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Montana’s Treasured Writers

My guess is if you’re in love with Montana, you’re also in love with its legendary cast of writers, living and deceased

By Maggie Doherty

Our Treasure State is perhaps best known for its commanding, breathtaking landscapes, but I’ll also add that our cultural and literary offerings are a gem worth searching for. It was, after all, writers (Douglas Chadwick and William Kittredge) who deemed Montana “The Last Best Place,” so it should come as no surprise that beneath the big skies there are some really big stories that’ll stir you. 

While the rivers continue to rage and the snowpack in the mountains is holding steady, those summer plans for outdoor exploration may be put on pause for a bit. Allow me to point you in the direction of a number of exciting literary opportunities in the western half of the state where you can hear from a cast of writers and poets that you likely already admire. Or, perhaps even better, will become new voices for you to become familiar with. 

No other story placed Montana on the map like Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It.” Maybe it’s because of his novella that you ended up here. Or perhaps it’s why you fly fish or float the Blackfoot River. Missoula is hosting this year’s “In the Footsteps of Norman Maclean Festival” June 25-26 and the theme is Public Land & Sacred Ground: Western Writers Bear Witness. Norman’s son, John, will be a keynote speaker and his fine book, “Home Waters,” is a testament to family, place and love. There’s a long list of incredible Montana and Western writers, such as Tim Egan, Doug Peacock, Annick Smith, M.L. Smoker, and Terry Tempest Williams, who will be in attendance. 

In July, Humanities Montana is hosting two free and open to the public events with Indigenous speakers and authors as part of its Gather Round: Earth series. One of my favorite Montana poets, Chris La Tray, is leading an exploration of traditional Métis lands on July 1 near Choteau. Blackfeet journalist, storyteller, and educator Lailani Upham is hosting a singing and storytelling adventure west of Browning on July 7.  The Gather Round: Earth series has some incredible opportunities for a DIY humanities toolkit if you aren’t able to attend in person via the Humanities Montana website. 

Another powerhouse Montana author was James Welch. He’s best known for “Winter in the Blood” and “Fools Crow,” which won the American Book Award in 1986. At the end of July, the first ever James Welch Native Lit Festival will be held in Missoula on July 28-30. According to the festival website, the event is intended to be a space for Native artists to celebrate the beauty of Native literature and the legacy of Welch. 

My guess is if you’re in love with Montana, you’re also in love with its legendary cast of writers, living and deceased. May this be the summer that you return to those classics like of James Welch or discover new voices like those of M.L Smoker or Heather Cahoon. Treasures, these stories and poems. 

Maggie Doherty is the owner of Kalispell Brewing Company on Main Street.