Monday, September 8, 2014

Creek Indian Artist Todd Harder Coming to Spokane



There is something of a cultural florescence happening in Native America these days, and some of the cultural mixing is surprising and even playful. Take for example the Creek artist Todd Harder and his amazing native-themed skateboard decks:



Harder is quite prolific--you can see more of his work here. A nationally-prominent figure, the New York Times ran a piece on Harder and the annual All Nations Skate Jam that he organized--an alcohol and drug-free gathering of Indian skateboarders that takes place in Albuquerque. Harder is also a central figure in the Smithsonian exhibit "Ramp it Up: Native Skateboard Culture in America."

Harder will speaking at Gonzaga on Thursday, September 18, at 5:00 p.m.  in the Globe Room of Cataldo Hall. A map of Gonzaga campus is here.The event is free and open to the public, and is sponsored by Gonzaga’s Native American Studies program and by the College of Arts and Sciences. For more information on this event, please contact Laurie Arnold, Director of Native American Studies, arnoldL@gonzaga.edu.



Friday, September 5, 2014

It is Time for a New State Song,,,

...and I know what is should be.

Our current Washington State song, Washington, My Home is terrible. Seriously, listen if you dare. As I have written before, it sounds like it was written by a committee of Girl Scouts. And to think we could have had Louie, Louie as the state song!

I want to propose a new state song--catchy, funny, historical, and written right here in Washington State. The song is The Old Settler. It was written by Judge Francis Henry of Pierce County around 1874 and was an instant hit. In fact when the state Constitutional Convention finished their work in 1889, they finished up by singing The Old Settler. The song was was forgotten until the early 20th century, when it was revived by Ivar Haglund--yeah, that Ivar. This charming video from MOHAI tells the story:





Additional information at this webpage from the Northwest Folklore Society. The one thing that the experts are missing is that the tune is not original--Henry set his lyrics to the tune of the traditional Irish folk (by which I men drinking) song, Rosin' the Bow.

Clearly, this is our song. Join me, Washingtonians, let's make this our state song. I know it is pretty west-side focused, but in this case we can let that pass. Acres of clams, people, acres of clams! Can't you see crowds of Washingtonians raising their voices to sing the Old Settler at Fourth of July picnics, or Seahawks games? We need to make this happen.

Here is how you can contact your state representatives. Do it today!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Nice Piece About James Glover in the Inlander

The Inlander is our mildly-alternative weekly here in Spokane. They run local history stories from time to time. Last week's cover story, Facing History  by Lisa Waananen Jones takes a hard look at the "Father of Spokane," James Glover, and the wife who he had committed to an insane asylum.

Behold my mustache, hipsters,
and despair!
I think that every western town has its Glover--the white male founding father who, despite having streets and parks and like named after him, does not bear close inspection.Our Glover was not actually the first person on the ground here in Spokane--not even the first white person. His 1873 settlement was proceeded in the proximate area by area by the Northwest Fur Company's Spokane House (founded in 1810), Tshimakain Mission (1838), Plante's Ferry (1852) and the bustling settlement of Moran Prairie which began in 1860 and had perhaps more than a dozen families when Glover arrived. Even on the very ground where Glover platted his Spokan Falls, there were two men and a sawmill. Glover would later tell everyone they had been horse thieves--though as historian Tony Bamonte says in Jones' article, they were not.

And yet a town must have a founder and he must be white and male and mustachioed and so James Glover is the Father of Spokane. To be fair, he did a lot for the community, relentlessly promoting it to settlers and to the Territorial government, all in the service of making himself wealthy. And he did strike it rich with the new town--at least until one of those pesky 19th-century financial panics stripped it all away.

Jones does a nice job in her article of poking around the seedier side of Glover--who had sharp elbows in business, abandoned a mentally ill wife and had her committed that he might remarry, and rewrote our early history to make himself the hero. He was also a key figure in the establishment of our city, like him or not. We will always have Glover.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Ghost Signs of Spokane, Part Two

EWU grad students Anna Harbine and Frank Oesterheld leading
a tour of the ghost signs of Spokane
Some time back I posted about a unique class project that I was forcing my unwilling students to do using to enrich my class on Local History Research Methods--the Ghost Sign Project. I thought I should bring the subject up-to-date.

