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2017 Governor's Humanities Awards

Since 1984, Humanities Montana has honored excellence in the humanities in Montana. In 1995, Governor Marc Racicot and Humanities Montana (then the Montana Committee for the Humanities) conferred the first Montana Governor's Humanities Awards at a ceremony in Missoula.

Six Montanans were recognized during the 2017 Governor’s Humanities Awards Ceremony on January 26, 2017.

Chere Jiusto advocates for preserving Montana's cultural and historic landscapes through serving as executive director of the Montana Preservation Alliance and leading programs on historic preservation throughout the state. Read acceptance speech

John Murray has worked tirelessly to preserve and share traditional Pikuni culture through his role as the Blackfeet Nation’s tribal historic preservation officer.

Hal and Sheila Stearns have taught, supported, and demonstrated the value of the humanities through their distinguished roles in Montana education. Hal has served as a teacher and public humanities presenter and Sheila served as the Montana Commissioner of Higher Education. Read acceptance speech

Karen Aspevig Stevenson shares the history of her home region, Miles City and surrounding communities, through authorship, advocacy, and bringing Evelyn Cameron to life in living history presentations. Read acceptance speech

Dorothea Susag is an award-winning high school teacher who has been critical to successful implementation of the Indian Education for All initiative for Montana students. Read acceptance speech


Many thanks to the sponsors of the 2017 Governor’s Humanities Awards!

Chere Jiusto - 2017 Acceptance Speech

It’s in our nature as people to be inquisitive, and I find the Humanities are the existential pathway for we humans to keep on trying to answer the big Why questions. And I’m not talking about why do humans snore, cry, have eyebrows, why do dogs lick humans? I’m talking about why are we here? Who made us? What happens to us? Where do we go? And the cool thing is, we can think about this forever. Because nobody knows.

I am certainly no expert on any of this, nor do I claim to have answers. But I do have a feeling about it. And my work in the realm of Humanities has helped me gain an insight that we are here to make this world beautiful, to see the beauty in each other, to share happiness with friends and strangers, to revere this amazing life, and to love one another, to the fullest extent that we can. And in my work, that includes soaking in wisdom across the stillness of time, by listening to the lessons laid down by people who walked this path before us.

Sadly, I must say, it’s hard to keep all this at the forefront of our lives, in a world that seems confusing so much of the time. That’s where the Humanities and the Arts come in. They go together hand-in-hand, and the reason that we need them both, is that they are about what’s inside, about creation, about how we embrace uncertainty and connect to what’s important, and how we communicate and come to understand the amazing gift of moving through this universe and witnessing the wonders that surround us.

In this busy, button-down world of ours, I must say, I love the Humanities. Give me the people who understand, when they feel the ancient stories running deep in the earth, that these places need protection because they are the essence of who we are. That the wilderness of our past is alive within each and every one of us. And that together we can find our way, as spiritual beings, looking for light on the path to the sacred.

Hal and Sheila Stearns - 2017 Acceptance Speech

If speech is the source of human triumph, as Thomas Wolfe recently wrote, then we think that stories are the reason why. When the Governor’s Award challenged us to think of our lives in connection with the humanities, we realize that the stories we learned, read, observed, and lived all these years have made our lives worth living and sharing.

I (Hal) have studied the stories of places, heroes, families, and the land for my entire career, and then told those stories for the sheer fun of it. Under the joyful tutelage of my journalist parents, I realized early that all those stories I tell are at the heart of the humanities, of the human experience. For me, invitations to tell stories about ordinary yet extraordinary people, especially if they lived in or made their way through Montana, are like opening the door of a candy store for a kid. I often drive to the farthest corners of our state to tell stories of First Peoples, explorers, cowboys, railroaders, miners, homesteaders, rascals, writers and artists who forever left their mark on Montana. For me, the humanities are not only the essence of my career, they have given me my outlook on life. I love to interpret, analyze, and reflect on our Big Sky Country.

I (Sheila) was also lucky enough to build a life centered on stories. My mother was a writer and librarian, and I liked picking out books to read that, even though they were in our home library, my parents thought might be too “adult.” Early life as a bookworm was a guilty pleasure. We should all be so guilty or so lucky. The library on the wall of our living room, plus lively dinner table conversation, led directly to a life saturated in the humanities. I thought if I majored in English, I could earn credit for doing what I loved best, reading stories. College as candy store. I couldn’t choose between English and history so I majored in both. After graduation, teaching others in English and history was exhausting and exhilarating, but never like real work.

As an educational administrator, my challenge often was to tell the amazing stories of my colleagues to others, in the legislature and in town halls and city clubs around the state. The faculty and students I worked with and publicized were always inspiring. On campus, we lived in the world of ideas, the real world that has made all human inventions and progress possible.

The vastness of Montana has always allowed us to look at our far horizons, a landscape so special with its mountains, plains, and rivers. The humanities for us capture the spirit of this special place, Montana. Wow!

For two Montana kids who grew up in rural Montana, one in the shadow of the Crazy Mountains and the other on the edge of the Makoshika Badlands, we have been privileged by our proximity to special places. The humanities have helped us make sense of where we lived, who we knew and loved, and why we worked and played with enthusiasm. It has all been of a piece. The humanities as vocation and avocation have made us who we are.

Karen Aspevig Stevenson - 2017 Acceptance Speech

In 1989 I drove thirty miles of shale road and another thirty miles of highway to get to the Colstrip library for a presentation by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith. They told the story about a woman named Pamelia and the letters she left behind from another century. It was my first humanities program. I remember driving home that night, the only car on this back country road, exhilarated from the experience of meeting the authors and hearing their story. I felt connected to something beyond the isolation in which I lived.

