|By Caroline Lupfer Kurtz
Once upon a time it was a staging point along
the pipeline that funneled people and goods to Montanas wide open spaces. Now the
Milwaukee Road railway station houses the Carroll and Nancy Fields OConnor Center
for the Rocky Mountain West.
The center is another type of conduit this time for ideas and information about
the culture, economy and politics of the interior West, a vast region stretching from New
Mexico through Alberta and British Columbia. The business of the center, says Associate
Director and UM history Professor Bill Farr, is to facilitate the ongoing discovery of the
region that began with the earliest explorers.
Lewis and Clarks purpose was to find out about an almost totally unknown
part of the country and, in particular, to understand the shape and continental
significance of the Rocky Mountains, center Director Dan Kemmis says. Two
hundred years later we know what the map looks like, where the water flows ... but
were also finding that people are engaged in a re-discovery of the regions
significance and its potential to the country as a whole.
The OConnor Center is a regional-studies and public-policy institute designed to
sharpen Westerners understanding of the region and guide visions of its future. As
such the center takes a multifaceted approach to regional issues, says Senior Fellow Pat
Williams, and provides opportunities for discussion via conferences, lectures and
publications, including an Internet-based news service called Headwaters.
The economic-policy division, led by Associate Director Larry Swanson, collects,
analyzes and disseminates data about shifting demographics, business development and job
trends. Regional-policy projects, directed by Kemmis, focus on how the region is
re-defining itself politically and the movement toward collaboration and consensus
building. The centers humanities and culture focus, under Farrs leadership,
deals with questions of identity, of who we are and what we are becoming, he
says. Each area spills over and feeds back to the others.
Then and now
Until the 1920s, Farr says, Montanans had a fairly homogenous sense of their identity.
They understood why they lived here, how they made their living, what their relation to
their neighbors was. Hard times sparked a steady exodus over the next several decades,
ending in the 1960s and 70s when Montana was rediscovered by people
fleeing bigger cities and popular areas. This influx has brought a diversity that is
undermining the old identity, Farr says.
You no longer have to live here on the regions terms [as earlier settlers
did]. We can adapt the region to our own desires, but what are these and what will our
communities look like as a result?
Issues facing Westerners today are not that different from issues during Lewis and
Clarks time, Farr says. Were still attracting interest from outsiders,
still talking about native versus non-native issues and questions of sovereignty.
Many of the centers conferences and lectures examine this heritage and search for
common ground between then and now through art, literature and personal histories. There
are even plans to create a Rocky Mountain Reader, an encyclopedic comparison
of social and natural histories throughout the entire region.
As the author of several books on Blackfeet history, Farr is especially interested in
the relationship between American Indians and the waves of non-native settlers that have
arrived on the scene through time.
This was and remains Indian country, he says. Frequently, Native
Americans and whites think their history has evolved on parallel tracks, in sight of each
other, but basically separate. I dont think that is true. Our history is
inextricably interwoven, and part of the centers task is to explore, acknowledge and
celebrate this joint enterprise.
Farr says that issues of identity increasingly complicate the lives of Indians as well
as non-native citizens of the region.
Farr believes that many Indians have been forced into the notion that they cannot
participate in both Indian and white culture. Instead of being able to celebrate their
mixed heritages, many feel they must cling to a single culture to stem the ongoing loss of
language, ritual and history.
Recognizing these important questions of self-determination, tribal leaders from
Montana and Wyoming recently approached Williams and the center about the idea of creating
a tribal leadership institute. Such an institute essentially would be a school for current
or prospective elected tribal officials, Williams says, and would cover topics from
sovereignty to parliamentary procedures.
Farr says that Missoula could be neutral ground, and the center a broker of information
for tribes who mostly will learn from each other and their experiences with oil and gas
exploration, water rights, child welfare, poverty, employment, health care and
government-to-government relations with states and the federal government.
The tribes will have to define what it is they want from the center, and we will
see if we can help facilitate that, Williams says.
In the meantime, the work of the center progresses on all fronts social,
political and economic.
There is a reason why these kinds of regional studies centers are now
emerging, Farr says. The West is changing so much; its so obvious you
cant ignore it.