Sowing Possibility Episode 8: Randi Lynn Tanglen, PhD
5:30: Transitioning from a Austin College in Texas to Humanities Montana
7:10: Growing up in Sidney
8:45: How Eastern Montana is overlooked and viewed as less than
9:30: How to do justice to Eastern Montana stories
10:55: Randi’s family’s migration story from Ukraine and Sweden to Montana
12:30: The impact of the boom and bust economy on Randi’s family and childhood
14:05: The religious background of Randi’s childhood
15:45: Randi’s grandmother’s feminist history founding grassroots churches in E. MT
18:00: Randi’s early feminist formation and messages she heard in the church
20:45: Isolation and insanity narratives of Plains women in the tropes of Western literature
23:00: Randi’s research into rural community cookbooks and how women have written themselves into the narrative
26:45: The “female world of love and ritual”
30:40: Cultural differences of rural Texas and rural Montana
31:45: Grappling with settler-colonial history
35:15: Mandy Smoker Broadus essay “Looks Back” juxtaposing CM Russell painting with great grandmother’s experiences
39:30: What pre-1900s Western American literature can teach us about the U.S. today
40:15: The role of literature in paving a brighter future
42:15: What captivity narratives can teach us about the American psyche and racism
45:45: Randi’s early love of literature and how she came to find a niche in 1900s W. American literature
49:30: Making Randi’s research approachable
52:00: Coming back to Montana to serve as Humanities Montana’s executive director
53:15: Defining the humanities and the role of the humanities in democracy
57:00 Randi’s hopes for the future of rural Montana
Guest: Randi Lynn Tanglen
Host, creator, producer and co-editor: Megan Torgerson
Editor and mixing: Rob Upchurch
Episode music: Andrew Drinnan
RANDI'S READING LIST:
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women.
Margaret Atwood, Handmaid’s Tale.
Toni Morrison, Beloved.
Forgotten voices from U.S. literary history that everyone should read:
Gertrude Beasley, My First Thirty Years.
Charles Chesnutt, Marrow of Tradition.
Zitkala-Sa, American Indian Legends, Stories, and Other Writings.
Ellen Gruber Garvey, Writing With Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance.
Jennifer Sinor, The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray’s Diary.
What Randi's reading now:
Linda Francis-Sharma, Book of the Little Axe.
M.L. Smoker and Natalie Peeterse, Thunderous.
“For Me, the West is Rural,” Living West as Feminist
“The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West,” Patricia Nelson Limerick
“The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” Carroll Smith-Rosenberg
“Looks Back,” Mandy Smoker Broaddus
“The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith,” Joanna Brooks
“Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,” Arlie Russell Hochschild
SEASON 2 FUNDING PARTNERS:
Greater Montana Foundation
Megan Torgerson: There are stories we tell ourselves about the places we come from. Stories that are shaped by literature and song and community culture as much by personal experience. But for humanists like Randi Lynn Tanglen, it’s not enough to ask what origin stories we carry with us. We must also ask whose stories matter, which stories get told and why, and what do these stories have to teach us about our shared history and culture at large.
Growing up in the small Northeastern Montana town of Sidney, Randi fostered an early love of literature and feminist philosophy. Not knowing anyone with a doctorate as a child, she went on to receive the highest academic degree in her chosen field, a PhD in American Literature. Before returning to the Treasure State and becoming the executive director of Humanities Montana, Randi’s career as a scholar, tenured English Professor and director of the Gender Studies Program at Austin College in Texas, earned her many accolades and lecturing opportunities. Her research on pre-1900 American women and minority writers, the captivity literature of the United States, and social justice has also been widely published in academic journals. She has also delivered a TedX Talk on women’s political empowerment and co-edited the book “Teaching Western American Literature” used by educators of western studies.
Randi has found meaning and purpose through the cultural and gender analysis of literature and as an educator she made it a priority to highlight both high and low culture within popular, underrepresented and canonical works of literature, exposing students to readings that reflected their diverse backgrounds and experiences. She continues to be fueled by the mission to highlight hidden voices in the American West, including Native American authors and women writers from the Great Plains.
Randi Lynn Tanglen: Eastern Montana can seem and is really represented as desolate and less than. And I do think that's a theme that comes up a lot in my own origin story and formative questions and motivations that have shaped me, what is overlooked? What is perceived as less than? And how do we give these overlooked landscapes stories, and human experiences recognition? And how do we do them justice? And I and and those questions have been so core to my identity, and to my scholarly research, and to really all pursuits in my life.
Torgerson: I’m Megan Torgerson and this is Reframing Rural. Today, a conversation with Randi Lynn Tanglen. Randi and I share the unique crossover of being women from far Northeast Montana who have made careers in the humanities. Dagmar, where I grew up, is 80 miles north of Sidney which is known for its resources of sugar beets and oil. My family and I used to head down Highway 16 to Randi’s hometown to visit the Sidney Livestock Market Center and attend the Richland County Fair & Rodeo and regional basketball tournaments.
