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Calling Dances with Wolves 'fantasy,' a Historian Sounds a Charge Against the Mythic Past of the American West

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It’s hardly the O.K. Corral, and the weapons of choice are ideas, not six-guns. But the current dustup is one of the bitterest in Western history. That, in fact, is the sore subject—Western history itself. In the same year that Dances with Wolves has brought new popular attention to the realities of the early American West, scholars are locked in a fierce debate over many of the same issues that movie mythmakers ranging from John Wayne to Kevin Costner have put on the big screen.

At the center of the academic fracas is Patricia Nelson Limerick, an associate professor of history at the University of Colorado and a confessed hater of cowboy movies (“because cowboys didn’t clean up their messes in the bar after the fight scene”) since she was a tidy little girl growing up in her native California. In her 1987 book, Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, Limerick argues that the story of the West is not a simple saga of triumphal pioneering but one of moral and social complexities that include greed, racism and environmental abuse. In doing so, she directly confronted a widely accepted Frontier Theory posited in 1893 by the renowned U.S. historian Frederick Jackson Turner. He held that the frontier experience forged distinctive characteristics that defined American society—rugged individualism, for example, as best symbolized by the figure of the 19th-century rider of the plains.

Now Limerick and her fellow New West historians seem to have taken aim at this most beloved of American icons. Their challenge, in turn, has many Western traditionalists up in arms. “We recognize that much is myth, but we love it,” groused Alvin Davis, president of the American Cowboy Culture Association. “And we’ll defend it till we die.”

Limerick, who is now 39, graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz, earned her Ph.D. from Yale and taught Western history at Harvard until 1984. Speaking with correspondent Vickie Bane, Limerick explains what the scholarly shoot-out is all about.

What was Turner’s Frontier Theory?

His frontier was a moving line that traveled from east to west, the line between civilization and savagery, between developed land and free land. Turner said that the process of advancing the frontier line Americanized our European immigrants and made Americans unique, that our basic values—democracy, equality, independence, individualism, inventiveness—came from the frontier. Then he gave us the bad news that the frontier ended in 1890 [since the Census Bureau declared then that there were no more unsettled territories in the continental U.S.].

Why do you reject it?

Because it transforms a folk belief into a historical theory. It was what many white Americans had wanted to think about themselves. Turner’s thesis is nicely written, but it is much closer to poetry than to historical reality.

How do your theories differ from Turner’s?

There are three major areas of difference, which I call the three C’s. The first is continuity. We lost our orientation when we cut the story off in 1890. By doing that, we are saying, in effect, “Pay no attention to recent Western historians. Westerners have some colorful little stories, but they have nothing to do with our lives today.” On the contrary, most of the issues raised in the 19th century are still with us: water rights, land management, border control.

And the second?

Convergence. Instead of the dominant view of looking at English-speaking white people sweeping westward, we now think of the West as a part of the planet where people came from all directions. We study the westward movement, but we also study the northward movement of the Hispanics, the eastward movement of the Asians, the southward movement of the French Canadians and the existence of people who were here before the others, the Indians.

And the final C?

Conquest, There were Indian people, and there were Hispanic people who had colonized the area several hundred years before the Anglo-Americans came into the territory. When the dust settled, those who were there earlier had less power, and the invaders had more. That process—conquest—should finally be called by its proper name.

Why is it important for Americans to rethink the history of the West?

Because it is necessary to face reality. If the American West is just a place where the Anglo-American imagination runs free and paints whatever images it pleases, then we can’t live responsibly in this region. The West is a real place with lots of pressing questions—human relations, land use, attitudes toward nature. We have to know where we came from in order to deal with those issues.

Why is this revaluation happening now?

We’re in the process of second thoughts; not only historians but Western novelists, photographers, painters and filmmakers are all part of that process.

Have traditional Hollywood Westerns contributed to distorted perceptions?

You bet! If we think Western means white men on horses, then that’s very limiting. The good news is that many people in Hollywood have recognized their past sins and are finding that some of the true stories are as engaging as the cotton-candy fluff stories.

What did you think of Dances with Wolves?

I’ve always felt that fiction, including film, has the right to exist on its own terms Dances with Wolves is a fantasy, and although it’s much nicer than the Indians-as-savages fantasy, it’s still a fantasy. It’s unfortunate we didn’t get to see the side of the Army, a Western Army that was underfunded, undersupported and poorly commanded, so we could understand why the individual Army members behaved so badly in the movie. They seemed cruel for no reason. Of course, as we came into the theater, no one asked us to sign anything that said, “I believe this movie to be historically correct.” Still, Dances with Wolves is an important exercise because it presents another point of view.

Okay, but did you like the movie?

Yes, and if you must know, I did use a lot of Kleenex.

Have the popular Western novels of, say, Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour also propagated certain myths?

I would certainly never interfere with anyone’s right to read or write one of those books. But what’s weird is that if you were to read a science-fiction novel, you wouldn’t say, “Well, that’s Mars. Now I know all about life on Mars.” But people often read Western novels and say, “Well, that was the West, the real West.”

Is revisionism a sign of a younger generation of historians in rebellion?

Many of the new Western historians are in the age range of 39 to 42, so we are no spring chickens. I see this as more than just the ’60s generation aging gracelessly.

Then this isn’t a personal showdown between the ideas of Limerick and Turner?

My best friends in Boulder are Turner’s grandson and granddaughter-in-law, Jackson Turner Main and Gloria Main, who are both fine historians. They have some of Turner’s library, and from his notes and some of his books, it’s clear that his was a complex mind. He said, “Each age writes the past anew with reference to the condition uppermost in its own time.” He did that, but his followers didn’t.

What are the consequences of not writing the past anew?

We could go to hell in a hand basket. We need to look at why we are exhausting our water resources, why we are polluting our environment, how and why we are tearing each other apart over race, language or culture. We must build a sense of community, a common ground.