Ghost signs are those faded, painted advertisements that you see on the sides of buildings in the historic areas of many American cities. Painted in thick layers of lead paint, many have long outlived the products and businesses they were created to advertise. In the spring of 2013, my students fanned out across Spokane and did an inventory of the surviving ghost signs.  I thought it would be fun to have my students map and record as many of the signs as they could find, then research the background of these vanished businesses.

The assignment worked better than I dared imagine. The students loved prowling the alleyways (always in pairs!) and finding the old signs. They became quite competitive, trying to see who could find the most. They took with them clipboard, cameras, and a form that we developed together to record their data. You can see the form here.

An online version of the form, created by my student Frank Oesterheld, automagically dropped their information into a Google Fusion Table. This generated a map of the ghost signs of Spokane:



Pretty cool, yes? We found signs for blacksmiths and buggy manufacturers, for early car dealerships and Single Room Occupancy hotels, for cigars and chewing tobacco, for paints and coffee and flour. All in all the signs, most created between 1890 and 1920, painted a picture of a workingman's town where people wanted an inexpensive place to stay and a cheap cigar.

Then we took to the archives to research the histories of the signs. City directories and Sanborn maps were the most valuable sources, but we also dug through Google News Archives, historic register nominations, census records, marriage and other vital records, and oral histories. I told my students to look for interesting stories behind the signs--stories of the business, stories of the owners, stories about the kind of town that Spokane was during the era in which their sign was painted. They found some great stuff, including Japanese hotel owners, the era of cheap downtown lodging, life in the rail yards, and Spokane's "cracker war." The stories were written from our local history smartphone app and website, Spokane Historical. The best of them appear there as a walking tour, Ghost Signs of Spokane.

It was a tremendously successful class exercise. And yet when class was over some of us felt like the topic was not exhausted. How else could this research be presented?

This spring two of my graduate students, Anna Harbine and Frank Oesterheld, developed a face-to-face walking tour of the signs that they would lead. Adapting the digital to the analog proved an interesting challenge. Which signs do we include? How far do we want to walk? Should the tour be one-way or a loop? Oesterheld and Harbine chose a route, developed scripts, and practiced the walk a half-dozen times. Last Friday they went live, leading a group from the Northwest Archivists Conference through the back alleys of Spokane in search of ghosts. It was a hit! Here are some pictures of the event, taken by Benjamin Helle of the Washington State Archives ~ Olympia Regional Branch. Here we are getting started:


Don't despair if you missed the tour, we are looking at ways to make it happen again, perhaps as part of a First Friday event.

As a teaching exercise in public history, I am delighted how this project has evolved. The class itself was part research seminar and part treasure hunt, both educational and engaging. They course laid the building blocks of a digital tour, and then a physical tour, also spearheaded by public history students. Four of the students in the course also presented their work as a poster session at the National Council for Public History conference this spring. The project built a lot of bridges with the local historic preservation community and most importantly brought attention to some of my students and their work.

I teach Research Methods in Local History again in the coming school year--what should we do as a group research project next time around?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Come see Spokane Historical at the Nostalgia Radio Hour

So here is something a little different. My friend Garrin Hertel, publisher of Nostalgia Magazine and band leader of the Hot Club of Spokane, is putting on a radio show.

The Nostalgia Radio hour is conceived as an variety show, with music, interviews, and etc. around the loose theme of Spokane history and historical nostalgia. The first episode will be recorded live the Wednesday at 6:30 at the historic Glover Mansion. The first episode will be recorded live the Wednesday at 6:30 at the historic Glover Mansion Some of my students will be there, along with myself, to talk about Spokane Historical.

This is the first of what Garrin plans as a monthly broadcast and podcast. The event is open to the public and there is even a no-hot bar. Hope to see some of you there!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

No, You Cannot be a Professor Part III: Survivor Stories

[This is a guest post from friend and former student Lee Nilsson, building from my 2011 post Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor. Lee blogs at The Digital Archeologist.]


