As you may have noticed on your visit to this museum, it’s hard to pull the pieces and parts of Colorado history together. But we’re giving it our best shot! Email or text or Tweet or write us on Facebook, and tell us where you’re seeing connections we may be missing!”
Why not hold lively and forthright public forums to explore ways in which History Colorado could move beyond “history lite” and offer programming that would unleash the full power of a state institution to illuminate the historical origins of our dilemmas today? Why not position this state to set an example for a troubled nation by sponsoring and maintaining a vigorous and consistently civil conversation on the complicated heritage we have received from the people of the past?
Performances of good-natured, productive airing of differences are not, to use a vanished phrase, a dime a dozen in American life today. But I am certain that History Colorado could — over the next years — provide dozens of those occasions, with costs that will exceed a dime, but will pay off in many ways.
Fellow citizens, I fully understand that there are many difficult issues demanding your attention. But if you think historical perspective might help us in reducing the tension and friction of our times, then please consider joining my cause by attending my proposed public discussion to explore the great promise and potential ready to be unleashed at History Colorado. If you believe that historical perspective might help us in dealing with our conflicts and dilemmas in these trying times, I welcome your company on that and many other occasions.
And, now back to you, leaders of this important state agency: These are tense and troubling times, but don’t let that frighten you. Or, to put this invitation in more folksy terms, “Come on in, the water’s fine!”
Well, actually, launching a mutual commitment to forthrightness, let’s rephrase that.
The water’s rough, tempest-tossed, and troubled. But that’s all the more reason to serve our fellow citizens by jumping in.
Forgetting, then remembering, Colorado’s great Belle Turnbull
The Denver Post, November 17, 2017
When it comes to decisions about which historical figures we should remember and honor, and how we should conduct the “honoring” part, our nation has been floundering.
Meanwhile, a bunch of Coloradans has just offered the nation a nearly perfect — let’s be honest, an entirely perfect — demonstration of how to do this right.
Belle Turnbull was a noted Colorado writer who lived, wholeheartedly, in Breckenridge, and who published poems that received national recognition. Because she wrote so memorably about the state’s mountain landscape, and also because her poems crossed the boundaries of class and occupation with agility and respect, her writings constitute a treasure in our heritage.
And people who would like evidence for that assessment should hurry to acquire a book, “Belle Turnbull: On the Life and Work of an American Master,” edited by David J. Rothman and Jeffrey R. Villines.
How did this book come into being?
First, we forgot all about Belle Turnbull. This permitted us to take an entirely fresh approach to thinking about her.
Actually, we didn’t do the forgetting ourselves. Somehow, after her death in 1970, even Coloradans who took pride in their knowledge of Western literature forgot about her.
Second, the right people — with the capability to show the world how to remember and to honor — had to be introduced to each other.
Years ago, I became acquainted with two Coloradans — Jan Robertson, the author of a spirit-lifting book, “The Magnificent Mountain Women: Adventures in the Colorado Rockies,” and the above-mentioned Rothman, a gifted poet and musician. And then I invited Rothman to give a presentation on Colorado poetry to my class. Robertson was sitting in on the class, and after she heard his talk, she said to Rothman, “Why didn’t you mention the Colorado poet Belle Turnbull?”
Taking the question to heart and seeking out Turnbull’s poetry, Rothman was overwhelmed with admiration. So he assembled a team of Colorado literary figures — George Sibley, Susan Spear, Uche Ogbuji and David Mason — to share in this joyful rediscovery and to write essays to accompany a new collection of her poems.
Third, not one of us put forward the witless idea that the proper memorial to Belle Turnbull would be to cast her in bronze and put her on a lofty pedestal, where she would look distant and dull.
A mystifying enthusiasm for this peculiar custom has burdened the United States for a long time. Since bronze is very susceptible to corrosion, this strategy for honoring historic figures has left a number of these figures pitted, scarred and discolored. Moreover, turning human beings into metal and elevating them has proven to be a very effective mechanism for creating an aura of pious tedium and suppressing curiosity among viewers.
Belle Turnbull was a person of great wit, enormous vitality, and a profound sense of time. Thus, we have to wish that she had had the chance to record her thoughts on her nation’s enthusiasm for bronze memorials.