In the early 1990’s we moved to a farm east of Miles City and once again, I drove over a gravel wash-board county road to town to attend a humanities program, Read On. A guest facilitator led the discussion about the featured book we had read.The stimulating conversation and exchange of ideas were as illuminating as my headlights on the road that led the way home.

Years later, I came to understand more about the humanities in Montana as I racked up thousands of miles traveling the backroads and highways as part of the Speakers Bureau, for which I became an eastern Montana story in the form of Evelyn Cameron. After each performance, someone would pull me aside and tell me their story. My show was just a platform for them to remember and want to tell their own story. I realized I was the one that was learning from the audience, people whose roots held tight in this Montana soil.

While serving on the Humanities Montana board I once again added miles to my odometer by traveling to board meetings where I met passionate people on the staff and board from all over the state, people with great intellect and humor, determination and talent, ordinary people with extraordinary commitment to the humanities. I was inspired. I discovered the inner and oftentimes complex workings of what it takes to develop humanities programs and promote them across this vast state. I came away from the experience with a great sense of awe and insight into the business of the organization, Humanities Montana.

By participating in a Community Conversation, another humanities program, I was skeptical of how we were going to handle contentious topics when tempers and opinions just might soar like a thermometer on a hot summer day. By using the Gracious Space model and the skill of a well-trained facilitator, conversations flowed smoothly like a river contained within its banks despite conflicting currents. I learned that in having those difficult conversations it is not so much to resolve a conflict as to ride the rapids, open up the dialogue, listen and be listened to, which ultimately leads to calmer waters of civility and respect. It was something I could apply to my everyday life.

The humanities has connected me to people I ordinarily would not have met, to ideas I had not entertained, and to stories of a time, a place, a culture and a history I may not have otherwise known. The humanities is not just an organization but, ultimately, a way of being, with eyes, ears and mind as wide open as an eastern Montana landscape, allowing oneself to be surprised, delighted, curious, puzzled, and ultimately always in search of understanding. The humanities have helped me make sense of our place in the world.

A car only runs if you insert the key which ignites the engine and engages the car into motion. The humanities are the keys. It’s your choice, either stay in one place or pick up the keys and enjoy the ride. I picked up the keys and it took me places that changed my life.

Dorothea (Dottie) Susag - 2017 Acceptance Speech

At the center of any humanities study is story, story that helps us to understand the wide diversity of people and societies in our world, the way our society came to be and how it has changed over time. Story helps us better understand justice and injustice, and how we have each hurt or helped others in the present and in the past. Story helps us better understand who we are or who we may be, and it helps us understand how people before us have met challenges and how they have survived. Probably most important, story helps us to know that we are not alone.

In Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a memoir about his experience in Vietnam, he writes: "Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story. (38) Stories can save us. (225)"

We all live in story, a kind of narrative by which we are focused or directed or led, whether we realize it or not. Years ago, my mother told me about an experience she had as a child of nine in Chicago. Beginning on July 27, 1919 and ending on August 3 that same year, violence erupted in Chicago over the post-World War I competition for jobs and housing between ethnic groups: African-Americans coming up from the south to find work, and European immigrants on Chicago’s south side. In one of the worst riots in the nation that summer, twenty-five African Americans and fifteen whites were killed, with over 500 injured.

That summer, my nine-year-old mother was reading one of the Chicago newspapers, and in there she found a story about a black man who had picked up a white baby and had thrown it against a wall. Horrified, she took the article to her mother and asked, "How can this happen? Why would he do this?" He mother’s reply not only structured the way my mother lived her life, but mine as well. "Clearly, this is a terrible terrible thing," my grandmother told her, "but we don’t know what brought that man to do what he did."

We don’t know what brought him to do this terrible thing.

I often think about what we don’t know and how the impact of that ignorance might contribute to our actions toward others. Debra Earling, Salish and German poet and novelist, said this: "Education has the power to change the story of your life." I wonder, if the experiences in our public schools have such power, what happens to children or teens, American Indian children in particular, who don’t hear the stories of their own people in their classrooms? And if they do, what happens when their teachers, and the literature they might read, regard those stories as inferior, or of no use, representing wrong values of property and government, and representing inadequate means for survival? How do they establish positive identities for themselves when voices within their culture are ignored, twisted, and suppressed, and when voices outside their culture decide who these young people are and who they should become? By contrast, what might they learn to value, what might they learn to reject, and what might they learn about survival when they hear and read about the suffering, loss, and endurance of their own people?

These are the questions that have driven me to act on behalf of the right of all students, Indian and non-Indian alike, to freely hear and to freely read culturally authentic and historically accurate voices. I am often reminded of my own inadequacies regarding the multiple perspectives I meet every single day, whether it's in a classroom or in my community or in my family. Each of us owns the right to tell our story, and each of us has the obligation to listen to the stories others tell, especially when they conflict with the stories we might tell about them.

In Sherman Alexie's poem, "Introduction to Native American literature," the speaker reminds us of our limitations with respect to others:

Because you have seen the color of my bare skin
does not mean you have memorized the shape of my rib cage.
Because you have seen the spine of the mountain
does not mean you made the climb....
Because you sleep/does not mean you see into my dreams.

I am an expert in only one culture, and that is my own, the one I live. I am the granddaughter of Christian Norwegian and Swedish immigrants, having been indoctrinated primarily by the stereotypes in movies, television, and Western novels, and having been raised apart from traditional Indian cultures, and apart from rural Montana cultures. In no way can I own the stories of others. I have listened to and have learned from so many throughout the years, and those voices have enriched my life beyond measure. But those are their stories to tell, and I have hoped to promote and affirm that truth.