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Professor Recognized for Decades of Work in Revealing the Real 'Old West'

Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017

History Prof. David Rich Lewis

History Prof. David Rich Lewis has been recognized by the Western Historical Association for his decades-long efforts to advance research on the American West and its peoples.

For a historian, David Rich Lewis sure thinks a lot about the present. 

That’s especially odd since Lewis is, by training, a medieval scholar. 

According to this respected student of the American West, however, history shows its true power when it’s used as a lens to understand the present. 

Consider Lewis’ recent award-winning scholarly article, “Skull Valley Goshutes and the Politics of Place, Identity and Sovereignty in Rural Utah.” 

Utah’s West Desert in the 21st century is about as far as one can travel from 14th-century France, the setting for his initial master’s thesis. 

“That’s really what history is,” he says, “that process of how we live with each other.” 

Lewis, a professor of history who is now in his final semester before retirement, has been recognized by the Western History Association for his decades-long work on how we humans live together. 

An editor since 1992 of the Western Historical Quarterly, Lewis is described by the Western History Association as its “intellectual heart.” He recently accepted the 2016 Gordon Bakken Award of Merit award for “outstanding service to the field of Western history.” In 2015, he received the WHA Honorary Life Member Award Citation. 

Tammy Proctor, head of the History Department, seconds these important service awards. 

“David is one of the best-known names in the history of the American West, both because of his scholarship and his dedicated work as editor of the Western Historical Quarterly,” she said. 

Lewis closes this chapter of his life as Western Historical Quarterly, headquartered in USU’s Department of History since its inception in 1970, changes homes. The respected journal will now be edited at the University of Oklahoma. Lewis, the journal’s editor for 13 years, has acted as executive editor this past year during the transition. 

Lewis joined WHQ’s staff as an assistant editor in 1992, a few years following his arrival at USU as an assistant professor. His WHQ path led through stints as associate editor, co-editor and as editor from 2003 to 2015. 

Lewis now chuckles at his journey from what he calls “knights on horseback to cowboys on horseback.” A native of Ogden, Utah, and an undergraduate at USU, Lewis remembers that to the novice scholar he was, the age of chivalry and Arthurian adventures seemed foreign and exotic. 

But with the Vietnam War and a tumultuous world in the background, Chaucer and castles didn’t fit as he puzzled out where to take his life. “Medieval and even European history felt like it wasn’t,” he pauses, “consequential. It didn’t speak to the world I was living in.” 

By the time he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he had returned home. His dissertation title describes his new destination: “Plowing a Civilized Furrow: Subsistence, Environment and Social Change Among the Northern Ute, Hupa and Papago Peoples.” 

“I’m more interested in what’s going on right now and what the past and the near history tell us about our present,” he said. 

Lewis is among the vanguard of scholars who’ve worked to separate Western history from Disneyland’s outmoded and trite Frontierland. Lewis and his contemporaries have unveiled what he describes as “a more complicated story of a diverse West.” In other words, he adds, “a West that reflects the nation rather than just stand out as an oddity in a western film.” 

Lewis’s scholarship has focused on the West’s environmental history and American Indian history, which neatly intersect in his most recent research — the Skull Valley Goshutes Tribe and the long-standing debate of tribal lands as a repository for nuclear waste. His recent book chapter on the subject has been recognized by the Utah State Historical Society as the best historical article published outside of the Utah Historical Quarterly. 

Lewis anticipates that retirement will finally give him the hours to devote to his continuing work, primarily finishing an update of the textbook “Utah History.” He’s lead editor on the project as well as a member of the Utah Board of State History, a group appointed by the governor to advise the Utah Division of State History. 

Lewis jokes that working with other editors to replace the old textbook, which originated in the 1970s, is like “herding academic cats who are way over-committed and have too many things to do.” He adds, “I’m one of those cats.” 

He’s also “herded” plenty of young researchers, having advised more than 100 graduate students in his career at USU. Proctor notes this, adding, “I think what sets David apart is his commitment to mentoring and advising young scholars, whether it be bright undergraduates, graduate editorial fellows or authors who worked with David on publications in the journal. His retirement will leave a big hole in our department.” 

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Writer and contact: Janelle Hyatt, 435-797-0289,

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