Saturday, December 5, 2015

Wyoming is failing to chronicle its history

Wyoming is failing to chronicle its own history, but funding one book won’t help solve that problem.

Recently the Transportation, Highways, and Military Affairs Committee voted to approve an unconstitutional $85,000 appropriation to the Veteran’s Commission covering the costs of writing a book. The money would be contracted to a private entity to produce 17,000 copies of the book to be given as gifts to veterans.

The efforts of the Veteran’s Commission to remember Vietnam War vets are commendable. But the Wyoming Constitution prohibits this appropriation.

Article 3 Section 36, “Prohibited appropriations,” reads, “No appropriation shall be made for charitable, industrial, educational or benevolent purposes to any person, corporation or community not under the absolute control of the state, nor to any denominational or sectarian institution or association.”

Legislative Service Office lawyers found a way to skirt the Constitution. Instead of appropriating tax money directly to anyone “not under the absolute control of the state,” they will appropriate the money to the Commission. The Commission will hand the money to a private business, which will produce the books.

Whether legislators are comfortable with the legal gymnastics is one issue. The important question is why should the taxpayers fund this one book? If legislators want to taxpayer-funded writings published in Wyoming, there is a lawful way to do this, a way that can contribute greatly to the preservation of Wyoming’s history.

First, there are many Wyoming stories emanating from the Vietnam War that ought to be told. Tell the story of those like Mariko Miller of Casper and others who courageously opposed the war. The risks taken by antiwar activists are important and worthy of a chapter.

Tell the stories of those who opted to go to Canada to avoid the draft and of the anguished parents who watched their children drafted and marched off to a war they thought was wrong.

A lot of Wyoming books are begging to be written if we want our stories told. The Vietnam era is certainly one of them, but far from the only one. Stroll through the Wyoming section of the county library. Once you set aside the books about cowboys, Indians, early explorers, and trappers, there’s not much left. The most widely used general history of the state, Dr. T.A. Larson’s “History of Wyoming was last revised almost 40 years ago.

There are no biographies of great figures like Francis E. Warren or John Kendrick, Joseph C. O’Mahoney, Ed Herschler, or Stan Hathaway, great Wyoming leaders who, like comets that briefly lighted Wyoming skies, are gone and largely forgotten by many.
Why are Wyoming history books not being written? The book market doesn’t lend itself to freelance writing of the stories of small-state figures. Writers cannot anticipate breaking even on the huge investment of time and money a book requires. If our history is to be preserved, the state must make an investment.

The University has the foundation. The American Heritage Center on UW’s campus currently houses more than 70,000 cubic feet of collections of historic papers and artifacts, primary sources of the history of Wyoming politics, mining, education, conservation and more.

The missing piece is a mechanism to assure writers reasonable opportunities their books will be published.

Wyoming is perhaps the only state without a university press. They exist encourage local authors to do the hard work of preserving history because they provide a route toward publishing

If the legislature wants books written for the good of the state, it should fund a university press at the University of Wyoming, as have legislators in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, Utah, Oklahoma and nearly every other state.

For a relatively small investment, and perhaps some shift in current UW spending priorities, the legislature could accomplish more than what the Veteran’s Commission asks. Fund an initiative to provide tuition and other financial incentives to graduate students and others to write Wyoming history. Establish the University of Wyoming Press.

Then someone will write books about Vietnam veterans and so many more.

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