F the war, thousands of miles to the east. No. First other, older wars with forgotten names, unhousing and unhoming the Apache Nation. The Arapaho Nation. The Cheyenne Nation. The Pueblo. The Shoshone. The Comanche. The Kiowa. The Navajo. There is a river run red, there is a lake, there is a world on fire who can never be regained. How can we reclaim when name and place are lost? When even ponderosa and lodgepole are uprooted for maple and elm?
There is water. There are a hundred years. There is not enough water. There are fifty years. There is the town of Stout, and then there is not. First the young couples leave for Fort Collins, over the hill, or for Wyoming, forty miles north. Then the families. Then the Bureau of Reclamation comes with letters and phone calls and men in uniforms and there is no choice left but to move. Some bring their homes, some fall into sheds provided five miles to the south.
Then there is water. There are 51 billion gallons of water. There are homes and swingsets and bicycles and graves, now underwater. There are moments of pine and birch, places where a grandmother fell to her knees as a girl, watching a northern flicker jump from branch to branch, before flashing—white tail, black wings dazzled with red below—into the Northern Colorado sky. Now underwater. Not in a flood, but with the Bureau and four dams made from 10 million cubic yards of earthfill. There is a mule deer, her large ears dipped in the darkest night of the year, watching. Now underwater. And there is the old schoolhouse. Now underwater.
Now I run around the twenty-five miles of shoreline every other week, tracing the there, where, where.
Across most Native American epistemologies, where is more important than when, because, as Cree scholar Winona Wheeler writes, the land “has its own set of memories.” Indigenous peoples have lived for tens of thousands of years on what has been called the United States only for the last 230. Wheeler describes the land as “mnemonic,” and Chickasaw scholar Jodi Byrd agrees, saying, “the land both remembers life and its loss and [. . .] triggers the ethics of relationality with the sacred geographies that constitute indigenous peoples’ histories.”
Another December, another solstice circumnavigation to remember the sun. I run clockwise around the reservoir and end by honoring the east, like a good Cherokee. Run Dixon Canyon Road up four hundred feet in two miles to the water, and turn left, south, onto Centennial Road. Up past the wood-frame houses and then into meadow and scrub before down, down, and across the south dam and the rolling arc around the foot of the reservoir. Curve north on West County Road 38E and up another hill to the overlook with the sign—Horsetooth Reservoir constructed in 1949 by the Bureau of Reclamation—and I am off, spinning downhill with that word so laden, reclamation, breath between becoming found and lost. Wreckage and exclamation. Stout reclaimed under 51 billion gallons of water. Who is claiming. Who is claimed.
The Colorado-Big Thompson project (C-BT) is one of the first large multipurpose projects supervised by the US Bureau of Reclamation, according to Oliver Knight in his provocatively titled “Correcting Nature’s Error: The Colorado-Big Thompson Project” (1956). Reaching 275 miles from the Rocky Mountains to the Colorado/Nebraska border, the C-BT seeks to generate water power for irrigation and production. The C-BT is initiated in 1933 and completed more than twenty years later, using over 37.8 million hours of labor and $164 million dollars to install 10 reservoirs, 15 dams, 24 tunnels with a combined length of 35 miles, 11 canals, 3 closed conduits, 21 siphons, 3 pump plants, 6 power plants, 8 penstocks, 821 circuit miles of transmission lines, 43 power substations, and 23 million cubic yards of embankment to irrigate the “fertile country” of nine north-central and northeastern counties in Colorado, including Larimer County.
From 1934 to 1936, while the Bureau of Reclamation conducts a feasibility study on the potential C-BT, President Charles A. Lory of Colorado State University (then named Colorado Agricultural and Mechanical College) and other members of the Northern Colorado Water Users Association incorporate as a mutual stock company (1935), open offices in Greeley (1936), and designate a general manager.
At the same time, in what is now the southern curve of West Virginia, my ancestors take new names, move, and live. My great-grandmother Pearl Beatrice marries my great-grandfather Hershel in Mingo County. My great-great-grandfather John Franklin dies in Kanawha County, and his wife, my great-great-grandmother Ella Samantha, follows him eleven months later, both without ever having gotten back to our ancestral home, back to the Ani Yun Wiya. Another great-great-grandfather, Michael, is killed by a bullet in the heart while collecting rocks for his garden by a bird-hunting neighbor. And great-great-grandmother Maude dies at age forty-five in an asylum in Lewis County.
