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Pumpkins Carve Own Niche

Dry leaves skitter across a darkened street. A ghostly moon floats amid tattered clouds. A jack-o-lantern grins on a sagging porch.

For weeks, the carved candle-lit faces have peeked from windows and stoops throughout western Montana. Tonight, as they have for years, jack-o-lanterns will silently witness the spectacle of Halloween.

But how did we come to endure those chiseled gazes? Why does light flicker in those vacant eyes?

Hints of the jack-o-lantern appear in a number of cultural traditions that converged on American shores in the 1840s and gradually evolved into an embodiment of the modern Halloween by about 1940, said Museum of the Rockies curator and pumpkin researcher Cindy Ott of Bozeman.

Ott loves to study and think about pumpkins. She wrote her dissertation on the subject. It’s called “Squashed Myths: A Cultural History of the Pumpkin in North America.” She’s editing the comprehensive 429-page scholarly work into a more accessible length for a general audience and hopes it will be available within a few years.

Unlike many other plants, pumpkins play an active role in folklore and art, more like an animal than like produce, she said. Scholars have variously categorized pumpkins as either fruit or vegetable over the centuries. Ott holds pumpkins as vegetable.

Either way, they aren’t like normal produce.

“Pumpkins grow like mad. They create huge plants. Some farmers say you can hear them grow,” Ott said.

That strangeness is reflected in folk stories, drawings and paintings from a surprisingly wide geographic area and over hundreds of years.

In art from the Americas and Europe, pumpkins often moved with their own sinister volition or somehow played a role in diabolical doings. Some rode atop human-like bodies and came running out of the woods to chase children. In one American drawing, two children trample another to escape a pursuing pumpkin-man.

In a Dutch painting from the 1600s, a troupe of evil imps pour forth from a split pumpkin to battle humans in a chaotic scene under storm-torn skies.

An American folk tale from the early 1900s features a man who was attacked by a pumpkin vine. He fought it off as if it were a boa constrictor.

Plus, the pumpkin itself shares some general features with people. Pumpkins can look a bit like a head or a pregnant belly.

Pumpkins also had historic connotations when it came to social class. Poor farmers ate the cheap and easy-too-grow pumpkin, Ott said. The terms “pumpkin-roller” and “pumpkin-head” were insults that meant the recipient was poor, dim-witted or brutish, she said.

It was the brutish aspect of the pumpkin-head, perhaps, that made the leap to Halloween when Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine brought the holiday to America in the 1840s.

Based on the Celtic New Year’s Day, All Hallows Eve on Oct. 31 marked the day the Lord of the Dead judged the recently deceased. Called Samhain, he decided who would be reincarnated as animals or humans, Ott said.

On All Hallows Eve, family members of the deceased left food and other offerings for Sanhaim and placed glowing turnips or potatoes carved into lanterns and frightening faces in front of their homes. They also lit bonfires and masqueraded as ghosts and witches to confuse and frighten the wandering spirits, Ott said.

The jack-o-lantern itself had a slightly separate history before joining the Halloween cast. Another Celtic character, Jack, had tricked the Devil and so was forced to roam the Earth with a lantern.

It’s interesting that those traditions from the Irish, who were treated with loathing by many in America, became adopted by the broader culture as a parlor game for teens and young adults by about the 1860s, Ott said.

“It’s confusing,” she said. But its popularity may have been the result of an idealization of rural life and general anxiety about urbanization and industrialization, she said.

One twist in the Irish tradition as it became Americanized was the appearance of the pumpkin. American turnips and potatoes didn’t fit the jack-o-lantern bill, but the big field pumpkins did.

The earliest image of a pumpkin jack-o-lantern was in Harper’s Magazine in the 1860s, Ott said. Seed catalogs didn’t advertise seeds to grow jack-o-lantern pumpkins until the early 1900s.

In the United States after World War II, the baby boom generation and the growth of suburbia changed Halloween into a playful children’s holiday.

Then, for the first time, pumpkins developed a gentler side, Ott said. The jack-o-lantern lost its body and became a cartoon character. No longer roaming the night, Jack simply keeps watch. His grin is kind or goofy as often as it is evil.

Jack-o-lanterns, those most popular and recognizable forms of the pumpkin in popular culture, are more often molded from plastic than carved with a knife.