In her poem “Time as a Well-Spring,” a miner sums up a life history composed of equal parts of contentment and tragedy. When it comes to a commentary on our curious customs, his concluding words fit the bill: “I have to laugh, he said, I have to laugh.”
Let’s ask American Indians about the “immigration crisis”
The Denver Post, January 14, 2017
In 2017, as the nation steps into the ring for yet another fight over immigration, the time has come to seek guidance from the people who have endured the most trying encounters with unruly and ill-mannered immigrants.
For five hundred years, American Indian people have been coping with an immigration crisis. Since 1492, Europeans and Euro-Americans have disrupted long-established native communities with rowdy, sometimes violent conduct. And yet it is also true that natives and newcomers have also built relationships of trade, intermarriage, cultural exchange, negotiation, curiosity, respect, and even affection.
In some locales, natives and newcomers have found ways to adapt to each other’s presence in surprisingly convivial ways. One such locale, improbably enough, is the area of Eastern Oregon where, a year ago, a group of new arrivals undertook to set a record for the escalation of conflict and contention.
In January of 2016, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of the prominent Nevada lawbreaker Cliven Bundy, led an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The Bundys showed not an ounce of awareness of the impressive work of a local coalition that had convened Fish and Wildlife employees, the Burns Paiute tribal leaders, ranchers, environmentalists, and townspeople to arrive—successfully!—at a consensus for the management of the wildlife refuge.
The very idea—that two ill-informed men from Utah could travel to Harney County, Oregon, and cast themselves as the representatives of local interests—satisfies all the technical criteria for classification as very batty behavior. And then, when the Bundys demanded the return of the public lands to their original owners, their inattention to the existence of the Burns Paiute Tribe put the refuge occupiers on record as pioneers who had lost their bearings on the far frontiers of historical irony.
When it comes to an accurate grasp on history, Charlotte Rodrigue, the Burns Paiute Tribal Chairwoman, was and is light-years ahead of the Bundys. “I am not sympathetic to a group of armed individuals,” she wrote in the New York Times, “who want territory we have lived on for thousands of years to be ‘returned’ to the ‘people of Oregon.’ ”
Wondrously, the threat and danger brought to Harney County by these intruders did not immobilize Chairwoman Rodrigue’s sense of humor. Noting that the Burns Paiute Tribe and the federal employees at the wildlife refuge had arrived at terms that made coexistence workable, Rodrigue offered a commentary, at once merry and mocking, of the silly conduct of the occupiers:
“I will say, though, that the armed group could use some advice on their survival skills. Had the Paiute people staged a similar occupation, we wouldn’t have needed to ask for snacks or winter socks. Roots and berries hit the spot and rabbit fur is remarkably warm.”
Here is a sure bet: If we have the good sense to include the wise and witty reflections of Indian people in our search for ways to deal with issues of immigration, we will gain more insight than we can, at this point, even start to imagine!
Burns Paiute Tribal Chairwoman Charlotte Rodrigue will speak at CU Boulder on February 21, at 6:30 p.m. in Benson Earth Sciences Room 180. Admission is free and open to the public.
From Sand Creek to Dallas, and from brutality to grace
The Denver Post, July 16, 2016
The recent killings in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas have turned us all into amateur theologians and moral philosophers, presenting us with questions we could not evade or dismiss:
How can human beings hold such opposite capacities — for acts of grace and for acts of brutality?
And when the brutality has been unleashed, how do we acknowledge the loss and injury in a way that might tilt the balance back to grace?
If we approach these questions with a commitment to think deeply in time, our minds and souls could be enriched and strengthened, and our despair will be leavened with hope.
On Nov. 29, 1864, in Colorado Territory, the human capacity for brutality, cruelty and violence reached an unfathomable intensity. In the Sand Creek Massacre, soldiers from the First and Third Colorado Regiments killed more than 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, including many women, children and elderly people. Many of the dead were unspeakably mutilated.
We cannot reverse the injuries and losses of that day. But we can agree to respect and acknowledge the memories that will never leave the Cheyenne and Arapaho people. We can exercise our souls and avoid any temptations to deny or dismiss this nadir in Colorado life.
This summer, a plan to place a memorial to Sand Creek on the grounds of Colorado’s Capitol is moving toward a definitive moment in decision-making. On Aug. 19, the Capitol Building Advisory Committee will vote on a recommendation to move forward with this monument.
