PARADISE VALLEY — The drive up to a former outfitters camp in the Gallatin Range can rattle your teeth, but it was nothing Herman Viola couldn’t handle.
What nagged at Viola last weekend was that he had little idea what he and wife Susan were getting into.
A curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution and a prominent scholar of the American Indian experience, he’d received an out-of-the-blue phone call months earlier from Cheryl Hughes of the Missoula-based National Museum of Forest Service History.
The museum, which opened its grounds west of town last year, is spreading its wings to gain more traction on a national scope. Hughes boldly floated an invitation to Viola to present his stories at a two-day educator’s workshop in these mountains, funded by a grant of nearly $20,000 from the Teaching Primary Sources division of the Library of Congress.
The “Confluence Conference” and educators workshop would have something to do with using primary sources from the Library of Congress and marrying the histories of the Forest Service with American Indians and public lands.
It would be held at the American Explorers Basecamp on Hyalite Creek, which the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation of Atlanta offers free of charge to nonprofit groups for youth-based, outdoor leadership and natural resource conservation programs.
“I get these calls all the time,” said Viola, who’s 80 and not particularly excited about perfunctory air travel from his home in Virginia. “But it was Montana, and I love Montana.”
One presenter called landing Viola at the conference the “coup of the century.” Overstatement or not, the soft-spoken history guru blended right into the scene.
It included some 20 educators from schools, museums, the Montana Office of Public Instruction, the Montana Historical Society and the Red River Zoo in Fargo, North Dakota. They came from Billings and Columbus; Deer Lodge and Kalispell; Boston, New Jersey and Orlando, Florida.
“I had no realization who these people were, but I have to be very candid. This turned out to be, to me, profoundly important,” Viola said. “It just seems to be the right fit of my concerns, my work, with what their expectations were.”
Hughes said that if the word “confluence” didn’t paint a clear enough picture of the conference’s mission, think of it as a rendezvous of old-time trappers, where people from diverse backgrounds and regions gathered in the mountains with similar objectives.
The Forest Service museum’s objective, as stated in its grant proposal, was to “peel back the surface and closely examine the layers of influence that Native people have had on the history of the U.S. Forest Service.”
That was still a large net to fill, and left a lot of fins and tails popping out the sides. But by Day 2 it was all coming together.
Michelle Pearson, a course instructor in primary resource teaching for the Library of Congress, led the educators on a voyage of discovery through the Library’s massive online archives, and an ever-growing one at the Forest Service museum.
For one exercise Pearson distributed copies of “Custer’s Last Fight,” a blatantly erroneous lithograph of the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn that Anheuser-Busch commissioned in 1889. Over the next several decades, the beer maker distributed thousands of copies to saloons, restaurants, hotels and stores to advertise its wares.
Pearson asked the teachers to examine the poster not from a history lens, but ones of science, technology, engineering and math. She showed them how to direct their own students to write the thoughts of a battle participant on a bubble sticker and their rationale for those thoughts on the back. Then they had to defend not their own reasons but someone else’s.
“We talked a lot about bias today, the stereotypical portrayal of things,” said Mike Jetty, a conference organizer and longtime Indian Education specialist for the Montana Office of Public Instruction. “Let’s study this but move beyond what we call blame, shame and guilt and say, 'Here we are right now, how can we collectively move forward and all work for the betterment of everyone?' Public lands, Indian Ed, there’s that great connection now.
“Mitakuye oyasin. It means ‘we’re all related.’ We’re trying to live that, I think, and conferences like this are good examples of that in action.”
The main venue for the workshop and presentations was the vaulted living room at Hyalite Lodge overlooking the upper Yellowstone River Valley. Emigrant Peak and the Absaroka Range lured the eye from the east side of the valley.
Blank is a billionaire philanthropist who co-founded Home Depot 40 years ago. These days he heads the ownership group of the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League and Major League Soccer’s Atlanta United FC.
Blank bought the swanky Mountain Sky Guest Ranch in 2001, and has since added surrounding ranches and properties, including the American Explorers Basecamp on the next creek down.
According to a 2017 article in Big Sky Journal, the Mountain Sky Guest Fund that Blank and his family created has granted more than $3.7 million to causes in Park and Gallatin counties.
