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Know the West

Being a local doesn't make you any better

  "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 land?

A local identity connotes intimacy and understanding. But the two don't necessarily follow.

They 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 that!).

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.

I 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 understanding.

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 stories.

Robert Struckman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He lives and writes near Missoula, Montana.