Some readers may, initially, question the justification for this act of remembrance. This massacre happened long before present-day Coloradans were on the planet. But history does not start on the day of our birth. We are brought into a world reconfigured and sometimes haunted by the actions of our predecessors.
The Sand Creek Massacre was not an isolated misfortune. It was a founding episode in the history of Colorado, and an event of great consequence and significance for the nation as a whole.
The forced relocation of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people to Wyoming, Montana and Oklahoma has made it possible for the current residents of the Front Range to forget the history of the dispossession of the tribes. Nonetheless, the descendants of the people attacked at Sand Creek are very much alive, and this act of remembrance matters deeply to them.
At a memorial paying tribute to a recently departed person, the people in attendance range from close relatives to acquaintances who nonetheless felt some connection to the departed. A monument for those who died in the more distant past becomes, in a similar way, a place to convene and reflect. There is no required orthodoxy of thought and feeling imposed on those present.
If you would like to express your opinions on the proposed memorial, you can write the Committee at CBAC@state.co.us. Or you can write me (firstname.lastname@example.org), and I will assemble the statements and provide them to the committee.
You are welcome to join me on Aug. 19, when the committee meets at the Capitol. And you are welcome to stay with me afterwards for a discussion: Can a forthright reckoning with the violence of Sand Creek help us to a better understanding of how to respond to the violence of our own times?
Why I fell in love with Colorado
The Denver Post, January 15, 2016
I never wanted to move to Colorado.
As the newly appointed Colorado state historian, I aim to earn a high ranking for the celebrated virtues of transparency and full disclosure.
In the early 1980s, I was teaching at Harvard on the “revolving door” plan. Assistant professors arrived on campus with the knowledge that we would be departing in five years. Those who did not abide by this understanding could choose, instead, a humiliating ordeal: being reviewed for tenure with a 99.9 percent guarantee of failure.
So my professional ambition acquired sharp definition: I wanted to leave Harvard before I got booted out. And so, hoping to get back in training for the strenuous sport of applying for academic jobs, I applied to CU and was surprised to get a job offer.
With 2½ years remaining on my Harvard contract, I asked the history department chair for a consultation. He convened senior historians to see if they had any inclination to encourage me to stay.
When I went to his office to hear the results of their deliberations, one very legible note sat at the center of his desk:
“No on Limerick.”
I did not move to Colorado because I was a skier eager to hit the slopes, or because I was enchanted with John Denver, or because I had recognized that staying on the East Coast was going to come close to eliminating my opportunities to reach Western audiences with my perspectives on their region’s history.
Evidence that I had been unbelievably lucky was not long in presenting itself.
Awakening to the restorative power of the landscape, I soon rechristened one of the Flatirons as “The Mountain that Makes Life Worth Living Again after a Difficult Meeting.”
Another telling indicator of my change in thinking was a rising tide of condescension and pity for people who lived elsewhere. Visiting universities around the country, when faculty members took me out to dinner, I had to work hard not to tell my pleasant hosts, “I’m sorry you are stuck living here.”
And then there was the emergence of an improbable and unexpected trend by which Coloradans aplenty invited me to give speeches on every imaginable subject, and some that went a step or two beyond imagination. Given access to podiums in nearly every part of the state, I eased into a role as the Kilroy of public speaking in Colorado. (If the excellent phrase “Kilroy was here” has expired as a recognized and familiar figure of speech, then I will put reviving it on my to-do list as state historian.)
Having been born and raised in a small town where everyone knew everyone else, I was grateful beyond measure as my speaking circuit set me up to acquire hundreds of new friends. And when my first husband, Jeff Limerick, died of a stroke in 2005, I was immersed in the compassion of Coloradans.
Back when I was a more sequestered academic, I wrote about “the Western sense of place.” It was a spectacular turn of events to come into possession myself of the sentiment I had been studying.
I cannot imagine living anywhere else.
And I cannot imagine a greater privilege than serving as Colorado state historian and becoming even more of a champion for the place where I live.
The Paradox of Bernard DeVoto
The Denver Post, November 13, 2015
The University of Colorado at Boulder has given an honorary Ph.D. to a contentious public figure with a habit of using words like “stupidity,” “idiocy,” and “imbecility” to characterize his opponents’ positions.