Meanwhile, Colorado farmers west of the Continental Divide form the Western Slope Protective Association (wspa) to prevent the C-BT and Northern Colorado Water Users Association (ncwua) from taking away water needed in the western region. Representatives from the ncwua and wspa meet in Washington, DC, in 1936, where influence and money decide the C-BT project will move forward, but the Green Mountain Reservoir will be constructed on Blue River, near Kremmling, to impound as much water on the Western Slope as is diverted east.
Ten miles north of the first Horsetooth Reservoir overlook, another interpretive sign at the reservoir’s northeast corner, high on the North Loop Trail, reminds me this whole area, all of Northern Colorado, was seabed once. The aquatic skeleton at the museum where I work was found where the reservoir now stands. Now this eighty-foot creature swims over the museum gallery, over my head during a field trip for fourth graders on keystone species, over my head during a discovery tour for potential donors, over my head as I stand, my first year in that job, in that museum, in Colorado, vertigo-shocked into stillness by the oven-mitt paws of the taxidermied mountain lion, his frozen growl, wondering What am I doing here? Where are the mountain lions I know? Where are the tulip poplars and trails where the only sound is the flapping of soft green leaves like so many wings?
In her 2008 dissertation, Cherokee scholar Rose Gubele names and describes the Cherokee rhetoric of “elohlogy,” coming from eloh, the Cherokee word for land, religion, law, history, and culture. Gubele describes elohlogy as a rhetorical form that “blends ceremonial language with discourses about land and evokes shared memories.” We are where we are, much more than we are when we are. There is no when without a where. There is no we without a here.
Despite rising opposition from US Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes and the National Park Service, Wilderness Society, American Planning and Civic Association, American Forestry Association, and American Nature Association, the ncwua and the Bureau of Reclamation testify to the economic feasibility and benefit of the C-BT. The Interior Department authorizes the project and contributes $900,000, President Theodore Roosevelt approves the feasibility findings, and additional allocations of $1.4 million enable the start of the project. To assist the process, after gathering 2,995 signatures from landowners, the ncwua becomes the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and elects eleven directors who meet for the first time the day after their election in 1937. They approve the C-BT contract, ratified in a 1938 election by a vote of 7,510 to 439, enabling the Bureau of Reclamation to launch “the greatest construction program it had ever undertaken.”
Back in West Virginia, the Marsh Fork Elementary School is built in Raleigh County’s small coal valley town of Sundial, and opens.
Turning from the overlook, I run down the hill and the blessed break from the road to dirt, all dirt for the next ten miles, twenty if I wanted, tucking under the 38E tunnel onto the Blue Sky Trail. Here the flax flowers first open on knee-high green stalks in May, five-petaled flowers no larger than my father’s thumb, space enough between the petals to forget and start to remember again. Butter-yellow at the center. Violet fading to lavender by the outer edges. Now there is only brown.
There is never only brown. Running the higher trails in Lory State Park two hours from now, moving north from the midpoint of the western reservoir edge to the north corner, watching the reservoir flush navy in the sun who tilts west now just after noon. Few clouds overhead. And the hills brown, yes, it’s just so brown here, like my father says, visiting from Appalachia for a week, but I cannot see the totality of tone anymore. Brown fractures into gold (these gramma grasses) and violet (the tips of this brush) and blue (this groundcover, here). Brown slides into the gray-blue of this snow, still here weeks after first falling, once the freeze-and-refreeze separates crystals from snow to ice to the memory of snow. Mud matting the packed snow around this ridge, but look as the trail opens to a cascade of hills here (see the singletrack switchbacking up Timber Trail) and meadows there (look how the trail swims through East Valley), look at the startling vulnerability of bare pink rock, the glint of quartz and mica, the flecks of sunlight caught and gathered from summer. These trees, this ground, these hills are only sleeping.
Or am I? Another night, my first months here in Colorado. Another nightmare, waking, gasping, my mouth filling with water, that Dixon Canyon Dam, the largest dam in Larimer County, who I see from my bedroom window, has cracked and burst, even my bed pointing me feet-first toward hills in this third-floor apartment is not enough to prevent the flood from churning me under.