Yet the jack-o-lantern remains a totem to the mystical spirits of the dark and the dead, Ott said, those scary and spooky qualities that people can¹t control ­ on this night, or any other.

(This first ran on Oct. 31, 2005, back when I was business reporter at the Missoulian.)


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Rally at the Washington Post for Career-Quality Jobs

Well, it’s been some time since I’ve posted. You know how things go. You get busy. Time flies. And yet here we are again.

Another unit within my local union is made up of the staff of the Washington Post. For years, I’ve been a low-key activist in my local who volunteered time here and there, but lately I’ve taken things up a notch.

One place where I’ve done more is with the Washington Post. You can read about it below….

WAPO Rally: Workers Defend Career-Quality Jobs at Top-Tier Newspaper

Oct28Post ActionScores of workers at the Washington Post rallied with a boisterous crowd of supporters including a small marching band on the sidewalk in front of the Post building on 15th Street NW during the noon hour today.

The message was clear: The workers at the Post will defend the legacy and the future of this newspaper, no matter the odds.

At stake are career-quality jobs at one of the nation’s cornerstone media institutions.

Post owner Jeff Bezos, one of the world’s richest individuals and the founder of, bought the Washington Post Company last year. He has asked the workers at the Post for wage cuts of up to 17%, and those cuts would grow over time.

On the picket line, Post newsroom and business-side staff alike spoke of the pride they have in their work.

“We serve a bigger mission than just ourselves, and we want to be treated with respect. We don’t want the world. We just want what’s in our contract,” said reporter Matt Schudel.

“We want this paper to thrive! I love the Post!” said Lori Aratani, who’s a reporter on the paper’s metro desk.

“We help hold institutions accountable, and that’s important. We give a voice to people who maybe don’t have a voice. It’s important for us to be accurate and fair, and that takes a lot of experience and education both in school and on the job,” Aratani said.

Most galling to the workers is the fact that the proposed cuts seem ideological, not business-driven.

“These cuts are absolutely unnecessary!” said Fredrick Kunkle, who co-leads the Post unit of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild.

Nobody goes into journalism to get rich, Post workers said, but neither do they want to work at jobs without good health care, good pay or retirement benefits.


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A Reprint: America was Shamed Into Giving Indians Citizenship

This article first appeared in the Billings Gazette on June 2, 1999. I had been in the newsroom for about a year as a police reporter, but there was a lot of room for an enterprising and curious reporter who wasn’t afraid of screwing up from time to time, which I certainly did.  And yet… I’m sure glad I had fun reporting stories like this, which I turned up while searching for another story about an effort by one school district in northern Montana to keep Indians from voting. I’ll keep looking for the other story. In the meantime, here’s this:

Joseph Oklahombi, right. Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

It wasn’t marches in the streets or boycotts that won U.S. citizenship for Native Americans 75 years ago.

It was national embarrassment, sparked by one man’s act of heroism in World War I, that pushed the United States to grant citizenship to Native Americans, said MSU-Billings Native American studies professor Jeffrey Sanders.

The story goes like this: Joseph Oklahombi, a full-blooded Choctaw from Bismarck, N.D., and a soldier in the U.S. Army, was one of a large number of Native Americans who volunteered for World War I.

Before 1924, Native Americans could become citizens in some instances if they were honorably discharged from the military, or if they sold their allotted reservation land.

In 1917 Oklahombi went through the German lines in France, dodged barbed-wire and overpowered a machine gun nest, Sanders said. He then single-handedly captured 171 German soldiers.

For that and for other acts of bravery, France awarded him the nation’s highest military honor.

“You see, he had not yet been discharged, so he was not yet a citizen. When that fact got out, it was extremely embarrassing to the United States,” Sanders said.

Over the next seven years, a small group of politicians on the East Coast lobbied for citizenship for the nation’s Native Americans. In 1924, the time was right, and a bill came through Congress and the Senate on the coattails of another, more controversial bill. The other bill would limit immigration from Asian countries.

In the Billings Gazette on June 2, 1924 – the day President Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act – there was no mention of the act. Instead, the headlines were dominated by the trial of Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb.Two days earlier, the two sons of Chicago millionaires had confessed to murdering a 13-year-old boy.

Farm aid was also a big issue in June, 75 years ago, but nowhere in the paper, or in the next week’s worth of papers, was there a mention of the act that gave citizenship to “all non-citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States.”

