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Monday, February 26, 2024
Feb. 26, 2024

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WSU professor fills historical gap with new course on American Indian Wars: ‘We have an obligation to Native people’


SPOKANE — A park ranger, two Civil War re-enactors — complete with knapsacks and a muzzleloader — and a college professor carrying a large map stood poised at Steptoe Battlefield State Park earlier this month to make history come to life for Washington State University students.

Their course, United States -Indian Wars, was created by Ryan Booth this year, covering a little-studied era in Pacific Northwest history.

Booth, a member of the Upper Skagit Tribe, wrote his dissertation on U.S. Indian Scouts. He was looking at an Army manual, and a back section listed all the conflicts in which the United States was involved from the country ‘s founding to about 1900.

The majority of the conflicts were with Native peoples.

“We teach so many classes, but almost over half the conflicts the United States was involved in were conflicts against Indigenous people. But we don’t teach a class on this,” Booth said.

So Booth filled the gap and created the class. But it wasn’t easy.

The course covers a broad period from European contact to 1924, when Indigenous people were given U.S. citizenship. Normally professors have their choice of textbooks and a multitude of resources to draw from. But Booth found little written about U.S. Indian wars in the region.

Students often have little knowledge of the tribes in the region or their history, Booth said.

In 1855, many area tribes signed treaties with the U.S. government. Conflicts erupted not long after.

“That is the genesis moment for this relationship between the federal government and our local tribes,” Booth said. “The impact of those hundreds of years of conflict, I think continues to be felt in Native communities to the present day.”

‘History is all around’

Students, many clad in Cougars gear, piled out of WSU vans on a sunny Saturday morning this month at Steptoe Battlefield State Park near Rosalia.

It was the first stop in a daylong field trip to make history come alive.

Booth talked about the battle that took place there, holding a large map of the area for students to see. Then Mary Keffer, an interpretive ranger with Washington State Parks, shared about the updated signage set to be added to the small park with input from involved tribes.

Two re-enactors from the Washington Civil War Association demonstrated what life for soldiers may have been like. They passed around hard tack, the bread substitute so hard that students were warned to be careful or they could break a tooth.

For 18-year-old Wylie Gray, the course and field trip made him feel more connected to his state and personal history.

Gray is a freshman from Twisp, Washington, who is studying forestry. He is part Native but never enrolled in a tribe.

He relates both to the discussion of local tribes and the learning about regular Army troops at the time. He has friends who are currently enlisted, and their lives don’t sound much different from what soldiers went through in the 1850s.

“It made me feel definitely more connected,” Gray said. “A lot of the things we learn, they relate to us.”

Fostering that sense of connection to the past is one of Booth’s strengths, said Matt Sutton, chair of WSU’s history department.

“Ryan is really good at helping them understand that this stuff also matters to the present, and that history is all around them; they just need to know where to look,” Sutton said.

Paul Nguyen, 22, agreed. He came to WSU to study history education after three years in the Army.

A buddy suggested the class because of Nguyen’s interest in both Native American and military history.

“It’s really nice just learning about the history of what I’m a part of,” Nguyen said.

As a future history teacher, Nguyen has been reflecting on how his learning in this course differs from what he was taught in high school.

“In high school, I learned barely anything about Native American history. I learned about, I don’t want to say white history, but I learned about white history, you know, that’s what was pushed in high school,” Nguyen said. “What I feel like should be taught is where our actual origins are, where this land’s origin is.”

Even for students who traditionally haven’t been interested in this era, the course has been enthralling.

Jillian Paxton, 21, is a senior history major who plans to continue her education in hopes of becoming a history professor herself.

“I’m not an American history girlie,” Paxton said, preferring to study Middle Eastern history.

However, Booth’s personable teaching style and ability to connect the past to the present has drawn her in.

“The sheer amount of misinformation that happened because of the white narrative,” Paxton said. “Which everyone is very well aware of, but I think the level that it is , not a lot of people kind of understand.”

After the lesson at Steptoe, the field trip continued into Spokane with lunch at Indigenous Eats before the class headed to the Cataldo Mission.

There, students learned how the Coeur d’Alene Tribe invited Jesuit priests to the region as a fulfillment of pre-contact stories of men in black robes who would show the tribe a new way of life.

“The Jesuit missionaries were particularly important in kind of helping broker a peace deal that came after the 1858 wars,” Booth said. “It complicated some narratives for students, which I really, really loved.”

Redefining ‘land grant mission’

Booth was hired to help “rethink, revitalize and modernize our approach to Indigenous history,” Sutton said.

WSU has made an effort to recruit more students who may not think of themselves as a good fit for college, Sutton said. Once they arrive at school, they need mentorship, support and courses that speak to them, such as Booth’s.

At a land-grant university, Booth feels an obligation to focus research on Native people. Land-grant colleges like WSU were given federally controlled land in hopes of boosting science and agricultural education.

“We have an obligation to Native people, because where did the land for the land-grant come from? It came from Indigenous land,” Booth said. “And I think we have a special obligation to sort of focus our research and those sorts of things on Indigenous people. That to me, I think, is a more meaningful demonstration of our commitment.”