Dr. Cliff Montagne, of Montana State University’s Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, brought grad students Lora Soderquist, Rebecca Kurnick, Badamgarav (Badmaa) Dovchin and Sarina Bao (from Mongolia and Chinese-controlled Inner Mongolia) out to Horse Ranch on Timber Creek for a seminar on Eastern Montana ranch ecology and management philosophy May 10 to 13.
Thanks to our generous community, we had a number of interesting seminar stops on our way to the ranch. Rose Teske opened the Huntley School in Saco for us. The school has a picture of my Great-grandma Josephine, one of the teachers and a ranch founder. Badmaa was particularly interested, because her mother taught for many years at an equivalent school in Mongolia. We spent a lot of time comparing notes about the kind of school system needed to serve a dispersed herder culture and how one-room schools have changed since the early 1900s.
From there, we stopped at the Bear Roping Memorial, since the historian who created the memorial believed the event occurred on the ranch. John and Margaret Yeska kindly permitted us to stop at the impressive Abel House in Larb Creek. Combined with the information about the Abel family from “Footprints in the Valley,” this stop always brings the homestead era to life for students in a way that mere words cannot.
We also had a couple of ecology stops exploring the effects of fire and prairie dogs on sagebrush, thanks to the generosity of Jim and Kelly Orahood and Keith Burke.
We had two full days of seminars at home on Horse Ranch. Past seminars that I have led usually included quite a bit of hiking. In this case, there was so much information to be exchanged, I felt as though we had five steps of hiking to every three hours of discussion. We barely made it out of the yard on most forays, but were never at a loss for things to see and topics to explore.
We were constantly being made aware of the contrast between the underlying uniformity of our prairie herder experience overlaid with the vastly differing cultural trappings from our two countries. Concepts that I normally struggle to give students some inkling of over the course of a semester were comprehended in the space of phrase or a quote. Parallels between our cultures and those of past prairie people, like the Blackfeet, barely needed stating. At one point, talking about being a graduate student in a second language, I was overwhelmed by a rush of emotion that roughly translated, “I may never meet anyone again that understands me in the way that they do.” (Editor: Stoneberg-Holt earned her doctorate at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic.)
Over the crank of the hand-churned ice cream maker, Sarina and I discussed the displacement of prairie peoples and how propaganda is used in such campaigns. We drew parallels between the forced settling of the tribes in the 1800s, the displacement of her people by Chinese farmers, and our attempted displacement by the National Wildlife Federation, American Prairie Reserve and friends. Many emotions and experiences could be summed up with the phrase, “It is the same for us.”
I sometimes had the impression that our way of life was encouraging to Badmaa. She grew up in a ger (you probably know it by its Russian name, “yurt”) following the herds. Technology is making a lot of fast changes to Mongolia now. Our ranch has long been influenced by electricity, telephones, fences, automobiles, permanent homes, etc. And yet the basic herder values of open, friendly people, love and care for the land and its creatures, and raising children to respect the Earth, remain unchanged. The land retains its beautiful, natural, open character. She did often make comments like, “It’s just like Mongolia... except the horses are bigger.”
Badmaa’s husband, Bat-Erdene, spoke mostly with his hands. He exchanged demonstrations of roping techniques with Rose Stoneberg and braiding, knots and bridle-making techniques with Ron Stoneberg. He helped collect rocks to stabilize a creek crossing.
On Monday, we moved to Tallow Creek School. The seminar participants were fascinated by the school’s story, since both Rose Stoneberg and Katey Marquis are alumnae and were able to share their experiences.
We held a Mongolia Day for the Tallow Creek students. Badmaa starred with her familiarity with small schools and her tales of life in a ger. She also had the kids enthralled with the exploits of Genghis the King and his amazing empire. Sarina complemented the historical and cultural depth of Badmaa’s knowledge with breadth of experience. She has travelled and lived in both Japan and Tibet and spoke those languages.
The Tallow Creek kids are so small (ages 3 to 7) that they can’t sit still for long periods of time, but they didn’t want to miss a word. Whenever they started vibrating in their seats like miniature unbalanced washing machines, we had to call a break and send them out to run laps around the school for five minutes.
Dr. Montagne showed slides of Mongolia, and Badmaa sang for us. I have a very unpolished (elementary teachers understand why) video of the day, a book in English and Mongolian by Mongolian children, Bat-Erdene’s drawing of a ger camp, and a model of a Mongolian fiddle that was a gift to the school. Teachers who are interested in borrowing some of these items for a Mongolian unit for their classes should contact me at email@example.com.
In the afternoon, the seminar participants walked over to Linda Poole’s to see her sheep and ask questions about her management philosophies and experiences. Lora is interested in telling this area’s success stories of landscape/human connection and interaction for her thesis.
My pride in this land and this community is boundless, and it is always a great pleasure to me to share it with others. This time was extra, extra special. I hope that no amount of time can erase the memories and connections that we made.