Speaking with Randi and reading her work has granted me a fascinating new perspective on Eastern Montana. Her research into the cultural significance of Montana women’s community cookbooks has offered a different way to think about how the women in my home-county have forged community and written themselves into the historically male-dominating narrative of the West. Speaking to Randi has also uncovered new tools for how to both appreciate my family’s migration story and multi-generational legacy making a living on the Plains and grapple with the displacement of the Assiniboine peoples that intersects with this history. In this episode, Randi and I will talk about these contradictions, along with her family’s migration story, her scholarly research and pedagogy, her new leadership position with Humanities Montana, and how the public humanities and literature can expose and inspire conversation around social and environmental challenges and the future.
Torgerson: So I've started each interview this season with an inquiry that seeks to on earth how our sense of place as children may have impacted our understandings of geography, community, family, and so on and this question is borrowed from Krista Tippett, who's a Peabody Award winning broadcaster behind the On Being series and who begins each conversation asking guests about the religious or spiritual backgrounds of their childhoods, which is really a fertile place for guests to begin exploring curiosities and callings that have stayed with them long after childhood. And so you Randy, like Krista Tippett have contemplated how religion shapes us. So the first question that I posed to you is what both the geographic setting and spiritual or religious background of your childhood - so what that background is, and how that has shaped you?
Tanglen: That is just such a great question, Megan, and I'm so glad you're starting all of your interviews with that. I think that's something that all of us could think about a little bit more. But let me start by saying that my identity as an adult was completely dismantled during the pandemic, when I left my job as a tenured English professor in Texas, to return to Montana, to become the executive director of Humanities Montana, because I've been on that path to become a professor and a scholar since I was in my early 20s. So to leave all of that behind in my mid-40s - and that, you know, that was not only a changing career, but really a change in identity. Because in my new role, no one cared that I'd been Dr. Tanglin, or no one cared about the articles I published, or about my pedagogy, the classes that that I had developed. And so I've really had to think about who am I at m core, who am I outside of those roles as scholar and professor. And of course, I've been grappling with all of this while returning to Montana during the pandemic - which has just been surreal - and in relative isolation. So asking those questions, What contribution can I make outside of that role as faculty member that I had been in for so long? And that's really how I started to reflect on those forces that shaped me into where I am today.
So part of your question was the geography, the geographic foundation of my childhood. So I was born in Sydney, Montana, I always have to qualify that not Australia. I was born in Sydney, Montana, and I spent the first 10 years of my life there. So the landscape of my childhood, a lot like yours, is comprised of the hills in the prairies and the sunsets of eastern Montana. And although I'm a fourth generation Montanan on both sides of my parents' families, I didn't grow up in an agricultural family. My mom was a stay at home mom, and then she had a long career as a federal employee. And my dad owned a construction Supply Company and was later a newspaper reporter and editor in small towns in Montana. Now, my uncle did have a farm in Hysham, so in eastern Montana. So I did get a taste of that farm life for a few weeks over a couple of summers. And I remember he would take us out on the tractor and tell us stories of the history of the area or we would go on walks and we'd walk past the abandoned farm houses, and he'd have us imagine who lived there and did they walk across the field to bring a pie to their neighbors. And so I always do kind of joke that growing up in eastern Montana, you have to really have a great imagination as a kid because there's just not a lot to work with. I mean, I remember playing in a rock pile. But, but the truth is, you know, it is a beautiful and a rich landscape. And it's so different from other regions of Montana. It's so different from the mountains of western Montana and the Yellowstone Area. And so I think it's an overlooked and underappreciated landscape, wouldn't you say?
Torgerson: Absolutely. And I'm glad to hear that you also had your own rock pile, because so did I.
Tanglen: Yeah, there's so many things you can imagine with a rock pile. But but, you know, and I think contrasted with the other regions of Montana, eastern Montana can seem and is really represented as desolate and less than. And I do think that's a theme that comes up a lot in my own origin story and formative questions and motivations that have shaped me, what is overlooked? What is perceived as less than? And how do we give these overlooked landscapes stories, and human experiences recognition? And how do we do them justice? And those questions have been so core to my identity, and to my scholarly research, and to really all pursuits in my life. And I do think that dynamic is based in my experiences in the geography I grew up in.
Torgerson: Yeah, I love I read in an interview you did with Living West as Feminist that you said, your sense of justice comes from your rural upbringing, and I feel exactly the same. And I think it's particularly acute because of the eastern Montana piece. It's not rural Western Montana, it's, it's kind of forgotten, an isolated part of our cultural consciousness.
Tanglen: Yeah, I agree completely. That's such a great point.
Torgerson: From my readings of your work, I've drawn the thread that the church was a really formative place in your cultural background, and your childhood and your upbringing. And I was wondering how you would describe the role of the church and your understanding of community and belonging from your your childhood?
