Presentation Type

Oral Presentation

Category

Social Sciences/Humanities

Abstract/Artist Statement

Stretching along more than 1,000 miles of dense forest, mountain passes, meandering rivers, and open prairie, the Nez Perce National Historic Trail (NPNHT) catalogs the events and impact of the Nez Perce War of 1877—a war that was transformational for the Nez Perce (Niimiipuu) people and white settlers across the inland northwest. The war’s history, which remains relevant today, is interpreted primarily through informative roadside signage. This signage, developed over decades, has accumulated in a confusing muddle of different narratives, values, and perspectives that is harmful to public learning and conceptions of heritage throughout the region. Heritage, which is the way that societies think about the past in the present, is an often-unrecognized factor in societal health and human rights, and its distortion is a serious concern. Fortunately, however, the lack of sign uniformity is helpful to the study of cultural heritage along the NPNHT; it forms a sort of heritage stratigraphy, or layering, that allows a keen look into past behavior and thought. Conducted during an internship for the Trail and a cultural heritage seminar, this research is a comparative analysis of signs along the NPNHT. Studying historical accuracy, language use, and sign context, I organized signs based on content, date, and source. A few patterns emerged. Most significantly, older (20+ years) and locally developed signs tended to ignore or distort Niimiipuu perspectives, especially regarding leadership, and skewed inaccurately towards US success and suffering. In addition, signs overall neglected to use Niimiipuu naming and language, with some exceptions in more recent examples. The omission of traditional language, especially regarding names, is damaging not only to an idea of the past, but to cultures who use that language in the present, as it separates them from their heritage. I also looked at published interactions with signs and monuments along the trail; there was a large discrepancy between Niimiipuu and non-tribal awareness of and value placed on the war’s history, with Niimiipuu people engaging regularly and placing more significance on the event. While there is a clear modern connection to the war for Niimiipuu, non-tribal connections are comparatively minimal. This discrepancy might have harmful implications in for relations between the groups in the present. With these research findings in mind, I developed an experimental sign for the Bitterroot Valley that incorporated multiple historical perspectives, Niimiipuu naming and translations, and interactive features. Situating the sign within a geographically significant location in the valley, I hoped to encourage local communities to form connections to the heritage and, as a result, undo confusing and harmful conceptions of history. Before new signs can begin to have a positive effect, however, the old and inaccurate signage must be removed. Ultimately, there is ample room for a new heritage that incorporates the Nez Perce War in both American and Niimiipuu society—searching for meaning in a shared past rather than a separate one.

Mentor Name

John Douglas

Personal Statement

Roadside signs are often treated like their neighbors, roadkill. Ignored and left to bake in the sun, roadside signs have a poor reputation as boring highway decoration. While some signs certainly merit this treatment, there is important information on most, and they constitute an essential part of society— cultural heritage. Heritage aids communities in developing a communal connection to the past, knowledge about the present, and in forming identity. In analyzing signs along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail (NPNHT), I have not only increased understanding of past thinking about the Nez Perce War, but also gained insight into why communities along the trail lack interest in the content. Although much more data could be gathered about visitor engagement and motivation, my research acts as a strong starting point for further exploration. Given the bitter and violent history the signs document, I argue that a more accurate understanding of history is a powerful tool in working towards a more peaceful and harmonious present. With the negative perception of signs, however, it will likely be difficult to accomplish meaningful change implementing them as they are. To this end, my experimental sign, which utilizes engaging features (like an interactive map and sound) and is tailored to local residents, offers a potential path towards a more enriched and educated community.

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Bitterroot, Bitter History: Heritage Along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail

Stretching along more than 1,000 miles of dense forest, mountain passes, meandering rivers, and open prairie, the Nez Perce National Historic Trail (NPNHT) catalogs the events and impact of the Nez Perce War of 1877—a war that was transformational for the Nez Perce (Niimiipuu) people and white settlers across the inland northwest. The war’s history, which remains relevant today, is interpreted primarily through informative roadside signage. This signage, developed over decades, has accumulated in a confusing muddle of different narratives, values, and perspectives that is harmful to public learning and conceptions of heritage throughout the region. Heritage, which is the way that societies think about the past in the present, is an often-unrecognized factor in societal health and human rights, and its distortion is a serious concern. Fortunately, however, the lack of sign uniformity is helpful to the study of cultural heritage along the NPNHT; it forms a sort of heritage stratigraphy, or layering, that allows a keen look into past behavior and thought. Conducted during an internship for the Trail and a cultural heritage seminar, this research is a comparative analysis of signs along the NPNHT. Studying historical accuracy, language use, and sign context, I organized signs based on content, date, and source. A few patterns emerged. Most significantly, older (20+ years) and locally developed signs tended to ignore or distort Niimiipuu perspectives, especially regarding leadership, and skewed inaccurately towards US success and suffering. In addition, signs overall neglected to use Niimiipuu naming and language, with some exceptions in more recent examples. The omission of traditional language, especially regarding names, is damaging not only to an idea of the past, but to cultures who use that language in the present, as it separates them from their heritage. I also looked at published interactions with signs and monuments along the trail; there was a large discrepancy between Niimiipuu and non-tribal awareness of and value placed on the war’s history, with Niimiipuu people engaging regularly and placing more significance on the event. While there is a clear modern connection to the war for Niimiipuu, non-tribal connections are comparatively minimal. This discrepancy might have harmful implications in for relations between the groups in the present. With these research findings in mind, I developed an experimental sign for the Bitterroot Valley that incorporated multiple historical perspectives, Niimiipuu naming and translations, and interactive features. Situating the sign within a geographically significant location in the valley, I hoped to encourage local communities to form connections to the heritage and, as a result, undo confusing and harmful conceptions of history. Before new signs can begin to have a positive effect, however, the old and inaccurate signage must be removed. Ultimately, there is ample room for a new heritage that incorporates the Nez Perce War in both American and Niimiipuu society—searching for meaning in a shared past rather than a separate one.