By Pat Williams, Missoula
Montana is a composite; its identity defined by the beholder. The journalist Joe Howard saw it as “high, wide, and handsome;” the historian Harry Fritz as “a land of contrast;” and K. Ross Toole described “an uncommon land.”
East to west, Montana’s landforms vary from an occasional saline, wind-whipped desert to lush wheat fields to unexpected snow-clad peaks. The engines of our economy are advanced by solitary artists and oil and gas roughnecks, by bankers, bailers, and bartenders. The author Wally Stegner reminded us that out this way we have “more fry cooks than farmers.”
The state’s many facets range from harsh and ugly to serene and beautiful. Our public attitudes are often pitiless as a winter’s mountain storm, but just likely to be gentle as a summer’s late evening breeze.
Our political preferences amble from the psychotic to the rational. From the calm progressive wisdom of Senator Mike Mansfield to the far right-wing exceptionalism of, you pick a name, perhaps John Trochman. In short, our state has those who maintain and nurture the idea of community and others who eagerly paste stickers on their car bumpers: “I love my country, it’s the government I fear.”
Recently I again watched the movie “A River Runs Through It” on its 20th anniversary and I was struck by its presentation of one Montana—the state of civility, community, family, clean rivers and a belief in ourselves. I recalled that only a few years following the original release of the movie, we and people throughout the nation listened and watched reports about the Montana Freemen. That group of self-identified religious-patriots was located in eastern Montana with like-minded believers in northern Idaho. The Freemen reflected a different Montana, one that rejected government and held for individual sovereignty, believing that the nation’s founders invested all authority with the individual rather than “the people.” The actions of the Freemen, a small group of anguished people near Jordon, Mont., precipitated necessary action by local, state, and federal government—including the FBI.
Individual Freemen were well stocked with arms and ammunition, and were attempting to enrich themselves through bogus check-writing, legal briefs, false warrants and liens; most notably they refused to pay taxes. That ploy earned the group the moniker Freeloaders from many Montanans. Others were titillated by the anti-government attitude; the last holdouts in the last best place. That theater of illegality played out over three months and eventually these social outsiders caved in, were tried, prosecuted, and imprisoned.
So, that particular Montana river, running over with distrust and conspiracy, also runs through us carrying absurdity and danger. Which river defines us—Norman Maclean’s or the Freemen’s? Are we a people of hope and generosity who appreciate the land and our place on it or are we isolated, angry and suspicious? Do we love the land or hate it? Do we trust or tremble at the idea of government?
It has been said that Montana may be an oasis, but it is not an island. What do we seek to be? Are we a frustrated people, angry at government, satisfied in our self-made isolation or are we a large-minded community of gregarious, generous people eager to improve the lot of each by pulling together as “the people.”
Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and taught at The University of Montana.