By Mary Lou Beatty
“People stick to ranching,” William Kittredge writes, “because they love the feel of a quick little horse moving intently after cattle, or the smell of greasewood after summer rain or new-cut alfalfa on a spring morning, or the stretch of damp rawhide as they work at braiding a riata, or the look of a mother cow as she trails her dusty way back to her calf after a long walk to water.”
In this issue of Humanities, Kittredge takes us back to the American West he knew as a child and returned to as a teacher and writer. He talks with NEH Chairman William R. Ferris about those long-gone days and the rapid changes now occurring. Kittredge sees the West “in the process of growing up” with its greater concern for land, for water, and for native culture. “Come along, the dream whispers, and you can have another chance,” he writes in his memoir. “We still listen to promises in the wind. This time, we think, we’ll get it right.”
For a look at what native culture has meant in the West, we move north to the land between the Cascades and the Rockies, to a new exhibition in Spokane that opens at the end of the year. “People of the Rivers” tells the history of the Plateau people -- the Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, Kalispel, and Colville nations -- in their own words and at times in their own language, Salish. This exhibition comes as the culmination of a nine-year effort by museum curators and native peoples, who have joined in ceremonies and everyday events to understand each other’s point of view.
The title of the Spokane exhibition points to another central element of life in the West: water. “If you look back in history,” says oral historian Jack Loeffler, “you see instances where battles were fought over a pond or maybe a spring for cattle to water. Then and now, it determines territoriality in the West.”
The largest of the Western rivers is the Colorado, which courses through seven states and touches the lives of thirty million people on its 1,700-mile journey. The humanities councils of the seven states tied to the river -- Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming -- are examining its role in an ambitious new project called “Moving Waters: The Colorado River and the West.” They plan an eight-month-long program at twenty-two sites. It will include radio documentaries, readings and discussions, and exhibitions on subjects ranging from early depictions of the river by writers and painters to present-day disputes over irrigation and electric power.
Project director Dan Shilling of Arizona wants to create a larger-than-life canvas for discussing the river’s history. He hopes, he says, to “explore the interconnectedness of creation myths and geologic time, highlight the collective consciousness of the river, and map its mythic meanings.”
The role of water as a pathway to culture is a recurring theme. To examine it from a different vantage point, we leave the American West for a culture that lies half a world away and two millennia in the past. The place is the Mekong Delta, where archaeologists at Angkor Borei have found forty-five human skeletons that they hope hold a key to Cambodia’s ancient history. New research could date the settlement five hundred years earlier than previously thought, raising questions about the storied kingdom of Funan, a stopping-off place for the Chinese on their voyage to find a river passage to India.