Historian explores the legacy of Steptoe Battlefield

A historical map of the Steptoe Battlefield superimposed on a roadside marker in front of the battlefield site.
A group of WSU History 285 and Gonzaga University History 300 students visited Steptoe Battlefield State Park on Oct. 7, 2023 (photo by WSU Photo Services).

When Ryan Booth was a PhD student researching the history of the U.S.-Indian Wars in the post-Civil War period, he noticed that scholars did not pay much attention to the conflicts that occurred in the Northwest during that time. Steptoe Battlefield, some 40 miles north of Pullman, is one of those sites.

Now, as a postdoctoral fellow in the Washington State University Department of History and affiliate faculty in the Native Programs, Booth has a larger platform from which to provide some corrective understanding.

He will present “Shifting Narratives: The Steptoe Battlefield and Popular Memory” at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 1, at the Neill Public Library in Pullman. This is the second event in The Roots of Contemporary Issues (RCI) Event Series, following a panel discussion on the future of history earlier in October.

Closeup of Ryan Booth
Ryan Booth

As Booth sees it, Steptoe Battlefield’s significance is greater than just the day of fighting that took place there. Rather, it as a place where sacred Indigenous lands, broken treaty promises, and Jesuit missionary efforts converged to shape an important but often overlooked aspect of Pacific Northwest history.

“From the first contact with Europeans until 1924 — the date when Native Americans were granted U.S. citizenship — you notice that settlers push for more land or other resources and Native people push back,” said Booth, when asked how this history is relevant to today. “For example, Native people often point to the treaties and say, ‘Why haven’t you kept your promises?’”

For Booth, U.S.-Indian conflicts are not relegated to the deeper past. Indeed, he sees them as having long-lasting impacts on tribal communities.

“We don’t often think about it, but war brings violence home in the form of alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, and PTSD,” he said.

These realities, he says, are ones that a community can address together. He hopes that talks like this help bring the past alive again and hopefully draw some attention to modern Native concerns.

As an academic historian interested in public-facing history, Booth appreciates the mutually-enriching experiences presentations like this provide, saying audience members always teach him something new.

Housed in the Department of History, The Roots of Contemporary Issues Program is the foundational course in WSU’s UCORE program. The RCI Event Series is based on the philosophy that local and global citizens will more effectively confront today’s most pressing issues if done so within historical frameworks. While Ashley Wright and Katy Whalen, director and assistant director of the program, hope to create spaces of open dialogue across the WSU system, they want to include wider communities as well, fulfilling the mandate of a land-grant institution.

Whalen and Wright hope that talks such as Booth’s create stronger campus-to-community ties.

“We plan to create more off-campus events in the future, and plan events that we hope will draw larger communities to campus,” Wright said. “We are thankful for collaborators like Neill Public Library that help us fulfill that vision.”

More information on the Roots of Contemporary Issues Event Series is available online.

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