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The Magic of Yellowstone
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Hi, my name is Jim Macdonald, and I have an odd assortment of interests. In no particular order, I love Yellowstone, I am an anti-authoritarian activist and organizer, and I have a background in philosophy, having taught at the college level. My blog has a lot more links to my writing and my other Web sites. In Jim's Eclectic World, I try to give a holistic view of my many interests. Often, all three passions show themselves interweaving in the very same blog. Anyhow, I think it's a little different. But, that's me. I'm not so much out there, but taken together, I'm a little unusual.
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Sunday, May 31, 2020
I’m writing this mostly for the white residents of Bozeman, but everyone is free to read if they want to be provoked, take inspiration from, react for or against, and confront the uncomfortable reality of racism in Bozeman, Montana.
I just returned from a spirited rally and march organized by the Montana State University Black Student Union and the Montana Racial Equity Project of thousands of people in my town organized in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and in solidarity with Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) in our city and state. As a white male observing what is happening right now in this country, I feel that I do not have the privilege to stay silent. I must say something to elucidate the situation here, namely how white privilege is manifest in my town, and I must ask anyone here who cares to join me and others in thinking of and acting on ways to tear down the systems of injustice that keep us all from being able to live in the best and most vibrant community possible – one where we all have the privilege I have—to breathe, to enjoy this beautiful environment, to earn a decent living, to care for my family, and to be able to walk my streets without fear.
It may be lost on most Montanans, in a state with the lowest black population per capita in the United States, how we in Bozeman have not come to terms with our own racist past and how that perpetuates in the reality today.
Once upon a time, there was a white man named John Bozeman. He and some of his friends—in part to escape America’s largest racially charged war (the Civil War) and in part to join the gold rush at Alder Gulch—headed to this area. Only, they didn’t just head to this area – which for centuries had been a passage to hunting grounds for numerous indigenous peoples—including the Blackfeet, Crow, Shoshone, Salish-Kootenai, and Nez Perce. They decided that the Oregon Trail was too long a route. So, they found a shorter route right through lands that had been granted to the Lakota by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. This became known as the Bozeman Trail, and Bozeman was founded as a town near the end of the trail where John Bozeman and his buddies could sell supplies to those men foolish enough to think they would get rich off of the gold at Alder Gulch.
This inevitably started another Indian war—known as Red Cloud’s War—and it is one of the few wars that the indigenous peoples actually won. They temporarily closed the trail and settlement by way of the trail.
So, the people in the new town of Bozeman needed some way to survive. Interestingly, it came from the fall out of the murder of John Bozeman, a murder that was blamed on Blackfeet Indians. The people did so with the intention of stirring fear and racial animus and to force the hand of the military to build a fort just outside of Bozeman (Fort Ellis). It is likely that John Bozeman was murdered by his white friend for having an affair with this man’s wife, though no one really knows. However, what is pretty certain is that Blackfeet Indians had nothing to do with it. Where Bozeman was murdered was outside of their typical range, and there are numerous other holes in the story, which you can research if you are interested.
Nevertheless, a town built along an illegal trail by people who felt privileged enough to create that trail and build a town there had a new lease on life from an army fort that the people could supply and sell grain to. And the new town slowly grew and gained a foothold.
That town was racially diverse. There were people of all colors in early Bozeman, including a significant population of Chinese people. Some say that the Chinese population may have been as high as 20 percent. This is a little known fact of Bozeman life. However, during the era of the 1870s, where the buffalo was being hunted to near extinction in a genocidal war to force indigenous people to reservations to make way for settlement and the railways these Chinese immigrants were often hired to build, there was growing racial hatred throughout the country of Chinese immigrants. This culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act that for generations forbade Chinese from being American citizens and largely stopped their immigration. Alongside that, there were many laws openly aimed at Chinese people throughout Montana to make life for them impossible. One of our largest groups in what was once a racially diverse city were mostly wiped out of Bozeman by force of law.
While all this was going on, a group of prominent citizens formed vigilante committees to take law into their own hands. They were not entirely dissimilar—in their culture and that they consisted of the prominent members of society—from the early incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. However, in Montana, they did not simply act on the basis of race. Nevertheless, they established their own fear and order that benefitted the white business interests who ran the state. These vigilantes have been mythologized to the point of celebration and part of the Montana heritage. To this day, their numeric symbol “3-7-77” is on the very symbol of the Montana Highway Patrol. It is a disgusting legacy openly celebrated by our state’s police force.
Over time, the white people of Montana forgot this history of racism, as was forgotten the forced removal of Shoshone Sheepeater Indians from Yellowstone National Park, as well as the Marias River Massacre of Blackfeet Indians and also the tragic story of the Nez Perce. Over time, white people forgot, and Montana became whiter and whiter.
Yet today, we still have a significant population of indigenous peoples, many of whom fill up our prisons and jails and have a life expectancy far lower than the rest of the population. We have a city here in Bozeman that has become very expensive to live in and increasingly so. You find homeless throughout our city but not a permanent homeless shelter. While this has been true, you also have an increasingly progressive population that is happy to stand up for the environment and will even come together to stand up against overt forms of racism. And yet, it is people of color who are poorer and are less likely to be able to afford the spoils of this community. It is still people of color who end up in jails. It is still a town that seems totally unaware of its racist past and how racism has made it the affluent, predominately white town that it is today.
And I as a white man benefit from this. Lucky me. I get to work from home and raise my son and go to Yellowstone whenever I want and hike in the beautiful canyons and mountains that surround me. I can afford to live here in the peaceful town with a low crime rate. But how often do I stand up and say that this is not working for everyone here? Beyond race, Bozeman has a high rate of rape. It has outpriced poor people of every race. Right now, I’m helping a nurse’s union at a nursing home collectively bargain a wage that is even comparable to wages across this city, let alone the state and country. These nurses put their lives on the line during a pandemic, and yet they can’t get a fair wage. What does this town do for the mentally ill or for the homeless? So long as we ourselves feel comfortable, we go on merrily. And yes, I do go on merrily. I live a really good life. It shouldn’t just be me and for people who look like me. We should all have this opportunity. All our lives would be luckier, including my own, if we could realize true racial justice in our city.
BIPOC people in Bozeman, I hear you. My friends and others in Bozeman who hear me, if you are moved, I want to talk and help be allies. I don’t want us to ignore the uncomfortable truth of our city any longer. Let’s be allies and supportive of all efforts to change this, led inspiringly by the BIPOC community of whom we support. And let’s no longer pretend that we who are also white have not been complicit in a racist system in a city that was founded on racial injustice and continues to bear too much of its rotten fruits.