Picture
Pictured: Larry Cebula
So you've finished up your fine liberal arts education and have a fresh BA with your name on it from a respectable school.  Congrats!  You did it.  Your capstone paper, History of the Salt Trade in Western Sahara from 1870-1922, was called "riveting" by your favorite professor.  You've moved back in with your parents.  No big deal.  That is common these days, and you'll be out of there soon.  Because you have your sights on something grander.  You are going to graduate school.  You are going to be a college professor.  

And why not?  The local craigslist job openings category is a depressing list of technical work you are in no way qualified for and high-level executive stuff which requires eight years of experience and an MBA.  You don't want to work in medical administration.  You don't want to work in a toll booth.  Sure, your favorite professor gave you a pained expression and mentioned something about the "tough market" when you told him/her about your dream.  But s/he wrote the letter of recommendation anyway.  So s/he is probably not that concerned...Right?  

Picture
Your future?
Naturally, you're first move is obvious, you Googled "how to become a history professor."  That is how you came across a depressing, cynical screed by a mean-spirited and sarcastic history professor named Larry Cebula called "Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor."  You read it a few times. You read the follow up "No, You Cannot be a Professor--the Reactions."  At first you were skeptical.

But the reaction pieces are dripping with wishful thinking, and the article confirmed all the doubts in the back of your mind.  Maybe it's all hopeless.  Maybe the toll booth wouldn't be so bad.  I mean, at least you won't have Larry Cebula as a graduate advisor.  What kind of deflated, depressed, and broken students must he be graduating every year?

Picture
Hope is good

Well dear reader, look no further.  I am one such.  And I've been tasked with giving you hope.  Not that you will become a history professor (no, that still ain't happening), but that it is possible to have an interesting and fulfilling career in the humanities.  You don't even have to have a Ph.D. either!  You can do it with a simple MA.  The key is making yourself as well-rounded as possible in this new economy.  Here are a few lessons I've learned which may be helpful to you.


Lesson 1:  Take advantage of every opportunity during grad school, and don't be afraid to take risks.

Grad school is about resume building.  A good academic department will have trips, internship opportunities and job openings you should take advantage of.  While in grad school I went on an archaeological dig to Cyprus, worked in the Washington State Archives as a researcher/writer, served as associate editor of the local history website and mobile app spokanehistorical.org, and went to Portland, Oregon to present a paper with the Phi Alpha Theta history society.  All of this is great resume fodder.  It also gives you experiences and contacts you would not otherwise have if you had spent all your time in the library staring at black and white photos of early-period Saxon pot shards. 
Picture
NDSR second cohort starts January 2015. 

In this economy it is often going to be more important to have some real work experience than it will be to have a paper published in a journal read by literally tens of academics (though being published does not hurt).  It may take some risk or sacrifice in the short term to make yourself more employable down the road.  I had to give up a graduate teaching assistantship (and quite a lot of money) to work at the state archives, but it paid off.  My work at  spokanehistorical.org and the Washington State Archives led directly to me being chosen as the first ever National Digital Stewardship Resident for the Library of Congress (an amazing program, by the way, check it out).  

You will want to accumulate a large set of skills that do not fall into the traditional "liberal arts academic" framework.  You want a huge advantage right now?  Learn to code.  The future is in the digital humanities.  People with those skills are already in high demand.  Most of all learn how to teach yourself new skills.  If you take anything away from grad school.  Let it be that. 


Lesson 2: If you want to be successful after grad school, you must be mobile and flexible.

Picture
Its a big country
This is increasingly true in nearly all fields these days.  Being able to pack up and move to Bozeman, Montana at a few weeks' notice can be a real strength when looking for work in the humanities.  Cast a very wide net.  You may not be able to get that amazing job in New York City right out of grad school.  Look for parts of the country where your skill set-may be in more demand.  Don't limit your search to the "dream job" you've been pining for for years.  Having trouble getting a curatorial job in a city museum?  Try administration and communications.  Failing to get a federal writing job in the black hole of USAjobs.gov?  Try contractors and vendors.  Can't get that archivist position with your local state archives?  Try the private sector.  Be flexible.  You may find you'll like where you end up better than if you'd gotten your "dream job."

Lesson 3: Be creative.

"I am a hard worker with lots of experience in content management.  I've managed content on a weekly basis for one year at Content Management LLC. and for two years at Content Dynamics Industries, Inc.  I have been instrumental in increasing productivity over five percent in..."

