Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) An effort to pass a resolution memorializing Missoula's historic Chinese community hit a roadblock around wording this week with one particular “whereas” raising concern and generating a debate that won't be resolved until August.

In today's political world, words must be chosen carefully and as indicated this week, agreement on certain terms and definitions aren't easily agreed upon, even when both sides share the common goal of memorializing a population of Missoula that has largely been forgotten.

The City Council on Wednesday set out to adopt a joint resolution with Missoula County that would officially recognize “and reckon” with the history of the city's Chinese community.

Among other things, the resolution acknowledges the graveyard in the lower Rattlesnake where many of the city's early Chinese residents remain in unmarked graves below a residential neighborhood. It notes the role the Chinese played in building the region's railroads, the business they ran, and how the Chinese community rapidly declined in 1892 after white Montana laborers murdered four Chinese men.

But the resolution also suggests that “Montana politicians across the political spectrum continue to fearmonger and scapegoat Asians and Asian Americans.” The statement raised concerns and sparked a deep debate on whether it should be included, if it should be clarified, or if it should be left as written.

“In my opinion, a resolution should stand the test of time. If it has a whereas that is specific, then let's make it very specific with dates and names,” said council member Mirtha Becerra. “But to throw up a blanket statement like that, it doesn't speak to the accuracy in my opinion of what that statement is trying to say.”

Paul Kim, a member of the ACLU who is spearheading efforts to pass the resolution and place a marker on the Rattlesnake graveyard, said he intentionally included the whereas, suggesting that Montana's congressional delegation still targets China with statements that he considers racist.

It's not unlike the coordinated effort by Montana's early white population to drive the Chinese out, he said. Removing or tampering with the whereas would be a repeat of history, he added.

“If you'd like to remove that comment and make an effort to divorce the history of what happened to the Chinese community – the four Chinese men lynched in Missoula in 1892 – from the actual rhetoric being used today in politics, that's a direct attempt to erase the history and the history of the community we live in,” Kim said.

A map of Missoula in 1894.
A map of Missoula in 1894.

Efforts to erase Missoula's Chinese history may be punctuated by the forgotten cemetery in the lower Rattlesnake. When Missoula was founded in the 1860s, many of its early European settlers were interred in the graveyard.

But over time, their remains were moved to a new cemetery and the old Rattlesnake cemetery was opened to Chinese burials. Those burials continued into the early 1900s before the cemetery fell into ruin and homes were built upon it.

Kim also points to the Chinese Exclusion and Geary acts that swept across the American West around 1882. Both acts were considered hostile to the Chinese and, among things, they denied them citizenship and employment in certain occupations, and required them to carry a permit at all times proving legal residency.

Kim said Missoula was guilty of its own crimes.

“What you see consistently is the attempt to filter the Chinese experience in Missoula through institutions controlled overwhelmingly by those who view history in a way that centers around the white experience in this town,” Kim said.

All members of the City Council have expressed support for the resolution, with the exception of the whereas that accuses Montana's politicians of “fear mongering” and “scapegoating” Asian Americans.

If local government is asked to adopt a resolution on behalf of all Missoula residents, then language needs to be specific, some said. The whereas in question conflates today's national security with history, they added.

“I think this is a great project,” said council member Gwen Jones. “But I would like to have the language fine-tuned a little more. I'm respectful of how complicated it is to get everything to the right place. I love the idea of seeing a plaque, and I'd like to have this really tight. It's conflating national security with something we're trying to do regarding Missoula's Chinese history."

But council member Kristen Jordan called efforts to clarify the whereas as “ridiculous.”

“We need to own our racist history,” Jordan said. “We are a racist culture and we need to start owning it and start standing behind the fact that people are racist. We've got to stop hiding behind our racism and our biases.”

Missoula circa 1900.
Missoula circa 1900.

Because the resolution would be adopted jointly with Missoula County, city officials also want certainty that the county is onboard with the language. They also want it reviewed through the lens of Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, as well as historical accuracy.

“We've already worked with all these people you all are suggesting we work with. We've already done quite a bit legwork on this,” said council member Daniel Carlino. “To keep it in committee to talk with the same people we've already been working on seems a little redundant to me.”