Funny thing about liberty. You only know it's there when someone tries to take it away. That's why, for Independence Day, we've set aside space to profile some of western Montana's more dedicated freedom fighters-folks who have made it their business to protect your right to read, write, work and live as you see fit. Some of them you may know; others, probably not. A few have engaged in famous public struggles; others operate solely behind the scenes. There may even be one or two that you simply don't agree with. But together, these people provide a cross-section of Missoula's collective conscience. They are folks who haven't taken freedom for granted, even though the rest of us often have. So take a few minutes to get to know a few of our region's freedom fighters. It's thanks to them that you know freedom when you feel it-or even when you don't.
Native American author
In Western states such as Montana, modern times are intertwined with the legacies of the past. Which may be why a common theme in the stories we have to tell is how settlers came here and carved an existence out of an unforgiving landscape.
The only problem with that somewhat romantic notion is that it excludes the experiences of the indigenous tribes who lived in Montana before the Homestead Act opened the floodgates for European immigrants.
This is precisely why, more than a decade ago, acclaimed Missoula author James Welch wrote Fools Crow, a coming-of-age novel set in the late 1800s, told from the perspective of a young Blackfeet warrior struggling with the end of his way of life.
| Blackfeet author James Welch, above, stood up for himself when his novel was banned from the curriculum of Laurel Schools. Teri Wells and Carol Bonnet, right, took on corporate America in Kalispell.
Fools Crow is hailed internationally as one of the few books of its kind, considered by many to be an invaluable part of a multicultural education in high schools and universities across the nation. The historical detail is stunning, and the intricacies of daily life are unsparing. So why then did the tiny Laurel, Mont., school board vote to remove Fools Crow from the 11th grade curriculum this March?
"I was shocked, frankly," Welch sighs. "It's been taught all over the United States and Europe, and I never heard anything about the sexual content, and I certainly never heard it described as being pornographic."
Yet that is exactly how school board chair Del Henman described the book in a letter to the editor published in the Laurel Outlook. "We had honor students tell us that this book was disgusting and nothing more than a porn book," Henman wrote. "Other students could only talk and joke about the author's detailed outlining of the sex, rape and arousals of the subject's life in the book. ... There must be other books that will still teach Indian Heritage [sic] and that's all."
Welch says the sex in Fools Crow is not gratuitous, but simply serves as much of a role in the story as anything else. Those willing to examine the story more closely, in fact, will likely be able to discern pieces of symbolism in those passages.
Laurel is about as close to the Crow Reservation as Missoula is to the Flathead Reservation, leading Welch to admit that discrimination did occur to him as the reason behind the censorship.
"I am certain those kids aren't getting any knowledge about Indian people," he notes. "It wouldn't surprise me if there is a lot of prejudice in that area."
Welch also says that although editorials in both the Outlook and the Billings Gazette supported Fools Crow, he was surprised that newspapers in his hometown initially overlooked what happened in Laurel. But for now, Welch calls the ban on his book a dead issue, adding that several copies of Fools Crow are available in the school's library. Laurel schools superintendent Al McMilin confirms this, and says the district is still looking for a different book that will teach students about Native American culture.
Welch is currently working on a novel about a Lakota man who travels to France as a part of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show and has to stay in Europe after falling ill. The author hopes, as he did with Fools Crow, that the book will be taught in classrooms across the country.
"Indian literature has become so important, it's very gratifying," he says. "I've always thought that people don't know enough about Indian people."
Hotel employee/union organizer
Cavanaugh's Outlaw Inn in Kalispell
Although the framers of the Constitution never said a word about equal pay for equal work, it would be difficult to argue the primacy of freedom of speech, worship, and the press for people who lack the means to provide for their most basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter. Thus, implicit in any discussion of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should be the notion of economic justice as well.
So when the 220-room Outlaw Inn and Convention Center, a longtime Kalispell landmark, was sold in June 1998 to Cavanaughs Hospitality Corp. of Spokane, 60-year-old housekeeper Terri Wells recognized an opportunity to improve the lot of herself and her fellow hotel employees. After all, Cavanaughs' own corporate literature boasts that "We are committed to hiring a staff of skilled, motivated and courteous employees and providing them with a safe and pleasant working environment which offers potential for accomplishment, self-fulfillment and growth."
However, months after the hotel was purchased, Cavanaughs was still paying its housekeeping and laundry staff the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, with no health insurance or other benefits.
"We were hearing all the time about all this money being made in tourism in Montana," says Wells. "And I just asked, where's our share?"
So when union organizers approached Wells and her co-workers, she says, "I knew if I'm going to run my mouth, I ought to back it up with action."
But when the housekeeping and laundry workers approached Cavanaughs' management and requested voluntary recognition of their desire to unionize, management refused. So the workers took to the streets, both in Kalispell and Spokane, and began a campaign to secure themselves better wages and benefits.
"A lot of my co-workers were deathly afraid of losing their jobs," says Wells, who added that they used their breaks and lunch hours to picket in front of the hotel. These were workers who routinely cleaned 22 toilets a day in rooms that were going for $120 a night during the peak summer season. During the winter months, most were laid off.
As Wells points out, most of her co-workers are women and single mothers, many of whom supplement their paychecks with food stamps and visits to the local food bank just to survive.
"All we were saying is tourism, not poorism," Wells says.
