Michael Umphrey was Director of the Montana Heritage Project from its inception in 1995 until funding from the Liz Claiborne & Art Ortenberg Foundation was discontinued in 2006. The Project drew praise from the U.S. Secretary of Education as well as support from the Montana Historical Society, the Montana Committee for the Humanities, the Montana Arts Council, the Office of Public Instruction and the Office of the Governor.
What was the Heritage Project?
The Heritage Project was a high school program focused on teaching young people to care about the place they live, including both the natural and the cultural environment. The method was to take community seriously by making it the subject of serious study. Students were invited to think deeply and clearly about the world around them as they explored the place they live: its relationship to the natural environment, its connections to national and world events, and the many cultural beliefs and practices that shape its unique character.
Students researched questions such as these: What effect did the coming of television have upon life in Chester? How has ranching culture in Harlowton changed over the past 100 years? How did changes in the national economy affect the coal mining industry in Roundup? How did people in Libby respond to the influx of people during the construction of Libby Dam? How did World War II affect women in Townsend?
Researching the world as it exists locally
Thinking as detectives, journalists, folklorists, scientists, and historians, students searched for clues in brittle old newspapers, fading photographs, and changed landscapes. They located information in government and business archives. They examined historic buildings, community celebrations, and old letters for insight into what what changes, what stays the same, and why.
Reflecting on what has been found—analyzing it, fitting it into existing knowledge, testing it, playing with it, and discussing it with others—students move from facts toward knowledge. What do the loggers of the 1920s have to teach Libby students about today’s struggles? How did people in Harlowton respond when the Milwaukee Road closed down? How did the Salish in St. Ignatius deal with the influx of settlers when the Flathead Reservation was opened to homesteaders in 1910?
Giving gifts of scholarship
Every Heritage Project culminated in tangible scholarly products that are preserved in the Montana Historical Society archives as well as in local school and museum collections. Most projects featured a public event to invite the community to share what was learned.
Projects were completed in 31 Montana communities: Bigfork, Brady, Broadus, Browning, Centerville, Chester, Columbus, Corvallis, Dillon, Eureka, Fairfield, Fairview, Fort Benton, Great Falls, Harlowton, Lewistown, Libby, Polson, Pryor, Red Lodge, Ronan, Roundup, St. Ignatius, St. Labre Catholic Indian School, Simms, Thompson Falls, Townsend, Whitefish, and White Sulphur Springs.