Asleep yet?  Yeah, don't be like that.  Hopefully, you got into the humanities to be creative.  Sometimes its valuable to take a risk to stand out.  Don't go off the deep end and be unprofessional.  But the people who do the hiring at cultural institutions are looking through stacks of identical cover-letters and resumes.  All of them have the same two to five years experience in "whatever" that you do.  Hiring managers hate reading those letters just as much as you hate writing them.  Sometimes it's okay to make a high risk, high reward move.  Take for example this:


The job was for the Civil War Trust, a group of people almost certainly familiar with the mammoth Ken Burns documentary "The Civil War."  One hour of late-night video editing later I had a short and ridiculous parody of Burns' style which served as a fun addendum to my traditional cover letter.  I submitted it at midnight and by eight-o'clock the next morning I had the interview.  High risk, high reward.

Lesson 4: Be personable. 

Picture
Not you...Right?
Jokes aside, you could not ask for a better advisor than Larry Cebula.  He works like hell to get his students employed in their fields and is tireless in the networking that requires.  Indeed your graduate advisor and other professors can be an incredible support system when looking for work.  But all of that is dependent on you not being a jerk.  

Some common jerk moves:  Acting childish and raising your voice.  Getting mad about little issues and burning bridges.  Showing absolutely no interest in them as human beings and demanding all attention be on yourself.  Treating professors like they are your servants.  The list goes on.  Always remember that these people can be your colleagues and friends after school ends.  Act like it.

Another pro-tip:  Dress for the job you want.  Not the job you have.  It pays off in spades to show some appreciation for the fact that other people are forced to look at you.

Lesson 5: Have some ambition, but be smart about it.

The future is bright! :)
The "millennial" generation is positively drowning in cynicism.  While our parents and grandparents imagined a glorious future in outer space and flying skateboards, our generation is focused on predicting how civilization will collapse, whether it be zombies, super-volcanoes or something else.  It's important to stay positive.  Government institutions, historical societies, archives, libraries, museums, journalism, think-tanks, publishing etc. etc.  All of these and more are open to you with a simple MA or less.

My humanities story has taken me from a small suburb of Detroit to the Library of Congress and eventually the  U.S. State Department.  There are literally thousands of great opportunities for people with our weird interests.  Very few of them will involve teaching students at research universities.  But that should not stop you from doing something you'll love.   You might even like where you end up better than you would have liked being a college professor.  Because again, you aren't going to be that. 



Some Resources for the Humanities Job Seeker:

  • USAjobs - Yes, it may be a black hole where resumes go to die, but its essentially the only way to get direct federal employment.  And it is possible to get responses.  Write a very good resume with their resumebuilder app.  If you can find any way to justify making yourself an "expert" in every question a position asks, do it.  Do not lie.  But really think hard about it.  Every Library of Congress, Smithsonian, or NARA job might get 400+ applications.  At least 50 will have veterans preference.  You have to really stand out to get passed the folks at the Office of Personnel Management.   Make use of the Saved Searches feature: "National Archives," "Library of Congress," "Historian," "Archives," "writer," etc.  Check daily.  These change fast.   Dont put off applying.  They  will sometimes end an open period early.  
  • Code4lib - For those with library science and archival experience as well as some tech savvy.  
  • American Library Association Job List - All of these will say "MLS required."  Ignore that.  If you have the skills, demonstrate them with your application.  I've met librarians in the federal government with backgrounds in archaeology, medieval studies, computer science etc. etc.    Can't win if you don't play.  
  • H-Net - For general discouragement.  Try looking up your area of expertise in the location you want to work in.  Cry.  But dont worry.  You are going to be fine.  Especially if you take my sage advice.  If you see that list and think, "Gee, there are so many professor jobs!"  Remember that every job posting will have hundreds of applicants, many are not tenure track, and that site is literally global.  
  • AdjunctNation - For those who have taken the dark path of the adjunct.  Some people just have to teach.  If you are one of those, the best approach may be the old fashioned style.  Every community college gets a stack of adjunct applications.  Go there personally, meet the head of the department during his/her office hours.  Hand them your packet (syllabi, CV, etc.) personally.  If he/she likes you, it may get you to the top of the pile when they need someone to teach a course.  Also, professors in your department will often know professors in other schools.  Don't be afraid to ask for an introduction.  Remember, this path lacks security and basic benefits.  You spouse or partner better have a great job and be cool with you making less than a fry-cook at McDonald's.            
  • Idealist.org - Idealist has many of the sorts of jobs you will get a call-back for.  Its all non-profits and most of them are east coast.  But these are the sorts of writing/editing/administrative jobs that a humanities MA can get.  Beware of low non-profit wages.
  • Historical Consulting Firms such as History Associates or The History Factory do for-profit research on behalf of government and corporations.  I've known some people who have gone this route.  Many of these jobs are on a project basis and will be temporary.  
  • A lot of organizations don't post to these sorts of lists.  So check the job listings pages of organizations you might want to work for.  If the Gates Foundation or Coca-Cola is hiring a historian or archivist, they may not be as familiar with these sorts of lists and just throw it up on their website.  Look for yourself.  
One last thing:  Apply.  Don't be discouraged by the fact you only have 7/10 of the requirements.  If you think you can do the job, apply.  Many people hamper their own success by undervaluing themselves.  This is especially true for womenwho tend to have less bravado and stupid confidence when applying for jobs. Be stupid.  Be bold.  Apply.  You deserve it.  Now go be successful.  

