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Shane Doyle Uses Art to Redeem American History

Shane Doyle Uses Art to Redeem American History

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For Shane Doyle, art and music are a tool to tell American history’s full story

People don’t talk much about it. Maybe it’s willing forgetfulness. Or maybe a lack of desire to look back to our nation’s history. But hundreds of places — from lakes to mountain ranges — were renamed by explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, also known as Lewis and Clark.

In the case of the three rivers in Montana that form the Missouri River, they chose names that paid homage to the leaders in Washington, DC, at the time: President Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State James Madison, and Secretary of Treasury Albert Gallatin. The Gallatin River, the eastern fork of the three, sits in the Gallatin Range, it flows through Gallatin National Forest and hydrates land in Gallatin County. The thing is, Gallatin never set foot in the state of Montana.

The river has much a richer history that the name Gallatin doesn’t tell. Long before Lewis and Clark made footprints in Montana, the river was called Cherry River. An Indigenous scholar, joined by other artists, musicians, environmentalists, and community leaders set out two years ago to tell that story.

Still photo from the performance where the rivers mix with shane doyle
Performers near Bozeman, Montana, take part in the Cherry River renaming ceremony, “Where the Rivers Mix.” [Photo by Ben Lloyd]

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The idea started with a conversation between two friends, artists who often collaborate on projects. Shane Doyle, a musician and a respected Indigenous scholar, and artist Mary Ellen Strom were talking about holding an event at the headwaters of the Gallatin River. So they decided to take a drive to the headwaters to run through their ideas.

“On our way, she asked me how I felt about the headwaters. I told her I’d actually been thinking a lot about that name Gallatin,” said Doyle, a member of the Crow tribe and an instructor in the Native American Studies program at Montana State University. “It’s so ubiquitous to our county. The name is everywhere.”

Gallatin National Forest, Gallatin Range, Gallatin Field Airport, Gallatin County, and Gallatin College, complete with a Gallatin Dorm. Doyle’s daughter will soon attend Gallatin High School.

headshot of shane doyle
Shane Doyle

“I told Mary Ellen, you know, everyone knows this name Gallatin, but Gallatin was never even here. He never walked along the river’s shores. He never drank the water,” Doyle said. “I said, ‘why don’t we recognize the real name of this river: Cherry River.”

Indigenous people named the river after the chokecherry shrubs that lined its shores. Doyle said the name Cherry River represents the essence and the spirit of the river and the people who considered it a lifeline. “The people here were intimately familiar with the river. It earned its name through the experiences that the people had with it.”

So Doyle and Strom, accompanied by other artists and community activists, set out to return the river to its original name.

‘A change has to come’

The effort became a project of Mountain Time Arts, a nonprofit that produces public art projects that enliven the community’s relationship with the history, culture and environment of the Rocky Mountain West. Strom is a co-founder of the organization and Doyle is a board member.

They set out to hold a name change ceremony in August of 2018. The event was a chance to share the culture of people who initially named it Cherry River.

As Doyle planned the music for the event, two songs came to mind: Wade the Water and A Change is Gonna Come. The first recounts slaves who waded in rivers so that search dogs couldn’t pick up their scent. The second was Sam Cooke’s response to the Civil Rights Movement. The first lines — “I was born by the river in a little tent. Just like a river, I’ve been running ever since.” — make Doyle think of his grandmother.

“She was born on the Bighorn River in a little tent in 1911,” Doyle said. “I just thought, a change has got to come. The number one thing that happens when we change things is we think about them differently, and the number one thing we can do to think about things differently is to change a name.”

The event integrated acclaimed musicians the Northern Cree Singers from Alberta, Canada, and Jamie Fox and the Fox Family Fiddlers, a renowned Métis group from Fort Belknap, Montana. The musicians performed on drift boats floating on the three rivers toward the confluence of the Missouri, a place the Indigenous people called “Where the Rivers Mix.”

“The public was just blown away by it,” Doyle said. “People still talk about it, what a moving event it was and how captivated they were.”

The future of Cherry River

If you pull up GoogleMaps, the river’s name still shows up as Gallatin River. But Doyle and Strom say their work isn’t done. They could follow the legal proceedings to request the name officially be changed back to Cherry River. And the “Where the Rivers Mix” event built momentum for an official name change. But, as Doyle puts it, “We’re striking at the very heart of American theology. Changing some of these foundational names is a big lift.”

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But the other option — where their passion really lies — is to put on more events like the naming ceremony, that bridge the cultural divide in the Bozeman area and beyond.

“There’s so much opportunity to celebrate the rich indigenous history surrounding these places, and the more events like this we can do, the more sense it will make in the public’s mind,” Doyle said.

And one day, maybe they can convince state and national leaders to at least hyphenate the names to include the identities Indigenous communities first gave these places.

Strom, Doyle, and the rest of the Mountain Time Arts team continue their work, using public art projects to spark important conversations and even mobilize positive environmental and social changes. Their next project, “STANDBY SNOW: CHRONICLES OF A HEATWAVE, CHAPTER TWO” begins next summer.

“These are discussions that we have to have, and art is a great tool to do that,” Doyle said. “Art can celebrate and highlight the Indigenous history that has been swept over by colonial names and processes. The only way to get people to think deeply and care is to present them in an artistic way that captivates the imagination and compels us to envision what should and could be.”

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