Before you get braced for another ill-tempered squabble over free expression in higher education, note this important matter of timing: This honorary degree was awarded to Bernard DeVoto, one of the West’s great public intellectuals, in 1948.
We can be certain that the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association did not celebrate the awarding of this degree. Not long before the ceremony, DeVoto had taken to expressing well-publicized outrage when Western cattlemen demanded greater access to public lands.
“If you listen late at night,” DeVoto wrote to an ally in March 1948, “you will hear an odd, steady sound. That is me boiling. … I seem to have got mad.” In a cascade of pieces appearing in “The Easy Chair,” his column in Harpers Magazine, DeVoto denounced the cattle industry and its congressional representatives.
Expressing disagreement, DeVoto wasted no time on diplomatic persuasion. “My opinions may be wrong,” DeVoto once wrote to an opponent, “but they are based on experience and prolonged study, and I doubt that yours are.”
So what should we make of the University of Colorado ‘s decision to give an honorary degree to a pre-eminent practitioner of the take-no-prisoners style of argument? Is it imaginable that DeVoto should serve as a role model for CU students?
Here are five features of DeVoto’s life that suggest such a possibility.
- DeVoto had a breathtaking work ethic and an impressive ease with language. He wrote novels, histories, literary criticism, columns, book reviews, and an unending stream of letters. As he once told his wife, “I am a literary department store.”
- When he chose to, DeVoto could and did turn antagonists into friends.
- His kindness to the young was legendary. If you know college students who are struggling, please give them DeVoto’s 1929 letter to Raleigh Blake, one of humanity’s highest achievements in cross-generational advice.
- DeVoto charted his course in life by thinking long-term. “What we want posterity to do for us,” he wrote, “is to value us as ancestors and predecessors.”
- DeVoto over time took up a more forgiving and hopeful way of dealing with human self-contradiction. As a young man, he was quick to denounce inconsistency in his fellow humans. His peak performance in this vein appeared in his classic summation of the stance of the Westerner toward the federal government: “Get out and give us more money.” And yet, at the time of his death at age 58, the manuscript he left unfinished was titled not “Western Hypocrisy” but, rather, “Western Paradox.”
In a moment of perfect phrasing, DeVoto declared that Westerners were “children of paradox and begetters of paradox.”
It took one to know one.
That capacity for self-recognition is one big reason to be glad that my university gave DeVoto his honorary degree.
The complicated history of extraction in Colorado
The Denver Post, January 15, 2015
On Sept. 8, I learned that I had not been appointed to the Governor’s Task Force on Oil and Gas Development.
I moved through the stages of grief and loss at a brisk pace. Wasting not a second on Denial, I accepted reality, and barely paused for Anger and Bargaining. I did make a brief stop at Depression, moping over the fact that the people of Colorado had not spoken with one voice to ask for my help in navigating this contentious terrain. But in short order, I raced on to Acceptance, where I have reposed for four and half months.
And yet appointing a historian to the task force could have provided occasions for an unexpected unity and shared spirit in its members.
If fate had decreed otherwise, I could have unleashed the under-utilized power of historical perspective as a delivery system for equal annoyance. In healthful and spirit-lifting interludes, the Task Force could have had moments of unity in wishing I would go away.
Here’s how I would have achieved this miracle. From time to time, I would have reminded everyone that two paired historical legacies have been obstructing — and will continue to obstruct — problem-solving if they are not addressed with forthrightness.
First, the oil and gas industry inherits the complicated history of Western extractive industry. The extraction of natural resources — gold, silver, coal, oil, timber, grass, water, soil nutrients, etc. — drove American expansion into the West. Extraction also left behind many messes: abandoned mines leaking acid drainage into waterways and open pit mines evolving into toxic lakes; clear-cut forest lands; eroded soil; ghost towns stranded when busts followed booms. Today, when an energy company puts forward a plan to drill for oil and gas, this legacy of memory and resentment instantly surges to the surface.