Lee Nilsson earned his Masters in History at Eastern Washington University in 2013. He was a National Digital Stewardship Resident at the Library of Congress from 2013-14. In August Nilsson begins work as a Junior Analyst for the U.S. State Department.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Want to Buy a Piece of Spokane History?

Last week the Spokesman-Review ran an interesting piece about a historical mural that is for sale. The giant painting (149 inches wide by 89 inches tall) is an artistic rendition of a well-known 1884 birds-eye view map of Spokane. Apparently it was created for an unknown Spokane Bank in the 1930s and hung there until the 1950s. A neighbor of Dina Carlson found the mural in her garage and brought to Carlson, who owns Lillian Conn Antiques & Gallery.


Here for comparison is the 1884 map:


According to the Spokesman, "An inscription on the back indicates it was completed in 1938 and signed by an artist with the last name of Hart."

This week I had the opportunity to view the mural myself. It was on display at the quarterly meeting of Spokane Preservation Advocates (join now!). I did not think much of the mural when I read the newspaper article, but in person it is really quite charming. It has been rolled up for fifty years and is in excellent condition. The colors are bright, the paint is not flaking or damaged at all. Hart the painter was no Michelangelo, to be sure, but it does not feel amateurish either--it is really a wonderful portrayal of Spokane in its first decade: I took quite a few pictures:

The full mural. It is a tiny bit ragged on some of the edges where it was cut down.


Some of Spokane's first businesses harnessed the power of the river.

Original Post Street Bridge?

Havermale Island.

Street Scene.

Northern Pacific train coming into town.

Spokane College.

First Northern Pacific Depot.

The artist added several groups of Indians not present in the original map.

Another street scene.





I love the simplicity of this detail.

Indians fishing at the falls.
I have no idea how much money they are asking for this mural. I don't think it is worth tens of thousands--it is not after all, from 1884, or from a famous artist, and the potential customer base for this item is very limited. The Spokesman article mentions that the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture declined an opportunity to buy the piece.

It should always be remembered when dealing with those very popular birds-eye maps of the 19th century that most were produced by real estate speculators and town boosters. They very often depict towns not as they were but as they wished to be seen, in an effort to stimulate investments from back east. The 1891 birds eye of Spokane, for example, shows neighborhoods platted out half way to Canada! As seductive as these old maps are, we should analyze them as we do period advertising, with a shaker of salt at hand.

The most striking thing about the map, however, was how much people loved it. All evening there were different groups of people gathered around, pointing out different features to one another and exchanging conversation. The rich details of the map draw in any Spokane history buff to stop and look for a long while. I hope it finds a public home.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Damnation, and the Reclaiming of Northwestern Rivers

When I was in elementary school, at least once a year the teacher would haul out the movie projector and show us "It Couldn't be Done," a 1970 TV special featuring a hippie-ish Lee Marvin and the band the Fifth Dimension presenting inspiring stories of American achievement. (Trippy excerpt here.) One of the achievements celebrated was the Hoover Dam. Who could doubt that the dam was one of the greatest efforts in the history of mankind?

