BUTTE, MT - If you live here in Montana, you may have found that you're asking yourself a thousand questions as of late. Most revolve around the sanctity of the state, the transformation happening right in front of our eyes, and where we go from here. Who are we anymore? What's happened to the state you once knew?

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You're not alone. Being in the field that I am, I speak to and hear from people who have walked in many different shoes: some who were born and raised in Montana and have no idea what's going on in their state anymore; some who are political leaders that throw on the facade that they have all the answers, yet are just as clueless as the rest of us; and some who are brand new here, soaking in all the beauty and loving their choice to move here without understanding the consequences they brought with them. Of course, not everyone falls into these three camps. And there in lies the problem.

Whether you're familiar with Montana's history or not, you probably have some idea of what the state used to look like. Thousands of years ago, Indigenous tribes ruled these regions, engaging themselves with the lives of one another, mixing cultures and beliefs—willingly or reluctantly. Then, one genocide and mass migration later, Montana became an early version of what we recognize today: a frontier with millions of acres of beautiful land, relatively untouched (besides by the people we stole it from), and bound with plentiful opportunity. The future looked bright, and the people who now inhabited the state knew exactly what they wanted and what they were working for.

The Simplicity of Purpose

In the early days, Montana's identity was straightforward. Settlers and Native American tribes coexisted in a land where survival depended on understanding and respecting the harsh yet bountiful environment. The state’s economy was built on agriculture, mining, and logging, industries that required grit and collaboration. Small towns thrived as tight-knit communities where everyone knew each other, and shared values were deeply ingrained.

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What's the point being made here? In Montana's early days, its identity was pretty straightforward. Indigenous tribal nations, settlers finding themselves in a strange new land, and the generations that followed knew—for the most part—what their purpose was, why they were here, and what they valued. Big cities and massive growth were virtually unheard of, so small towns thrived as sparsely-located, tight-knit communities where everyone knew of one another and shared principles with each other.

This point was made very evident when I sat down with a 60-something-year-old gentleman who was born and raised here in Butte: a town whose identity was solidified long before Montana even became a state in 1889. He recalled the endless stories he'd have as a youth, where Western Montana's bigger dwellings—Bozeman, Butte, and Missoula—each had a personal yet light-hearted vendetta against one another: "Us in Butte would go out to Bozeman to pick a fight with the farmers, they'd come here to pick a fight with the miners, and we'd both go up to Missoula to pick a fight with the loggers."

In a time where Montana’s identity was encapsulated by the image of the rugged cowboy, the resilient farmer, and the hardened miner, it makes sense. These figures symbolized self-reliance, hard work, and a deep connection to the land. The simplicity of which brought an identity with a clear sense of purpose and belonging—and not much wiggle room. But, in the end, Montanans knew exactly what they wanted: honest work, honest living, and a family to watch the sunsets with.

A Turbulent Present

Fast forward decades into the future to the year 1990. The current population is 800,000 across the entire state, and you're about to see a 24% increase over the next two decades. Still, things haven't changed much, and your grandpa reminds you of how he got here and what he expects out of you: keep working and keep this great state beautiful. As the years go by, you start to develop a family of your own, placing onto them the values that were placed on to you as a multi-generational Montanan. Towns are growing, roads are expanding, and the political climate is shifting, but nothing you can't handle. You're made to adapt.

Then, the 2010s. Montana's population is still increasing. U.S. culture is shifting towards a place unrecognizable to you, and you begin to see division across the country. No matter, your communities are still strong, and, although some people start to disagree with your politics, you still respect and understand the people around you: your family, your friends, your neighbors. They're generational Montanans just like you.

2020. COVID-19 has changed the country forever. Montana isn't hit like some of the more populated states, but you can still feel the reverberations and the political waves. The boat is a little rocky. All of sudden, Bozeman is the fastest growing populace in the entire nation, a show called Yellowstone is becoming more and more popular and brings more and more tourists, and you don't recognize your neighbors anymore. Nor do you the dive you used to go to (which has now become a college bar), the cafe you visited every Sunday morning after church (which have both become overrun by new residents), or the local leaders you no longer grew up with (who is from a different state).

Everywhere you look is change. What happened?

Montana's New Identity: Uncertainty

Let's take a step back and look at the big picture: Montana's identity went from bastion for Indigenous harmonious living, to paradise for those seeking an honest and simple life, to mass fragmentation among its citizens. Montanans went from sticking up for one another, fighting for one another, to keeping away from each other—presumably due to a lack of understanding one another. How can you, though? When people are coming in from 49 other states, each with their own understanding of the world, and, with it, values and aspirations foreign to the place they're flocking to, there is bound to be a statewide crisis of identity.

Though many might not care to admit it, it's very understandable how Montana got here. Hint: its moniker "Last Best Place" has something to do with it. What does one expect when everything here really is unlike anything else in the country? Outdoor recreation, appreciation of natural beauty and wonder, politics that—when compared to larger states like California, Washington, and New York—usually stay out of the way, and friendly people: all of which are unmatched anywhere else. Throw in a national calamity like Covid and a political climate that's laughable at best, and you're going to get a drive to go to states like Montana that desperately cling on to the values of the past.

But, with it, consequences, such as a lack of state identity (and the consequences that come with that: political instability, economic challenges, social fragmentation, historical erosion, and political subnormality). What gives a state its identity? Easy! Its people, its values, and the perception it receives from its country. We've already investigated its people, being that most of them are an agglomeration of thousands of different policies, beliefs, and principles, hailing from all over the country.

We've seen how Montana's values change with its people. But what about that last one?Michelle Murray, author of The Struggle for Recognition in International Relations: Status, Revisionism, and Rising Powers, points out in its second chapter that, "Acts of recognition are constructive of a state’s identity, providing it with the authority it needs to act in ways that are consistent with its self-understanding and endowing it with a recognized social status..." Though she's referring to a "state" as more of a government figure and its association with the global stage, the point can still be applied to Montana and the U.S. In other words: other states and the U.S. help define Montana's identity through recognition and their perceptions of Montana. Makes sense when you consider people moving here have presumably already heard of Montana, what they think it stands for, and want to continue to perpetuate that standard—whether it's right or wrong.

In short: Montana's identity is lost within itself, as more and more people—with differing ideas of what Montana is and should be—move here to establish themselves and their values.

Looking Forward

Not all hope is lost. Though Montana’s identity crisis is a reflection of broader societal changes, it also presents an opportunity. There is space for a more inclusive identity for Montana. Community initiatives, generational knowledge, and cultural edifices that bridge the gap between long-time residents and newcomers are crucial to maintaining a sense of peace and hope. By working together, accepting one another, and understanding the position we're in, we can find common ground and move forward.

As they say: everything will be alright.

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