Here’s an interesting article about a jewel in the crown of Great Falls’ favorite son, the artist Charles M. Russell.
The town is understandably nervous. Economics are ebbing. The dams built on the falls that Great Falls was founded to exploit are being removed now. No more copper or aluminum to process anyway. Malmstrom Air Force Base, headquarters of the IBM missiles that have seeded the land since the Cold War, is being reduced. The railroads are far less than they used to be. The wheat is still booming in spite of CRP but ag subsidies are open to challenge in Washington. The main collection of C.M. Russell paintings was bought by Texas and Nancy Russell’s trust fund lives in Oklahoma City where it supports the CM Russell Center for the Study of Western Art. www.ou.edu/finearts/art_arthistory/resources/charles_m_russell_center.html
Seems like every good thing has a time limit on it. The open range that is such a mythic inspiration only lasted a few decades. The wool that was crucial to uniforms in the World Wars is now replaced by miracle fibers. Even the glaciers that brought so many tourists to Glacier National Park are melting fast. And Old Faithful isn’t quite as punctual as it used to be. The summers are hotter. Uh oh. And no one understands how to keep the price of gas down, though some people think it’s a good thing to have high gas prices in the name of conservation.
The folks that agree with that are not the people trying to develop tourist destinations as a way of staying afloat. After all, this is Montana where distances are long and people still drive big cars if not pickups. So Wolf Point is upset that a “Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center” is going to Big Timber.
http://www.greatfallstribune.com/article/20120506/NEWS01/120506001/Wolf-Point-residents-bitter-over-museum-reversal and the original proposal is at http://www.montanacowboyfame.com/
Let’s face it. These are exercises in self-congratulation whose appeal to those not involved is limited. The Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, has ballooned into the “Smithsonian of the West” and Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City has managed to dodge the cyclones so far. But most of these ideas tend to be invented by locals with dollar signs in their eyes who grossly overestimate the interest of people from far away and certainly overestimate how long the fickle public will stay impressed. Today’s sad story is a lawsuit about a theme-based housing development in Bozeman. http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/midwest/2012/05/08/246740.htm Even sadder is that national readers won’t “get” a dinosaur dig unless a Hollywood movie is used as a reference point, though “Jurassic Park” is a far cry from digging dino eggs in one’s backyard.
I was long divorced and not an insider when Bob Scriver sort of co-opted the idea of a Giant Jesus statue from a peaceful sheriff who wanted it to be put in a high mountain pass. Then locals got aboard and wanted to put it in Cut Bank, a singularly unpeaceful place (it’s an oil-patch town with a white-town connection to the reservation). It was supposed to be built so you could go up in Jesus’ head and look out over the prairie, though what you would see might not be very startling. When Bob died, the billboard proclaiming the project quietly folded.
But the little portrait of Shep down in Fort Benton has proven a durable destination for a lot of people. (Dogs are more reliable than Gods.) In fact, more people are impressed by it than the major Lewis & Clark and Sacajawea monument on the waterfront. And the townspeople’s pride is expressed by a quarrel over where Shep’s statue should be emplaced so as to be best for the surrounding businesses. But then, it didn’t pretend to be about peace. Just devotion.
Indians are supposed to be a major source of tourist interest but only if they are framed in terms of the 19th century. Going onto a real reservation is just too scary, though there are cadres of retired Methodists who come out every summer as a group and have a fine time doing something worthy and attending North American Indian Days. They just don’t have much interest in actual Indians who are adolescent or past. Not that any interest would be reciprocated.
The relationship with Indians brings sharply into focus three forces with an interesting structural effect. (Keep in mind that a triangle is the most immovable and secure structural pattern.) It is in the first place “spiritual,” in the sense that everyone agrees that Indians are more spiritual than anyone else on the planet. The second is “religious” with the idea that Christians have always had a license to rush into Indian Country and do good. Missionaries are inconvenient, but no one suggests that missionaries are evil. (Well, no one we like, anyway.) The third is “moral,” and there the Indians really hold the trump card. Europeans were totally immoral (by modern standards) to invade North America and trample underfoot the indigenous people. (The fact that the same thing is underway in South America this very moment is beside the point. No one from Iowa wants to go intervene there.)
But the current residents of Montana are quick to rush on past just exactly how their white forebears happened to be able to homestead by pointing how how moral (hard-working, family-based, ag-essential, safe small-town) they are and how long they’ve been here. (Century and a half, at max.) But most would dump all that in a hurry to get ag subsidies or sign a frakking contract with an oil company. After all, they didn’t want their kids to work as hard as they had, so they sent them to good colleges where they got Ph.D’s and are now deeply in debt but unemployable. Even so, they aren’t likely to come back to live on the prairie. Not even if you promised them they could dig dinosaur eggs.