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Ghosts of the past revisited on night train

The anouncer's voice booms hale, trustworthy as that of a game-show host.

"No man is more exalted in history than John M. Bozeman."

Really? What about Abraham Lincoln? Martin Luther King? Mohatmas Gandhi?

Bozeman didn't die at the hands of an assassin, although some might argue that an entire way of life did, thanks in part to him. The "Geyser Land" performance train certainly argued that point, but not in the same old, ham-fisted, shame-on-white-men manner; creators Mary Ellen Strom and Ann Carlson relied instead on 19th-century propaganda, turn-of-the-century Western film, historical reenactments and modern performance to tweak the consciousnesses of their passengers.

Moving through the night at a langorous roll, the Montana Rockies touring cars played host to hundreds of passengers on each leg of its Bozeman-Livingston round trip journeys last Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 13 and 14, men and women and copious children who peered out their windows at bison of pure light careening across the sagebrush hills, then white horses charging like ghosts along cliff faces, images flung against night's backdrop from super-powerful projectors on board.

"Tableaux vivant," living pictures recreated by actors (a popular party trick at the turn of the century), brought historical photographs to light along the route, as well: a line of "gandy dancers" working the rails; hard-hatted men clinging to a rockface for long moments to restage the photo "Dynamiting the Pass," Missoula actor Brian Massman standing still as a mannequin with his hand on a "Yellowstone Park Train" sign; Native American Randolph Big Day sitting on the grass before a tipi and trying hard to hold his pose while gusts of wind tossed his headdress to and fro.

On board, retired University of Montana dance professor Juliette Crump treated passengers to a "Butoh Hiker" dance, based on a Japanese form of the art, and her hubby Bill Bevis, a retired UM English prof, gave his impromptu spiel, which Ms. Jones had been told would detail Montana history but which she unfortunately missed. She also missed the young actress' enactment of psychologist Sigmund Freud's theories regarding train travel and rampant sexuality, but a steward who saw her routine said it was not just orgasmic, but multiply so. Three of them in six minutes, he said! It's no wonder she flopped in her seat like a tossed banana peel after her performance; "spent," Mr. Jones quipped.

Throughout the hourlong ride, Carlson provided running commentary on the speaker system while men made their way from car to car in buckskins and bun-coiffed women in floor-length dresses with high collars struck glassy-eyed poses. Four men in Western hats played cards at a table in the club car and a trio wearing long braids and red robes drummed and sang while viewers knocked back beers and scrambled from side to side, craning for projections and tableaux first on the north side, then the south.

"A once-in-a-lifetime experience," Carlson promised as the train pulled away from the Livingston Depot. "All kinds of things will be happening outside and inside the train, and in your hearts and minds."

On the shuttle ride back to Livingston, a woman named Gail from Sheridan, Wyo., cradled her sleeping grandchild and enthused about the experience. It was, she said, her first train ride ever, taken partly in a get-while-the-getting-is-good spirit as our government sets to the task of dismantling Amtrak. The message, of the railroad's central role in white colonization of the American West, wasn't lost on her, she said; nor were the examples of flagrant boosterism designed to lure people here (the "John Bozeman" ad, for instance) or the reminders of white exploitation such as the Northern Pacific poster bearing an image of an Indian surveying a mountain landscape from on high and the words, "His hunting ground … yesterday."

"Whites were so cruel," Gail said. "I've got a lot of Indian friends. It's a wonder they have anything to do with any of us. I ask them, 'Why do you even talk to me?' "

Reach Sherry Jones at 523-5299 or sjones@missoulian.com.

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