Tanglen: I think to answer that question, I think I need to talk about my family's history a little bit and how my family ended up in Montana. So on my mother's side of the family, her ancestors were Mennonite homesteaders who came to Montana after farming in the Ukraine for years, several generations and they came to the United States in the 1870s and, you know, settled in different places, maybe South Dakota, they came over in different waves and eventually homesteaded on the Fort Peck reservation in the 1910s with land purchase through various allotment acts that really started with the Dawes Allotment Act. And my dad's side of the family is Swedish and they came to the US in the 1860s. One ancestor actually fought with the Union Army in the Civil War and in they first settled and worked in Minnesota. It was my dad's grandpa Pete who came to Montana to farm outside Sydney in the 1930s. And his son started Tanglen Brothers a trucking and building supply business in Crane. And my parents met at college in Billings, and they married when they were still students and returned to Crane to start their family.
Tanglen: So I'm the oldest of four siblings, and our family left the Sidney area in the late '80s and moved to Colorado with another family from the Fairview area, basically to start over financially and professionally after that oil bust of the '80s. And it wasn't until I was in graduate school, taking an interdisciplinary seminar on the frontiers of the United States and we read historian Patricia Limerick's book "Legacy of Conquest," and I was able to place my family's history into the broader history of the boom and bust cycles of the West. And of course, that pattern replayed itself all over again in the Sydney area with the boom and bust of the Bakken oil fields. Our family eventually did return to Montana and my siblings and I attended high school in Park City, Montana, not Utah, in Stillwater County, and I attended college and in Billings and in taught school there for about a year. And eventually I moved to Arizona to attend graduate school and I taught in Texas for 12 years at a small liberal arts college as a professor. And I haven't really been to eastern Montana again really in 20 years and I thought I'd return through my current work at Humanities Montana but the pandemic has prevented that travel but I'll be back there in eastern Montana to celebrate my mother's 70th birthday and my parents 50th wedding anniversary this summer, and my parents and all of our partners and our spouses and my nephews and my niece will be there because they want to see where grandma and grandpa grew up. And I'm really looking forward to that. So I guess that kind of connects the family story to the geographic story. But there is yeah areligious part.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah. And that was part of your the Mennonite family's upbringing as well as your as your grandma, Ricky, on your father's side. So you have religious influences from both sides, correct
Tanglen: Yeah, so my mom's side of the family is Mennonite and my dad's side of the family was, of course Lutheran. And what's interesting is that both of my parents were raised in revival movements within those traditions. So the Mennonites - that the Mennonite farming community where my mom grew up - they attended Mennonite Brethren Church, which was a revival movement within the Mennonites in the 19th century, and my dad's parents had joined the Lutheran Brethren Church, which was a Lutheran revival movement in Norway. And we attended that Lutheran Brethren Church in Sidney, and the church and the church community was very important to me. Growing up in my early years, it was important to me and it was important to my family. I think many of us who grew up in small towns and small communities have had those types of experiences with church. Church was where I felt belonging and community and was where I learned loyalty and commitment just about showing up for your community. So I have lots of positive associations with church.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah. And I was really interested to learn about your grandmother Ricky's legacy in starting Lutheran Home Mission churches, and also kind of how her story got you thinking about your feminist identity and the role the gender roles that exist in church. And if you don't mind, I'd like to just read the part of your epilogue to your 2008 dissertation that kind of underscores this a bit. So you wrote here, "The analysis of her son, my father, suggests that what many regarded as my grandmother’s difficult or inflammatory personality was most likely her redirected frustration with living in a cultural and historical moment that did not provide her, as a woman, with an appropriate outlet for her remarkable talents. Although she put considerable time and energy into starting these grassroots churches, as a woman she was never allowed to be part of the formal leadership structure of male pastors and elders. Due to her very conservative social and political perspectives, my Grandma Rickey never would have called herself a feminist. But it could be that withholding her church membership was her own unwitting form of feminist protest.” So that's just a really impactful reflection on your grandmother. And I wonder what comes up for you as I as I recite part of your dissertation
Tanglen: I forgot I'd written that but yeah, I remember making that connection because I'd written my dissertation on the significance of religion in 19th century American women's writing, because that was something again, that had been overlooked by feminist scholars, especially what do we do with this religion piece? And my dissertation was saying, well, it really mattered to these women, and we need to stop and take it seriously. And well, why was I concerned with that question? To start with the backstory of my grandma, Ricky was as as you just read, she started with these Lutheran brethren home mission churches, but she always withheld her membership. She never formally joined and became a member of the church, she would probably never say that it was because there isn't a role a formal leadership role for women in the church. And I didn't know her she. She passed away when I was really young. Of course, I have memories of her so I can't say, but I always imagine that maybe some of those seeds of my own feminism came from somehow came through her experiences because there there really was a dissonance as a young woman for me between the love I experienced and acceptance I experienced is church as a girl and then the messages I heard from the pulpit, and from church leaders as a young woman that women again were less than, couldn't be in positions of teaching and authority and preaching, and that there was a God ordained hierarchy of women being subordinate to men. But don't worry, men are nice, they'll never be mean to you.
