Youth Heritage Festival
A Conversation about Community
Michael L. Umphrey’s opening remarks at the 2006 Youth Heritage Festival
Myrna Loy Theater, Helena, Montana
Good morning. On behalf of the Montana Historical Society and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, I welcome you to the historic Myrna Loy Theater, to Helena, and to the 2006 Edition of the Montana Heritage Project Youth Heritage Festival.
It’s a thrill for me to see so many young Montanans gathered together to share some good talk–some careful and well-prepared talk–about what you’ve learned about Montana and the people here.
Montana is a very special place. We have access to the blessings of a technologically advanced civilization, but we also have the wonderful blessings of living close to nature in human-scale communities with our families and friends. There are reasons people who can afford to live anywhere on the planet are buying real estate here.
All of you have been studying community in various ways, and for the next two days we’ll form a special kind of community–what educator Parker Palmer has called a community of truth. A community of truth is formed when people come together to hold a conversation about an important subject. We form a kind of a circle around the subject, and we talk and we listen to each other. It’s a community of truth because we care about the subject enough that we want to get it right. We want to understand better. We weigh what we hear. We think about it, to see if we can get a better understanding.
That important subject is community. The Heritage Project has always been organized mostly as a conversation about community. There are three parts to that conversation that I want to invite you to think about this morning: the voices in books and articles we read, your own voice in the things you write and share with others, and the oral histories we collect from older people in our community.
Reading Great Books
Art Ortenberg said the main mission of the Heritage Project is to help young people think clearly and independently. It’s important that you learn to think clearly, because so much depends on you. The world is changing quickly, troubles are mounting, and so are opportunities. Young people of your generation who have prepared themselves–who have developed their minds and their character--will have tremendously important work to do. Never in the history of the world, I think, have the stakes been higher or the possible rewards been greater. These are soul-stirring times.
One powerful way to prepare yourselves is to become familiar with great writings from the past. If you want to be unique, if you want to be independent, if you want to make a difference, if you want to be free, you might develop the habit of judging what you say and do not by comparing it to what’s “in” or what’s “cool” but by the standards set by the best people of the past.
All of us are strongly influenced by the people we hang out with. Please make sure your peer group includes the best books you can find. When I was a teenager I was in a world at war, where none of the people I met each day had answers to the questions that bothered me. I found a little book by Henry David Thoreau. He talked about his solitude in the woods over a hundred years before I was born, about being free in spite of living in a society of people enslaved by bad ideas.
He was for me a sane voice in an insane time, and he helped me. That’s what books can be. A good book is a burning cube of human conscience--the distilled essence of a human spirit. Books remain the most astonishing technology in the history of the world. The best thoughts Henry David Thoreau was able to think in a lifetime of careful observation are written down in a book, Walden, that you can read in a few days.
Your heritage includes the best that’s been thought and said in all the world, in all times and places. If you haven’t yet read Jane Austen, Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Herman Melville you have huge adventures before you. Entire planets that are profound, and exciting, that will transform you and empower you, await you. You only need to pay attention.
Francis Bacon said that “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”
There are many reasons to do the hard work of learning to write well. It’s true that millions of dollars are lost to business each year because of unclear communications and that many employers are willing to pay good money to people who can commit thoughts to paper clearly. In the professional world, the ability to write well is absolutely required.
But even more important is the simply reality that it’s nearly impossible for humans to think long and complicated thoughts clearly without the aid of writing, of revising and polishing and expanding.
In this modern world, I don’t believe anyone can be free who has not struggled for hours to get words right, to learn what words can and cannot do, to become familiar enough with the ways of words to recognize when words are being used to control and manipulate.
This is important because so much depends on you. The world needs your voice–your family, your friends, and the various communities of which you are part need your voice. And your voice needs to be as true and as accurate and as clear as you can make it.
And then, the third part of the conversation, the people around you in that place that you call home. What’s most distinctive about the Heritage Project are the oral histories you’ve collected. These form the basis of our gifts of scholarship to the state of Montana. Your tapes and transcripts will be preserved in the Montana Historical Society for future researchers.
Over the last eleven years students in the Heritage Project have demonstrated that high school scholars can do real work, worth preserving. Does it seem like a long ways, from talking about the great writers of the past–Cicero and Thucydides–to talking about Grandma Ellen who lives in a modest house on a windswept county lane far from great cities?
Well, it isn’t. The more you become familiar with the great writers of the past, the more you realize that each of them was born at a particular time and place, and it was by paying close attention to the people and events they knew that they found their unique voice.
What you have to say has everything to do with the people who made the place where you grew up. There is something magical about the spoken voice. Each of us, but especially older people, play the tapes of our lives over continually in our minds. It’s rare that we encounter someone with the interest and patience to want to share them with us, to help us examine them and see what they might mean.