Second, the residents of the Front Range’s towns and suburbs have an awkward historical legacy of their own. They reside in communities that would never have come into existence — or continued to exist —without a festival of combustion of fossil fuels, particularly for transportation. Just a few decades ago, sprawl — the rapid expansion of the population of these communities, a movement driven in part by white flight from urban desegregation — was a principal focus of concern and alarm among conservationists and environmentalists. This history provides awkward footing for Front Range residents who would like to position themselves today on the environmental high ground.
When delivered together, those two statements have been shown to exercise an equal and commensurate power to irritate everyone in sight.
Of course, it is crucial to acknowledge that historical legacies do not behave in a very sporting way. In a fair world, people who have recently moved to a Front Range suburb should not have to bear the burden of the town’s long history. In a fair world, a CEO of a natural gas company working hard to take precautions to guard against environmental damage should not have to bear the burden of association with, for instance, the abandoned mines that pockmark the West.
But historical legacies are not obligated to bestow themselves with aim and precision. They hang around anyway, unconcerned about and unconstrained by fairness, and they will not surrender an ounce of their power until they are acknowledged and addressed directly.
In my wilder moments of imagining routes out of our current stalemates, I dream of a custom in which meetings on controversial subjects universally start with a group recitation of Romans 3:23: “There is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
If quoting from scripture threatens to become the occasion of another squabble, we can easily shift this to secular phrasing: We cannot plan for our future until we face up to our history.
Let the discussion begin — on new and better footing.
New perspectives on Colorado history?
The Denver Post, February 14, 2014
Coloradans, a cascade of emotionally intense anniversaries is about to descend on you.
To a professional historian, every thought in every day draws a line between the present and the past, between then and now. For people in other lines of work, when the number of years since a historic event’s occurrence registers as a multiple of five or 10, it is finally time to pay attention.
Metric moments aplenty are coming at us, asking us to encounter the past and to see if any those encounters carry lessons that might be of value to our times. Even more important, these anniversaries provide the opportunity to face up to the tragic dimensions of history and to experiment with alternatives to condemnation and guilt, denial and dismissal.
What in the way of anniversaries do we have on the horizon, and how shall we handle them?
The year 2014 is the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre. On Nov. 29, 1864, militia troops attacked a camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho people in southeastern Colorado. This is a story of such great loss, pain and sorrow that no one writing a short column should even pretend to summarize it.
While many non-Indian Coloradans at the time applauded this attack, a significant — and outspoken — set of 19th century Americans condemned it. Certainly Indian people responded to it with anguish and rage. In other words, in observing this anniversary, it would be wise to skip the declaration that the killers at Sand Creek were “simply men of their times.” The actual men of those times were far from homogeneous and uniform in their opinions and judgments.
The 150th anniversary of Sand Creek presents an opportunity to figure out, in close consultation with Indian people, actions we can take to arrive at terms of greater justice for the descendants of the native people who, with astounding persistence, survived the terrible times of the mid-19th century.
The year 2014 is also the 100th anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre. For months, a violent struggle between the coal industry and miners took over southern Colorado. On April 20, 1914, members of the Colorado National Guard and men employed by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company attacked a camp of strikers and their families.
The nation in 2014 has embarked on a discussion of “income inequality” that has been on a steady march toward heated slogans and partisan polarization. A serious consideration of the history of the Ludlow Massacre could provide us with the foundation for a more grounded and productive public conversation about class and power in the United States, past and present.
And the year 2014 is the 25th anniversary of the FBI raid that shut down the Rocky Flats weapons plant. Remembering this event, many readers and I land in the category of “historic relics” ourselves, carrying around vivid memories of the surprise and bewilderment we felt when we heard of the raid. Reckoning with this anniversary opens a door to deeper reflections on the complicated legacy of the Cold War left after the closure and dismantling of the facilities at Rocky Flats.
We can use these anniversaries to refight old battles and to deepen our differences. And yet, in commemorative events around the state, we will be given a cascade of invitations to explore alternatives to our familiar state of polarization. We can convene to think empathetically and creatively about our relationship to our ancestors, our contemporaries, and our descendants.
History is giving us a second chance.
Changing the conversation over fracking
The Denver Post, November 7, 2013
In Tuesday’s elections, several Colorado communities — Broomfield, Fort Collins, Lafayette and Boulder — voted on initiatives proposing a moratorium or ban on hydraulic fracturing. Here is a safe bet: The results won’t resolve the issue or put it to rest. In other words, we are now positioned to shift the discussion of oil and gas production in Colorado from a shouting match to a thoughtful and civil conversation.
