When Joseph Kinsey Howard wrote Montana: High, Wide, and Handsome in 1943, he wrote of the wide “Montana Margins” he wanted in life, “room to swing my arms and to swing my mind.” He went on:
Where is there more opportunity than in Montana for the creation of these broad margins, physical and intellectual? Where is there more opportunity to enjoy the elemental values of living, bright sun, and clean air and space? We have room. We can be neighbors without getting in each other’s hair. We can be individuals.
In the decades since Montana: High, Wide, and Handsome came out, the state has become more populous, but there is still room to swing one’s arms and breathe the air of independence. Montana is, after all, an expanse 600 miles from east to west and 300 miles north to south. In 1994, the national demographics had shifted to reduce Montana’s congressional delegation from two to one in the U.S. House of Representatives. There are only a million people in Montana, even today.
The individualism that comes from the space to swing one’s arms and mind has characterized the most progressive voices of the state. This is the state that sent the first woman to the U.S. Congress, Jeanette Rankin, who arrived in time to vote against America’s entry into World War I. That was unpopular in Montana, and after a term of service she did not run again, not until 1940 when she was elected on an anti-war platform and voted against America’s entry into World War II. She was a founding member of both the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the American Civil Liberties Union. Her statue in Emancipation Hall of the U.S. Capitol is a source of pride to all Montanans.
But individuals of the likes of Rankin had a hard time of it in Montana politics. For most of the twentieth century, powerful corporations controlled the state and called the shots in Helena, the state capitol, keeping government officials in line. In the late 1960s, however, three female representatives from the League of Women Voters—the first lobby for women citizens ever—came to Helena to push for a new constitutional convention. That was an era of smoke-filled rooms where the public and the press were routinely excluded, and even legislative votes were not publically recorded. In 1971, voters called for a constitutional convention and the state constitution that emerged was the charter for a new era in Montana history: open government with the “right to know” and to examine the “deliberations of all public bodies,” and the “right of citizen participation” in the deliberations of government.
As for Howard’s sense of the “elemental values of living,” they were written into the preamble to the new Montana state constitution, ratified in 1972:
We the people of Montana grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations do ordain and establish this constitution.
Today, if you ask Montanans about religion and politics, you are likely to hear that the most important issue is the environment. The sentiments that shaped the preamble to the Montana state constitution are widely shared, and the right to a “clean and healthful environment” was included among “inalienable rights” at the top of the state’s declaration of rights.
Montana has a fascinating religious profile, beginning with the Indians—Blackfeet, Crow, Kootenai, Cheyenne, and so many others. There are seven reservations in the state. The native peoples are routinely called upon as the ritual default at great state occasions, burning fragrant sweet grass and drumming in the rotunda of the state capitol in Helena. Native colleges are among the state’s distinguished small colleges, and the state constitution “recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity.” Education about the state’s native peoples is mandatory, and now funded, for all Montana school children.
Like the United States generally, most Montanans are Christian, some 80 percent. Montana’s Christian history is colorful and includes the pioneer ministers, like the famous Methodist circuit rider William Wesley Van Orsdel, known as “Brother Van,” who rode his horse through the mining camps, ranches, and budding settlements of Montana, preaching the gospel and nurturing churches. When he died in 1919, his bishop said, “I don’t believe there was a dog in Montana that would not wag his tail when he saw him coming.” Today, the Montana Association of Churches is active in state issues, offering testimony in Helena on gambling, assisted suicide or “compassionate care,” ending capital punishment, standing against hate-groups, and standing for economic and environmental justice.
One of Montana’s first nicknames was “The Treasure State,” in recognition of the mineral resources that were the state’s underground treasury—copper, silver, gold, and coal. Today, the state is more widely known as “Big Sky Country,” and rightly so, for you can stand on a hill at one end of the Blackfoot Valley or on the Bridger range of the Gallatin Valley and see for a hundred miles. You can see the vast landscape, dwarfed by the vast expanse of the sky. You can see the thunderstorm forty miles away.
But there has been a fierce competition between Big Sky Country and the Treasure State. It is, in a nutshell, the competition between the common good and corporate interests, between the rugged individualism that has stamped the state’s character and the corporate power that has sought to exploit its treasury.
Montana has worked hard over the years to free itself from what used to be called the “copper collar” of big corporations, once represented by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. Today, the Anaconda Company is gone from the state, having left Butte, “the richest hill on earth,” with a legacy of environmental arsenic and lead and the nation’s largest Superfund clean-up project. But today, strong corporate coal and power interests have turned the Powder River Basin of southeastern Montana into a desolate landscape of coal mining, with smokestacks emitting clouds of poisonous sulfur dioxide, with waste ponds of chemical pollutants pooling in surreal colors, and with cooling towers sucking the valuable river water from the land and releasing it, filled with contaminants, into the subsoil.
It is little wonder then that environmental issues, what Christians refer to as “eco-justice,” should be important across party lines, in a state where the Keystone XL pipeline is one of the biggest political issues today. Both the heavy equipment to build it and the pipeline to carry the crude south would pass through the state. Though the Obama administration denied a permit for the controversial pipeline in January, given the short timeline provided by Congress, the issue has not been settled, even as legislators wage partisan battles over expediting its creation. Montana’s senior Senator Max Baucus pledged to “keep fighting tooth and nail” to guarantee the pipeline happened, telling the Montana Chamber of Commerce that he will “make sure the White House gets the message.” Yet Montana already knows the inherent dangers of such projects: In 2011, a ruptured Exxon Mobile pipeline spilled 42,000 gallons of tar-sands crude into the Yellowstone, one of the state’s great rivers.
The Montana Association of Churches puts it this way: “Human ownership of land is not absolute; it is held in trust from God in partnership with all life. Ownership means responsible use. God intends the gifts of creation to be for the benefit of everyone. This implies that Montana’s economic development is to benefit all of its citizens. Montana’s natural resources cannot be wantonly exploited nor reserved for the advantage of a few.”
The powerful mining interests disagree, and they have weighed in heavily in this year’s U.S. Senate race. First-term Senator and rancher Jon Tester is being challenged by Congressman Denny Rehberg, who has received top dollar contributions from the mining industry and its political action committees. Even miners are ambivalent about Rehberg because of his record of what they consider reckless leniency on mining safety. The lobbies of the new “coal collar” are powerful, though. Last December, The New York Times reported on Rehberg’s association with the coal industry. A spokesperson from the National Mining Association told the newspaper, “There is a reason they are called the Treasure State—they are incredibly rich in coal and minerals.” She added, “But you can’t really call it the Treasure State today, because you can’t get it out of the ground. It is frustrating.”
The battle over the treasures of the Treasure State continues. On December 30, 2011, the Montana Supreme Court issued a ruling upholding the state’s Corrupt Practices Law, prohibiting corporations from making political contributions and thus limiting the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Citizen’s United” decision in state and local elections. In his statement, Chief Justice Mike McGrath wrote, “This naked corporate manipulation of the very government … of the State ultimately resulted in populist reforms that are still part of Montana law.” Writing for the majority, McGrath suggested corporations had long controlled the state, and that the issues surrounding corporate power and unlimited political spending were deeply part of Montana’s lived history.
Despite that history, it is helpful to remember there is still another legacy, one in which the “elemental values of living,” treasured by Joseph Kinsey Howard and the drafters of the Montana Constitution, are paramount. May those treasured values still win out over corporate interests in Big Sky Country.
Diana L. Eck is Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies and Fredric Wertham Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society at Harvard University. Her most recent book is India: A Sacred Geography.