Those of you who have given the gift of attention to someone, listening to their story, recording the fragments of their life on tape, have helped preserve from the wreckage of history something irreplaceable. You’ve made sure that when people in the future come looking for news of how life really was in during the twentieth century in small towns in Montana, there will be a broad base of common knowledge for them to begin building on. How did the people of montana feel, what did they hope for, what did they try to do and how did it work out?
This the real stuff of history. Historian Ralph Bennett, Jr. Noted that “Oral histories are fragile. They die with the brain they are imprinted on. But they can be saved. And they must be saved. The future of the community depends upon it.”
You are doing important work. It’s preparation for even important work that lies ahead. It’s the work of learning the best that the world has to offer, of learning to know and care about the people who are in the communities where you live, and then of crafting your own voice and offering it as a gift to others.
We all look forward to hearing what you have to say. Be relaxed and enjoy yourselves. You’re among friends. Thank you.
2006 Youth Heritage Festival
Montana Heritage Project
2006 Youth Heritage Festival
April 3 and 4, 2006
Motel: Holiday Inn Downtown, 22 N. Last Chance Gulch
Meetings: The Myrna Loy Center Auditorium, 15 Ewing Street
Monday, April 3, 2006
(All events at the Myrna Loy Theater unless otherwise noted.)
10:00-10:20 Greetings - Michael Umphrey, Director, Montana Heritage Project
10:20-10:30 Welcome - Dr. Guha Shankar, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
10:30-11:30 Students and Teachers set up displays in the Capitol Rotunda
11:30-1:00 Lunch (on your own)
1:00- 1:15 General Information/Preparation for Student Presentations
1:15 – 4:10 Student Presentations of Projects
1:15 - 1:25 Chester
1:30 - 1:40 Broadwater
1:45 - 1:55 Great Falls Central
2:00 - 2:10 Simms
2:15 - 2:25 Libby
3:00 – 3:10 White Sulphur Springs
3:15 – 3:25 Corvallis
3:30 – 3:40 Harlowton
3:45 – 3:55 Bigfork
4:00 – 4:10 Roundup
4:10 – 4:25 Explanation of student judging of displays
4:45 All students and teachers arrive at Capitol (light snacks will be available)
5:00 - 6:20 Student evaluation of display panels at the Capitol (8 minutes per panel)
6:45 Bus/car carpool leaves from the Holiday Inn Downtown for the Kleffner Ranch
7:00 Dinner – Taco Buffet, Kleffner Ranch Pavilion
7:45 Kleffner Ranch Barn – Documenting Real People in our Real West – Hal Cannon, Media Director, Western Folklife Center
9:00 Leave Ranch for the Holiday Inn Downtown
Tuesday, April 4, 2006
(All events at the Myna Loy Theater unless otherwise noted.)
7:00 - 8:30 Buffet Breakfast, Lounge, Holiday Inn Downtown
7:00 - 8:30 Writers’ Breakfast, Diamond City Room, Holiday Inn Downtown
9:00 - 9:05 Welcome for the Day/Announcements
9:05 – 9:50 Top three student writers read their papers/Distinguished Student Writer Scholarship awarded
9:50 – 10:20 Creating Music for Montana; Creating Music for the Montana Heritage Project - Philip Aaberg (includes premiere of piece composed for the Project)
10:50 –11:00 Introduction of Guests
John Bohlinger, Lt. Governor of the State of Montana
Art Ortenberg and Liz Claiborne, Liz Claiborne & Art Ortenberg Foundation
Jack Copps, Liz Claiborne & Art Ortenberg Foundation Representative
Guha Shankar, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
Linda McCulloch, State Superintendent of Public Instruction
Mark Baumler, Interim Director, Montana Historical Society
11:00 – 11:15 Remarks by Liz Claiborne & Art Ortenberg
11:15 – 11:25 Remarks by Lt. Gov. Bohlinger
11:25 - 11:35 Remarks by Superintendent McCulloch
11:35 – 12:00 Presentation of Student Work to the State of Montana and the Library of Congress and the Acceptance of that Work
12:00 Adjournment (exhibits at Capitol picked up)
2005 Youth Heritage Festival
Eleven writers honored at Montana’s premiere conference for high school scholars
Students ran the conference, introducing guests and acting as masters of ceremonies. Seated on stage from left: Mark Sherouse (Executive Director, Montana Committee for the Humanities), Linda McCulloch (Superintendent of Public Instruction), John Bohlinger (Lieutenant Governor of Montana), Jim Murtaugh (Program Manager, Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation), Guha Shankar (Program Manager, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress), and Brian Cockhill (former Director, Montana Historical Society and Liaison Officer for the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation).