When I was a girl growing up in north-central Montana, I
spent many hours exploring the prairie and the coulees surrounding the Marias River. Meriwether
Lewis named it “Maria’s” River after his cousin who said “no” to his marriage proposal.
I’ve always wondered if he chose the name because this river was a “dead end”
in terms of the expedition’s search for a Northwest Passage. But now we
pronounce it with a long “i” as if there is an “s” at the end Mariah.
An expert told me the Blackfeet were probably the former inhabitants of the teepee rings, the circles of stones, that my cousins and friends and I used to walk among. There are whole villages, groups of two or three rings connected, and occasionally a very large ring at the top of a hill set apart from the others. Many doorways and remnants of fire rings are still present. Often I went with neighbors and cousins, but as I grew older, I liked to wander by myself.
The prairie was a good place for the imagination to develop, and it has shaped my perceptions in many ways. It provided me with the solitude to sing, pray, dance. I would stop at the edge of a pond or a quiet spot in the river and become as still as I could be, so the animals would learn to ignore me, the minnows would return, and the dragonflies would forget that I wasn’t part of the surrounding reeds or cattails. I loved looking for prairie asters, sweet peas, or bluebells in acres of dry grass.
Town was twenty miles away. My class consisted of four girls, my K-12 school of 60-80 kids depending on the year, and the town, Inverness, had a few hundred people. The school is now abandoned, the windows broken, the wooden floors warped. I can vividly remember walking to the lunch room, performing scenes from South Pacific and West Side Story in the gymnasium with members of our music classes, lying on the floor in the back of the small library reading biographies of Mozart and Van Gogh and Janis Joplin. There are many abandoned schools on the Hi Line in north-central Montana, where railroad towns appear every few miles with names like Glasgow, Malta, Kremlin, and Havre.
Chester was the location of the Liberty County Arts Council when I was a girl. My family went to most of the events this group sponsored. I saw my first didgeridoo there, my first cowboy singer, and my first opera. The Calgary Opera performed La Traviata, or at least scenes from it, on the high school stage, and of all the programs I saw, this is one that I remember most because I was interested in voice. Shortly afterward, my cousin applied to a youth choir that toured in Europe, and since she applied, I applied too when I was old enough. Maybe the influence of this outreach, alongside a good music teacher, allowed us to believe in our ability.
On the one hand, engagement with family and the natural world fed my imagination. On the other hand, the community and schools supported artistic growth to the best of their ability, and it’s this combination that I wish for every child. Having taught in the Montana Women’s Prison for the past five years, I see more clearly than ever the importance of encouragement and of giving young people a way to direct their skills, talents and energies. I think sometimes that if we could encourage and praise all of the children, the world would change quickly.
Montana has a history of strong, local arts councils that have done much over the years to bring musicians, performers, and, eventually, writers into their communities. There are many small towns at great distance from each other, and the need for outreach persists in all corners of the state. As Montana’s poet laureate, I hope to contribute, and I continue to feel grateful for the adults who made artistic programs possible when I was a kid.