Paper No. 262-2
Presentation Time: 9:00 AM-6:30 PM
150 YEARS LATER: REVISITING THE LEGACY OF JOHN WESLEY POWELL AND HIS EXPEDITION TO THE GRAND CANYON
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the 1869 Powell Expedition, the first U.S. government-sponsored expedition through the Colorado River into the Grand Canyon. John Wesley Powell (1834-1902) is an instrumental figure in the history of American geology. His legacy perseveres through namesakes across the southwestern U.S., in addition to his formative role in the early stages of the United States Geologic Survey (USGS). Though Powell is regarded as a hero in geology, he did more than map out rocks and landscapes. In the regions he was mapping, he also conducted ethnographic work on Native American tribes in the west with the goal of ‘civilizing’ Native Americans. As the director of the USGS and head of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian, Powell played a powerful role in government decisions around Native American affairs, using his research to justify policies that we now view as unethical. For this reason, the 150th
anniversary of this expedition marks an opportunity to revisit our community’s interpretation of his legacy.
In this piece I focus on the social historical context of Powell’s geology research, emphasizing the repercussions of his work on Native American populations. Today, as we move towards a subtler understanding of history, we can revisit stories about foundational figures in U.S. geology in order to retell them in their complexity. These stories are especially important today, as the talented pool of geoscientists becomes increasingly diverse, because the way we recount history can powerfully determine who feels a sense of belonging in a classroom or in a career as a geologist.