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Blessures et mémoires : le présent face aux traces du passé

The Guidebook and the Medicine Pole: Staging Memory at a Nineteenth Century Battle Site in the American West

Entre guide touristique et “medecine pole”: Mise en scène de la mémoire sur un champ de bataille du 19ème siècle dans l’Ouest américain
El guía y el tótem: escenificar la memoria en el fortín del Capitán Jack
Wendy Harding et Jacky Martin


Les visiteurs qui se rendent au Lava Beds National Monument découvrent un site dans lequel le National Park Service a scénarisé les aspects géologiques, historiques et environnementaux du site. Cet article examine la façon dont cette institution présente l’un de ces aspects, le « fortin du Capitaine Jack », qui fut le théâtre, entre 1872 et 1873, d’une confrontation entre l’armée des États-Unis et une bande d’indiens Modocs. En suivant les directives de l’auto-guide, les visiteurs prennent part à une représentation quasi théâtrale qui les invite à trouver leur « emplacement » dans le présent par un acte commémoratif qui reconstruit le passé pour résoudre les conflits de la communauté contemporaine et redéfinir la nation dans le présent. Cet article étudie le rôle déterminant du paysage pour instituer un sens de l’histoire et exprimer l’esprit d’un lieu. L’ancien champ de bataille est le lieu d’un phénomène collectif de positionnement dans l’espace (« emplacement ») très vivement contesté.

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  • 1  Lee Jullierat, Lava Beds National Monument, Charleston, South Carolina, Arcadia, 2015.
  • 2  With their emphasis on natural wonders, the National Parks foster the impression of timelessness. (...)
  • 3  United States National Park Service, « Lava Beds National Monument (U.S. National Park Service) », (...)

1Thanks to the lobbying efforts of local politicians wanting to encourage tourism, President Calvin Coolidge created the Lava Beds National Monument in 19251. Situated in northern California between more famous American sites such as California’s Yosemite National Park or Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park, it has become a stopping point for tourists exploring the American West. For those expecting a place of topological rather than historical interest2, the Lava Beds hold a surprise. Although the United States National Park Service (NPS) privileges the site’s geological attractions, it cannot ignore its historical significance. Within the borders of this National Monument visitors discover « Captain Jack’s Stronghold » – a rugged stretch of ground pitted with lava caves where fewer than sixty rebellious Modoc Indian warriors managed to hold off the U.S. army in a siege that lasted over a year. In contrast to the nation’s many Civil War battle sites, this nineteenth century battleground of the Indian Wars is given relatively slight notice. Moreover, the focus on geology also has the effect of diminishing the Lava Beds’ historical importance. The National Park Service’s promotional material describes this National Monument as « a land of turmoil, both geological and historical3 », relegating both the volcanic and the social eruptions to the past. Nevertheless, our visit to Captain Jack’s Stronghold in 2013 revealed that the work of commemoration was still very much in process. Precisely because of its evidently unsettled status, the Lava Beds battleground sheds light on the ongoing process of constructing the past for the nation’s present. The official and unofficial tributes found there draw attention to the fact that national memory has as much to do with present circumstances as with past occurrences. Studying the artefacts found at the site and the discourses mediating them affords insight into the ways in which a nation’s sense of history is constantly being remade in a never-ending process of contestation and consensus engaging diverse peoples and interests. The battle site at the Lava Beds also leads us to reflect on how acts of commemoration further the larger objective of emplacement.

1. Discovering the Lava Beds National Monument

  • 4  National Park Service leaflet, « Lava Beds: A Brief History of the Modoc War », consulted 06 March (...)

2From November 1872 to June 1873 a small band of Modoc Indians who had found shelter with their families in the inhospitable lava caves managed to hold off a massive U.S. army force in a confrontation that a park leaflet describes as « one of the most costly wars in our history » and « the only Indian War fought in California, and the only one in which a general of the regular army was killed4 ». Despite this melodramatic billing, visitors to the site of these events – now known as Captain Jack’s Stronghold – are likely to find it deserted. Rather than enlisting park rangers to explain events, the park has set up a self-guided tour leading visitors through the rocky terrain where the fighting took place, presenting the site’s history through a brochure and explanatory signs. Despite the NPS’s modest investment, the evocation is arguably all the more effective in demanding visitors’ active involvement. One moves through the setting as if participating in a historical re-enactment, projecting one’s own mental images onto the surroundings. Visitors perform a ritual of commemoration, walking the trails that the nineteenth century combatants would have crossed.

3It would be wrong to imagine that this experience consigns the site’s « turmoil » to the past. In spite of the maps and directives designed to orient visitors, the experience remains open-ended, as certain gaps or inconsistencies in national memory become apparent. Rather than offering the satisfaction that the drama had ended and order had been restored, the evocation of American memory arouses puzzlement and prompts investigation.

4Visitors to the Lava Beds National Monument can respond to the site in a variety of ways. Obviously, one can go along with the diversified program of activities suggested by the site’s guidebook and combine such activities as hiking, exploring the geological or natural curiosities, and piecing together past events with the help of a few historical markers. The site’s layout encourages visitors to encounter it in this predefined way: to travel through it and hopefully to take away some knowledge of its geography and history. Another possibility consists in ignoring the scenario made available on location and trying to reconstruct for oneself the various tectonic movements, whether natural or man-made, that contributed to present-day state of the site. On our visit to the site we adopted neither of these practices. Rather than enjoying the place as entertainment or investigating its history, we tried to understand the significance of the site in and for the present.