The 75th anniversary of the citizenship act has also received little attention, both on Montana’s reservations and off, said Gail Small, the founder and director of Native Action, a nonprofit organization trying to increase Native American voter participation across the northern Great Plains.

On the reservations, the date is sensitive because it brings up feelings of anger and frustration.

“Why Indians were not automatically citizens is still questioned by many,” Small said, adding that discrimination against Native Americans is still a very real thing.

“Indian people and their tribal governments remain an anomaly in the political system in this country. We don’t really fit in very well as dual citizens or as tribal government.”

Small said Native Americans are still in political limbo.

“Indian tribes and our homelands are not considered countries, states or truly sovereign nations,” she said.

So although Native Americans received the legal right to vote from the federal government 75 years ago, Small said the fight is still on for equal representation.

Sanders agreed but said in the last 10 years, partly as a result of work by Small’s organization, Native Americans have become an important swing vote in statewide elections.

“When Pat Williams won his last election, he won by the number of Indian voters in the state,” Sanders said. “You can’t exactly say it’s a direct correlation, but I think it would be fair to say the Indian vote can win elections and its influence will continue to grow.”


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Montana’s Schweitzer Talks Energy, Brings Energy to DNC

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s address to the Denver National Convention, full of exclamations and even one “get off your hind end” left no question as to his budding star power within the party.
By Robert Struckman, 8-26-08

A view of Gov. Brian Schweitzer from the delegate seats.

Dressed in his trademark bolo tie, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer started slow in his primetime speech but ended with folksy charm and rocked the house at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Tuesday night.

“We need all of you to stand up,” Schweitzer hollered. “Colorado, stand up! Florida, stand up! Pennsylvania, get off your hind end! In the cheap seats, stand up!”

“We want them to hear you from Denver to Detroit, from Montana to Mississippi, from California to the Carolinas,” he said.

The place leapt to its feet. Signs waved.

Then Schweitzer broke into the classic cheer: “Is it time for change to happen?”

The building roared.

“Who’s going to lead us to the next president of the United States.”


“That’s it! Let’s go win this election,” he said, and walked off the stage to chants of “Yes, we can! Yes, we can!”

One PBS commentator called Schweitzer the dose of “real personality” the convention needed. In the basement of the convention, NewWest.Net correspondent Jill Kuraitis watched as journalists, staffers and convention workers dropped what they were doing to watch the governor.

As Kuraitis writes in a Reporter’s Notebook post: When Schweitzer hit one of his winning applause lines or did his twinkly-eyes thing, the housekeeper standing next to me, Lorena, would clap and laugh.  “Why didn’t you people nominate him” she wanted to know.

A very young Biden staffer turned to his co-worker, leaned over and said, “Geez.  Learn something from that guy.” They nodded in conspiracy.

Schweitzer opened his speech by telling the crowd that he’s a rancher who has made his living raising cattle, growing wheat, barley and alfalfa in Montana. He described Montana’s beauty—the rivers, soaring peaks and endless sky. It sounded like he was pitching the state to a convention of business groups. Montana’s the greatest place in the world to raise a family, start a business and build a community, he said.

Schweitzer talked about how he chose Republican John Bohlinger as his running mate, and he went through his list of accomplishments, including cutting taxes, increasing energy production and compiling a record surplus. All this left the crowd polite but distant.

“That’s the change that we brought to Montana, and that’s the change President Barack Obama is going to bring to the United States,” Schweitzer said. It was his first mention of Obama, and it got some applause.

Maybe it was the modest response, but Schweitzer changed his tactic a bit, seeming to break a bit from his prepared speech. (You can read his prepared remarks here.) He stumbled on his words, talking about his family with its roots on the high plains. He got folksy, and the arena reacted.

“Let me ask you something,” he said, leaning in close to the microphone as if about to say something in confidence. “Can we afford four more years?”

“No,” came the answer roaring back.

Schweitzer stepped back from the microphone, turned to look to the side, and said, “Not bad.” It was clear he was talking about the response. “Is it time for a change?” he hollered.

From then on, the crowd was in his hand. He got the crowd shouting for Barack, and then he broke out, saying, “That’s right! Barack Obama. That’s right!”

