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“Where ya from?”

A friend tells me his wife, when she lived in the Midwest, never used to hear that question. After moving to Montana, she heard it all the time.

It must matter out here because this is still a new country, a country of immigrants — at least from other states, if not so much from other countries.

The most recent census figures I could find indicated that slightly more than half the people living in Montana were born here. By now, I suppose, it’s possible that residents born elsewhere are in the majority.

It’s no big surprise, given the trajectory of American expansion. Europeans landed on the East Coast and gradually made their way out West, which eventually became a rush, as in gold.

Then, after doing a fair job of filling up the West Coast, those immigrants tilted the continent the other way and people started coming here from that direction.

Greener pastures

And in recent decades, as generally older folks with well-feathered nests moved to Montana, the young people born here, having scanned the want ads, lit out for Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis and 1,000 other more promising locales.

So “Where ya from?” is one way of asking whether you stuck it out, or whether you came home after some time away. It’s also a way of ascertaining who you are, if you were born here.

It says one thing to answer “Broadus,” “Scobey” or “Circle,” and quite another to say “Butte,” “Missoula” or “Helena.”

For those born outside Montana, the answers also resonate. Certain states brand their natives, and no matter what others may think of their states, they are only too happy to announce where they’re from. Texas is one such state, of course, and so is Virginia, Vermont, Tennessee, South Carolina and Wyoming.

Other states carry a taint of sorts. It can’t be helped, and it doesn’t mean everyone from them has to feel shame, but it’s true. I’m thinking of California, New York, New Jersey, Colorado, Arkansas and possibly Florida.

Most of the other states don’t carry much baggage good or bad — Wisconsin, New Mexico, Oregon, Connecticut, Nebraska, Minnesota.

Pride of placement

I don’t mind saying I’m from Minnesota, however much I may respect and envy someone whose family has been in Montana for generations — many, many generations in the case of a Native American born in these parts.

I can take pride in having made myself a resident of this state, though I may never feel justified in saying that I am an actual Montanan. Pride is best reserved for an accomplishment, I think, as in picking up stakes and planting yourself in a new country.

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In the mid-1970s, when I was traveling in Europe, lots of American kids would put Maple Leafs on their backpacks, afraid to acknowledge their nationality at a time when Vietnam was still a raw wound, and when Henry Kissinger was being burned in effigy every day of the week, it seemed, somewhere in Europe.

I thought that was strange and somehow cowardly. I wasn’t going to wave a flag and chant “USA! USA!” but I wasn’t going to shy away from my heritage, either. Under the circumstances, America was something of an underdog, and I wanted to defend her.

Speaking of Europe, I was living in Montana when I set off on my travels, so I had no trouble answering “Montana” when an Italian, a Spaniard or a German asked the equivalent of “Where ya from?” I have a feeling “Minnesota” would have been met with lots of blank stares, but “Montana” almost always elicited a smile.

It hardly mattered what country I was in. The questioner would almost invariably get a faraway look in his eye and say, “Ah, Moan-tana,” as if experiencing nostalgia by proxy.

That’s the spirit. That’s what drew me here in the first place and the thing that made me stay. Montana is a big state, but in a more important sense it is a state of mind.

It’s an easy state to love, even in the midst of a Wisdom winter or a Glendive summer.

Whether you were born here or not, whether you moved away or never left, it gets its hooks into you.

Where are we all from? Ahh, Montana.

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Contact Ed Kemmick at ekemmick@billingsgazette.com or 657-1293.

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