Jared Orsi, a history professor at Colorado State University, has begun his one-year term as Colorado State Historian, following Regis University professor Nicki Gonzales.
Orsi, one of the five original members of the State Historian’s Council, has taught at CSU for more than 20 years, specializing in borderlands and environmental history and serving as director of CSU’s Public Lands History Center. His weeklong summer course in which he leads students on Zebulon Pike’s early 19th-century trek across Colorado reveals his affinity for the famous figure, also evident in his 2015 Colorado Book Award finalist “Citizen Explorer: The Life of Zebulon Pike.”
He’s putting the finishing touches on his latest book with the working title, “Recovering Lost Landscapes: History and Memory at a Border Oasis,” which explores a unique location near the Arizona/Mexico border.
Orsi took time near the close of a busy week to chat with The Colorado Sun about his appointment as State Historian, what he’d like to accomplish and how Pikes Peak figures into state and national history.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Colorado Sun: Tell us a little bit about yourself, and maybe describe the perspective that you have on Colorado history.
Jared Orsi: Well, first of all, I never predicted that I would be here as Colorado State Historian. I was not trained as a Colorado historian. I was trained as a borderlands historian and environmental historian and I came to Colorado in those capacities 22 years ago. There were an awful lot — four or five at least — of really skilled scholars and teachers in the department who were Colorado historians. And I learned a lot from them.
But one by one, they retired. And we got to a point where the class of Colorado history hadn’t been taught for a few semesters, maybe a couple years. And there was talk in the department that the course should maybe be abolished. And I thought that we can’t, as the state land grant institution, not teach Colorado history. We really need to do that. And so I said I would give it a try.
I started teaching it and I got involved in some other activities around the state and eventually got to the point where I could be invited onto the State Historian’s Council. So I’m glad to be both officially and unofficially, a state historian of Colorado. I am also still an environmental historian. So I’m very concerned and interested in the history of Coloradans, interactions with the land both how they have shaped the land and both and how the land has shaped them.
And finally, I’m a public lands historian. So I’m very interested in the ways that our recreation, our historical interpretation, our ecological management, state parks, national parks, national forests, municipal parks, both express who we are as Coloradans and also give us purpose.
Colorado Sun: Two years ago when you were first on the council, all of you were asked to reflect on what the phrase “our beloved Colorado” meant to you for a piece we published in the Sun. You focused not on the “beloved” or “Colorado” so much as the word “our.” Why did you zero in on that word?
Orsi: That piece for The Colorado Sun was written in the summer of 2020. I was writing it as protests surrounding the George Floyd murder were fresh in everybody’s memory. I was writing it as Ahmaud Arbery had recently been murdered as well. There was a lot of talk about Elijah McClain in the newspapers. Also, at the time, I was engaged in a multiyear project with native peoples to try and amplify and lift up their stories to make sure that they are heard.
It was also the summer of COVID-19. And I was really enjoying the fact that Colorado had outdoor spaces that I could visit safely, that were close at hand, and that were just as beautiful to me whether or not these other things were going on.
And so the combination of the fact that my mind was focused on America’s racial inequities, as well as gratitude for outdoor recreation, kind of made the word “our” leap off the page and made me think about my own privilege of being able to enjoy this — and the fact that not everybody around me or historically has had the opportunity to share in that appreciation. I really wanted to make that contrast, that inconsistency with American ideals. I wanted to help make that visible.
Colorado Sun: One of those elements of Colorado history that underscores that inconsistency you mentioned in your essay: Katharine Lee Bates, who wrote the poem that became the song “America the Beautiful.” How did you connect with her story?
Orsi: Her song, of course, was written during and immediately after a trip to the top of Pikes Peak in 1893. So it has a very tight Colorado connection. It’s significant in American history because it expresses the late-19th century appreciation for beauty and landscape in America and it ties it very directly to patriotism.