Larimer County holds 136 of Colorado’s 1,737 dams, according to the National Inventory of Dams. Twelve of these dams hold a volume of over 100,000 cubic yards. Each of the four dams surrounding Horsetooth Reservoir holds a volume of over one million cubic yards. Of Colorado’s dams, 25 percent are considered “high hazard,” meaning, in reporter Jacy Marmaduke’s words, “one or more people are likely to die if the dam fails.” Another 19 percent are a “significant hazard,” meaning, in Marmaduke’s words, “their failure would result in possible loss of human life and likely significant property or environmental destruction.” Dixon Canyon Dam, 6.4 million cubic yards. Spring Canyon Dam, 4.8 million cubic yards. Horsetooth Dam, 1.9 million cubic yards. Soldier Canyon Dam, 1.3 million cubic yards. All reinforced in 2002 by a sixteen-foot-thick filter of sand and gravel. Feet to yards, feet to millions of cubic yards. A hand. A branch breaks.
Ancestral memory of flood. Generational memory. Watching the rivers rise, on long hikes with my father in West Virginia, like the ones he takes with his father and he with his, answering his question, my grandfather’s question, our constant question, The flood’s coming now what do you do?, by charting a line up the hill, out the holler, each time. Fifteen minutes later, The flood’s coming now what do you do? Another fifteen, or maybe ten. The flood’s coming now what do you do? I am never sure if I get it right. If I could climb that ridge I point to. If I could force myself to scramble those rocks. If I wouldn’t just freeze in the crash and thunder. If I wouldn’t just stand and open my mouth.
By 2002, in Raleigh County, West Virginia, the Marsh Fork Elementary School is operating 150 feet from a coal silo and Goals Coal processing plant. Marsh Fork’s walls stand 400 yards below the 385-foot-tall earthen Shumate Dam, who holds back 2.8 billion gallons of coal waste, owned and operated by Massey Energy, the same company responsible for the October 2000 disaster in Martin County, Kentucky, when 300 million gallons of coal sludge burst a coal waste dam and polluted 75 miles of waterways with coal byproducts and over 60 chemicals including arsenic and mercury.
If the Shumate Dam above Marsh Fork fails, “Fatalities would be expected,” states Jim Elkins, inspector for Mine Safety and Health Administration, in a 2007 interview with Kari Lydersen. After all, a dam like Shumate failed in 1972, in Buffalo Creek, Logan County, killing 125 people and unhousing 4,000. Marsh Fork was built in the 1930s, and the Massey coal processing plant and dam were built in the 1980s. Although the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 prohibits coal facilities within 300 feet of a school, because the Massey permits were pending when the act was passed, the plant and dam were grandfathered in and approved.
In 1998 and 1999, Massey was fined for piling coal refuse in layers up to ten feet thick in the Shumate Dam, despite regulations specifying layers of one foot thick to prevent the greater risk of collapse and dam failure. Massey paid only a combined $680 for these citations. From 1997 to 2007, their plant above Marsh Fork was cited at least seventeen other times for regulation breaches, including the use of wood waste to build up the dam, an unstable material that eventually rots and increases weak spaces in dam infrastructure. However, the 2005 report from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection finds the Massey plant in full compliance.
Yet, just above the Shumate dam, a Massey subsidiary operates a 1,849-acre strip mine, and residents often feel their homes shaking from strip mine blasting, making one think of the dam, just above the school, reinforced with rotting wood and, so much closer, shaking even more.
Another April, and I volunteer as Monster Mountain Course Marshal for the Horsetooth Half Marathon, one of the largest races here in Colorado. Racers run point-to-point, first up Dixon Canyon Road to the reservoir, over Dixon Dam, and up so-called Monster Mountain to the high point of the course just over two miles in, before running the length of the reservoir, then continuing north and around Bingham Hill, turning east on the paved path bordering the Cache la Poudre River for five miles, before finishing alongside that river in historic downtown. I am stationed on Dixon Dam, fluorescent and electric-bright in my yellow traffic vest, watching two thousand runners massing four hundred feet below. I track a path across the road, over the guardrail, and down the rock slope because the flood’s coming now what do you do?, and if there is not time for up there might be time for away, or who am I kidding, I am always tense and shaking and a breath from running out the door, down the street, thirty miles and out of this skin toward somewhere that the hills rise around me and I can nestle down in a deep long-limbed branch-blanket of leaves.
