From the Desk of Brenden W. Rensink: Engaging the Present with the Past

Brenden W. Rensink is Associate Director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies and Associate Professor of History at Brigham Young University. He is author of the award-winning book Native but Foreign: Indigenous Immigrants and Refugees in the North American Borderlands (2018), author, co-author, editor, and co-editor of multiple books and articles on the histories of the American West, borderlands, Indigenous peoples, genocide studies, and religion, Project Manager and General Editor of the Intermountain Histories digital public history project, and Host and Producer of the Writing Westward Podcast. His book The North American West in the Twenty-First Century (Nebraska, 2022) was published in November.

In late-2018 I had an exceptionally difficult decision to make. As associate director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University, one of my duties is to organize academic seminars where scholars are brought together to workshop papers on a shared theme or topic, and then edit and publish them as anthology collections. I had agreed to lead the next iteration, and the clock was ticking for me to choose a topic. At the time, I was finishing one such volume with the great P. Jane Hafen (Taos Pueblo, professor emerita, UNLV): the soon-to-be award-winning Essays on American Indian and Mormon History (2019). While I didn’t yet know of the eventual accolade, I felt considerable pressure. Five previous collections, all excellent, had already been published from Redd Center seminars: Utah in the Twentieth Century (2009), Oral History, Community, and Work in the American West (2013), Immigrants in the Far West: Historical Identities and Experiences (2015), The Earth Will Appear as the Garden of Eden: Essays on Mormon Environmental History (2018), and Reconstruction and Mormon America (2019). I had high expectations to meet!

Eventually, I settled on “The Modern West” as a basic premise but needed a twist. Even the most casual followers of American West scholarship will remember the “New Western History” revolution of the 1980s-90s and how modern topics featured quite prominently in associated discussions, conferences, and publications. The modern angle was a key factor in helping what could have been niche academic discourse enter broader public consciousness. The national (and international) importance of the region hadn’t ended when the frontier era closed in the late 1800s. The dynamic forces that made 19th-century Western history so compelling did not abate in the 20th century. The region still had much to teach us. As I ruminated over all the excitement that modern studies had made in the field and beyond, something struck me: many of those landmark studies were 30-40 years old and didn’t seem as “modern” as they used to. We were nearly two decades into a new century. Aha! There was my hook, or twist. I would organize a seminar on the American West in the 21st century. This angle scratched a number of itches for me. Not only did the field strike me as ready for thoughtful updating, but the need for renewed public awareness of new scholarship and why the American West continues to matter to the nation and world weighed on me. I was troubled by the disconnect between our rapidly growing field of scholarship (new, vibrant, nuanced, interdisciplinary, boundary-pushing) and the continual public invocations of the region that were still stubbornly entrenched in outdated notions of the past. Somehow, many of the lessons scholars fervently believe the region can teach America today weren’t cutting through the static of pop culture and fog of mythologized public memory.

Coming up with ideas is easy but making something of them is not. Over the course of months, via a public call for papers and many direct inquiries and invitations, I settled on an impressive group of scholars who were all up for the specific challenge of taking oft-familiar histories from the late-20th century and pulling them as far into the 21st century as possible. I tasked them with making explicit analysis of how those narratives did or did not follow excepted trajectories. What made the more recent developments of the 2000s and 2010s unique? This was a challenge for most, but the results rewarded us greatly. The group met and workshopped papers in June 2019 and the atmosphere of intellectual curiosity and debate was thrilling. In the months that followed I oversaw multiple rounds of revisions with each author, adding a couple new contributions along the way to help fill in some of the (many!) thematic gaps. With guidance from Bridget Barry of the University of Nebraska Press, the resulting volume, The North American West in the Twenty-First Century, was published in late 2022. The collection features thirteen chapters by junior and senior scholars and is organized into five parts: Environmental Reckonings, Indigenous Lands and Sovereignty, Urban and Rural Transformations, Migrant Lives and Labor, and Unresolved Politics and Law. These are accompanied by a generous foreword from Patricia Nelson Limerick and an insightful afterword from Frank Bergon.

While aware of the volumes many shortcomings, I am incredibly proud of the work the contributors have done. Our historical inquiries into the West’s distant and not-so-distant pasts do have something essential to contribute to modern America. To borrow from Limerick’s foreword, “There is no guarantee that most Americans are going to embrace the benefits that hanging out with historians could provide them (xv),” but with the collection of essays now published, no one can accuse us of not trying to engage. This anthology seeks to inspire a new outpouring of scholarly inquiry that uses history to speak directly to the present. It also calls for renewed commitment from scholars to engage with public discourse, no matter how frustrating that endeavor may be. I hope Western historians will feel increasingly emboldened to aggressively insert their research into public view. Careful scholarship, intentionally translated for public understanding and clearly applied to contemporary events, is needed now more than ever. Presentist? Perhaps. But if our work isn’t meant to speak to the human condition today as well as historically, then I’m not sure we’re making the most of what our past has to say about our present and potential futures.

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