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Students attend field school, contribute to interpretive history of Old West

RELEASED: July 8, 2011

Public History Field School
Students met the difficult challenge of shaving poles and constructing tipis.

EAU CLAIRE — Eleven students from an American Indian history course at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire recently returned from an immersion experience in and around Virginia City, Mont., a national historic site that preserves the history of the Gold Rush era.

Dr. John W.W. Mann, associate professor of history at UW-Eau Claire, took participants to the Public History Field School to visit locations of historical significance and help diversify the interpretive center's program to include Native American history.

The field school is a collaboration of the Montana Heritage Commission, which operates interpretive centers in the region, Washington State University and the Lemhi Shoshone tribe. Students received hands-on training in various fields of public history, including archeology, interpretation, museum studies and historic preservation, and did research that produced the text for interpretive panels on the African American and Chinese populations in Virginia City.

"I was drawn to it because it represents a serendipitous intersection of my teaching and research interests," said Mann, whose book "Sacajawea's People: the Lemhi Shoshones and the Salmon River Country" is among the required texts for the field school experience. "The idea is to get students out of the classroom to places where history happened. Instead of just reading books written by white guys like me, it is nice for students to be able to get the perspective of Indian people themselves."

Since 1995, Mann has been doing research with Dr. Orlan Svingen, a public history professor at Washington State University who helped establish the field school. After visiting the school in 2010, Mann was so impressed that he made it a priority to return with students.

"Too often in history books you learn about Indians up until about the 1890s and it's like they disappear and never appear again in a textbook," Mann said. "One of the things I try to get across to my students is that Indian people are still here. It's an evolving culture and this really drives the point home."

The students also traveled to Salmon, Idaho, to participate in the Lemhi Shoshone Agai'dika gathering, which culminates in a run/walk up Lemhi Pass in commemoration of Tendoy, an important leader who helped his people make the transition to reservation life.

Buffalo Jump
Students climbed down a "buffalo jump," a land formation strategically used by hunters to injure or kill their prey.

Ryan Hidlebaugh, a graduate student from Woodbury, Minn., had his doubts about whether he could make it to the top.

"I got sick the last 50 feet but I was determined. A hundred years ago they had to do it, so that was my motivation," Hidlebaugh said. "I put myself in the mindset that some people had no choice but to make it, carrying children and all of their possessions. It made the experience all the more powerful."

Hidlebaugh said the entire experience expanded his understanding of public history and what public historians are obligated to do in their communities.

"I liked being able to piece together the movement of a person from the past," said his classmate Jenny Murray, a graduate student from Rochester, Minn. "Doing this through the use of landscape made it even more incredible."

Other students in the course were Jenna Vater, Plymouth; Heidi Heideman, Manawa; Alex Snyder, Rice Lake; Todd Theiste, Eau Claire; Rebecca Rohan, Milwaukee; Lucy Marquardt, Tomah; Charity Moore, Milltown; Katherine Mourning, Elk River, Minn.; and Teila Luchterhand, Spencer.

Mann said historians have come late to the field school concept in comparison to archeologists, for example.

"It provides students with real world, hands-on experience and allows them to study history where it happened, which can make the learning far more meaningful. I think it's the future of history education, where instead of reading books and memorizing names and dates you get out and visit actual sites," Mann said.

For more information, contact Dr. John W.W. Mann, associate professor of history, at 715-836-5850 or mannjw@uwec.edu.

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RD/DW

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