Published: Oct. 3, 2023 By

With the Flatirons as a stunning backdrop to the CASE classroom, students in the course Introduction to Western American Studies discuss and dissect the idea of “western expansion” by connecting federal policies and cultural imagination.

By the end of class, they learn that one of the boundary lines created by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 literally runs right outside their door in the form of Baseline Road in Boulder. Grounding CU students in the history, culture, politics and environment of the western U.S. is to show them that the story about the West is happening right outside their door, and that they can have a say in it.

The notion of connecting students to place is but one piece of a renewed emphasis on creating a welcoming and inclusive space for students in the Center of the American West.

Learn more about the Center of the American West and upcoming events

This particular intro course is just the start of the journey for students engaged with the center. For 20 years, the center has offered a certificate program in Western American studies, where students take 18 hours of courses from a variety of disciplines, including the option of an internship.

For one student, it opened her eyes to grave injustices of the early settling of the West and the impact on Indigenous populations. Through a variety of readings and podcasts, the student “learned that the brucellosis disease affecting bison and cattle was originally brought over by Europeans and their cattle on ships. Europeans placed blame on Indigenous people and their bison… but really it was the other way around.”

For another, earning a certificate in Western American studies opened up new pathways after college.

“The connections I developed through this program gave me a support network that enabled me to successfully become the California delegate to this year’s Western Governors’ Association leadership institute held in Boulder. This program, and the benefits of its association, will surely help me promote a modern conservative movement throughout the West, especially in my home state.”

Endless topics for exploration

In addition to its academic offerings, the center collaborates on providing student internships at History Colorado, the Museum of Boulder, The Nature Conservancy and other organizations. Undergraduate students can also qualify for merit scholarships and awards to attend conferences with center-affiliated faculty. Graduate students participate in research projects and often serve as teaching assistants or instructors for certificate program courses, such as Introduction to Western American Studies.

CU Boulder International Affairs Professor Tom Zeiler was tapped nearly a year ago as interim director of the center, which was founded in 1999 and is part of the College of Arts and Sciences.

With his colleagues and collaborators on campus and in the Western region, Zeiler has charged ahead on a new strategic plan that focuses on undergraduate and graduate student education; interdisciplinary research; outreach to Colorado and beyond; and connection to the university community.

“We see the center as a hub to explore the ongoing complexities of the western U.S.,” Zeiler said. “We want to encourage people to rethink the issues going on in their own communities.”

As for the center’s region of focus, the boundaries can be amorphous depending upon which lens you use to define the American West: Is it cultural, political or geographical, or some combination?

And the topics for exploration are nearly endless, from politics to water rights, to the cultural significance of Mexican rodeo in the United States or growing up gay in the American West, not to mention the significant threat posed by climate change, such as wildfires, flooding and drought.

What makes the center unique

The Western American Studies Certificate is one element that differentiates the CU Boulder program from others outside of CU Boulder that focus on research and scholarship on the American West. The center is also intent on opening up its spaces in Macky Auditorium for a variety of exhibits and programs.

The recently announced Rewriting the West series will include a range of speakers and programs.

The center is also capitalizing on a variety of community partnerships.

For instance, it is working with the Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies (CNAIS) at CU Boulder, Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) and representatives from the Arapaho Tribe of the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in Colorado, the Ute Indian Tribe of Uintah and Ouray in Utah and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Colorado to promote better representation of tribal nations at the national parks.

Center affiliates and partners are developing new interpretive exhibits and programs at Rocky Mountain National Park. These activities will guide park staff as they share information about tribal nations with the park’s 4.5 million annual visitors.

Center of the American West Research Fellow Brooke Neely is also launching a co-edited book, “National Parks, Native Sovereignty: Experiments in Collaboration,” that builds on her work at Rocky Mountain National Park and helps further contextualize other historical debates in the western U.S., such as the recent renaming of Mount Evans in Colorado as Mount Blue Sky.

Another partnership with the National Park Service strives to renew the Zane Grey Museum, which the park service manages as part of the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River region in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania. Citing a need for Indigenous representation and voice at the museum, the Center of the American West was approached to help engage Native communities in the Southwest who were historically written about in Zane Grey’s literature, which perpetuated some of the most enduring and romanticized myths of the American West. 

With a new faculty director search just about to launch, there is also a new era of leadership to look forward to. 

“We want to bring in as many people as possible into the conversation,” Tamar McKee, manager of programs and operations at the center and CU Boulder alumna. “Our antennae are up for inclusion. We are thinking about the language we use. We recognize we are part of a larger community and speaking to a larger sense of community.”