Selling or Celebrating Our Soul?
by George Everett
- Montana is more than just a
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
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
NEVADA & VIRGINIA CITY
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.
LEWIS AND CLARK INTERPRETIVE CENTER
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.
RELIVING THE PAST
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.
REAL PLACES, THE REAL US
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
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,"
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
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
"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
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