This cheerful statement will strike many as a classically airheaded-academic, improbable, borderline-batty statement. Indeed, many readers have, at this point, taken pencil or computer keyboard in hand to draft proclamations of scorn for my unrealistic naiveté.
Ardent critics, hold your fire for a moment. In making this statement, I have some notable allies who carry a lot more credibility than I do. One has written that the issue of hydraulic fracturing comes with many complications, making “it difficult for someone who knows how complex [the issue] is to take a firm, absolute stance on it. The more you learn, the more you realize how little you know.”
This wise remark appeared in a stack of student-written course papers. Required to attend a public lecture in the Center of the American West’s FrackingSENSE series, my students are assigned to listen to the talk and, afterward, to speak with members of the public seated near them. Many of the papers were charged with the students’ hope that their elders will cut back on the shouting and take part in a civil discussion shaped by the consideration of evidence rather than the denunciation of opponents. How would we pursue this improved conversation? Here are three ideas:
1. We could talk about providing better aim to the concerns, worries, anxieties and fears raised by hydraulic fracturing. Many opponents of the process are preoccupied with the risk of groundwater contamination from compounds in the fracturing fluid that, under high pressure, shatters the shale in which natural gas or oil is “trapped.” This preoccupation is an understandable legacy of the years in which many oil and gas companies refused to disclose the contents of fracturing fluid, a practice that could not have been better designed to foster and maintain public distrust. Fortunately, a shift — produced by regulation and by voluntary action in companies — toward the disclosure of fracturing fluid contents is already well underway.
Moreover, my colleague Joe Ryan, a University of Colorado environmental engineering professor, has laid out a valuable way to appraise the contents of fracturing fluid. Of the nearly 1,000 compounds that have been included in the inventories and lists, Ryan has pointed out, only a limited number have the capability of harming human beings. To pose a danger, these compounds must be hazardous to human health, mobile enough to get to humans, and persistent enough to avoid breaking down to something less hazardous while traveling toward the humans. Identifying compounds with these qualities generates a much shorter set of targets for our wariness.
With more efficient ways to worry, we can direct greater attention to the construction and maintenance of wells, casings, cement, surface storage containers, and mechanisms and equipment on the surface. It is time to think more about the risks posed by leaks and spills on or near the surface, while downsizing worries over the fracturing process that occurs thousands of feet beneath these areas of risk.
Risk = hazard + outrage
2. Our public conversation should attend carefully to the genuine distress triggered by the arrival of oil and gas development in a setting of homes and schools. Consider the insightful formula offered by expert Peter Sandman: “Risk = hazard + outrage.” While the scientists and engineers can help us by collecting data and assessing the physical dimensions and qualities of a hazard, a sense of powerlessness — of being subjected to an un-chosen, involuntary ordeal — is a major driver of worry, stress and fear. The noise, lights, traffic and disruption that come with drilling and production make a dissonant and disorienting addition to life in a town or suburb. Here I propose a simple trade-off for improved conversation: I ask people in the industry to recognize more legitimacy in the concerns of their residential neighbors, and I ask worried residents of the towns and suburbs affected by natural gas production to speak more openly about their communities’ dependence on natural gas for heating and petroleum for transportation.
3. We would all benefit from more modest expectations of the likelihood that scientific findings will, on their own, chart the route to sound decisions and policies. Especially in studies of public health, rather than giving us confident and certain predictions, experts must convey their results in probabilities of risk. The scientists’ mental world involves calculating and estimating the probability of an undesirable thing happening. The public’s mental world accents an entirely different question: “If there is a chance of risk, will I or my family members prove to be the ones injured by that risk?” The scientists are trying to speak in statistical terms about broad populations; a member of the public is asking, “Am I in danger?” In a calm conversation, we can conjure up ways to connect and reconcile these two very different ways of thinking.
In Colorado’s ongoing real-life seminar on hydraulic fracturing, taking up these three topics could open the door to a dramatically more worthwhile discussion. I arrive at this conviction after spending the last year as a participant in a big project funded by the National Science Foundation’s Sustainability Research Network. This project brings together teams of researchers to find ways to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of natural gas production. The science and engineering teams are immersed in collecting data. (It will be awhile before their findings are completed and published.) Thus, I write here not as an official reporter of the teams’ research findings, but as a citizen who has had the good fortune to spend time in the company of specialists studying this subject with rigor.
