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The Cultural Landscape of Arizona: A Frontier Heritage

The American West has always been a place where the vaunted individualism of our national culture has received its most resonant expression—nowhere more so than here in Arizona. This is the West—the Southwest—a vast canvas of startling natural beauty, a broad landscape that has always drawn individuals with an independent streak, and it remains so today.

When the Thirteenth Territorial Legislature established a normal school in Tempe in 1885, Arizona Territory epitomized the frontier in our national consciousness. More than a quarter century would pass before Arizona Territory became the last of the 48 continental states to join the union. Because the state is young and its cities and institutions are not bound by the weight of tradition, because in many respects it is like an unfinished canvas, Arizona still epitomizes the frontier—the social, cultural, and political frontier. Its cities and institutions are not bound by the weight of tradition because they are still in the process of being created.

In the nineteenth century Arizona Territory epitomized the frontier to Americans crossing the continent, but for countless centuries it had been the land of indigenous peoples, and it remains so today. The Native American population in Arizona is among the most diverse and vibrant in the nation. In the sixteenth century the Spanish became the first Europeans to impact this land of ancient and highly successful cultures—the land that would become Mexico—and with the Hispanic population of our state increasing more rapidly than any other segment of society, it is clear that Arizona retains its ties to the great new cultures of Latin America.

The conviction that the United States is a melting pot has been an article of faith for generations of Americans. But the gradual process of assimilation that has brought both indigenous peoples and generations of immigrants into the American mainstream has been questioned. We are becoming a nation in which no dominant cultural paradigm prevails, one still in the process of developing its own uniquely American culture. It is perhaps a process that will never be completed. It has been said that America is a mosaic, and not a melting pot. It is far, far richer for that cultural complexity, a complexity that the university must embrace, a complexity that the university must understand, teach, and use to bring forth new perspectives and new ideas.

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