Boyd Cothran wins 2015 Robert M. Utley Prize from the Western History Association for his book, Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence

Dear members of the History Department

It gives me great pleasure to announce that our colleague Boyd Cothran has won an award. His book, Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence, received the 2015 Robert M. Utley Prize from the Western History Association.

The Utley is given annually by the association to the best book published on the military history of the frontier and western North America including Mexico and Canada from prehistory through the twentieth century and is in honour of Robert M. Utley, a prominent military historian of the North American West and the former chief historian of the National Park Service.

I am pleased to share the citation composed by the awards committee.

Cothran’s advances a powerful argument that Americans cannot trust what they see and read at national parks and memorial. The narratives presented at these locations of national remembrance are frequently designed to feed the myth of American innocence. Cothran’s book focuses on the historiography of the Modoc War (1872-1873), exploring the complex relationship between how indigenous and non-indigenous individuals have remembered incidents of U.S.-Indian violence, and how inaccurate “truths” became part of the accepted historical narrative, which was reproduced again and again to serve the current needs of the dominant group—the myth of American innocence. Cothran argues that “individuals have shaped their historical remembrances of the conflict, transforming an episode of Reconstruction Era violence and ethnic cleansing into a redemptive narrative of American innocence as they sought to negotiate these marketplaces (15).” Cothran connects the historiography and memorials to the Modoc War with what he terms the “marketplace of remembering” and cultural commodification of violence to analyze how and why white American victimhood and innocence in the Klamath Basin became the dominant colonial narrative. Cothran uses an array of sources to create his fresh cultural analysis, including the representations of violence in landscapes and memorials, novels, press accounts, and other public history sites, and remembrances from indigenous community members. His work is particularly strong in his discussion of the 1988 memorial at the Lava Beds National Monument. He observed that, “The memorial was to transform the Modoc War from a justified war of conquest to an unavoidable and inevitable multicultural tragedy. By providing a space for equal inclusion in Lava Beds National Monument’s landscape of victimhood, it claimed to treat everyone the same and offered atonement for the violence of American settler colonialism by ignoring the un-equivalence of that violence. The death of a soldier sent to Klamath Basin by the U.S. Army to kill Indians was equal to that of an old woman burned to death in her home or an Indian prisoner pulled from the wagon transporting him to prison and slaughtered by white vigilantes. They were all treated the same (188-89).” This argument should cause Americans to question what they see and read at our national parks and memorials. Cothran’s analysis speaks to the specifics of the Modoc War, but also to the larger historical processes of representation, memory, and violence. Much of American history has been distorted at these locations of national remembrance to fit a particular narrative that conformed to what the “marketplace” wanted to hear and believe, particularly the myth of American innocence.

Many congratulations, Boyd, on behalf of the Department of History.