In response to the workers' demands, Cavanaughs Hospitality Corp. asked the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election. In a 100-percent vote last November, the housekeepers, housemen and laundry workers overwhelmingly endorsed union representation, and by April they had secured a new contract for $6 an hour, plus benefits.
An 85-cents-an-hour raise may not sound like much, falling well below the $9 an hour generally considered a living wage in Montana, but it was a clear victory for workers' rights in Montana.
"That was our freedom. That was our right to voice our opinion and organize," says Wells. "We didn't want to wreck anyone's business. We're hard workers and it's hard work. We just wanted a wage we could live on."
Justin Armintrout & Cat Carrell
Co-publishers, Outspoken magazine
Justin Armintrout, co-publisher of Outspoken, considers Montana to be about "30 or 40 years" behind cities like Seattle in terms of rights for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people. So a few years ago, he decided to create a monthly publication for Missoula's gay community, hoping it would act as a unifying force.
Armintrout originally began Outspoken with Greg Kastl, who remained his partner until the spring of 1998. He then formed a new partnership with layout designer Cat Carrel in April of that year.
And now, nearly two years after the inaugural issue, Outspoken's number of pages has doubled. It has a circulation of 1,500, and it's distributed to 70 locations across the state, dealing with issues often covered no place else in the local media.
"Outspoken is local to Montana," Armintrout notes. "You can pick up the Advocate, but it's not about what's happening in rural Montana."
Other communities in Western Idaho and Wyoming look to Missoula, he says, for guidance. And here in the valley, he imagines Outspoken as a vehicle for bringing different factions in the gay community together.
"There has been a lot more organization in the community since Outspoken," he observes. "It's sort of like if you build it, they will come. It has acted as a springboard; now there's an outdoor group and a literary group." The magazine has given young adults the feeling that local support exists if they want to come out, which he says is illustrated by the number of phone calls he gets asking where the gay-friendly hang outs are.
For her part, Carrel sees Outspoken as a catalyst for the entire state's gay community. "Recently, there was a newsletter started in Butte, and there may be one in Billings now. There's a momentum around the state. People see that one community can do it, so they realize they can do it too."
Armintrout believes the future focus of Missoula's gay community should be how its members interact, rather than what's going on in Helena. Carrel agrees, adding that she's one of about a dozen people working hard to establish a gay and lesbian community center in Missoula.
|Cat Carrell and Justin Armintrout, above, have helped "the voice of gay Montana" be heard. Missoula Librarian Bette Ammon, left, has fought censorship at every turn.|
"No bones about it," he concludes, "Missoula is the place to live if you're gay in Montana."
President, Montanans Against Censorship
It's a fairly quiet Saturday in the Missoula County Public Library, but patrons still regularly stop by Bette Ammon's desk to ask for help negotiating the Dewey Decimal system. The excitement of offering up new vistas of words to others is compelling, particularly witnessing the obvious pleasure Ammon takes in the pursuit. She approaches each request carefully, hunting down several keyword options and even searching the stacks of newly returned books for possible resources, and as she turns back to our conversation smiles widely and remarks, "It's a great job."
Ammon, as the director of the county library, considers her daily duties at the library a main part of her ongoing mission to bring information to the masses and uphold the tenets of the First Amendment. "Everything I do here speaks to connecting people with resources," she explains. "Providing information to everybody levels the playing field between the haves and the have-nots."
She also works directly against First Amendment infringements as president of Montanans Against Censorship, a small coalition formed in 1997 in reaction to a "harmful to minors" bill proposed by the Montana House of Representatives. The bill attempted to hold employees in libraries, bookstores and video stores liable for purchases or rentals by minors of material considered "obscene"-later amended to read "harmful." The bill failed in the state senate.
While the Missoula library hasn't fielded any major challenges recently, Ammon quickly confirms that censorship issues are a greater concern in other areas of the state. That's where the coalition enters the picture.
"We just want to be a watchdog and an information resource," she says, a role they've played in lobbying the Legislature and offering support to communities facing efforts to ban books or other information. "Little communities don't have the resources to fight back," Ammon observes. "We want to help out with information and education."
Working in Missoula, she's found, presents few outright objections to material selections made by the library. "We're in a unique community, with a great deal of tolerance for people and information," Ammon observes. And when critics do present themselves, it generally fosters a dialogue and ultimately a positive conclusion.
"Part of our procedure is communicating that our goal as a library is to reflect the community, and we have lots of different people who require lots of different things," she says. "They end up feeling a lot better about the comprehensiveness of the collection."
That includes the library's Internet access, a key into a world of resources that worries and frightens some with its instantaneous connection to a wide variety of information, including violent and pornographic sites. But the Missoula library operates its system without filters, a decision based on the need for personal responsibility and parental supervision rather than mandated controls.
"Parents use [filters] at home, and that's great if that's what they choose," Ammon says. "But we're choosing for everybody. Ninety-nine out of 100 people find great things, especially in an underfunded library like we are.
"We have one-third of the materials budget for a library of this size, and the Internet makes available information we don't have."
Ammon speaks with a quiet passion about her love of knowledge and her desire to enable others to access the resources they need without judgment or fear of reprisal. Respect, tolerance and an understanding of the basic need of privacy anchor her defense of unfettered accessibility and infuse her daily duties with a sense of purpose.
"It's our job to remind people of the slippery slope in dealing with First Amendment issues. One step makes it easier to erode the whole concept," she notes. "We're ever vigilant, because I don't think it ever goes away."