When asked by Rebecca R. Scott, a West Virginia resident says, “I ain’t going to move, but somebody asked me, ‘If you had to move, where would you go?’ So I said, ‘the first thing I’d do is go and get me a lump of coal, and I’d go from state to state, and [ask]: “You know what this is?” And if they said no, that’s where I [would] want to live.’” This he declares after living in the coalfields of Blair.
The airhorn blares, a cheer and cascade of cowbells below, and I see these two thousand runners stretch into a bright wicking high-tech mass, chartreuse and crimson and aqua toward the front, and I see these four thousand legs flashing in the early sun still slanting into the ridge, and I wonder how much time I have left, how I could escape, how I can stand here and cheer for and direct more people than I see on any other single day, over four times as many people as lived in the holler who raised me. If all these feet will break the dam. If I want to die with a cowbell in one hand, a striped flag in the other, wearing a traffic vest, a tutu, and some bug antenna bought for two dollars at my college’s annual theater department sale. And here they come—I am in the flood and cannot breathe—but someone who sounds like me is saying, Looking strong! Nice job! Keep it up! One mile to the top of Monster! And the road is moving under all these feet coming fast, then slower, and I turn to see the swarm pulsing up Monster Mountain, I am shaking the cowbell, I am seeing two thousand runners in the space of twenty minutes, I breathe, I have survived.
By 2004, about fifteen to twenty students of Marsh Fork’s 270 total students leave sick each day. A May 2005 survey by Coal River Mountain Watch finds that 91 percent of Marsh Fork students surveyed have respiratory problems such as asthma or chronic bronchitis and 81 percent report feeling ill at school with headaches, nausea, or other issues. In response, members of Coal River Mountain Watch meet with West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin in June 2005 to share concerns about the school; they report that Governor Manchin promises to investigate the issue and report back within days. However, one week later, they learn the state government has just approved plans for a second coal silo to be constructed next to the school.
As a result, in July 2005, Ed Wiley, grandfather to a young student at Marsh Fork and former long-term contractor for Massey Energy, sits on the steps of the West Virginia capitol building and refuses to move, eat, or leave until he obtains a meeting with the governor. Two days later, state inspectors visit Marsh Fork, conduct routine air quality tests, and declare the school meets all governmental standards—despite testing only for mold, air flow, and air filter upkeep, not for heavy metals, particulates, or other coal-related impacts. So, in September 2006, Wiley leaves his home and truck and walks almost five hundred miles from Charleston, West Virginia, to Washington, DC, to raise awareness of the dangers and illnesses faced by Marsh Fork students and urge lawmakers to build another school. In a 2006 interview with Rebecca Bowe, Sarah Holtam, representative of Coal River Mountain Watch, a nonprofit based near Marsh Fork, is quoted, saying, “Coal dust is filtering inside the school. When I touched a window sill inside the building, my fingers turned black from the dust.” If the dam above Marsh Fork fails, the elementary school will be six feet under water in three minutes. Fifteen feet under water in less than a half-hour. The flood’s coming now what do you do?
The April day my father leaves his childhood home, he, I, follow our home river south to the Elk, push on to the Kanawha River that threads the capital like a noose, his father says—like a gap in a board fence, we imagine. That day in our blue truck, Carhartts, and a map on the seat beside, mountain towns slip through my father’s hands like the brightness of girls in spring—Orma, Chloe, Amma, Rainelle—long hair in braids now shaken loose, winter coats and boots exchanged for blue and white cotton, dancing shoes.
Back home, north toward Buckhannon, all along the holler, neighbors pull boards off windows, turn eyes from woodshed to field. Alone in the house, his father sits wrapped in silence, my father’s note burning in the pellet stove, unread. Jam jars on the ledge of the open bedroom window hum in the breeze, echoing the empty porch swing. Circling, circling.
