Welcoming Charlie Russell back to his beloved Glacier Park

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During the first week in April, Charlie Russell returned to his beloved Glacier Country.

All of us at the Glacier National Park Conservancy were honored to co-host a special showing of the outstanding Montana PBS documentary, “C.M. Russell and the American West.” C.M. Russell Museum Director Tom Figarelle and Executive Producer William Marcus of Montana PBS joined us on stage to celebrate Russell’s story and discuss with the live audience and the more than 1,800 who joined on Facebook, some of the artistry and history that make our state so special.

During the week, I was asked many times why the Glacier National Park Conservancy would host an event about a Great Falls artist. At first, I was confused by the question. Our mission, after all, is to help preserve and protect Glacier National Park for future generations, and that responsibility includes being stewards of the park’s rich and diverse history. Our park stores (at St. Mary, Logan Pass, Apgar, and the Belton Train Station) feature an impressive selection of more than 250 books that cover the more than 100-year history of the park. Our grants to the park again this year provide for educational programming including the Native America Speaks program, continued work at the historic Burton K. Wheeler property, and, of course, a major commitment to the restoration of the historic Sperry Chalet.

That said, as I continued to get the same question night after night, I realized I had to think more deeply about how well we were communicating our work and the park’s history. Not well enough. Part of the reason may be that as the “Glacier National Park Conservancy,” we’re still a relatively new entity, having merged the Glacier Natural History Association and the Glacier Fund into one entity just five years ago. As the Conservancy, we’ve proudly and passionately continued the important mission of helping pass along the park’s history and culture. Charlie Russell’s Glacier Park is an important part of that history and culture.

There’s a moment in the documentary when the story of Charlie and Nancy Russell changes focus from Great Falls to Lake McDonald — to the place, his and Nancy’s Bull Head Lodge, which one historian featured in the documentary, Larry Len Peterson, called “Charlie’s favorite place on earth.” At that moment during the documentary, people in the audience literally turned to look at me as if to say, “now, I get it.”

Charlie himself said this about his special place: “Lake McDonald is the best ground in the world and my lodge is open and the pipe lit for you and yours. You know that Lake country sings the cradle song to all who lay in her lap.” Read that last phrase one more time — the place, according to Russell, “sings the cradle song to all who lay in her lap.” Bingo. Ten words, written more than a century ago by a painter, not a writer, that so aptly describe the lure of Glacier Park today.

Russell’s world and his painting were changed by his experience in Glacier Park, and in his painting and in his story he has left for us a precious gift — a gift of beauty and of a sense of place that bears remembering, preserving and passing along. In the same way, Montana and Glacier Park were changed by Russell’s influence on the perceptions across the globe of the American West. For his story of Glacier is our story of Glacier. A hundred years later, we still love it for the same reasons Russell did. Its lap is no doubt significantly more crowded than it was when Russell and his friends prowled the shore of Lake McDonald, but the scenes they experienced and that they painted remain the same, and that special cradle song still calls to each of us.

Mitchell is executive director of the Glacier National Park Conservancy.

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