Last weekend I took an online writing class called “Layers of Landscape: Harnessing the Power of Place,” from the Seattle writing institution, Hugo House. I was happily surprised when I found out the instructor, author Joe Wilkins, was a native of Melstone, a town in the lower Musselshell River Valley that formed with the arrival of railroad construction to East Central Montana. Joe called his homeplace the “Big Dry,” and his word for homeplace was “primal place.” It made sense that someone from the harsh high desert landscape of Eastern Montana would become a writer and teach a class about place, but I was still excited to learn of our shared origins.
There aren’t many of us from the Great Plains of Eastern Montana. About 150,000 people presently live east of Billings and there’s a lot of country east of Billings. Referred to by some as the “frontier,” Eastern Montana is arguably the least populated part of a sparsely-populated state. So when you meet someone from this under-appreciated region, especially someone with a shared interest in storytelling and unearthing what’s overlooked about a place, you pay attention.
I was also paying attention when Eastern Montanan, Randi Lynn Tanglen, PhD took the public-facing position of Humanities Montana’s Executive Director in June 2020. Randi, originally from Sidney, told the Missoulian that summer “those of us who live and experience the West know that there are such diverse stories. Limiting that to one or two dominant voices might not really be representing what life is in the West.” The hidden voices Randi has dedicated her career to studying, include those from Eastern Montana, Plains women, Native American voices, African American authors and those with diverse religious perspectives.
Drawn back to her “primal place” of Montana after more than 15 years in the Desert Southwest of Arizona and the Eastern Cross Timbers region of Texas’ North Central Plains, Randi sought to apply her skills as a tenured English professor and scholar to the public humanities mission of Montana’s state humanities council.
Randi thinks of the public humanities as the essential questions of “whose stories matter, whose stories get told and why, and what do these stories tell us about ourselves as people and as individuals.” These essential questions help her grapple with the cycles of boom and bust that shaped her childhood, the gendered landscape of leadership opportunities in country churches, and the settler-colonial history of displacement and old world histories of oppression or prosecution that accompany the migration stories of Montanans with European origins and multi-generational roots in the state.
As you know I am also interested in how history, economics and culture shape us. Through this podcast I have made it my mission to persuade people that places like Eastern Montana matter and that the diverse voices that emerge from these landscapes offer an abundance of critical thought, perspective and hope. So naturally I was compelled to invite Randi to join me in conversation for a podcast episode this season.
I hope you enjoy this episode featuring a kindred Eastern Montanan, Randi Lynn Tanglen, PhD.