Last week, in the town bar, my father danced with a girl, a pinwheel in wool. She sang along to Patsy Cline, turning in his arms like a steel drum peeling back each layer to find his black diamond center—he closed his eyes, realized I could die in this town. Later that night, she pushed him against a wall by the pay phones, whispered, My uncle works for Pocahontas—want to go underground? and he smiled. Kissed her cheek, whispered Sdu’isdi uduli, sdu’isdi sgidisi, sealing a door on some gold flicker of a bird.
Last week. Fourteen weeks out from my first race of the season. All trails closed for mud in this fifty-degree January. Tempo Thursday and I am doing laps up and down Monster Mountain, who my training group has also called Deadman’s Cliff, or, when feeling affectionate, Killer Hill. Three laps, bottom-to-top and back again. First lap and I keep pace with a cyclist. Nearly at the top and a shadow overhead, two arms outstretched, I look up, and a bald eagle hangs in the sky, floating in the wind. And I am running in this headwind and the cyclist is pedaling and we are breathing hard but she says in little more than a whisper, bald eagle, and I say, he is watching us, and we hear every word and the spaces in between. Second lap and, above, he is now turning large lazy circles, and I can see each wingfeather outstretched, and I catch myself breathing in when he swoops, and hearing no breath but the sound of my feet when he pauses, suspended, white head disappearing in the cloudless blue sky.
There is a town called Petra in the 1860s, who becomes a town called Stout in 1882, who becomes a waste valley for the Horsetooth Reservoir to fill in 1949. I stop, gather my breath at the top of the hill, look south where Stout was, is. Where Stout furnishes Denver and Omaha with the rock for building and paving, where quarry workers and families welcome Northern Colorado to the area’s largest Fourth of July celebration, where children learn in the one-room native stone Highland School. Where the Panic of 1893 decreases the town’s population from two hundred to thirty in the span of a year, the year two of my great-great-great-grandparents forget their first names, become Margaret Victoria and Granville Taylor, and marry in what has become Virginia, like good Baptists. Within ten years, Stout restabilizes at seventy-five, little cousin to Fort Collins, over the hill, who has about two thousand residents at this time. My family is emerging, choosing names, leaving what Euroamerican scholars have termed the “Lost Provinces” of North Carolina, leaving identities as cousins of cousins in West Virginia, joining Cherokee with English and German and living, working, loving, dreaming, dying in the fields and mines and homes of what has become southern West Virginia, western North Carolina, eastern Kentucky.
I am losing my grasp of the home I have always called home. I struggle to remember how I can go north from Lost City to Lost River to Needmore, south from Old Fields to Rig, over to the confluence of Gauley Bridge, where Mount Hope is just an afternoon hike from Prosperity. I need a map, now, to show someone how to get from Peewee to Brohard by way of Palestine, or from Jolo to Cucumber by way of War. I am losing the names but I know the Buckhannon River still runs the blue-brown dividing line between Alexander and Czar, French Creek and Ellamore, Arden and Parsons, ending east of Replete in the Kumbrabow State Forest.
But these are just assigned names, names on maps without meaning like the names here, around the reservoir, where I could point to the lightly tree-furred rocky hill marking the highest point in the northwest quadrant of the reservoir and say the name on a map, Arthur’s Rock, or maybe just The Rock, or Icy Rock. Like how I can say, heading counterclockwise north around the reservoir’s biggest southern foot, that there is a hill on Centennial, or I can say Double-Deer Hill for the presence of mule deer and their brimming eyes just as likely as the belief, even after four years, that we level at the Deer Crossing sign, but no, we surge up again, another quarter-mile every time. And I say, have said, I am going to Lory when going to Charles A. Lory State Park, but I cringe, every time, reweaving the meaning of this name to not be powerful white man who helped flood a town of immigrants more recent than him but steep switchbacks, rolling valleys, bright golden grasses, and pine-forested trails where I can forget there is an “I” separate from “you” or any time but right now.
Last September, in Denver for a teaching workshop in a near-windowless classroom, I cannot stop smelling smoke. I look outside, sniff my workshop neighbors, decide I am confused, turn back to lesson plan practice. That afternoon on the bus home, I go online, see live footage of first responders containing a brush fire set that morning on the northeast edge of the reservoir. Find messages from my partner, telling me of smoke clotting the western sky.
