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Historians Say West Long Defined By Debates Over Immigration, Water

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Western History Association Executive Director Elaine Nelson says the region’s story is far more nuanced than the romanticized cowboy image popularized by 19th-century artist Frederick Remington.

Experts on the history of the American West are moseying into Las Vegas this week.

Many of the 1,200 members of the Western History Association are expected for the academic group’s annual conference, which is being dubbed, “What Happens in the West Doesn’t Stay in the West.”

Professor Elaine Nelson, executive director of the history association, said many of the topics to be discussed remain relevant today. Those include water, immigration, urbanization, and the treatment of marginalized groups.

Nelson, who teaches history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said her interest in the West began when she saw how little of the story of her native South Dakota was included in her college textbooks.

“It was a gloss over of my state,” she told State of Nevada, “So, it became more attractive to me to understand more about that history and to really consider why is the West not more part of U.S. history textbooks."

Nelson noted that the western United States and Nevada played important roles in the country but those topics are often overlooked in textbooks. She believes understanding the history of our part of the continent is vital to dealing with its present.

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She said Nevada's part of that history has a lot to do with indigenous populations and how they survived in a landscape that is unforgiving. In addition, how those populations reacted when other populations arrived like the Spanish.

Nelson noted that our state is part of a larger discussion about colonial history in America and the displacing of indigenous populations.

“It’s important to celebrate history but also to recognize that there is an underbelly and a dark side of history. And we need to be engaging in those difficult conversations," she said.

Besides presentations on that aspect of western history, the conference will also feature presentations and papers on African Amerian history in the West, urban history, immigration and borderland disputes, and travel and tourism.

There will also be tours of the area, including Hoover Dam, Red Rock Canyon, the Nevada Test site and downtown Las Vegas. Nelson also noted there would be a special tour of sites important to the history of the LGBTQ community.

Nelson said people believe that historians are looking down from their ivory towers of academia, but in reality, historians are doing all kinds of work in the community from working closely with public entities like the park service on rewriting history markers to using their knowledge of the past to help lawmakers make good decisions about policy affecting our futures.

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Elaine Nelson, executive director, Western History Association

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