Prairie Lights: Thanks to my kids, partial bragging rights

A portrait of Plenty Coups by Ben Pease. Plenty Coups was not known to have boasted about how long his family had lived in Montana. Of course, he didn't need to.

A portrait of Plenty Coups by Ben Pease. Plenty Coups was not known to have boasted about how long his family had lived in Montana. Of course, he didn’t need to.

I don’t mean to boast, but my people go way back.

One branch of the family, the one that takes the Bible literally, says we go back to Adam and Eve. Some of them even claim to have a sliver of the fig leaf once owned by Eve. I’m a little skeptical about that, but who knows?

Another branch, which has a more scientific bent, says we’re descendants of the so-called Mitochondrial Eve, that African female who lived 200,000 years ago and whose descendants, many scientists believe, we all are.

Anyway, what I’m saying is that ancestor-wise, I’ve got mojo.

Unfortunately, despite my impeccable lineage, I’m still a first-generation Montanan, if that is the correct way of saying it. Maybe I’m a zero-generation Montanan, since I moved here as an adult.

I used to like saying that any damned fool could be born somewhere, and how could you take pride in an accident of birth? But to make the decision to move here, when potentially you could have moved anywhere in the world? Now, that’s something to be proud of.


Ed Kemmick

I think now that maybe I enjoyed saying that because deep down inside I really did want to be an honest-to-God Montanan, somebody’s whose great-great-grandparents came here in a wagon, or in a boxcar full of all their worldly possessions.

Last weekend in Butte, attending the Montana Folk Festival, I was smitten with Sheila Kay Davis, a storyteller and balladeer from Sodom, N.C. She said her people, originally from Scotland, have been living in that corner of North Carolina since 1731.

Why is that so striking? Why did I feel pangs of jealousy? I think we all have some sense that deep roots matter, that you understand the world better, somehow, if you and your distant ancestors inhabit the same general patch of the planet.

My people, those descendants of the biblical Eve and the Mitochondrial Eve, have been in Minnesota since the late 1800s, I guess, though I haven’t looked into it much. I don’t recall people back there, not even politicians, talking about how many generations they’d been in Minnesota. I’m not sure why. Maybe it matters more in a frontier state like Montana, where bragging of having four or five generations of roots means your family goes back to the early days of statehood, or to territorial days.

But to put things in perspective: I’ve got a portrait of Plenty Coups by the artist Ben Pease on my desk. Plenty Coups has a look on his face that you earn only if you’re looking at a piece of the world through the eyes of ancestors stretching back many hundreds of years. We Europeans are all recent transplants compared to the Crow.

It occurred to me recently, though, that I do have bragging rights, even in Montana. My wife is a native of Missoula and she’s a fourth-generation Montanan on both sides of her family. That makes my three daughters, born in Missoula, Butte and Billings, fifth-generation Montanans.

It seems ridiculously unfair that they should hold the distinction while I am and will remain a mere transplant, or what they used to call a boomer in Anaconda. But by God, I am the spouse of a fourth-generation Montanan and the father of three fifth-generation Montanans. That must count for something.

I might run for office yet: “My fellow citizens, I come before you tonight as the proud parent of three girls whose mother’s family has been in Montana damn near forever. So don’t vote for me, the boomer; vote for me, the fifth-generation hanger-on.”

I think that will fly.

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