Tanglen: It didn't add up because also, it's not what I saw at home. I saw mutuality in the egalitarianism between my parents and a real back and forth partnership between my parents. And I think looking back on it now, I think some of those struggles that I had with the church and gender was I felt pretty hurt and betrayed because the church was, was my community. And that's where I wanted to express my gifts. And I think I had some budding gifts in leadership. And what I wanted to offer was rejected. And I've spent a lot of my life, and a lot of my scholarly writing, wanting to make sense of all of that. And I think that's why I was interested in feminist studies and women's writing, because, like the eastern Montana landscape, women have been seen as less than our as as other. I think that, so I, I want to explore and take seriously the role of religion in our lives, and how it shapes our experiences and the way that we act and the decisions that we make in the world. But, you know, I've also had my own trials. Yeah. And my own really hard questions I've had to ask.
Torgerson: Yeah, well, that just enables you to have a more acute understanding probably, of how women have written themselves into the narrative and just of these Western American literary studies that you've delved into. And I personally just drew so many connections in reading your thesis and just different articles that you've published, and just reflecting on my own experience growing up in northeast Montana. A couple of themes that really came across to me was your analysis of the commodification of women and land and your critique of female isolation and insanity that shows up in Western literature. And on the flip side of that, also sources of resistance to those narratives. But I'm wondering if you could share what the enduring impact of these isolation and insanity narratives about pioneer women have today, and the continued importance, studying them and maybe just a preface kind of what isolation and insanity narratives are?
Tanglen: Yeah, when we think about how white homesteading and ranching women have been portrayed in the tropes of Western literature, there's just not a place for them because they're not men, right? The western landscape has been portrayed in literature and in film, and in popular culture as a place for men, white men, to escape civilization - and here's my, you know, my own commentary coming out to - to enact toxic masculinity in the West. So where's the role or where's the place for women in those stories, and that's not to say that it wasn't tough for women who came west, you know, throughout the history of the United States, there were certainly reasons to lose your minds, probably, as portrayed in a lot of the literature, but there are also so many stories and that's when I liken to my family's history. When my my mom talking about her grandma and her sisters in the community that they formed and the ways that they supported each other. And so I guess, to really give an example, you know, a prime example of those narratives of women's insanity or, or just women not thriving in the West is the the recent critically acclaimed film "Power of the Dog," and the portrayal of Rose Gordon. And so, in the first place that film doesn't, you know, pass the Bechdel Test are there two women? Do they talk to each other about something other than a man? But there it just it reinforces those tropes of whose story matters in in the West.
Torgerson: Yeah, her character in the film - it's very, very sad to watch her her addiction to alcohol and it's only a brief resurgence at the end I think that she really comes out of that. That's, that's not the main point of the film at all. So one of your projects, after you're receiving your Master's from the University of Montana was a cookbook, a community cookbook research project, where you were reading rural Montana community cookbooks as literature. And so what did you learn about how female agency and female community in rural Montana function through this project?
Tanglen: Well, there there are a couple of things. One is that the cookbooks were a way for women to tell the community story through not only through the recipes that they shared in their community cookbooks. It was a way for them to record ethnic traditions, for example Swedish or Mennonite traditions and backgrounds and to share that history. It was also a way to record women's history. A lot of times, women's names weren't in the historical record, their fathers or their husbands names were in the record, but women's names weren't. So for a woman put her name by her recipe she was claiming her place in in the world. The other thing that I found with the women's community cookbooks was that they were actually an unexpected way for women to have leadership and authority within their communities, because the cookbooks were often fundraisers for churches or different civic organizations. And because the women did the work and raised the money, they got to say how it was used, which church project it was used on, when they probably wouldn't have that authority and in creating the church's budget, and deciding how funds were used. So the cookbooks were an unexpected site, probably for female community, female authority and women's leadership.
Torgerson: I remember going to a cafe in Albertan, with some friends from college, and there was a Montana cookbook on the table in the cafe, and I flipped it open and my mom's name was in it which was cool, because I feel like so much of my reflections on growing up in eastern Montana that I shared with new college friends was a lot about the work that my dad did, and the farm and ranch work that I was roped into, and that I enjoyed doing, but it didn't often come back to kind of the work that my mom did making dinner for people during brandings, and all of her work in the church as well. Which definitely, I feel like the church that I grew up in, is still going today, because of the female lay ministers who are making it go. And even if the church is divided, after church, we have like cake and coffee and women are on one side and men are on the other side, but those women are still keeping it going, which is really important for the community.
Tanglen: Yeah, and you know, you raise a good point, a lot of times, the work that is traditionally female, the domestic work, and the domestic labor that that women perform, it's done to be undone. So you make a meal so it's eaten. You wash the dishes, so they can be dirtied again. And so that's why again, the contributions of women kind of fly under the radar and, again, are seen as less than.
