Adam R. Hodge earned his Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska in 2013 and is now Associate Professor of History at Lourdes University in Sylvania, Ohio. He is author of Ecology and Ethnogenesis: An Environmental History of the Wind River Shoshones, 1000-1868 (April 2019).
Enriching Experiences at Wind River
As I reflect on the years that I invested in researching, writing, and then revising the manuscript that became my first book, Ecology and Ethnogenesis, I realize how little of my experience and resulting wisdom truly appears in that text. To be sure, the book conveys some important academic insights supported by relevant evidence, but the very nature of scholarly work is that the finished product is almost entirely professional with only hints of the personal. As a result, Ecology and Ethnogenesis only hints at some of my most important takeaways from years of work.
When I reflect on my time researching Eastern Shoshone history, I first think of my time in Wyoming—not the countless hours I spent at my desk in Lincoln, in the Love Library at the University of Nebraska, in my home office in Toledo, in my office on campus at Lourdes, or even at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center archive. In contrast with the solitude of my work with words on pages and screens in places often far removed from my people and place of study, doing “fieldwork” at Wind River Indian Reservation allowed me to more closely connect with the past that I researched. I put the term fieldwork in quotation marks because my work at Wind River was far less scientific than that of a biologist or even an anthropologist, but it was nevertheless boots-on-the-ground experience.
While visiting Wind River in September 2012 and June 2016, I was fortunate enough to meet a handful people who generously devoted some of their precious time to talking history with me. On both occasions, I called on John Washakie, a great-grandson of Chief Washakie, who skillfully guided his people into and through their early relationship with the United States government until his passing in 1900. John kindly recounted some of his people’s oral traditions as well as pointed me to some other potential resources, including other people and books alike. His voice echoed in my head as I later wrote certain passages of the book to which our conversations are but a footnote that most readers will not see.
Almost as enlightening were the interviews that did not happen. Reticent to just show up at someone’s doorstep asking for their time and knowledge, I used the phone book (yes, those antiquated things are still useful!) available in my hotel room to reach out to individuals that either John mentioned or had participated in earlier oral history initiatives, such as the Warm Valley Historical Project. On one occasion, I reached an elderly woman (Yes! Someone finally answered their phone!) who promptly hung up after I identified myself (Huh… wasn’t expecting that). So, for the most part interviews were hard to come by. I can’t say for sure that the woman hanging up the phone had anything to do with me being an “outsider” who therefore understandably elicited a cool response, but one is left only to wonder. Meanwhile, John and several others greeted me warmly and entrusted me to responsibly handle their people’s past. I hope that I did not disappoint.
Interviews proved far and few between, so rather than sit in my hotel room watching ESPN coverage of Muhammad Ali’s life and legacy following his death and the Cleveland Cavaliers making a (what would turn out to be successful) run at ending the city’s long championship drought (there were, after all, plenty of evening hours to sit in a local brewery or bar to do this), I got acquainted with the reservation itself. With my deepest apologies to the ozone layer, I drove many miles to, from, and though rugged, sagebrush-covered plains where bison once grazed, lush river bottoms where fur traders once held their annual rendezvous, and stunning mountain valleys where ancestors of the Eastern Shoshones hunted and wintered. This allowed me to develop a closer relationship with the lands that I describe in my book. It is one thing to read about a place, but it is an entirely different thing—a far more educational and fulfilling thing—to go there. There is no substitute for experiencing a place firsthand. The history becomes richer and more hallowed.
Ultimately, my time at Wind River Indian Reservation enriched Ecology and Ethnogenesis in ways that are not explicit when one picks up the book. I think that my discussions of the land and its resources have a bit more verve as a result of my time exploring the Wind River country. I feel much more confident in my treatment of Shoshone oral traditions—which I refused to touch as a doctoral student out of fear of disrespecting the culture—that assumes a prominent role in the beginning of the book.
Writing history is a largely solitary endeavor, and there is certainly merit to investing what seem like endless hours in mining printed sources for relevant information, working through folder after folder of materials at an archive, and scouring online databases. But just as history students benefit from engaging with the past by, for example, traveling to visit historical sites as part of their classes, so, too, do historians profit from doing fieldwork at the places and among the descendants of the people that they write about. From firsthand experience, I can say that it profoundly enriches one’s understanding of what they communicate to others as experts.