Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Watching Crow Fair, Crow Agency, August 1941

West words November 22, 2016 by Mary Murphy • Published 11/22/16

In 1942, John Vachon fell in love with Montana and the American West. Driving his bald-tired Plymouth across the northern plains on assignment for the Farm Security Administration, he traveled the snow-dusted countryside, stopping to photograph country school children playing “fox and geese,” shepherds tending their flocks, and farm women filling oil lamps. Along the way, he also captured the architecture of the plains: snow fences, corn cribs, grain elevators and miles upon miles of empty road. Vachon wrote to his wife, “Once you see this place you cant really Love any other part of the world. Absolutely the best squarest people on the whole goddam earth.”

Millions of people before and since have likewise fallen in love with this place we call home.

For thousands of years the grasslands and mountains of the region were homelands to indigenous nations. Beginning in the 16th century and continuing into the present, the resources and beauty of the West have attracted settlers from all over the world. The connection that Vachon and others have had to Western lands, along with the meanings that people attach to place, serve as a starting point for Montana State University’s new Western Lands and Peoples Initiative.

Why this initiative at MSU?

The Western Lands and Peoples Initiative is a series of programs and events at MSU focused on the places and peoples of the western United States and Canada and highlighting interdisciplinary research and teaching on the West at MSU. The reach of the initiative is often public. But the initiative also is working behind the scenes to support the work of students. Beginning this summer, the initiative funded nearly a dozen graduate students who are working on western American research projects in American studies, geography and history.

Faculty and students in a variety of fields, including American studies, English, film and photography, geography, history, archaeology and Native American studies explore the meaning of place as expressed in a variety of texts and material objects. These scholars examine the West as a place of powerful legends and story in their studies of literature and the visual arts. Students and faculty also trace the role the region has played in the creation and development of American national identity. In the process, they study the history of encounters between diverse populations in the West and the ways the region has served as a laboratory for working out relations between immigrant groups.

The West is also understood as a contested space where different populations have struggled over the control of land and resources and as a site of tensions between rural and urban populations. The region is likewise important as a forefront of technological and scientific innovation, even as many folks in the region maintain a deep fondness for a “simple” past.

Nicol Rae, dean of the MSU College of Letters and Science, said the college hopes that through the Western Lands and Peoples Initiative, MSU will become an international hub for the study of critical issues relevant to the past, present and future of Montana and the region.

“MSU is the ideal home for such a center due to our expertise, our land-grant mission and community networks and our geographic location at the interface between the Great Plains and the Mountain West,” Rae said.

Ultimately, scholars involved in the Western Lands and Peoples Initiative seek to understand the many contradictions and complexities associated with this beloved and much-storied American region and engage the people of Montana in a rich and ongoing dialogue about this place we call home. ■

MSU history professor Mary Murphy, along with professors Bob Rydell, history, and Susan Kollin, english, are directors of the new Western Lands and Peoples Initiative.