Lately we have been reconsidering. One of the most interesting developments in the western environment in the reevaluation of the many dam projects which remade our rivers in the mid-20th century. Many aging dams don't produce all that much electricity or other economic benefits, yet continue to have enormous environmental impacts. Why not take them out and restore the natural rivers that we have lost? In 2011 the removal of the Elwha Dam on the Olympic peninsula began what is shaping up as a national movement. A new film, Damnation, reviews the history of damming western rivers and the possibilities and benefits of removing some of them:



I am going to see if we cannot get a local screening of this film. Are you listening, Bart Milhailovich?


Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Boondocks

If I were teaching a course about race in America, I would be tempted to use the animated series The Boondocks as the primary text.

The Boondocks is the work of Aaron McGruder, who began drawing the strip for his college newspaper. The core of the show and its conscience is Huey Freeman, a radical black revolutionary trapped in the body of a ten year old. His hip-hop loving little brother Riley is often at odds with Huey. Both fight with their old-school grandfather Robert Jebediah Freeman, who moved the boys from Chicago to an unnamed white suburb ("the Boondocks") to raise them. I read somewhere that nearly every character is an archetype, which is very true. Supporting characters include Thomas Dubois (the black sell-out who has forgotten his roots and his masculinity), Thugnificent (the decadent rapper who thinks he is somehow carrying on the legacy of MLK), and most memorably, Uncle Ruckus, the colorful self-hating black man.

The writing is amazing, both very funny and politically-pointed. McGruder has two targets--the racism built into American society, and the problems in African-American society that hold back the community. The show is very controversial.

The best introduction is the first episode, below. Warning--the show makes free use of the N-word, and other offensive speech.

Sunday, April 20, 2014


British Pathé has been making newsreels since the First world War--and just put 85,000 historic films online for free in a special Youtube channel. There are plenty of news outlets and bloggers digging through the content and finding neat things. Is there anything from the Northwest?

A quick search reveals more regional content than one might expect in this British news source. Some of the highlights include:


There is so much more! Search within the Pathe collection for terms unique to the northwest--I searched "Spokane," "Seattle," "Oregon," and "Columbia River. Tell us what you find in the comments below, or on the Northwest History Facebook page.

Monday, April 7, 2014

How Do We Do This?

OK, historian and digerati friends--how should I proceed with this project? We have an Excel spreadsheet inventory of 7000 items from a defunct museum, along with 7000 individual JPEG pictures of those items. How do we put these together, attaching an image to each spreadsheet item, in a useable format?

 Some background. From 1980 until some time in the late 1990s, there was a museum on the Fairchild Air Force base in eastern Washington. The museum was one of those labors of love, mostly powered by volunteers from the local military community. The focus was not only the base, but the military history of the Inland Northwest--so the collection  ranges from minnie balls picked up from 19th-century battlefields to a B-52 flight simulator. In the late 1990s the Air Force closed most base museums, including Fairchild. As the  artifacts were boxed  for storage, a quick inventory was created for the roughly 7000 items and a digital photograph was taken of each. The boxes went into storage at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture. Where they remain to this day:

MAC Director Forrest Rogers unveils some
of the ~300 boxes of the collection.
 My public history class has been tasked with surveying the collection and deciding what are some of the particularly interesting and noteworthy items. Obviously whatever we do will be only a start, and a professional conservator will have to come in at some point, but whatever we can do will help the owners of the collection as they work towards their plan of establishing a new aerospace museum in Spokane. After a conversation with board president Tobby Hatley, we decided creating a database of the spreadsheet and images would be the first order of business for my students and I.

My initial thought was to simply upload the spreadsheet to Google Docs, share with the class, add a column titled "images" and start dragging and dropping. I strongly suspect, however, that this is too large a data set to work with that way. So what do we do? We are experienced with Omeka from our work with Spokane Historical--can we simply convert a spreadsheet to an Omeka database in some fashion, or are are hand-creating each item? Is there another solution we should be examining--Drupal? Wordpress?

