Is Montana’s history repeating itself?

September 2, 2021 5:12 am

Details of the domes and lights beneath the state capitol rotunda in Helena, Montana. (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan.)

There’s that ancient saw about history repeating itself, and anyone who has read much history knows how sadly true that is.

What may be even more frightening, though, is when history doesn’t repeat itself. What happens then?

Like many states, Montana is tearing itself apart debating masks, vaccines, mandates and public health measures. With absolutely no help from leaders like Gov. Greg Gianforte who, instead of finding middle ground or being a peacemaker, has stoked the division by issuing a needless and pointless proclamation about parents having the choice to opt out of public schools, a right and choice they’ve always had. That alone would have been sound and fury signifying nothing and adding to the discord. But, Gianforte went a step farther to cause confusion and sow mistrust of masking in schools even though the vaccine hasn’t been approved for young children, and despite the rise in COVID-19-related illness in youth. Face coverings are among the only defenses available to that age group during these times of kamikaze politics.

I am shocked and angered by the callous attitude of my home state – a place that I have always prided for having a common-sense community ethos. Other states may go off the rails, but we’re happy to do our own thing. Now, our own thing seems to have transformed into a selfish ethic of my freedom at all costs, even at the expense of life or the lives of those around me. Forgive me if the next time I hear someone tearfully talking about the sanctity of life I roll my eyes.

And as much as I want to think kindly about this state I love, the historian in me got to wondering how the state would have responded to such a pandemic years ago. We have some clues: During the Spanish flu epidemic of 100 years ago, people masked up and prayed for relief. When the polio vaccine was available, pictures show long lines of Montana schoolchildren eagerly taking what was then a new vaccine, not so unlike the newer mRNA technology of today.

Yet that’s only half the story.

The leaders and people who came to Montana from the East sought fortunes and meant to take what they could for their own benefit, regardless of the Natives who were here. In history and mythology, Montana has always represented the epitome of rugged individualism and the apotheosis of freedom. If you don’t believe that, just look at the murals in the Capitol depicting White men seeking material fortune, a sentiment enshrined in oil paintings in the epicenter of our state. They don’t often show what happened next.

So, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the craven political ambitions of leaders who would make something as simple as a vaccine and a mask the next instruments of battle in a cultural war dressed up as freedom’s last stand, when, in reality, it’s nothing more than staying healthy and getting through a pandemic the likes of which hasn’t been seen in several generations.

As an historian, I wonder how future generations will look back and see this moment in history. We can look back and see Montanans striking for better working conditions, better pay and a sensible work day at the mines. We can see women fighting for the right to vote. We even see the state’s participation in civil rights work. Will the next generation look back and take pride in our resistance to masks and science?

It doesn’t quite have the luster of voting or working to ensure tribal sovereignty.

And so I look to the past to give guidance on the future. And while every generation sees itself living in precarious times with epic consequences, I struggle to find an appropriate analogue. If history really was repeating itself, then kids should be lining up for vaccines as soon as they’re available and so should adults. The community would trust science and be grateful for the amazing accomplishment of developing a vaccine and then getting it to the public so quickly. That’s what history tells us has happened previously.

But that’s not what’s happening now. As Rich Rasmussen, the chief executive of the Montana Hospital Association recently told the Daily Montanan, without widespread vaccination and masking compliance, the disruption of the pandemic will have to be baked into our daily lives for years to come as successive waves of COVID-19 sweep across the state.

The only historical parallel I could find is what happened to Montana after avarice had driven magnates like the Copper Kings to take everything they could from this amazing land. As we all know, those who came here to seek their own personal fortune, men not so unlike Gianforte, took their wealth and left. In their wake, they left once-booming communities to fend for themselves, riches depleted and environment permanently scarred.

We may embrace the glory of those halcyon days, but we eschew how those stories ended. Because of that, we may be indeed forgetting our past, and not just condemning ourselves – but especially our children – to repeating it.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.