Torgerson: Hmm, yeah, and something that really came across is just the relationships that women have with one another and how important it was for them to get to see their friends as as they were either migrating across the prairie or even I just think about the experience that I had growing up. And so this phrase comes up in your work several times the "female world of love and ritual." Could you share the importance of illuminating female community as a means for fostering female identity and as you've written as "fostering female agency, creative expression and the subversion of patriarchal structures that subordinate women?"
Tanglen: Yeah, that sounds like something I would say.
Torgerson: Yeah, maybe harkening back to the female world of love and ritual.
Tanglen: A citation of the historian Carol Smith Rosenberg, who wrote a very well known and heavily cited article with that title, and it's really about the networks of support that women create with each other to provide what she calls homo-social networks, women supporting women that are kind of outside and on the periphery of relationships to men and legally, for a long time. In the in the history of the United States, women were defined legally through their relationships to men. So these kinship networks, these friendship networks, that women would form through church, through family, were really a really powerful force in women's lives. And so that was one thing I traced through the cookbooks. You could look and find that female world of love and ritual because there would be recipes for Aunt Betty's pie or, you know, grandma, Susan's casserole and you could see the women kind of cross-citing each other through their through recipes, and that's certainly something that I experienced in my own life, the support of women and sisters and extended network of female friendships that have been a real source of empowerment and support throughout all stages of my life.
Torgerson: Yeah. Where are you finding female world of love and ritual in your life today? I know it's hard with a pandemic, but what are you finding sources for this community?
Tanglen: Yeah, you know, that's a great question. It's virtual now. You know Zoom and FaceTime and phone calls with my mom and my sisters and my best friend who lives in Helena. And then of course, getting to know my friends' daughters and, you know, developing the intergenerational friendships with them to that's been important, too.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah, that just makes me think about when my mom moved to the prairie, from Montreal, Quebec, and she's told me some of the older women in the community, like, taught her how to plant different flowers and would give her seeds and kind of just, we're there to support her. And, yeah, I'm excited for when we can go back to some of those rituals in person again.
Tanglen: Well, you know, certainly, returning to Montana during this time of isolation, you know, you reached out to me. You know, you're part of my female world of love and ritual, and yeah, other women leaders in the state and in the community have come to me, really, when I needed their voice, when I needed their influence when I needed their, their support.
Torgerson: Mm hmm. And I'm kind of jumping around in my questions, but that just this just brings to mind went to you moved from Texas, to Montana. And I'm wondering what kind of cultural similarities there are between the two places,
Tanglen: I'll admit that when I moved to Texas, and I was moving to a small town, I was teaching at a small college in a small town, I didn't expect there to be a whole lot of culture shock because of growing up in small towns in Montana. But it was different. I have this idea of Texas being the West, I think, because I maybe like visited Fort Worth. And the you know, at some point, yeah, Texas is the south. And so I think part of that difference, too, is the the different histories that have developed. And so in Montana, we have the settler colonial history, and those legacies, and in Texas, there's more directly the legacies of slavery and racism. And so I guess what I'm saying is that those legacies of racism and displacement and genocide play out in different ways in Montana and in the south. So there are different dynamics there.
Torgerson: Yeah, that brings me to a question just about how you grapple with your own settler colonial history. And, as we've spoken about earlier, we're both descendants of European settlers who landed in northeastern Montana. And what comes with that generations after is that we must grapple with our ancestors' history. And although they were either fleeing religious persecution or voter disenfranchisement, or starvation, or what have you, they had real reasons to come west, but how this has also displaced members of the Assiniboine tribe in the region that we grew up in and that called the plains home for millennium. So when you think about this history, this long view of history and perhaps particularly your Mennonites family's history, who fled religious persecution, how do you sit with and make sense of and potentially act in response to this complex history of "displaced people displacing people" as you've previously named?
Tanglen: Yeah, so I do wonder, when we talk about rural Montana, I wonder if in parentheses, we put the word "white" in front of that phrase, rural Montana, or we at least assume it. And I, Megan, I know that's not the case for you at all. But you know, a lot of scholars would say that that's the insidious power of whiteness. That it has privilege, the privilege of being invisible and unnamed. So of course, rural Montana, or white in parentheses, is far from the truth because many tribal nations and communities are located in in the rural areas of Montana. And of course, as you've already named when you look at the history of colonization, and displacement and removal and genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, we're both here because of those who came before us looking for a better life. So what do we do with that? What do we do as descendants of settlers who displaced native people? And how do we make sense of that? And can you still have pride and care about your ancestors? Can you still have a deep connection to that landscape that shapes you as a young person, but still account for the injustices of the past and really the present?