Then the eleventh and last governor of the night launched into one of his pet topics—energy independence. He lit into the “petro-dictators” and touted the promise of clean energy production as well as drilling for coal and oil.

He joked about Obama’s Republican rival, John McCain, saying, “Even leaders in the oil industry know that Senator McCain has it wrong. We can’t simply drill our way to energy independence, if you drilled everywhere, if you drilled in all of John McCain’s back yards, even the ones he doesn’t know he has!”

The crowd went nuts, and Schweitzer yelled, “Woo hoo! Not bad. Not bad! That single answer proposition is a dry well.” Cameras panned to the cheering Michelle Obama, Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton, who was clapping and at times, smiling and shaking his head.

A moment later, Schweitzer winked, clearly enjoying himself.


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Montana’s Governor Reflects on Politics… and Barking Big-Dog Delegates

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer tells Robert Struckman his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver wasn’t that big a deal. And the cowboy boots people kept remarking on? They’re just comfortable.


Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer talks about energy independence with Mark Nicholas of

Midway through the Denver convention—even as Barack Obama campaigned in Billings during his fifth trip to the state this season—Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer reflected on his growing national celebrity (as far as he’s concerned, it doesn’t exist), the role of Montana in the national election (it’s only three electoral votes) and energy independence, his favorite topic (Montana needs to drill gas and oil, mine coal and produce solar, wind and other sustainable power as well as build the transmission lines to bring it all to market).

But first, an aside about Florida delegates… barking like dogs.

“This morning I told the Florida delegation: Stop running your elections like a bingo parlor. Everyone who’s eligible gets to vote, and the votes should be counted accurately,” he said. “The race is tied in Montana. It’s been tied for a couple of months. I told the Florida delegation, ‘You’re the big dog with 27 electoral votes. Montana only has three. You’re the big dog. Act like the big dog. I want to hear you bark.’ They were standing up, barking. Woof. Woof. Woof.”

Schweitzer leaned back into his chair in the lobby of the Hotel Monaco in downtown Denver. He laughed. “I don’t know where I come up with this stuff. I swear to God, I don’t.”

On Tuesday night, after the string of speeches that ended with Schweitzer and Sen. Hillary Clinton, Jacquetta Jones and Kaye Koonce of South Carolina commented about Schweitzer’s rural attire, specifically his boots.

“I noticed his cowboy boots,” Jones said. “He’s for real. He was dressed for his parts.”

About his black Ariat cowboy boots, Schweitzer said he buys them Helena at the Farm Store, depending on the sale, for anywhere from $95 to $118 a pair.

“It’s got a walking heel. It’s a comfortable boot,” he said.

One of the volunteers who tracked the speeches on the tele-prompter on the convention floor said Schweitzer left the script early and only occasionally hit on it the rest of the time. Of his strategy at the podium Tuesday night, Schweitzer would only employ a football analogy: Sometimes when the play calls for a pass, you’ve got to run the ball yourself.

“I have never been—in my entire life—able to deliver a speech from a tele-prompter,” said Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer a day after he left his prepared remarks and brought the Democratic National Convention to its feet, roaring.

Schweitzer downplayed the importance of his speech on Tuesday night. “After the speech, I wasn’t mobbed. I went back down the hole. The people here barely know me,” he said.

About Obama’s chances in the state, Schweitzer said, “I can’t deliver this state. Nobody can do that but the voters. He has to run his own campaign. He’s got to do it himself. He’s got the best ground game of anyone who’s ever run for office in Montana.”

The most important issue in Big Sky country is energy, Schweitzer said. “We drive a lot of miles in Montana. When Bush-Cheney got into office, gas went from $1.75 per gallon to four bucks, but we’ve been apparently helpless.”

“We need an administration that will help us,” he said. Obama’s energy plan calls for plans to build clean power plans and an alternative energy industry as well as the all-important transmission lines to bring the power to market.

“It seems like common sense,” he said.

The thing that bugs Schweitzer the most about the convention is the idea pushed by the Republicans and taken by the media that Obama is elite.

“That’s outrageous,” he said, citing Obama’s impoverished past—raised by a single-mom and his grandparents. Obama bettered his lot through education and hard work, he said.

“You work your hind end off and you call him elite? Isn’t that something? It’s a laugh-out-loud sort of thing. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Next thing you know, they’re going to call me elite,” he said.

