Montana could learn from Butte’s multicultural past

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The Chinn family of Butte. (Photo courtesy of the Mai Wah Society).

By SuzAnne M. Miller

Anchorage, Alaska, in the mid 1970’s was not unlike Butte around the turn of the twentieth century. Awash in money and people from every corner of the earth, Anchorage was in the mist of the Alaska oil boom. We residents began to speak of two seasons, winter and construction. The pace of building was limited only by the number of available workers.

After suffering months of road delays during the construction season, I happily swung my car into the yet to be paved parking lot of Anchorage’s new Dimond Center Mall (named after a person, not the gem, hence the spelling). Lured by the aroma of fresh bread, my feet found their way to a bakery tucked into a corner of the sprawling building. The assortment of goodies in the glass case amazed me. There were Cornish pasties, Yugoslavian potica, German apple kuchen, British hard rolls with cheese, Norwegian lace cookies, Swedish lefse, and Italian crème cookies. I asked in an almost smart alec tone, “is the baker from Butte?”

“Why, yes,” came the surprised reply. “How on earth did you know?”

Butte. Less a melting pot than a richly colored tapestry woven from the traditions and cultural threads of different peoples from across the globe. Who but a Butte baker would have such a display of international foods in one bakery case? Being from Butte is being from everywhere.

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Butte has a rich multiethnic history. (Photo courtesy of the Mai Wah Society)

It is impossible to have been raised in the 1950’s in Butte, Montana without understanding on a deeply personal level the complexities, joys, and challenges of living in a multicultural, multiethnic community. Since my childhood in Butte’s hay day, I have read articles and books, conversed with other Butte residents, and plumbed my own mind and heart to pinpoint the sources of Butte’s unique blend of cultural tolerance, prejudice, assimilation, and ultimate bonding. And for me, it comes down to one thing: the common struggle.

Butte has never been an easy place, at any time. It was, and is, a place of extremes. Deep mining scars blemish unbelievably picturesque mountains. Ostentatious wealth has lived cheek to jowl with dire poverty. Winter temperatures often mark Butte as the nation’s low. High elevation was coupled with incredibly deep mines – “A Mile High and A Mile Deep, and Everyone’s on the Level.”

And, indeed, everyone is on the level. The wealth in Butte went to few and was generally taken away; whereas the work and struggle in Butte stay and was shared by almost everyone. This is Butte’s strength, Butte’s beauty. Sharing the struggle was, and continues to be, more important than ethnic or cultural differences. Embracing the challenges meant embracing each other. No group, no person, could do it alone.

When I left Butte as a young woman to come to Missoula to attend the University of Montana, I brought with me my strange interpretation of racial and cultural differences and languages. I had to be taught that some of my words were offensive. My father was the Chief Ventilation Engineer for the Anaconda Company. It was his job to make sure the miners had air to breath. All the miners knew him, and he knew them. “Above ground” he would use ethnic slurs to reference friends, but these words had little, if any, real derogatory meaning. Cultural groups within Butte retained their traditions, their food, their religious celebrations and decorations, and their ethnic slurs for one another. But “below ground” there were no distinctions. And everyone understood that. Everyone knew that when trouble came, we were all family. There were no distinctions.

Racial words were bantered in Butte bars and in the halls of Butte High School, sometimes resulting in brawls for which the city was famous. Yes, Butte was tough, and I was one of those tough kids from Butte. I fully participated in that community ethic and wore Butte’s toughness like a badge. Once during high school dance after a football game in Billings, the young man who had asked me to dance walked off the floor when he learned I was from Butte. He wanted not part of me. Everyone knew not to mess with Butte kids.

Indeed, Butte people talked tough and were rough and ready to respond to slights. But we always stuck together when facing outsider force. Those who toiled in the mines and towns people who served those miners, completely understood that only through unity and communal effort would anyone survive.

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Miners from 25 countries were killed in the Granite Mine Fire in Butte in 1917. (Photo courtesy of Running Down Our Dream)

A visit the memorial for the Granite Mountain Mine fire of 1917 makes the point. Miners, 168 in total, from 25 different countries lost their lives in the worst hard rock mining disaster in US history. The city with all of its many immigrants grieved together and stuck together. Surviving miners went on strike which brought about some of the nation’s first mine safety laws. Butte practically invented mine unions because its immigrants were unified.

Both the good and the bad of Butte have played major roles in shaping Montana’s culture and public policies. Reaction to the political corruption wrought by the Copper Kings and the environmental damage left by their companies were significant forces behind the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention, giving us the nation’s only constitutional right to a “clean and healthy environment” and opening all official government meetings to the public.

I suggest that we look again to Butte to guide our current discussion regarding immigration. Butte was such a hot spot during the last great world migration at the turn of the twentieth century, that people arrived at Ellis Island with Butte, America pinned to their shirts. Butte absorbed the best from every culture, learned to get along, enriched its inhabitants with a kaleidoscope of tastes, traditions and languages, and ultimately to rose above it all be become a unified city. Butte’s famous resilience resides in that multiethnic and multicultural tapestry. While Montana’s current challenges are not those of Butte in the previous century, they no less real and no less common to us all.

I applaud Soft Landing Missoula’s Soft Landing efforts to assist the world’s refugees. It is most disturbing to hear some Montanans use fear to close our doors to refugees and immigrants. How exactly do we, the descendants of those who literally and violently took the land from the Indians, justify such a position? Do we not understand that we are all in this together? Can we not learn as Butte has done, to get beyond the differences and the fears to become a community and a family. Can we not weave together our tapestry with new threads from new peoples and new places?

I very much look forward to my next encounter with a multicultural bakery, this time laden with goodies form southeast Asia, Somalia, Turkey, Syria, and beyond in some hidden part of a larger American city and asking “is the baker from Missoula?”

SuzAnne M. Miller is the owner of the Dunrovin Ranch in Lolo. Her column appears regularly in the Missoula Current. Visit her websites at www.DunrovinRanchMontana.com and www.DaysAtDunrovin.com.