We are looking to create a working database and not (at this time) a digital project. We want to keep it quick and reasonably simple, so my students can move to the next phase--opening some of those boxes and locating the treasures of this collection.

How do we do this?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Book Bound in Human Skin?

When you are a public historian, the public finds you.  They bring you their questions and sometimes their special objects. Your aunt wants you to authenticate that genuine copy of the Magna Carta she found at a garage sale, a local teacher carries some historic letters from the community, a retired genealogist wants you confirm her findings that she is in fact the lost Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia. I usually enjoy these often quirky and charming encounters.

Nothing, however, prepared me for the woman who came to my office a couple of years ago with a book to examine. As she told what is was I quickly realized that I needed to document the encounter, and with her permission I recorded a video:


Yikes! A book bound in human skin? What should I do?

I decided that my responsibilities were 1) determine the authenticity of the story about this book, in a manner that is respectful of native beliefs and culture, and 2) if it did turn out to be what it was said to be, to see it returned to the tribal descendants of the individual. The owner of the book--a really nice and ethical person--was willing to turn it over to a tribal group, if that is what it was, but first she wanted to know for certain.

My first discovery was that binding books with human skin really is a thing. The term is Anthropodermic bibliopegy. Here is a good blog post with some dramatic examples.Harvard even has a few However, there seemed to be only a few examples of the practice in America, or anywhere in the nineteenth century.

John Walton's biography is bound
in John Walton. How many
of us can boast as much?
Another route to discovering the truth might be investigate this General George B. Dandy. Sounds like a joke name, right? No, General Dandy was a real historical figure, who had a long career in the frontier army and participated in numerous engagements with American Indians, including the Box Wagon skirmish, where around 60 Indians were killed. That part checked out.

Was it common for nineteenth-century Americans to mutilate the bodies of slain Indians? Unfortunately, it was. I won't try to compile a list, but nearly every 19th-century victory battle between whites and natives ended with the winners collecting bloody souvenirs from the corpses of their enemies. Some native warriors collected scalps from the dead. American soldiers too collected scalps, but also were known to take fingers, genitals (both male and female) and strips of skin. There are literally hundreds of cases of this behavior, throughout the nineteenth century and for that matter the twentieth.

How about the provenance of the book? The signature of Dandy appeared genuine and matched other signatures by him on official documents. The book, Army Life on the Pacific by Lawrence Kip is a well-know volume which describes the Indian Wars of 1858. Dandy was a fellow officer with Kip in these campaigns and would likely have bought a copy of the book when it was published in 1959. The marginalia in the book appeared to be by someone who took part in the events described. And Glenn Adams, the previous owner, was a pretty famous person in regional history. He ran a tiny publishing company, Ye Galleon Press, in Fairfield Washington from 1939 until 2003 (!), publishing about 600 titles, mostly reprints of obscure books of regional history. It is hard to believe that he would have scammed his hired help with a phony story about a book bound in human skin.

I did not like where this was heading.

Artist's rendering of the Wagon Box Fight
My campus is also home to a state crime lab, as well as a fine biology department. My first thought was that the book should be tested. In a series of phone conversations I learned that any testing would require sampling--cutting out a small section of the binding for analysis. I did not feel like it was right to do this without talking to the tribe first--and I did not want to even begin what might be a painful conversation for them without being a little more certain.

Finally, I brought in the big guns--I called the Smithsonian, and followed up with an email that included both a link to the video and some high definition scans of the book's bindings. It took a while but someone did get back to me. I am removing a few names as this was a private email, but here is the gist of the answer:

Dear Mr. Cebula, 

I have received several requests from other people here at the museum to review your inquiry concerning a book purported to be made of human skin. 

First, let me say that if you feel that this needs to be fully investigated, some destructive sampling will HAVE to be done, such as chemical test, or histological study. From the photographs and the video I saw, there are several locations on the book that a small sample could be removed for such analysis. 

I have worked with many other investigations concerning the use of human skin and organs as coverings or displays and in the rough visualization from the pictures and the video, the thickness and the overall texture of the 'hide/skin' is not obviously consistent with human skin that I have encountered. 

I have studied purported skin lamp shades from WWII, human and non-human shrunken heads from S America, hair lockets and scalps for N & S America, mummified and frozen bodies from around the world, and I don't feel that the material on that book is consistent with human tissue. 