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Montana Delegates Reflect on Politics in the New West


Montana’s delegates stood and waved their American flags just yards from the stage where Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president at the largest acceptance speech in American history.

On the floor of Invesco Field beneath the packed stadium seats, Jeanne Lemire Dahlman of Forsyth waved her flag and grinned, but she was somber, too.

“This is a historic time for Montana. I can’t remember a more critical time. It’s deadly serious,” she said, leaning close to be heard over the roar of the crowd. It was late afternoon, hours into the last day at the convention but still two hours from its conclusion.

“We have a lot of work to do. We can’t afford to make another mistake. When I get home, I’m going to do exactly what I’ve always done, but I’m going to do it harder and better,” she said. “I’m going to weed my garden, harvest a little bit and then get to work.”

Joan Vetter Ehrenberg of Whitefish stood on her feet and danced to Stevie Wonder as the sky above turned pale and evening crept up to the seats high behind the stage and podium.

“We’re going to turn Montana blue!” she hollered. “I’m fired up and ready to go. We all are. The whole state is. It’s a great time to be a Democrat in Montana, and we’re going to keep it that way.”

After former vice president Al Gore spoke, Christina Quijano of Red Lodge was at a loss for words. “It’s amazing,” she said. In response to what she was going to back in Montana, she said, “Sleep!”

Then she added, “I’m going to do some canvassing. I’m working to get my representatives elected. I’m going to organize a Democratic barbecue and share memorabilia and photos. It’s an emotional overload, but not bad.”

Julie French from Scobey said, “I’m thinking about how powerful it feels to have all of these women—the largest number of women in a national convention. I’m a Hillary supporter, still, with all of my heart. I’m so proud of her. She’s a world class-act, and I’m ready to go home and work my heart out for Obama!”

Carol Williams of Missoula has been to four other conventions, not as a delegate but as a guest of her husband, former Rep. Pat Williams. “I think all week it was just building in enthusiasm to a crescendo,” she said. “One of my girlfriends said something powerful to me before I left: ‘You’re there representing all of us. It’s bigger than you just being there.’ And I feel it.”

The evening slowly passed, speech by speech. Night fell and then the soaring stadium went nuts. Barack Obama took the stage and told the story of his life, saying his story was the American story. Between his words and the applause, the huge arena was silent, but for the rustling of wind.

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Montana’s Lone Black Delegate Says Obama Can Win Montana


America remains the land of opportunity, said Montana’s lone African-American delegate, 26-year-old Anthony Jackson of Helena moments before Sen. Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president at Investco Field in Denver.

Craning his neck to see the packed stadium far above his seat on the floor near the stage, Jackson said, “This place is incredible. This is unreal.”

It’s been a groundbreaking week for Jackson, one in which he has thought a lot about Obama’s candidacy, as well as what it’s like to be a black candidate from a predominantly white state like Montana.

“Our family has been in Montana forever, five generations on my mother’s side. It’s one of the most open-minded places. We judge a person by who you are as a person,” Jackson said. He gestured to the other delegates from Montana.

“This delegation speaks volumes about Montana,” he said. With him stood Native Americans and whites, men and women. “If you’re decent, and you treat people with respect, you’ll get the same back, nine times out of 10, and that’s true of most places. It’s true there’s not a lot of African-Americans, black people, in Montana, but people judge you as a person, not only if you’re black, but if you’re different in one way or another.”

There’s a reason this has never happened in any other western country, Jackson said, referring to the nomination going to a black man. “This could happen only in America. You don’t have to be a Kennedy, a Bush or a Clinton. Some people say he shoots too high, shoots too far. Look at what he’s already accomplished. We are good people. We are the land of opportunity.”

“You take a step back and say, ‘Look at this.’ I think it has to excite you as an American. If he can get out who he is, get his story out, he can win Montana,” Jackson said.

Jackson, who grew up in Billings, manages the campaign for Steve Bullock, Democratic candidate for attorney general in Montana.

About Obama’s attention to the state, Jackson said, “It’s big. We’re going to have a president who’s paying attention to us. Usually, we’re taken for granted. He actually cares about Montana’s three electoral votes. I don’t know if morale booster is the right word. He has 50-plus staff on the ground, a ton of offices. That’s a message that’s going to resonate.”

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