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A Big Sky Filled With Many Voices

An Editor's Note

April 16, 2006|Rick Wartzman

Separating the myth and reality of the American West can be as difficult as untangling the thorny chaparral of the California foothills.

That challenge, though, is only the first of several in trying to make sense

of this vast region. Things here have shifted so fast on the ground--as well as in our imaginations--that the very definition of the West "flies before us as we travel," as George Catlin, famous for his paintings of Native Americans, declared in the mid-1800s.

In lyrical prose, Rick Bass takes his own stab at sussing out the place, and he finds that the West is still flying before us today. "We can feel it moving now, sliding away," he writes, "and yet even in its diminishment it is still somehow fiercely present" ("Lost in Space," page 14).

At the same time, Bass concedes that his vision of the West is tremendously limited. "I am still, despite my knowing better, dreaming only the Anglo dream of the West," he says. "What are the dreams in Indian country, and of Latinos? What dreams do Tibetan and Thai emigres bring, and Russian orthodoxy, and first- and second-generation Chinese Americans?"

I'd go a step further and argue that Bass' is only one Anglo version among many. My West, for instance, is as much about the splendor of this multiethnic urban frontier as it is about a wide-open territory of the grizzly, lynx and wolverine.

The fact is, the story of the West is really multiple narratives--"both contradictory and complementary," notes John Gray, president of the Autry National Center.

It might strike some as funny that the guy running the Autry, long seen as a repository of a largely one-dimensional view of the West (and a singing cowboy's view to boot), would embrace this more complex perspective.

But Gray and his staff have done just that during the last few years. The impetus has come, in part, from the Autry's 2003 merger with the Southwest Museum, home to a rich trove of Native American art and artifacts. In addition, the Autry absorbed Colorado's Women of the West Museum in 2002.

The trick now is to figure out how to showcase these different voices--but not to isolate them, either. After all, "they're part of a chorus," says Stephen Aron, executive director of the Institute for the Study of the American West, the Autry's scholarly research arm. "The world really mingled here." So, for example, the Autry's current fur-trading exhibit weaves together the impressions of Native Americans and European settlers.

"It's their side-by-side nature that creates the larger American West," says Gray, adding that founder Gene Autry undoubtedly would have loved the approach. As the only entertainer with five stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame (for radio, records, film, TV and live theatrical performance, including rodeo), he certainly understood: There's more than one way for a story to be told.

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