Notes for Historic Preservationists
Mason County May 16, 2015
LLyn De Danaan
A good portion of my work has been researching and writing cultural history and that history is embedded in the earth and file cabinets in the forms of yellowed documents, artifacts, and in structures, in monuments, and in the minds of people. It is recoverable in part from those documents, photographs, maps, records of land transfers, records of acquisitions, stories of wars, correspondence from and between those in power and those with little power. It is the record of the conqueror and the conquered, of violence and terror, of justice and injustice, of loss and love. Most of what I can find in official repositories of the history that is “preserved.” But to simply preserve is not to tell “the story.” Telling the story, bringing it to life, requires interpretation, filling in the blanks, giving voice to those whose voices are not in those documents or whose thoughts are not filed away in stainless steel trays, protected from rot and insects, or recorded on wax cylinders.
I am reading Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violenceand the Making of American Innocence. In the preface, Boyd Cothryn is describes his visit to National Lava bedsas he begins his study of the Modoc Wars and the 1872-1873 bloody era of violence in Northern California and southern Oregon’s Klamatth Basin. “People see events through the lens of their own time” a park ranger tells visitors. But there are always two histories: the actual series of events that occurred and the idealized series of events that we affirm and hold in memory. The first is absolute (but unknowable because knowing relies on absolute access to absolute and unbiased records) and the second is relative and always changing. Here I am paraphrasing Cothryn’s paraphrase of the historian Carl Becker who famously wrote of this duality and the history of the imagination. The memory of history, the interpretations, the overlay of personal and societal values on history, and the associations assigned to that history cannot be reconciled with what actually happened. Ever.
But we can try to recognize if not reconcile the biases of racism and class and other biases in our work and interpretations and we can try to create more inclusive stories of our history. Historians of the “western expansion” of Europeans and EuroAmericans have worked very hard in the past thirty or so years to do that.
When I began my work on Oyster Bay, there was little in print about the role of Japanese workers in the local shellfish industry. The focus has always been on the Owners, the entrepreneurs. The capitalists. There was little in print about the role of women or of native americans on the early industry. But now we know, as indigenous people always have, that individual “picking grounds” were culled and tended and that shellfish gardens were created and nurtured all along the Northwest Coast hundreds of years before European settlement. These are voices, points of view, “facts” simply left out of the story of the county because other voices were more prominent, more dominant. Even now, as the Simpson Company closes operations on the Shelton waterfront, will the voices of those most affected be the ones recorded? The man or woman who has worked there for 20 years and now will lose source of income?
You are in a position as those interested in history and its preservation to think of those who are not being heard those whose interests are not represented in the official record. Ask yourselves, when you think of local history and when you look around the table, “who speaks for wolf.” Because wolf will not be at that table but somebody has got to bring his or her message forward if our descendents are to understand the full story of our time.