Until the talk of recession started, some people said Choteau would be the next Aspen or Sun Valley. After all, if David Letterman lived there (though the attraction for him was that it was quiet), could a wave of celebrities be far behind? The crown jewel of Nature Conservancy, the Pine Butte Swamp, was there, not far from a bit of important Metis history and what was once a colony of fine writers, including A.B. Guthrie Jr. whose Two Moon Ranch was nearby. Choteau is close to the prime dino fossil country where Horner located dino nests on Egg Mountain and revolutionized our understanding of the creatures. It has one of the best small town libraries in the state and an excellent top-of-the-line bookstore, Oasis, featuring first edition and Western hardbacks. The small shops are exemplary, partly because there are non-celebrity but well-heeled people who have built McMansions here and there. You can buy espresso and quiche in a clever little cafe or walk down the street a bit to get a proper cowboy breakfast. There’s a proper modern motel with a swimming pool.
When I first knew the town, the wide streets were lined with huge century-old cottonwoods. Just down the way is one of the main stop-offs for migratory waterfowl, notably African-dimension waves of snow geese. In roughly the same location is a butte along the highway topped with three crosses which some people claim mark the graves of three martyred priests -- though elders recall that it was a local minister who inspired his youth group to put the crosses there as an Easter commemoration. In any case, a movie about the crosses is about to be released. Other movies have been made in the area.
Just outside of town is an historical marker for the early Blackfeet agency: a field is all that is left, including the depressions of graves necessary because of smallpox and some huge boulders put there by the Zion brothers to set the boundaries of the site. The Zion brothers are more fabulous than any movie: tall, smart, resourceful men just like their daddy and now almost as old as those cottonwoods. The Choteau Acantha was once the newspaper in Valier. It is edited by Melody Martinsen, one of the most progressive and insightful people in the state.
But none of this caused Choteau to hit the New York Times. Steve Running is a professor of ecology and a global climate scientist at the University of Montana, not some carpet-bagging outsider, but east-siders do consider Missoula a source of dangerously liberal thought. A Nobel laureate, Running had been invited to speak in Choteau twice, once in the evening to a crowd in the school gymnasium and then the next day to the high school student body. He was sponsored by the Sonoran Institute, an environmental group concerned about global warming. In a classic “kill-the-messenger” scenario, community members called the school board, which forced the superintendent (a new guy in town) to cancel the speech to the students. None of the school board members would take questions from the national media, referring them all to poor Kevin St. John, the superintendent.
The only voice to step up to the issue was that of a student. Luckily, he was up to the challenge. Senior Kip Barhaugh, wrote a short piece for the Great Falls Tribune's opinion page. He said, “Our school leaders seem to be under the impression that high school students are not able to hear about what some deem ‘controversial issues' and form individual judgments.” Barhaugh wrote, “This raises the question of what public high school education is. Is it the spoon-feeding of information to America's next generation or is it presenting this generation with all the facts and allowing students to decide how those facts are interpreted?” His last sentence was the payoff: “To the Choteau school board and some of the Choteau community, I hope you realize that our school is probably one of the few districts in the nation to deny a Nobel Peace Prize winner the right to speak to its students.” I hope Letterman has this kid on his show. He doesn’t need a paid writer.
If I’d had more money, I’d have bought a house in Choteau but there are many doctors and lawyers who like to retire to such a pleasant historical place, so property prices are high. There is an excellent nursing home where I used to visit Olga Monkman, a part of the the Unitarian diasphora. Olga’s husband was a big part of the development of Choteau and she had been a diligent accumulator of history. Her father was one of those classic “prairie humanists” so despised by today’s religiously anal, so when it came time to bury him, the presider was A.B. Guthrie’s school superintendent father. But in Olga’s last years, the local Methodist minister kindly supported her without a lot of doctrinal requirements. This is not a town that has a dominant right-wing conspiracy population. So what’s going on?
People are very frightened. Running suggests they are in the second stage of realizing what global warming means and are “self-medicating” with adrenaline, produced by rage. There are people capitalizing on all this by pointing out whom to attack. The AM radio talk shows, newspaper comic strips, pundits of various sorts, are creating instant notoriety by crying, “There! That’s the one who’s telling us all these lies! You’ll have to give up your new two-ton pickup! We’ll have five dollar gas! Your ranches are doomed! KILL THE MESSENGER!!”
Indeed, the future looks pretty tough -- not next decade but by the end of the century the terms of life on the high eastslope prairie will be quite different no matter what we do. There will be losers.
In Valier, less than an hour's drive away, the Sonora Institute has not offered any speakers. In this little village the focus has been on a new zoning law, which on examination and discussion turns out to have been drawn up by people settling old scores, trying to eliminate poverty by getting rid of poor people, and increasing real estate profits. The general feeling is that we’re facing some very hard times indeed, and this might be the last chance for some people to wring out a bit of advantage.
A decade of my life was devoted to church ministry, but the Unitarian tradition makes plenty of allowance for community ministry, the encouragement of truth and justice for everyone regardless of piety. I’m not keeping silent now. It’s possible that the village will redraw their zoning to punish me somehow. (A Valier person suggested they might outlaw big fat cats!) On the other hand, it’s possible that we’ll be like Kip and bravely hear what Nobel Peace Prize Laureates have to say, then work together to pull us all through. Then I can get back to writing books and herding cats. As for Choteau, go for it, Kip!!