Montana Native: Who Cares?


In bold, black letters the bumperstickers declare: Montana Native. I spot them as I drive and, like the chiggers of my native Virginia, they make me itch. For the naive observer, the message must seem benign, a mere statement of birthplace pride. But for an increasingly wary transplant like me, it conveys something more sinister - an in-your-face declaration of Us vs. Them.

I moved to Anaconda, Mont., in 1990, and in this small community, locals call newcomers boomers, a reference to past influxes of new residents whenever work at the smelter was booming. For natives here, I'll be a boomer always.

I moved to Montana because it moved me. I'd grown weary of the grit, crime, and concrete of Somerville, Mass., where I worked as a journalist. I longed for open space, clear water, a place where you could drive all day without getting the finger from a fellow motorist.

I didn't know then that there were many more like me moving to the Rocky Mountain West. I believed my longings were unique, even eccentric. For a time I contemplated a move to Recluse, Wyo., simply because I liked the sound of it.

I didn't really choose Anaconda; I landed a job here, working for the Butte-based newspaper The Montana Standard. Although some Montanans look down their noses at Butte and Anaconda, cities with histories and environmental scars linked to mining and smelting, I liked Anaconda's amicable and resilient residents.

In 1977, the Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO) had purchased the local copper smelter from the once-powerful Anaconda Company. Three years later, ARCO shut the smelter down, and observers predicted Anaconda would become a ghost town. It hasn't - in part because Superfund dollars targeted at cleaning up the wastes have pumped up the local economy.

When I began my new reporting job I vowed silently to restrain any impulse to observe, "Well, this is how we do it back East." I bit my lip during a public meeting when the county manager referred to ARCO engineer Sandy Stash as that good-looking blonde in the front row. I said nothing as locals vehemently opposed plans that would try to manage development and growth.

Occasionally, I slipped. One day, chatting with my office manager, a tiny, gracious woman and a native Anacondan, I remarked, "It seems like Anacondans should be grateful the smelter closed. The vegetation's coming back. The pollution has stopped." With uncharacteristic heat, she responded, "I'd take the smelter back today, with all its problems and pollution, the arsenic and all the rest, if it meant my children could come back home to live and work." I retreated again to the bastions of circumspection.

As time passed, I began to care deeply and personally about the rivers I wade, the mountains I hike, and the animals and people with whom I share Montana's beauty. I found it increasingly difficult to mind my tongue.

In 1992, I left the newspaper to work as a free-lancer. Not long after, I began writing a weekly column of opinion and rumination for The Montana Standard.

I received some nasty letters. Reacting to a column advocating some measure of gun control, one correspondent described me as a "weasel ass," and wrote, "... don't be surprised if you find yourself sucking soup through a straw this summer."

Another wrote: "Mr. Adams, most people try to adapt to their new surroundings when they move to another area. You obviously cannot. If you truly find we Montanans to be so backward and disagreeable, then why don't you just move the hell back where you came from?"

In early 1994, a new editor told me he was contemplating killing my column. Too morbid, he said. My next column poked fun at this feedback by describing a nonmorbid view of Montana: "On Main Street, a logger hugged an environmentalist."

It was my last column for The Montana Standard.

A few weeks later I began a similar column for The Philipsburg Mail, a small weekly paper in Granite County. Then the paper printed the following letter:

"(Mr. Adams) tends to believe that he can solve all Montana's problems with his wit and wisdom and the stroke of his mighty pen ... It's easy to see he has not yet abandoned his Eastern attitude (and) that he perceives himself to stand on higher ground than those souls who have made his oasis of rural solitude possible."

What do I make of this? I do not consider myself superior to native Montanans. Neither am I inferior. We are equals; birthplace does not make the bond of native Montanans to the land more profound than mine. When an acquaintance moved to Bozeman from California, I asked her how she copes with Montanans' frequent diatribes against Californians. "The way I see it," she said, "Native Americans are the only people in Montana with a legitimate right to complain about newcomers."

On Sept. 16, 1994, my son, Will, was born in Butte. He is a Montana Native. I have restrained the urge to attach a bumpersticker to his bike seat.

Duncan Adams is a freelance writer based in Anaconda, Montana.

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