Tanglen: And I do think that's where a lot of white Montanans, those of us who inherited that colonial settler legacy, that's where we get stuck. And I'm not saying that I have any answers, but where we get stuck is that there's that urge to fix it and get to the bottom of it and just solve racism, so we don't have to think about it anymore, or shame takes over. And there's a defensiveness and a denial that sets in. So we don't have to think about racism anymore, right. And usually, it's a combination of those responses. But I'm wondering what would happen, what types of conversations we could have, what types of actions we could take in the world, what types of relationships we could develop, if we just kind of sat with that discomfort instead of trying to fix it or deny it? What if we got curious about it? So of course, I go to the literature for perspective. And there, there are two sources in recent years that have really given me just a bit of perspective about how to ask questions and get comfortable with being very uncomfortable with these questions about the legacies of of race and racism. And one essay comes from Mandy smoker Broadus, former Poet Laureate of Montana, also from eastern Montana, Fort Peck reservation. She wrote an essay called "Looks Back," and in that essay, she juxtaposes the CM Russell paintings of Montana at the State Historical Society Museum, she juxtaposes that with the life and experiences of her great grandmother Looks Back. And this is what she writes, nd this really has given me some good perspective. She says that the that collection in the museum, she says, is "is a testament to that shared history, but it also challenges us to think more deeply about how that history has played out, how it has been represented over time, and why. How have different Montanans experienced this amazing landscape we call home? Where do our stories converge? Where do they diverge? And how do the differences continue to resonate in our current lives? This is only one of the many challenges and contradictions for me."
Tanglen: So what I take away from that essay by Mandy Smoker Broadus is that we need to start being okay with being in that space of challenges and contradictions and began having these conversations. There's another quote that I use this a lot in the classroom with with my students, scholar and memoirist, Joanna Brooks, in her memoir, The Book of Mormon girl where she grapples with her legacy as someone who grew up in the LDS church. She was she was wondering, what do I do you know, grappling with what do I do with that uneven legacy. And she says, "These are the unspoken legacies we inherit when we belong to people, not only luminous visions of eternal expanses of loving kindness, but actual human histories of our ancestors, their human failings, their kindnesses, their tenderness, and their satisfaction with easy contradictions, their wisdom as well as their ignorance, arrogance and presumption, as well as our own. We inherit all the ways in which our ancestors and parents and teachers were wrong, as well as all the ways they were right, their sparkling differences, and they're human failings, and there's no on mixing of the two." And that really sticks with me, there's no one mixing of the two, because we live we do live in polarized times, where we want to say something or someone is all good or all bad. And so, when we bring up these legacies of racism and genocide, you might be asking people to say, my ancestors were all bad. Well, yeah, they were bad. They were also good. And I like that quote from Joanna Brooks where she says, and we have to look at ourselves to and how will we be remembered? And what legacies will we leave.
Torgerson: So you have just a wealth of knowledge, of course, given your PhD in Western American literature, and so I'm wondering, what long view of history and understanding of democracy do you have given your wealth of knowledge about pre-1900s issues of gender, class, race, religion, all of the things that the US was founded on, including the institution of slavery and genocide of indigenous peoples? Like, how do you place your lens of 1800s history and literature on on the world today?
Tanglen: You know, looking at the literary history of the United States and the literary history, specifically of the Western United States...but first of all, I'll say and this, this goes back to my reference to Patricia Limerick and the legacy of conquest that there are these these patterns and these cycles in history. And so in some, in some ways, there's nothing new under the sun. There's always injustice, there's always greed, there's always our human nature is getting the better of us. But there are always people who were the right voice at the right time. And who kept fighting for a better world and a better vision of the world that literature can can imagine for people.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah. Well, in one place, you also wrote that literature is a force in the world to expose and discuss social problems and to bring about change. So how do you think about literature's role in paving a brighter future and a more equitable future for some of the groups that we've been talking about so far, women and Native American communities and rural communities.
Tanglen: You know, compared to other humanities disciplines, maybe history or philosophy, literature provides that imaginative place to imagine new possibilities and to create new possibilities and new worlds. So I do think that that is one role of literature in helping us create a better and more hopeful future. Literature is also a way for individuals to come to voice and to express themselves, and certainly that, that creative expression that happens through literature and people who can come to voice and do come to voice. That's certainly a really valuable part, too. Yeah, making the world a better place. Because how can you make the world a better place if you can't imagine it? And literature is one place where it can be where those possibilities can be imagined.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah. I also love how they can make you feel less isolated. And can also even if you're reading about maybe a rural community in Africa or something, and you can relate and resonate with other cultures and be introduced to different worlds. So I was fascinated by your critique of the captivity of the Oatman girls by Royal Stratton, a horrible sounding man who uses the sisters' story for personal gains and to perpetuate notions of difference. And so a specialty of yours is captivity narratives and I'm wondering what they teach us about the American psyche in their inherent racism and prejudices against non-Protestant and indigenous perspectives.