I would also feel that if this was human skin that a fine well executed book-binding would not have been done. This book is bound like a commercial binding; inside papering is well attached, folded papering and cover endings and spine well done. I am of the opinion that if someone were adorning their book with human skin that they took off of a killed NA Indian for a "trophy" it would have not been, even at that time, a accepted norm to do and I believe that an established and/or good bookbinder would not have agreed to have done this work. Thus my opinion is that this would not been the skin of a human. 

So with al that said, I again suggest that if you believe there is substantial proof (other that hearsay that it is covered with human skin) and you feel this need to be clarified, then a sample of the tissue will need to be acquired and chemical / histological testing will be the only way to positively confirm / deny this identification. 

If I can follow from my experience from the reported objects made from human skin or flesh by the Nazis, in all but one instance, the stories were just that...... Sincerely,

This expert opinion is really convincing to my mind, particularly the part about the professional, mass-market quality of the binding, and the fact that it does not look "consistent with human tissue" to a scholar who has seen his share of human skin. I solicited a second opinion for a medical museum on the east coast, and their answer was the same. This book is NOT bound in human skin.

I shared the correspondence with the owner of the volume. She seemed something between disappointed and relieved at the findings. And really, wouldn't you be? Me, I was glad that this had turned out to be a bookselling misunderstanding rather than a war crime. I think the simplest explanation is that the kindly Mr. Adams was bamboozled by a book dealer, many years ago.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Field Trip!

It was a wonderful day for Northwest History today, as I got to do a field trip with some of my public history students. This quarter we are creating a smartphone driving tour of Idaho's Silver Valley, an area with a rich history. So today we piled into a couple of cars and took a road trip.

We visited the Wallace District Mining Museum, the Northern Pacific Depot Museum, Cataldo Mission (and the adjacent museum), and the ghost town of Burke. The highlight was the Mining Museum, where director Jim McReynolds rolled out the red carpet and gave us an inside view of running a small museum. Shauna Hillman opened the Depot Museum specially for us and gave us a wonderful tour. Some of the interesting features of Burke were hidden under the snow but we still enjoyed gawking at the mining ruins and comparing historic photographs to what remained. On the way back to Spokane we did a quick visit to Cataldo Mission, including a lightning visit to the Sacred Encounters exhibit. A few photos:

Silver Valley Field Trip

I really should do this sort of thing more often. Not because it is a great educational experience for my students (though it is!) but because I enjoy it so. In what other profession do you get to spend your days with bright, enthusiastic young people, discussing your favorite topic? I do love this job.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Presentation this Wednesday: Alaska's Gold Rush Maritime Landscape

This sounds fascinating!

Remains of the SS Islander, which sank in 1901
with a reported ton of gold bullion
On July 17, 1897, the steamship Portland pulled into Seattle carrying $700,000 in gold from Alaska. The event sparked the first in a series Gold Rushes that brought tens of thousands of people to Alaska. The Gold Rush era left many lasting legacies, among them a complex marine archaeological landscape that extends thousands of miles from British Columbia to the Arctic. This lecture builds on four field projects and the speaker’s experiences as commercial fisherman in Alaska to discuss the dynamics that created a vast “shipwreck landscape” and describes selected shipwreck sites investigated by teams from the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology, the Sea Education Association, and the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program. The lecture touches on Alaska history, the history of history technology, and addresses contested issues of community memory and its relationship to the archaeological landscape.

The Spokane Society of the Archaeological Institute of America
invites you to a lecture by John Odin Jensen. Jensen will speak on the Gold
Rush in Alaska, which left many lasting legacies, among them a complex marine
archaeological landscape that extends from British Columbia to the Arctic. This
lecture builds on four projects to discuss the dynamics that created a vast
"shipwreck landscape" and describes shipwreck sites investigated by
teams from the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology, the Sea Education
Association, and the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program.

This lecture will be held: Gonzaga
University's Wolff Auditorium in Jepson Center
6:30 PM, lecture
ends at 8:30 PM



Lecture is FREE:


AIA Event Listings - Alaska's Gold Rush Maritime Landscape - Archaeological Institute of America:



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