Dr. Suzzanne Kelley will co-present “Memory Work: Doing History in Grassy Places” at the Western History Association’s 52nd Annual Conference, “Boundary Markers and Border Crossers,” Denver, CO, October 4-7, 2012.

Kelley and her husband, Dr. Tom Isern, are Westerners International’s invited presenters. Westerners International is a nonprofit organization, established in 1959 to stimulate interest and research in the history of the American West. The Western History Association and Westerners International are long-time collaborators in the annual history conference.

“Memory Work: Doing History in Grassy Places”

All the multifarious research endeavors we pursue (as individuals and as partners) up and down the Great Plains of North America (and the grasslands of other continents) rest upon a common foundation: the phenomenon of memory, individual and collective. Researching the lives and work of memory painters, who self-consciously set out to preserve an era and a place; examining the ballad books by which generations of prairie women deliberately passed along their musical traditions; tracking down the Saskatchewan memory sites of Wallace Stegner, who may have known, as he said, where he came from, but sure did his best to throw us off the true trail; in these and other enterprises we pursue a similar modus operandi: butt time in the archives combined with boots on the ground, a grassroots approach that brings us close to our subjects. Then, as we tell the stories, we take care not only to be aware of the memory work behind what we are presenting but also to consider our contribution to the evolving collective memory of the plains. This is to say, we want to do good history in a sense that is more than technical, good in the sense that it contributes to a greater and better collective memory. We are both students and makers of memory; indeed, when we take up tools, recruit volunteers, and mobilize machinery to restore historic buildings, we rebuild the collective memory of the prairies in palpable, not just literal, ways. We propose, in this Westerners International session of the Western History Association, to recount our experiences and adventures in a few of our most rewarding research and service enterprises, and from them make the argument for self-conscious attention by historians to memory as both subject and product. Our presentation comprises narrative, image, dialog, and song, and is especially tailored for the Westerners. We argue that Westerners are peculiar among Western historians, and have peculiar contributions to make to Western history, as keepers of Western memory.

Suzzanne Kelley is managing editor for New Rivers Press, located at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Kelley teaches publishing courses, directs the activities of the press, and pursues scholarly research in the Great Plains, Australia, and New Zealand, discovering connections between memory and place. Kelley has served as a member of the WHA program committee; co-chair of the Rural & Agricultural Studies section of the WSSA; president of the statewide organization, Preservation North Dakota; and committee member of the Coalition for Western Women’s History. She holds an undergraduate degree from University of Texas—Austin, a master’s in history from University of Central Oklahoma, and a PhD in history from North Dakota State University.

Tom Isern is Professor of History & University Distinguished Professor at North Dakota State University. He is author or co-author of six books about life on the Great Plains of North America, as well as, among other scholarly and popular writings, the weekly newspaper and radio feature, Plains Folk. He has directed (five times) the National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar, “The Great Plains from Texas to Saskatchewan: Place, Memory, Identity.” He is founding director of NDSU’s Center for Heritage Renewal, and he is President Elect of the Western Social Science Association.

Kelley and Isern carry on joint lines of research, including a long-term regional study of Central Otago, New Zealand, and collaborate in regional projects in historic preservation, including restoration of the historic Hutmacher Farmstead.