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Young Institutes Breaking Historical Ground

Times Staff Writer

A new alliance is about to give the sometimes unappreciated field of California and Western history a boost, scholars say.

This contemporary peace accord is not among political parties, ethnic groups or water rights claimants who have squabbled in the region’s past.

Instead it involves three highly regarded -- and relatively new -- academic institutes cooperating to advance the study of a legacy stretching from before the 16th century forays of Spanish conquistadors into New Mexico through this spring’s massive rallies in Los Angeles for immigrant rights.

The effort, which formally kicks off today with a jointly sponsored workshop for graduate students, could help Western American history overcome a reputation in some circles as being less significant than the East Coast’s or Europe’s, experts say. And it aims to shake off many Southern Californians’ perception that history happens someplace else.

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“There’s a constant theme in thinking about Los Angeles: that history ends here, that history stopped here, that history doesn’t exist here. Mostly nonsense, nonsense, nonsense,” USC history professor William Deverell said.

Deverell is director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, a 2-year-old organization that links the archival treasures of the Huntington Library in San Marino with USC’s faculty and students.

Today his institute will co-sponsor the workshop for doctoral scholars along with Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West, a think tank founded in 2002, and the Autry National Center’s 4-year-old Institute for the Study of the American West.

The centers’ relative youth and their unusual internal and external alliances are evidence that “academically speaking, California studies are no longer considered a provincial sideshow,” said Kevin Starr, the USC professor and state librarian emeritus who is considered by many to be the most prominent California historian today.

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The history of California and the West, of course, is not a peaceable saga, spiked as it is with land grabs, labor strife, massacres and even cannibalism.

And that doesn’t include the occasionally nasty arguments among historians who chronicle and interpret the region’s past.

Patricia Nelson Limerick, faculty director of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said she was encouraged that the three California-based organizations “seem to find partnerships more rewarding than turf battles.”

The doctoral students who will present papers for critiques at the workshop today sponsored by the three groups were chosen in a national competition that considered academic promise and looked for common research topics.

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Their subjects include histories of minorities and immigrants in the West and their experiences in the military, unions and the judicial system.

“If all we do is improve five people’s dissertations, that will be a significant achievement. But I don’t think it satisfies what our ambitions are, which are to engage a broader audience,” said UCLA history professor Stephen Aron, who heads the Autry’s Institute for the Study of the American West.

Alicia Chavez of Stanford, one of the five students, said, “To have senior scholars so important in the field give you honest opinions is a huge, huge asset to a young scholar trying to wrap up a project.”

Other exchanges of scholars are in the works, and the institutions will be planning joint research and exhibitions, leaders said.

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For example, the Autry is sponsoring ongoing research on Jewish history and life in Los Angeles, along with the Huntington-USC institute, UCLA and the Skirball Cultural Center.

At the Huntington on July 1, UCLA professor Peter Nabokov will lecture on Native American sacred spaces in connection with a study group moderated by Steven Karr, curator of the Autry Center’s Southwest Museum of the American Indian.

Such banding together can help historians of the West shake off any lingering sense of inferiority, said Stanford professor Richard White, co-director of the Lane center and president of the Organization of American Historians.

“This is setting up a more serious consideration of the place where we live and the places we have links to -- like Mexico,” said White, who shares leadership of the Stanford center with David M. Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian.

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Their institute was named after the former diplomat and Sunset magazine publisher who gave the history organization $5 million last year.

With a strong public-policy and environmental focus, the Bill Lane center has sponsored or is planning conferences on such topics as Mexican immigration, sustainable forests and the region’s image in national media.

The other two institutes have somewhat different emphases, but all three want to work together when possible without “stepping on each other’s toes,” said Robert C. Ritchie, the Huntington Library’s director of research.

The Huntington-USC institute stresses its archives and students’ research, although it too seeks public audiences with, for example, a July 18 public “conversation” with the Rev. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray, former senior minister at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.

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The Autry’s institute examines historical and cultural issues and the tensions between the real and mythical West in literature, music and movies.

It also has a strong emphasis on Native Americans following the Autry’s 2003 merger with the Southwest Museum.

Some rivalries remain, such as those between USC and UCLA, but Deverell said he prefers “to leave them on the sports field.”

The study of Western U.S. history has seen its share of rumbles. In the 1980s, it was riven because of the emergence of the so-called New Western Historians who rejected the old heroic frontier notion of historian Frederick Jackson Turner that the West was tamed by a chain of triumphant settlements.

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Instead of celebrating the individualistic cowboy and pioneer ethos, scholars such as White and Limerick stress the federal subsidies that helped form the West, the environmental damage it suffered and the oppression of Indians and other minorities.

In some ways, that debate continues. But many New Western Historian ideas and leaders have become part of the establishment. And the philosophy’s influence can be seen in the five dissertations being presented .

The five include Chavez, whose Stanford dissertation examines Mexican Americans’ role in the United Auto Workers in Southern California as they rose to leadership in the 1960s and ‘70s and then had to cope with plant closings.

Allison Tirres of Harvard University chronicled the changes in laws, judges and juries in a Texas border town during the 19th century Americanization period. She shows how early collaboration between Mexicans and Americans was replaced by a system in which the speaking of Spanish was banned from juries.

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Lauren Cole of UC San Diego researched Japanese and Filipino immigrants to Hawaii who served in the U.S. military during World War I and then struggled against exclusionary policies to gain citizenship.

Steven Rosales of UC Irvine looked at Mexican Americans who served in the U.S. military during World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam and how that affected their subsequent lives, upward mobility and political activism.

Stacey Smith of the University of Wisconsin-Madison wrote about “unfree labor” in California between 1848 and 1882. Though slavery was forbidden, various forms of indentured or coerced labor were allowed for Native Americans, blacks and Chinese, she documented.


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