5As European visitors we were foreign to the place and thus less attuned by our education to its specific national connotations. As outsiders we could espouse and assess all the possibilities offered by the site without being personally committed. Perhaps for this reason we were particularly intrigued by an apparently unofficial addition to the site. At the centre of the place where the Modocs held out against the U.S. army – labelled by the NPS as « Captain Jack’s Stronghold » – stood a medicine pole surrounded by recent offerings.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

Caption : Medicine Pole, Captain Jack’s Stronghold, 2013. © : photograph by Wendy Harding

6The heterogeneous objects such as packets of cigarettes, soda cans, stuffed toys, or tennis shoes seemed to detract from the official tenor of the commemoration. Apparently, the past was not completely past or, to put it differently, it was experienced in different manners. The American National Monument was also a Native American shrine. The medicine pole planted at the top of Captain  Jack’s Stronghold declared that Native Americans convened there to make connections in the present. That discovery led to a new realization: the complex of time and space centering on the Lava Beds could be construed in different ways. It could foster widely different practices such as casual tourism, historical enquiry, or religious commemoration. All these activities are motivated by the desire to bond with a specific location. Places are shaped by both personal and collective aspirations. Public sites of national commemoration try to channel personal appropriation through predefined scenarios yet necessarily remain highly contested locations.

7Since we did not quite belong at the Lava Beds National Monument, we were anxious to understand what made people relate to the site. Our outsider status thus placed us in a privileged situation. After examining the signs of different people’s struggle to connect with the place, we were led to reflect on how that attachment was effected in time and space. Instead of comparing the merits of different forms of commemoration, we have decided to examine the potential of the concept of emplacement. Rather than exploring the archives in order hypothetically to reconstitute past events and critiquing the historical accuracy of the NPS’s management of the site, we want to reflect on how and with what consequences what is on offer at the Lava Beds allows present day Americans to situate themselves as occupants of the land by finding meaningful ways to carry over the past into the present. So our study is not so much about the past as about how the past passes into the present.

2. The Lay of the Land

  • 5  National Park Service, « 2006 Wilderness Stewardship Plan Environmental Assessment », p. 83-84. Pu (...)

8Located near Klamath Falls, a prosperous little city whose eponymous falls now lie submerged beneath a lake, this portion of the Californian hinterland presents a topographical crazy quilt of farmlands, marshlands, and lakes. The land that is now the Lava Beds National Monument was once part of the ancestral territory of the Modoc tribe. The influx of white settlers in the latter half of the nineteenth century led to a struggle for control of the land that culminated in the confrontation in the Lava Beds between the U.S. Army and the small Modoc band that refused to share a reservation with their traditional enemies, the Klamath Indians. After a siege that lasted almost a year, the defeated Modocs were exiled to a reservation in Oklahoma. The volcanic terrain in which the Modocs had sought refuge was not adapted to agricultural exploitation; instead, it was set aside as a national monument by Coolidge’s presidential designation in 1925. In 1933, the site devolved from the Forest Service to the National Park Service, when the Civilian Conservation Corps began work on the infrastructure. All the lands concerned were listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the Modoc Lava Beds Archaeological District in 19915. The site harbors various historical vestiges like the former CCC camp and a WWII Japanese internment camp, as well as sites of interest because of the wildlife and the geological formations. This geographical and historical complexity is compounded by the disconcerting montage of federal institutions that crisscross the region and come under diverse administrative regimes: the Lava Beds Wilderness Area, The Modoc National Forests, The Tule Lake Wildlife Refuge, the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument, and the Lava Beds National Monument.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Caption : Lava Beds National Monument Map. © : National Park Service)

  • 6  « Lava Beds National Monument. » National Park Foundation, 22 Feb. 2014, consulted 06 March 2015. (...)

9The National Parks website invites visitors to the Lava Beds to discover a « volcanic landscape » that is also the « historic battlegrounds of the Modoc War6 ». The site is thus divided between its geological and historical orientations, a dual focus appearing in the Presidential Proclamation of 1925 that asserts the intention:

  • 7  Presidential Proclamation No. 1755, November 21, 1925 (44 Stat. 2591). Quoted in « 2006 Wilderness (...)

to preserve, protect and promote the scientific inquiry of the natural and cultural resources of the unique volcanic fields and associated features, perpetuating, unimpaired, the ecosystems in which they are found for the benefit, enjoyment and understanding of present and future generations7.

  • 8  The two wilderness units were designated as such in 1972 under public law 92-493. Cf. « 2006 Wilde (...)

10Indeed, the Lava Beds Monument now comprises two designated wilderness areas, Schonchin Wilderness and Black Lava Flow Wilderness8, along with two apparently unrelated sites of cultural interest: Petroglyph Point and Captain Jack’s Stronghold, the latter being the focus of this paper. Since the park rangers in the Lava Beds National Monument cannot know whether one’s interest in the monument is historical, geological, or ecological, visitors may detect an absence of clarity in the interpretive guidance offered at the Visitor Center. ns to the pastthe NPS to orchestsiry

3. A Thread through the Land

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