Tanglen: One quote that I come back to a lot in, in my study of the literary history of the United States, and especially the the Western literary genre and tradition, is a quote from the native scholar and writer Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. She says "art and literature and storytelling are at the center of all the nation and an individual intend to be." And so these captivity accounts that I did some work on when I was a professor, his captivity accounts of white women taken captive by indigenous tribes on the various moving frontiers of the Americas, they're actually a pretty significant part of the literary tradition of the United States, which tells us a lot because they aren't great literature all the time. But they are worthy of cultural and literary analysis because they tell us so much about the contradictions in the white American psyche. And one thing that kind of comes up specifically in that captivity of the Oatman girls, and I'll say one reason I was interested in it specifically was because of the the local, that former captive Olive Aatman came to live in Sherman, Texas, where I lived and taught for 12 years - so there was a really bizarre connection around place there. But she was a captive of the Mojave people and in what is now California and what her captivity account which was written by this minister Royal Stratton, and wait, her story didn't add up to what the captivity narrative genre and what the western genre was supposed to do, which was to tell the story of American exceptionalism and white supremacy. What her captivity narrative and what most of these captivity narratives didn't say was that most of the white women who were taken captive, assimilated into indigenous cultures and didn't want to return to white society. And many scholars actually think that that's the case with Olive Oatman, because she had freedom and dignity in Mojave society and culture that she didn't have as a white woman in US culture. So that was kind of the takeaway from studying that captivity literature. A lot of the the tropes that we see in the western film genre, really originated in these captivity stories.
Torgerson: Wow, there's no way of getting around her tattoos is a symbol of her assimilation into that culture as well. And I just can't imagine what it was like for her to maybe go back to some of those power differences in renegotiating whiteness after she left them Mojaves. Yeah, just yeah, really, really interesting analysis that you put together. So I'm curious what fermented your early love of literature and how you found your way into specifically Western American, pre 1900s literature and some, and some of which is written by women as well? What was that kind of journey?
Tanglen: Well, I've written about this before, you know, I spent a lot of time with books and and public libraries and small communities when I was a young person, I spent a lot of time reading all of "Anne of Green Gables" and "Little House on the Prairie." And I remember spending one summer just reading you know, Nancy Drew all the old Nancy Drew books. So those stories of girls and girlhood. But ultimately, it was the analysis of gender and gender roles through that lens of women's studies that led me to pursue graduate studies in literature. It was certainly the love of reading and the love of writing that led me to initially pursue a career in teaching. And teaching has always been important to me. But the the meaning and purpose that I found through that cultural and gender analysis of literature is what led me to pursue graduate studies.
And in terms of the emphasis on earlier and 19th century American literature, I've wondered about that a lot, because I think it's because I grew up in 19th century towns, like, for a while my family lived in Red Lodge, Montana. And so there was that, that deep history there and just kind of imagining that place in the 1800s. And when we lived in Colorado, we lived in an old mining town and all the Victorian homes. And so I don't know if that somehow fed into all of the the forces and the influences that that shaped me, but I also think as a student, I was interested in that that time period, particularly the 1800s, because it's a foreign land in the sense that it's happened a long time ago, but it's close enough to be recognizable. So in terms of doing a lot of that cultural analysis around gender, race and class, it's far enough that we can look at it analytically and identify some of the problems and possible solutions. but close enough that it's still relevant to experiences in the present day, and that's certainly what I found with my students if we tried to analyze a film or a TV series from today. There was no way they wanted to see the cultural impact of it or the cultural significance, but it's easier to do that type of work with something that's still interesting and relevant enough, but further removed historically.
Torgerson: Yeah, it's really that sweet spot. And when you think about it, like my grandfather was born in 1921, who grew up in Dagmar, you know, his parents were born in the 1800s. Yeah, it's not that far removed. And after you received your doctorate, did you at all find it difficult to relate to rural people who perhaps haven't pursued that level of education?
Tanglen: You know, not particularly. Although I will say no one likes to have an English professor in their book club. I learned that the hard way so many times. So if any of your listeners out there who are looking for a book club member, I've always wanted to be in a book club, but it doesn't even matter what I say it's just that I'm there. But I think, in my case, I think what that has to do with because - so I was a professor in a small community, I don't know that if it was necessarily rural, in the way that we're talking about it. But I did a lot of public humanities presentations, in the, in the public library, to the civic organizations, and I think what I would present on was approachable enough and relatable enough, like women's writing, or women's diaries and women's cookbooks, that just made me more maybe more approachable. And, and I just and I always wanted to just kind of get those conversations started around those around those of those topics, especially the cookbook presentations, everyone wants to come and talk about their grandma's cookbook or recipes.
One thing though, I will say, over the course of time, you know, there are lots of people who talk about education and academia creating a barrier between them and their families or them and their their community of origin. And there is something to that. Over time, I've really had to let go of being right. And I've also had to let go of my righteous anger over the social issues that really mean a lot to me. And those, of course, are connected to and informed by my scholarly investments. And, you know, I Arlie Hochschild, in her book, "Strangers in their own Land," she has a phrase, she talks about climbing over the empathy wall. She's a sociologist who wrote her book on is a case study on Tea Party voters in the rural parishes of Louisiana. And so she uses this metaphor to talk about that split that she sees in, in politics and in communities in the United States that that empathy wall that prevents us from relating to and talking with each other and, and that is daily work, climbing that empathy wall. And I have to say, in a lot of ways, it's far more of an intellectual and mental challenge than any scholarly pursuit. I followed, but I think it's important and and I'm committed to it. And I really think that's the only way we'll move forward as a democracy.
