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Heritage Tourism: Selling or Celebrating Our Soul?

by George Everett

Montana is more than just a pretty face.

Sure, it always has been a magnet to those seeking spectacular mountain scenery or the famous big sky rolling out toward the infinite horizon. But a growing number of visitors want to look deeper than the surface scenery; they come to learn, participate, and experience being here.

Last year, about ten percent of our 8.8 million visitors shared the goal of visiting heritage and cultural attractions in Montana, according to Travel Montana, the state agency responsible for shaping the state's image. The Montana Institute of Tourism and Recreation Research found that almost forty percent of Montana's visitors spent some time visiting a cultural event or historical attraction as part of their vacation.

Heritage tourism is not unique to us, though it may be new to us. Across the country, the growing popularity of cultural or heritage tourism now borders on a craze. In Virginia, for instance, the state promotes a tour of sites related to Thomas Jefferson. In Pennsylvania, the heritage corridor known as the Path of Progress invites travelers to visit sites related to industrial history in the state. A study of the economic impact of visits to nine Path of Progress sites in 1993 indicated that 500,000 visitors had brought $45 million and created about 1,000 new jobs.

After decades of being defined by outside sources-from the wild and woolly lies in dime novels to the fantasy of railroad promoters selling cheap land to gullible honyockers-Montanans are saying that we have our own stories worth telling. And our own ways to tell them.


Although Butte went through its own booms for gold and silver, its greatest prosperity was linked to mining copper.

Many fortunes were built on the vast reserves of copper that continue to be mined on a smaller scale to this day.

The brief era of Butte's gold and silver camp history is preserved at the World Museum of Mining on the western edge of Butte. Here, Hell Roarin' Gulch recreates mining life during that time, featuring a restored 1899 frontier town with shops and exhibits that demonstrate early mining technology and culture.

The museum is just one of the attractions that predate but fit nicely into a plan to provide a larger context to interpret the area's mining and smelting past. Atlantic-Richfield (ARCO) is now spending millions of dollars to mitigate a century of environmental damage from hard rock mining and smelting. Part of the equation of reclamation for the Clark Fork drainage is to to make the devastated land usable for recreation and establish a greenway with walking and riding trails.

At the same time, a heritage corridor with interpretations of the area's mining and smelting heritage will make it impossible to forget what happened here in the past.

As the Copperway Heritage Trail between Butte and Anaconda slowly takes shape over the next few years, it will provide local residents a chance to tell their own stories of what happened when copper was king.


Virginia City and Nevada City preserve a living, interactive snapshot of what life was like when the state was born.

The earliest settlements in Montana were established in Bannack and along Alder Gulch. Virginia City grew from humble beginnings as a muddy boom camp to become the cradle that rocked Montana into existence as a territory. From 1864 to 1869, more than $30 million worth of gold was extracted from Alder Gulch near the boomtown of Virginia City, and miners and speculators from around the world came to claim their share. By 1864, 10,000 new arrivals called it home; by 1865 it was the territorial capital.

Original buildings, including the territory's first newspaper The Montana Post, the Dance and Stuart Store, and the Fairweather Inn, have been preserved and will be maintained for the pleasure and education of future generations. The weathered boards on the graves of road agents who were hanged during the days of the Vigilantes stand close by on Boot Hill.

Due largely to the efforts of the Bovey family, Virginia City and Nevada City have frozen in time what life was like here in the 1860s. For half a century, Charles and Sue Bovey scoured the state for artifacts to augment the burgeoning displays in their Nevada City exhibits. When they retired, they handed the properties over to their son, Ford, who planned to disperse the extensive collection through auctions.
With the prospect that the collection would be scattered among private collections forever, the state of Montana purchased the Bovey properties in 1997 for $6.5 million. A four-year, $1.6 million commitment of state bed tax money will be used to finance the maintenance and operation of historical properties here.

Already, the state-backed effort to preserve Virginia City and Nevada City has attracted $1.5 million in private foundation support to set up a permanent endowment fund and establish a storage facility and catalog artifacts in Virginia City. The state is now developing the properties as a major heritage attraction that will preserve the earliest gold mining and Vigilante history of the state, providing visitors an opportunity to see what life was like when the state was born.


At first glance, you might miss it. The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center near Great Falls was designed to blend into the sandstone cliffs above the Missouri River below Black Eagle Dam. There is no question, however, that thousands will find it. Interest in the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 to 1806 has always sparked the imagination, but for the next few years as the bicentennial of the Expedition apporaches, the focus is intense.

The center's director, Jane Weber, is quick to point out that this is not a museum. For example, the center features a recreated Mandan Lodge built from mud and cottonwoods imported from the same area where lodges were built 200 years ago in what is now North Dakota. It is meant to be entered by visitors. As you enter, you smell the cottonwood and river mud; motion sensors trigger recorded chanting and drumming and you get a clear sense of what it must have been when Lewis and Clark visited their Mandan neighbors during the cold winter of 1804.

"Before long we expect to have to replace some of the tactile exhibits," said Weber, handling a buckskin moccasin, "but we want visitors to touch and experience how they feel."