I think what America was doing both in Bates’s poem and in the naming of landscapes in places like Yosemite and others is that the nation was trying to claim a noble antiquity for itself. We may not have great cathedrals and ancient Roman ruins that are thousands of years old, but we have this landscape. And the landscape is something that we can brag about its beauty. So on one hand Bates’s poem is about that. But Bates’s poem is also bound up in some of the inequities that America has not been able to escape.
In this poem, you see both a developing American appreciation for aesthetic and beauty and the outdoors and tying it to America’s very identity and value. And at the same time, you see an erasing, an exclusion of some people from that ideal. And in a sense that makes it a white ideal. People talk about the ways in which whiteness is embedded in American identity and I think this poem and then song is a really good example of how that happens. Katharine Lee Bates was not thinking about excluding people as she wrote this. She was inspired by the beauty of Pikes Peak and yet she was swimming in cultural waters in which it was very easy to ignore a race, to exclude some people of color from this ideal that she was expressing.
Colorado Sun: You also wrote in the essay about her own complex history — that she was privileged in her ability to make a trip up Pikes Peak and have the capacity to write her poem, but disadvantaged in other ways.
Orsi: It’s worth looking at her as somebody who was economically and racially privileged, but at the same time as a woman and somebody who we would identify today as queer, so she also lacked privilege in some aspects of her life. And I really love the way she becomes a metaphor for both of those things — that she’s both privileged and non-privileged. Those are concepts that we’re wrestling with today.
I think she’s valuable for us to look back at so that we can see Americans and Coloradans wrestling with this in a deep and long-term way, that the things that we care about today, we’re not the first people to care about them. Our ancestors, our predecessors, grappled with them. They didn’t solve them, and we probably won’t either. But each generation has to grapple with them in a new context and Katharine Lee Bates reminds us of that.
Colorado Sun: So you’ve been on the State Historian’s Council for a while and knew your turn as State Historian was on the horizon. What’s on your agenda?
Orsi: We started the council in 2018, so we’re entering our fifth year. We drew straws on the first day, and I drew the last slot among the original State Historian’s Council members to take a turn. And I remember calculating on that day, two things. One was a feeling of relief because I thought I’m going to let Tom (Noel) and William (Wei) and Duane (Vandenbusche) and Nicki (Gonzales) all go in front of me and I’m going to be able to learn from their successes.
The other thing I calculated was that I was just about to embark on a new book, and I should just about have this book done by the time I become state historian. So I turned it in at about 1:15 in the morning…(last Wednesday). My calculation was pretty accurate.
So what are my goals? Well, I would like to continue in the tradition of my predecessors, especially William and Nicki, in lifting up voices of Coloradans who perhaps haven’t been as deeply and frequently represented historically. I am working at the end of a grant right now that we called “Telling Untold Stories.” Although we went with the term “untold stories” in the grant because we thought it would be more intelligible to grant reviewers, as we were writing that we really began to reject that term.
We call it “Telling Undertold Stories” now, because if you think about the history of Indigenous peoples, or if you think about the histories of Black Coloradans or disabled folks, or other groups of people who have not been widely enough represented, they have their stories, they know their stories. They’re not untold. And yet some of those stories are not making it out beyond the communities that know them.
And so what I would like to do with my time is to hand people a megaphone. I would like to meet people this year. I would like to listen to their stories. I would like to help them to tell their stories, or to shout their stories a little bit louder than has been done before.
Colorado Sun: Is there something in particular that is job one for you that you’d like to address right away?
Orsi: This is a rare thing for the state historian to be teaching Colorado history in the semester when they are a state historian. It’s possible that it’s never happened or if it has happened, it hasn’t happened for a while and it’s not very common. I want to give my students in Colorado history this fall a really special class, so (History Colorado) and I have been exploring ways that we can engage my students in hands-on service learning projects that will benefit the history of Colorado and the cause of historical engagement by Coloradans in general.
Most or all of my assignments this term are going to have real-world applications beyond the classroom. We are going to get out of the classroom. We’re going to take some field trips, we’re going to do some service learning projects for History Colorado. We are going to be doing projects that matter, that have a life, even after the students finish the class, that actually matter to somebody.