Torgerson: And how does it feel to also come back home to Montana, and, and give back in such a big way in such a public way leading the efforts of, of Humanities Montana as well,
Tanglen: I'm still making sense of that it was surreal to come back to Montana during the pandemic. I will say it's an honor for me to return to my home state in this capacity. And there is still some bit of that impostor syndrome, who am I to be in this position? To be in this role? I'm just a kid from Sydney, Montana, I graduated from Park City High School, you know, with a class size of 28. But it's a role and a responsibility that I take seriously, and that I try to live up to every day and some days, I do it better than others.
Torgerson: Well, I hope that you can recognize the incredible contributions that you've made to your field literature and to the field of the humanities more broadly, and that you don't feel like an imposter from eastern Montana anymore.
Tanglen: Yeah, I mean, you know, Easter, Montana girls, we have to stick together, don't we? Yeah, thank you for being my female world of love and ritual.
Torgerson: Absolutely, absolutely. So the term humanities is somewhat of a nebulous term. And I'm wondering if you could define for us what the humanities can encompass, and more importantly, why we need the humanities for a healthy democracy and society.
Tanglen: You're right, Megan, it really is nebulous. And it's hard to define sometimes. But like I like, as I like to say all the important things are. So one place to start is just by thinking of the academic subjects, or what you the classes that you take in school. So English history, philosophy, those are examples of humanities topics. And a really specific definition would be that the humanities are the academic fields and the classes that we take to examine things that humans have created, and that humans have have recorded. And by setting that we really get at the questions of what it means to be a human and what it means to be part of a culture, and a community. And in any given historical moment. I've said before that the academic humanities, the tradition that I've come out of, they really, they asked us to find a really specific niche, like 19th century, Western women's writing, or cookbooks. And then we just spend the rest of our careers really arguing about that with with our colleagues. But that's not what we do in the public humanities. And it's probably I'm overstating what happens in the academic humanities as well. But the public humanities allow us to open up that conversation to more people. And that's really what you're doing with the stories of on your podcast, Megan, it's a truly a public humanities project. I tend to think of the public humanities more as essential questions rather than academic disciplines, or something to define. And so for me, those essential questions are, whose stories matter whose stories get told and why, and why to the stories tell us about ourselves as people and as individuals. And we really do need all of the tools of the the traditional humanities history, literature and philosophy to answer the these types of questions. I also look at the definition of the humanities through the lens of democracy, because when we go back to the earliest republics of the ancient world, the humanities, were really at the heart of the questions related to what does it mean to be a citizen? What does it mean to be a free person? And of course, those questions and certainly those answers have changed over time. But the humanities allow us to ask those questions. And to and to really think about them in in a in a deep and impactful way. And I think especially at a time when we are divided and polarized in in our democracy, and ethic based in the public humanities can help us see each other as human as people, not as abstractions on social media or headlines to be scared of.
Torgerson: Many thanks to Randi Lynn Tanglen for joining me on today’s episode. Check out Randi’s episode page at reframingrural.org to view her reading list including all-time classics, forgotten voices from U.S. literary history, recommended scholarly works and to learn what Randi’s reading now. Visit humanitiesmontana.org to learn more about the work Randi is doing to support Humanities Montana’s mission to serve Montana communities through stories and conversation.
In news from another statewide humanities council, this month I was awarded the inaugural public humanities fellowship from Humanities Washington to support the development of Reframing Rural’s third season! Follow Reframing Rural on social media to hear updates on my fellowship with Humanities Washington.
Next month I will share a conversation with journalist Emily Stifler Wolfe and photographer Jason Thompson, creators of the award-winning Common Ground series published by Montana Free Press and supported by the Solutions Journalism Network. In this episode we’ll explore how regenerative agriculture is benefiting rural economies, ecological resilience, food sovereignty and public health.
In last month’s episode featuring Jeanie Alderson, I’d like to name a correction to the episode intro: Nannie T. Alderson was living in the broader Tongue River Valley, but not specifically at Bones Brothers Ranch when she wrote "A Bride Goes West."
I produced and co-edited today’s story on Duwamish aboriginal territory with recordings captured on the ancestral lands of the Salish and Kalispel Peoples. Reframing Rural’s episode and theme music was composed and recorded by Andrew Drinnan. The primary audio editor of this episode was Rob Upchurch. Season Two: Sowing Possibility is funded in part by the Greater Montana Foundation, Humanities Montana and listeners like you.
Visit reframingrural.org to find resources referenced in this episode, full transcripts and to make a donation. Reframing Rural is a fiscally sponsored project of the Montana History Foundation, an original series by Tree Rings Records, LLC and a member of the Rural Radio Collective.
Thank you for listening!