The center is designed to symbolically replicate the entire journey within the confines of its walls. The color of the carpeting alternates between blue and brown to correspond to when the Corps of Discovery traveled by water and by land. The tour takes a turn through a narrow hall to simulate traveling through the Gates of the Mountains north of Helena and then opens into the camp of Cameahwait, the brother of Sacagawea who bartered for horses with Lewis and Clark. A sloping walk up a ramp symbolizes the ascent of the Rockies, and at the top an air conditioner vents cold air, a welcome spot in the summer to ponder the expedition's chilly winter ascent of the Bitterroot Mountains.

Down the ramp on the other side, the tour continues to a Nez Perce Camp and then on to the ocean. To proceed, you turn your back to the ocean, just as Lewis and Clark did for their journey home.

The centerpiece is the life-size replica of the portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri River. The display stretches from the bottom floor to near the front entrance on the second floor. As I entered the room, a sensor activated the sound of water rushing over falls. You can imagine the heat, see the strain on the faces as models of the expedition crew struggle to haul a dugout canoe up a steep bank to begin their month-long portage. The backdrop view reveals the real Missouri River through the tall windows, much the same as it looked almost 200 years ago.

The center also has a living history component on land adjacent to the building, where the Lewis and Clark Honor Guard, a group of local Lewis and Clark buffs who study the history of the expedition by reliving it, provide historical reenactments.


Perhaps no other area of Montana's history is as painful as the history of Native Americans. Yet when visitors look for cultural attractions in Montana, many want to experience Native American culture as it was lived in the past, not as it is lived today on Montana's seven reservations.

Blackfeet Indians invite non-tribal guests to attend and participate in North American Indian Days, the annual summer powwow. The Blackfeet tribe also offers cultural tours, led by tribal elders, that take visitors to sites on the reservation and explain their significance to the Blackfeet Nation.
Each of the reservations holds annual pow wows and rodeos, where visitors are welcomed. Crow Fair, held near Hardin, is one of the largest gatherings of native culture in the world, drawing tourists from throughout the world.

The Sqelix'u/Aq=smaknik Cultural Center (The People's Center) is a $1.5 million museum and cultural center in the heart of the Flathead Indian Reservation. Originally funded through a planning grant in 1990 through the federal Administration for Native Americans, the project is almost wholly supported by funding from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai.

"The People's Center allows us to tell our own story in our own words," explained Director Shelly McClure. "It is a living museum. Culture is not static, it is dynamic. We have been changed by many things like the coming of Jesuit priests and boarding schools, but it's still our culture. We have adapted to the influences in our past."

The history of the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d'Orielle peoples is interpreted through photographs and artifacts, toys, games, clothing, and original works of native art. The center also features interactive components such as video games, and audio tapes in Salish, Kootenai, Pend d'Orielle, English, and other languages.

Tribal history and culture spans the hunting, fishing, and gathering days of prehistory through fur trapping and the influence of the Jesuits through the arrival of homesteaders. Tribal elders and cultural practitioners are on hand to interpret history for anyone who wants to learn, according to McClure. The level varies from answering questions from first-time visitors to in-depth interpretations for tribal members.


Each June at the Little Big Horn National Battlefield, crowds gather to watch a blond plumber from Michigan play Custer-and come in second to the Sioux and Cheyenne.

Heritage travelers in eastern Montana retrace other battles and sites of the Great Sioux Wars of 1876 and 1877.
Reenactors at the Big Hole National Battlefield commemorate the 1877 attack of the retreating Nez Perce by soldiers and volunteers. The visitor center there now has uniforms, blankets, and equipment from the era so visitors can "handle" history with their own fingers. Other "battlefields" may be too painful to ever attract visitors. For example, it is difficult to imagine a visitor center at the unmarked site of the Marias Massacre, where, in 1870, 173 Blackfeet - mostly women and children - were slaughtered.

Nez Perce beadwork on display at the Big
Hole National Battlefield near Wisdom, Montana.


Cultural tourism. Sounds like a natural. A travel destination with a story becomes a real place to visitors. The above heritage tourism sites are but a few of the possibilities already existing in the state.

For decades, for many different reasons, Montana has been a larger than life place to the rest of the world, a place where myths were exported to fuel the imaginations of dreamers in distant cities.

But how do Montanans define ourselves? How do we present our heritage in a way that is easy to understand, without diluting it, or worse, reinforcing myths and misconceptions? Do Montanans answer with who we think we are, or do we try to answer with what we think others want us to be in order to attract tourism dollars to our communities?

Susan Neel, of Montana State University, warns against the "commodification" of Montana's heritage. She believes that if our motives are purely commercial, we are destined to reducing our heritage to the lowest common denominator to attract the largest paying crowd.

Neel believes that defining ourselves is a process of self inquiry that is subtle, complex, and sometimes painful. And, she added, "It is difficult to get people to pay good money to be pained."

