"Where is this guy from?" I said to myself, flipping to the inside cover of the new book, "True Grizz," by Douglas Chadwick. It said the author lived in Whitefish, Mont., a trendy town north of Flathead Lake. He may live there, I thought, but where's he from?
It's embarrassing to recount my
thought process. I was irritated by some imagined insult of
Montana's rural residents by Chadwick. Call it hometown pride;
we're a sensitive people.
In Montana and across the West
it matters where you were, as we say, born and raised. When my
neighbor refers to the previous owners of the farmhouse I rent near
St. Ignatius, Mont., he calls them Californians. They moved from
Monterey in 1940.
We seem to think our problems are the
result of outsiders and newcomers. At a recent Democratic event in
Billings, a man complained of new arrivals to the state who vote
straight-ticket Republican. Last month, a commentator on the radio
blamed West Coast environmentalists for the woes of the logging
industry. Everyone knows Californians cause urban sprawl.
Long residence in a place can be used as a crutch when logic is
inadequate or troublesome. At public meetings on a proposed plan
for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to run parts of the
National Bison Range, opponents prefaced their arguments by noting
how many years they'd lived on the land. But how can 27 or 77 years
compare to untold generations that have lived on the same
A local identity connotes intimacy and
understanding. But the two don't necessarily follow.
certainly didn't in my case. I was raised to consider myself a
Montana insider as a birthright. It's funny because I was born in
-- shudder -- California, a geographic error caused by the Vietnam
War. But both sides of my family have lived in the Big Sky State
for a century. My maternal grandmother's childhood homestead was
flooded by waters from the Fort Peck Dam in the 1930s (top
I haven't always treasured my Montana ties. When I
was in college near New York City, I made jokes about inbreeding
and the deleterious effects of drinking bad water. I envied the
kids who had gone to name-brand universities. My relatives
pronounced wrestling as "rassling."
My girlfriend helped
me rediscover my rural relatives. The importance in her life of her
extended family on the Crow Reservation prompted me to accept an
invitation in the fall of 1995, from my mother's cousin, to hunt on
his land north of the Missouri River Breaks. When it came down to
the trip, I was nervous. My cousin liked to deride welfare cheats
and environmental regulations. He was a Republican and a rancher.
We were three Indians and me.
But when we reached his
spread, my cousin, Bill French, was gracious. He led us out to the
miles of open country that he thought would best yield a few mule
deer for our tags. Out there is big and open. From a high ridge,
the grassy land breaks and folds, falling away toward the Missouri
to the south. For the better part of an hour we drove a faint dirt
track, bumping over tussocks of grass and down though coulees.
Finally he swung around in a field and wished us luck.
felt a wave of affection for him as his pickup vanished over a
rise. A few hours later I had a buck, gutted and ready to haul back
to Billings atop my parents' red Nissan Sentra. It was a struggle
to get the weight of the dead animal onto the roof, and by the time
I had the front legs tied to the rear bumper, I realized the deer
was open, spread-eagled, to the sky, rear forward. It was too much
trouble, though, to flip him over and turn him around, so I
finished tying him.
That poor beast drew honks and
hilarious double-takes from the few vehicles we passed on the
five-hour drive back to Billings.
What can I say? I seem
even more ridiculous when my cousin tells the story. But warmer and
more tolerant relationships don't magically erase political
differences. They can help, but none of that comes automatically.
Locals don't know it all, nor are newcomers --no matter what their
political affiliation -- locked out of wisdom and
After I finished reading "True Grizz," I
had a chance to meet Doug Chadwick and find out where he was from.
But I really didn't care. Instead, we traded grizzly bear