College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

Elaine Nelson

Assistant Professor
Executive Director, Western History Association
Primary office:


Elaine Nelson joined the KU history department as an Assistant Professor in the fall of 2020. Nelson’s published work has appeared in the Great Plains Quarterly, South Dakota History, and two forthcoming anthologies. Her first book manuscript, titled “Dreams and Dust in the Black Hills: Tourism, Performance, and the American West in National Memory,” examines the complex history of memory, monuments, and tourism in the Black Hills region. Nelson has presented her work at several professional conferences and received fellowships and grants for her work from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, Newberry Library, The Huntington Library, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, American Heritage Center, Charles Redd Center, and the American Philosophical Society.

At KU Nelson will teach courses focused on the Great Plains, North American West, women and gender, and U.S. history in general. She will also continue in her role as the Executive Director of the Western History Association, a position she started in 2017. Nelson is the first woman to serve in this capacity for the WHA in the organization’s sixty years. She views her directorship as an opportunity to advocate strongly for history professionals and the future of the history discipline.

Nelson earned her Ph.D. in American Western and Comparative Indigenous history in 2011 from the University of New Mexico, a History M.A. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and a Bachelor of Arts in Education (in English and History) from the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Prior to joining KU, Nelson was an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris (2011-2013), and the University of Nebraska at Omaha (2013-2020, earning tenure in 2020).


Ph.D. in History, University of New Mexico

M.A. in History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

B.A.E. in English and History Education, University of Nebraska at Kearney


Dr. Nelson joined the KU History Department as an Assistant Professor of History in 2020 and teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on the North American West, women and gender, U.S. history, and contributes to the general needs of the history major. A university professor (at University of Minnesota, Morris and University of Nebraska at Omaha) since 2011, she has designed and taught a diverse list of History courses, coordinated internships, supervised undergraduate student grants, and advised graduate student theses and comprehensive exams. From 2016-2018 Nelson created a collaborative teaching and public engagement project with The Durham Museum, UNO History Department, UNO Service Learning Academy, and UNO Criss Library Archives and Special Collections. She received a grant to re-design two courses on women's history (U.S. Women's History since 1865 and Gender in the American West) to serve as the platform for a public exhibit on the history of diverse women's lives from Omaha, Nebraska. The students' hard work and community's dedication to the project resulted in a large public exhibit at The Durham Museum titled "Women in Omaha: A Biographical Sketch of Persistence through History". It featured the stories of women (including a blend of Asian American, Latinx, African American, Native American, and Jewish backgrounds) and highlighted their advocacy for the LGBTQ community, service as national leaders in the business, legal, and the medical fields, and contributions to numerous causes through activism, religion, art, philanthropy, and law. Read more about the exhibit here and here.


Dr. Nelson is a U.S. historian specializing in the North American West. Her scholarship takes into consideration the complicated relationships that formed between the diverse people and places in the Intermountain West and Great Plains. Nelson’s first full-length monograph, titled “Dreams and Dust in the Black Hills: Tourism, Performance, and the American West in National Memory,” is under contract and examines the complex history of the Black Hills and the role that travel and myth played in America's invasion and occupation of the region. This set the stage for an aggressive booster campaign which resulted in settler expansion into the Black Hills and created tourism businesses that exploited Native American cultures and land. However, Indigenous people used tourism venues to assert their legal rights to the land and resist the erasure of their Black Hills histories. Social, political, and economic factors contributed to these tensions throughout the twentieth century.

Dr. Nelson's publications on the west, Native American history, and western women's history appear in the Great Plains Quarterly, South Dakota History, and in various anthologies on Mari Sandoz and the National Park Service. Her next anthology essay contribution will appear in Indian Cities: Histories of Indigenous Urbanism (2021), a publication with the University of Oklahoma Press coordinated through workshops hosted by the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies. Nelson also completed an exhibit catalog on the historical persistence of women in Omaha based on her 2018 public exhibit at The Durham Museum.

Fellowships, Grants, Awards

Dr. Nelson's research has been recognized and supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, American Philosophical Society Phillips Fund Grant, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Center for Great Plains Studies, University Committee for Research and Creative Activity (UNO), Nebraska State Historical Society, and the Imagine Fund Annual Faculty Award from the McKnight Foundation at the University of Minnesota. She held resident fellowships at the Newberry Library, Huntington Library, Cody Institute for Western American Studies, and American Heritage Center, and received the Western Association of Women Historians Founders’ Dissertation Award, AHA Albert J. Beveridge Research Grant, John Higham Travel Grant (OAH/IEHS), and the George P. Hammond Prize Graduate Student Paper Award from Phi Alpha Theta.

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