Playing with the past: heritage and public identity in the American West

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Playing with the past: heritage and public identity in the American West

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Title: Playing with the past: heritage and public identity in the American West
Author: Christensen, Bonnie S
Abstract: This study investigates the development of public identity and heritage in Red Lodge, Montana between 1889 and the 1990s. Like many western towns, Red Lodge is the creation of a variety of forces and its public identity reflects an amalgamation of local history, national mythology, and economic motivation. To look closely at these identities is to understand how complicated their constructions are and to recognize that local, regional, and national identities can be symbiotic as well as antithetical. Local western identities, grounded in specific places, have become inextricable intertwined with national ideas about the West and the people who inhabit it. This study picks apart these specific and local western identities to see how and why they developed over time and to understand the ways in which people have generated and used them to explain who they are, both to themselves and to outsiders. I do so by examining one small town, looking particularly at public imagery and the construction of a local heritage. The dissertation proceeds both chronologically and topically. Chapters One and Two look at the townspeople's initial attempts in the 1890s to eliminate the imagery of the popular "Wild West" from the town's environs as they strove to create an identity as a safe, industrial, union town. Chapters Three and Four investigate how and why residents in the mid-20th century chose to "redesign" that industrial history to create a heritage more appropriate to their contemporary needs The results show how these local people picked and chose particular story lines from the town's past, which they then interwove with powerful national narratives of the "West" and American pluralism. Chapter Five examines the impact of federal lands---specifically Yellowstone National Park and the Beartooth Mountains---on the town's public identity. Finally, the conclusion looks at more recent attempts to reconstruct a cleaned-up version of a mining heritage into the town's public identity.
Description: Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Washington, 1999

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