ASA 2014

Panel organized for ASA 2014 Annual Meeting

“The Pre-Occupation of the American West”

Ethnography is inextricable from any narrative we might tell about the development of the West at the turn of the twentieth century. The professionalization of anthropology played a key role in describing and documenting a notion of vanishing cultures—in particular, Native American cultures—which, in turn, could be marketed as tourist attractions. Salvage Ethnography (to use Jacob Gruber’s term) was fundamental to creating a culturally rich image of the West, as well as to relay a sense of urgency about visiting a rapidly changing landscape. As a result, the region’s indigenous populations were packaged as “pre-occupants,” relics of an earlier, idyllic—but ultimately lost—period of U.S. history. This panel will explore Anglo Americans’ preoccupation with indigenous cultures as the West’s earliest and vanishing “occupants,” and the resulting manifestations of this fascination in popular culture, literature, photography, journalism, and cultural tourism.

“The ‘Pre-Occupation’ of the American West” explores the ways that Native Americans were imaginatively located in the past to neutralize and commodify Indian populations that were far from “vanishing.” Panelists discuss strategies from the early nineteenth century and through the 1930s in which writers, artists, investors, and commercial enterprises romanticized Indian tribes’ pre-industrial past. Opening with an analysis of 1820s and 1830s frontier histories that narratively displaced Native American populations to a distant, imagined past, the panel introduces narratives that reimagined the “West” via indigenous populations. Panelists then consider the boosterism and real estate development that took place in Southern California in the mid and late nineteenth century. Traveling lantern slide shows of the 1870s encouraged Anglo Americans and Europeans to settle in California by creating a visual narrative that commodified Indian tribes in the region as interesting relics of an idyllic past. Western booster periodicals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century called on women journalists to incorporate amateur ethnography as part of the “fun” of traveling to the Southwest. Panelists consider the ways that these journalists, as well as celebrities, were used to offer models of authentic living and traveling in the Southwest. Exploring advertising strategies of the Santa Fe railway that used celebrity culture as an antidote to the increasing commercialization (and subsequent “inauthenticity”) of the West, the panel concludes by suggesting ways of thinking about the multiple degrees of removal inherent in “authentic” representations of indigenous cultures.

Each panelist’s presentation points to the ways that Native Americans’ occupation of the land was repackaged and sold as “pre-occupation” to make way for Anglo settlers, tourists, and commercial enterprises. Examining the ways that native populations were imagined as “pre-occupants,” and by thinking about the resulting preoccupation with using the pre-industrial past to imagine the increasingly commercialized present, this panel opens up discussions about the ways that forced physical relocation and assimilation of Indian tribes was covered up, re-written, and thereby neutralized and naturalized in the American context.