Before it was Mountain Sky, the ranch was the Ox Yoke, a 50,000-acre cattle operation that became one of the Rocky Mountain West’s first dude ranches in 1929. Before that, it was a wintering ground for Nelson Story’s first Texas cattle en route to the gold camps in 1866.
That’s all recent history, of course.
“Let’s face it. The Indian people, their spirituality, fills this spot,” said Viola. “This is their world, and they’ve benefited from it for thousands of years. Now we are interlopers in the middle of it, but maybe we can do something to help carry the message forward.”
Viola started his career in the National Archives in Washington as archivist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1969 became the first editor of Prologue, the magazine of the National Archives. Three years later he crossed the street to run the anthropology archives for the Smithsonian, which has “probably the finest American Indian collection in the world,” he said. “It really was working with the thing I loved, American Indian culture and history.”
He still spends a day a week at his cubicle in the National Museum of the American Indian, which was established in 2004. His current project is serving as senior advisor to the National Native American Veterans Memorial, which is in fundraising stages toward installment on the National Mall. The dedication is set for Veterans Day 2020.
By the end of the conference plans were percolating among organizers and attendees alike to travel as a group to Washington for the dedication.
This year’s event was the second at American Explorers Basecamp facilitated by the National Museum of Forest Service History. Lisa Tate, the museum’s executive director, said the museum is expanding its outreach and educational programs. It sent an exhibit from its 50,000-artifact collection to be displayed at a large outdoor wear store in Seattle and a traveling exhibit has made stops in Nevada and North Carolina.
So far roughly two-thirds of the collection is catalogued online on the “Our Collection” pages of forestservicemuseum.org. Tate said much of that work has been performed by Dave Stack, a retired Forest Service volunteer who has worked on the collection 40 hours a week for the last 20 years or so.
Meanwhile, the Missoula museum campus is expanding and fundraising continues for construction of a $10.5 million National Conservation Legacy and Education Center. Tate said roughly $4.5 million has been raised so far.
It’s a project, like others, that fell on sympathetic ears in Hyalite Lodge last week.
“It’s like dropping a pebble on a lake and watching those little ripples,” Jetty said. “Everybody here is going to leave and throw that pebble and there’s going to be all kinds of little waves that start.”
“It’s a lot bigger than what happened here,” said Hughes, who on Friday received an invitation to present the confluence conference concept at the Western History Association’s annual conference in San Antonio in October.
Chris Ippolito said he’ll get back to Jackson, New Jersey, just in time for the start of classes next week at Christa McAuliffe Middle School. He’ll come armed with an impressive cache of materials, insights and resources, not to mention photos of Montana to grab the attention of his eighth-grade U.S. history class.
“This checks all the boxes,” Ippolito said. “A lot of what I teach is certainly about Native American history and expansionism, manifest destiny and the opening of the West.”
Deborah Wasylik of Orlando said Montana was the natural place to hold such a conference.
It’s Indian country, the only state that is constitutionally mandated to teach American Indian history. The state Legislature created the Indian Education For All program in 1999.
"There's not a lot taught about Native Americans (in Florida), so I really wanted to see how the Native American story would be more integrated with my existing curriculum," said Wasylik.
An Advanced Placement science teacher in an Orlando high school, Wasylik was Florida’s Science Teacher of the Year in 2003. It marked the first of two times she's been honored at the White House.
“I’ve been to a lot of professional development. You’re looking at top of the line here,” she said. “This is some of the best the United States has to offer in terms of teacher education.”
The subject of one of Viola's three presentations and one of the more than 30 history books he has written focused on the indispensable roles played by Indians in the U.S. military, from the Revolutionary War to the current wars in the Middle East.
“Ninety-nine percent of the American people don’t even realize that American Indians have been in the military," he said. "They are our most patriotic people. So the coming together of these ideas up here … I’m going back to D.C. and say how glad I was to be there, and what a wonderful experience it’s been. I hope we can somehow build from this and make it an even bigger national program. I think the ingredients are right there.”
Long plane rides or not, Viola has already agreed to come back next year.
"I just felt so invigorated by these people," he said.