Cultural tourists are hungry to visit places with true stories. This provides the opportunity for Montanans to recreate themselves in their own image or, if we falter, to provide our own state seal of approval to reinforce the stereotypes of who we are.

In what is rightfully described as the Last Best Place, there are many, many stories to be told. It seems that a fitting role for heritage groups, historical associations, and arts and cultural groups throughout the state is to make sure that the many stories are told right, told well, and told often to those who come from far and wide to listen.
Sidebar -- Pillow Talk About Montana's Bed Tax
Tourism is serious business in Montana. After agriculture and the lumber industry, tourism creates the most jobs and generates the most revenue of any other sector of the economy in the state.
The Montana Institute of Tourism and Recreation Research estimates that, in the last five years, visitors have brought more than $7 billion into the state's economy.

Montana has its own state agency called Travel Montana that is tasked with sustaining a high level of tourism. And when Travel Montana sings the praises of Montana's natural beauty and cultural attractions, the "music" is funded by a 1987 state law that created the Montana Lodging Facility Use Tax, commonly called the bed tax. That law allows a four-percent tax to be added to the price of renting a room in Montana.

Travel Montana promotes the state to tourists around the world and administers revenues generated by the state bed tax. Travel Montana distributes the revenue to tourism groups around the state, as directed by a Tourism Advisory Council composed of at least twelve members from the tourism industry, Indian reservations, Montana communities, and the general public.

About eighty-seven percent of the bed tax funds Travel Montana's efforts to promote tourism, and the Montana Film Office to promote film productions in the state. In recent years, a small percentage of the bed tax has been applied to efforts to improve and increase the infrastructure that supports tourism.

Where was the tourism industry before the bed tax? In the 1980s, Montana's economy was stagnant, many Montanans were leaving the state for work, and tourism was sluggish. Then, the Montana Innkeepers Association had an idea to tax themselves to coordinate efforts to generate more business for their industry. Herb Luprecht, who operates Butte's Best Western Plaza Inn, was president at the time. In 1987, the organization successfully pushed the bed tax idea. "When tourism increased almost immediately, even the biggest doubters in the industry felt it was a good move," said Luprecht.

According to Travel Montana, in its first year the tax generated $5 million for tourism promotion. Last year, the state collected and distributed about $10 million from the bed tax. This fiscal year, collections are projected to bring in about $9.5 million.

Not everyone in Montana is keen on increasing tourism. Some critics point to the increased costs to infrastructure that are caused by millions of visitors in the summer months. Since the state has no sales tax, these costs fall to property owners to pay through their property taxes.

Many of the jobs created in tourism based economies are low-paying service jobs where local residents become dependent on travelers to infuse the economy with their dollars. Increased tourism raises the fear of locals living in trailers on the outskirts of town commuting to low-paying jobs to cook meals or do laundry for affluent tourists.

Others point to the damage done to state highways by increased car traffic. But Dick Turner of the Montana Department of Transportation points out that increased car traffic has little impact on the state's highway system, which for the most part operates at much less than capacity across the sparsely populated state with some notable exceptions such as state Route 93 between Glacier Park and Missoula.

"Most of the wear and tear comes from heavy trucks hauling freight to or through the state," said Turner. Turner points out that the national Interstate highway system requires four lane highways in parts of the state where a two-lane would be better suited to handle the low volume of traffic and decrease the cost of maintenance.

"The federal highways in Montana were built by the federal government but they are maintained by the state," said Turner. "That is one contributing factor to the high state fuel tax we have. We have to maintain a lot of miles of Interstate highway in Montana."

Where would Montana be if it ends the bed tax? A good place to look for an example of this is Colorado. Colorado had a similar tax that collected money to promote tourism in the state. The Colorado Tourism Board as it was called had a budget of $12 million dollars a year to promote the state's attractions until it shut down in 1994. According to Linda Fort of the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, since 1994 Colorado has lost almost $2 billion dollars in tax revenue that would have come from visitors.

"In 1994, Colorado was the number one summer destination in the country," said Fort. "We have now dropped to 17th place. Where tourists used to come from across the country, the market for Colorado has become regionalized with most of the leisure business coming from a 500 to 600 mile radius of the state."

Whether tourism is a good or bad thing, it is a major fact of life in Montana's economy. Short of building a fence around the state and charging admission, its not possible to stop tourists from coming to Montana and they do continue to come in the millions to see and experience the mountains, rivers, wildlife, and other attractions of the state.

The bed tax allows the state to focus resources to support this growing slice of the economic pie. Aside from worries that the state legislature will divert the revenue for other purposes, one of the architects of the tax can look back without regrets.

"It's a clean tax; the industry taxes itself to promote tourism and create jobs," said Herb Luprecht.

And the alternative is to return to an economy that is dominated by extractive industries such as mining and logging that render the state's working people vulnerable to traumatic cycles of boom and bust.

Referring to the benefits of attracting the movie industry to Montana, Lonie Stimac of the Montana Film Office said "In the end, there's no pollution from this industry, they're not cutting down anything and they're not drilling into anything. They just take pictures and go away."

The same argument may be said for the Montana tourism industry in general.
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