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The political appeal of going native



As we brace ourselves for the likelihood of a special U.S. House election, prepare to hear boasts from candidates that "I'm a third (or fourth or fifth) generation Montanan." This isn't anything new, as we've endured identical campaign claims throughout previous election cycles. The upshot is clear, though. The longer you live in a location, the more "native" you are to it, and therefore the more qualified you are to represent it in elected office.

I'm increasingly convinced that this is largely meaningless rhetoric, rooted in the belief that length of tenure leads to a superior understanding of how best to represent and legislate for the places where we live.

First, a confession. Having served in elected office, I, too, have laid claim to my ancestry and roots as evidence that I'm not merely some opportunistic carpetbagger seeking personal enrichment or power, but rather someone who is here for the long haul.

Indeed, my German-Ukrainian grandparents moved in the 1910s to northeast Montana, where they homesteaded a chunk of prairie south of Wolf Point, but failed to eke a living off the land and ended up moving to Oregon in the 1920s. On the other side of my family, in the 1890s, my great-grandfather operated a butcher shop in Butte before being convicted of rustling cattle to supply his shop with beef. After he died in prison at Deer Lodge, his wife and kids moved to the Pacific Northwest. In a homecoming of sorts, my wife and I moved in the 1990s to Missoula, where we've lived ever since.

The tenure argument is not completely without merit. I do feel a special connection to the landscape knowing that my ancestors lived and died here, and that my dad and both of my kids were born here. But let's be honest. Some of my forebears were scoundrels and not necessarily model stewards of the land. Is it really the case that my 10- and 13-year-old kids are better caretakers of this place than I am, simply by virtue of the fact that they drew their first breaths in Big Sky Country?

Length of tenure is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to know or care for a place. Nor is living close to the land any guarantee that one will respect the good earth or develop the virtue of loving one's neighbor. In some cases, such ruralism devolves into the opposite attributes: insularity, close-mindedness, a shunning of diversity or openness to strangers, and viewing the land as a mere resource to use and, in some cases, abuse.

Take the polarized politics of the West as another counter-argument to why length of tenure does not guarantee that we all arrive at the same conclusions regarding governance or policy. I know plenty of third- and fourth-generation Montana Republicans and Democrats who are poles apart politically. Clearly, having ancestry in a location for generations does not lead inexorably to a specific political ideology or worldview. And something tells me that dyed-in-the-wool conservatives and liberals will more willingly support a newcomer (or carpetbagger) who shares their core values than vote for someone perceived to be on the wrong side of history or party platform, even if their lineage stretches back generations. If we really followed "native" logic to its ultimate conclusion, we'd elect more American Indian leaders, since when it comes length of tenure, familial connections that stretch back thousands of years make a mockery of third- or fourth- or fifth-generation boasts.

Becoming truly native to a place requires intentionality and rootedness that transcends length of tenure. Living in a place for many years, or generations, can help cultivate intentionality and connectedness and a moral sense of stewardship, but it can also arise from choosing to make a place your home during your own lifetime.

Being truly native entails learning the seasonal rhythms of a place and understanding the origin of traditions while being willing to question them in light of the broader world. This, and looking out for the well-being of future generations, is perhaps a better way to understand being native, or becoming native, than mere length of residency within township, range and section borders that have little connection to how well we nurture the places where we reside.

Dave Strohmaier serves on the Missoula County Board of Commissioners. He is a historian and former Missoula city councilman and the author of two books on wildfire in the Western United States.


The original print version of this article was headlined "Longer than you"


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