And yet I also write as a proud teacher reporting the insights of impressive students. One young man summed up the hope shared by many: “If people could somehow dampen their preconceived notions on the topic, they could make better decisions about which side they support.”
My students listened with open minds to both supporters and opponents of hydraulic fracturing, as well as many people who said they were still making up their minds. “They really are looking out for the future of their families,” one student reported of her conversation with two activists, “and that’s something I find honorable.”
Ask a friend to try an experiment. Then start shouting loudly and angrily at your friend about, for instance, the difference between completely reliable predictions and carefully calculated probabilities. After a minute or two of this, you will both be in the mood for a change in style of communication.
I happen to have at hand a list of youthful and honorable discussion-moderators to recommend, with writing samples to accompany my nominations. We’re talking about their future, after all. T
To read a longer version of the ideas expressed here, go to centerwest.org.
What Congress can learn from a 1930s Western
The Denver Post, October 10, 2013
I will now attempt to set an inspirational example for the members of Congress. On public record, I am going to reject moral purity and compromise my principles.
While our national leaders were standing by their principles and thereby perfecting their genius for the production of gridlock, I was trying to get out of a similar internal gridlock of my own.
My very smart friend Dan Boord, a filmmaker and a professor in the University of Colorado Film Studies Department, had asked me to visit his big lecture class and join him in a discussion of John Ford’s 1939 movie “Stagecoach,” the movie that made John Wayne a star.
Since my old campaign to invite Westerners to take a more realistic view of their region’s history did not always coincide with admiration for Western movies, I watched “Stagecoach” more closely than I ever had before. With Boord’s guidance, I contemplated elements of the movie that I would never have noticed on my own.
Note the dangerous process under way here: I was learning something new. And, in the unforeseeable outcome that learning will often produce, my comfortable assumptions and familiar principles were about to get rattled.
In this movie, Ford placed a bunch of difficult and peculiar people in the confined space of a stagecoach. The people who got into this tiny traveling vehicle did not like one another. But then they got bounced around in the stagecoach and in their relationships with one another. Out of all this jiggling on rough roads, reconciliations and alliances emerged and persisted. Like any normal human being, I found the journey of this group, from hostility to a version of community, to be inspirational and moving.
But another scene provided me with a lot more irritation than inspiration. In a cliché-saturated, standard-issue scene, featuring stereotypes deeply embedded in the Western film genre, the Apaches attacked. There is not a hint in the film as to what might have provided the context or motivation for this attack. Instead, in a movie that is otherwise stunning in its complexity, the Indians are simply portrayed as people who are brutal and violent by nature.
Some readers will be quick on the draw with the assertion that, with this scene, Ford simply reflected the universal thinking of his time.
In the 1930s, the nation took important steps toward reckoning with the dispossession of Indian people. The change in federal policy called the Indian New Deal reversed the loss of tribal lands and made a start toward restoring tribal self-government. Thus, a defense of Ford as “a man of his times” does a double disservice in over-simplifying both the man and those times.
In the main plot of this movie, Ford triumphed over what one of his characters calls the “foul disease” of “social prejudice.” In the episode of the Indian attack, he relapsed.
Taking all this in sent me into internal gridlock. I alternated between admiring “Stagecoach” and wincing over its portrayal of Indian people.
And then, thank heavens, I settled down and, in the terms of our times, got a grip.
I remembered the aphorism “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Sticking to the kind of principle that requires us to reject inspiration, when it does not come safely packaged in 100 percent moral purity, is not a rewarding way to live on this complicated planet. And Ford’s career backs me up in this conviction: In his last Western movie, “Cheyenne Autumn,” he finally included Indian people in the space of the American community.
Imagine the benefit to the nation if a patriotic, humanitarian filmmaker drew on the inspiration of “Stagecoach.” The goal would be to pack groups of Republicans and Democratic members of Congress into stagecoaches and jiggle them until the rigidity of their ideologies loosened up.
The time has come for the John Ford Stagecoach Initiative.