Five days later the trails reopen, and I am running the eastern edge of the reservoir like I have done more weeks than not for the last four years. Heading north in the shelter of shrub and tree when I break onto the ridgeline overlooking the reservoir and the world stops, silenced. The ground exhales char and gray. The trail the least black path forward. And I hear everything—two hikers a full mile away, picnickers across the reservoir road to the west, my pulse thrumming in my hands. I head down into the valley between two ridges, tracing the burn on this trail, this dividing line, everything char-hollow and silent to the right, everything edging into early fall’s green, gold, and violet on the left. On my way back through the valley, I feel a breath not mine, and I freeze in the gaze of a doe up on the western ridge. Hear her muzzle huff twice, gently, then return to chewing. I sigh, and she stops again, watching me watching her. A car with the radio tuned to bluegrass, loud, goes by on the other side of the ridge. I run on.
Highland School remains functional and operating until 1946, the year my grandfather’s family moves into West Virginia from Pike County, Kentucky, and just three years before the Bureau of Reclamation designates the school as “abandoned” and the construction of Horsetooth Reservoir begins. The Bureau of Reclamation describes the C-BT as “over 100 structures integrated into a transmountain water diversion system through which multiple benefits are provided to the people.” To the people. For the people. Over the people. What people?
In 1945, Industrial News publishes an article on Colorado’s “reclamation projects,” focusing on the upcoming C-BT project to move water from one side of the Continental Divide to the other, and titles the article “Piercing the Backbone of a Continent.” Who asked for this spinal tap, this invasive procedure, this invasion? Who ordered it? Who is abandoned, and who is reclaimed?
Words do not quite work here. I am displaced, looking to be reclaimed, looking for eloh, for a language deeper than the names for the lands my family are from, looking for a way to turn Monongalia and Kanawha, Alleghany and Watauga, back to the names my grandparents could remember, looking for a way to reckon with living in Larimer, running in Lory, and feeling I am beginning to know this land with whom I now live, like I am almost really here, distanced and removed as I am with these shoes, these manufactured trails in these managed parks, circling and circling this reservoir who might be one of the least constructed of us all.
Sometimes I stop running to stand at the edge of the reservoir. When the wind is still, the water pools and ripples in strange places. I think of the buildings underwater. I wonder which pooling surrounds the old Stout schoolhouse, if any of the chairs, seats, blackboards still remain.
April 2010 and twenty-nine miners die in a Massey-owned mine close enough to Marsh Fork that media representatives camp in the elementary school as they report on the disaster. The flood’s coming now what do you do? Later that month, the School Building Authority designates $2.6 million dollars toward the construction of a new school, funds insufficient to complete the project until the Annenberg Foundation, the Raleigh County School Board, and Massey Energy contribute as well. Now, the new school welcomes students five miles away from its original location, but several of my cousins attended the original Marsh Fork and cannot forget trying to learn while knowing they could be six feet under water in three minutes. The flood’s coming now what do you do? The flood’s—there would be nothing they could do.
Running toward Dixon Canyon Dam and the trails into the foothills on either side of the dam, I sometimes have to stop and look at the grasses, the bark of a tree, and breathe. I cannot stop seeing the breaking. The flood’s coming now what do you do? my family game. The flood’s coming now what do you do? my dreaming now. I need a name for this. I need beyond name.
I return to the reservoir. I return to the flood. Circling, I began, and I begin, and I begin again.
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Byrd, Jodi. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
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Denver Public Library Digital Collections. “Stout, Colorado.” 01 July 2020.
Fort Collins Public Library Digital Collections. “Horsetooth Reservoir.” 01 July 2020.
Fort Collins Public Library Digital Collections. “Stout, Colorado.” 01 July 2020.
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Hymes, Dell. “In Vain I Tried to Tell You”: Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.
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Lydersen, Kari. “A School in Coal’s Shadow.” The Progressive, vol. 71, no. 1, Jan. 2007, pp. 23–5. ProQuest.
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Scott, Rebecca R. Removing Mountains: Extracting Nature and Identity in the Appalachian Coalfields. University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
Wheeler, Winona. “Cree Intellectual Traditions in History.” The West and Beyond: New Perspectives on an Imagined Region, edited by Alvin Finkel, Sarah Carter, and Peter Fortna, University of Alberta Press, 2010, pp. 47–61.