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Cultural Heritage Tourism

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The Setting
What Happened Next
Making the Most of Opportunities

Montana Reins in Wide Open Spaces: The Yellowstone Heritage Partnership

The Partners

Western Heritage Center
Billings, MT
Located in Montana’s largest city, this museum interprets and reflects life in the Yellowstone River Valley.

Crow Nation

Institute of Museum and Library Services
Washington, DC

Montana Committee for the Humanities
Missoula, MT

Montana State University-Billings Yellowstone Center for Applied Economic Research

National Endowment for the Arts
Washington, DC

National Endowment for the Humanities
Washington, DC

National Park Service, Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program
Washington, DC
Rivers and Trails serves as a community resource of the NPS by offering expertise to local groups trying to revitalize nearby rivers, preserve valuable open spaces, and develop local trail and greenway networks. Yellowstone National Park, Little Bighorn National Battlefield and Monument, and Fort Union National Historic Fort are the three primary National Parks in the Yellowstone region.

Northern Cheyenne Nation

Travel Montana
Helena, MT
The state tourism office is a division of the Montana Department of Commerce.

University of Montana, Center for the Rocky Mountain West

U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Agency
Washington, D.C.

The Setting

The vast watershed of the Yellowstone River covers portions of Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming, as well as large areas of federally managed land, including Custer, Gallatin and Shoshone National Forests, and the Northern Cheyenne and Crow Indian Reservations. It is a region flush with historic, cultural, and natural resources. Because of a depressed economy, sparse infrastructure, and expensive transportation costs due to long distances between attractions, the area is looking for ways to develop cultural tourism programs that will build on its unique features and attract some of Yellowstone National Park’s 3 million annual visitors.


The Yellowstone River Valley is a wide open space with big legends to match. Visual records, stories, art, and lore persist even hundreds of years after Native Americans traversed the wide plains, hunting buffalo for survival. After white trappers and coal miners took freely from the land. After ranchers settled in the grassy prairies and cowboys came along to tend their huge herds of cattle. After armies came and fought and left behind a scarred land and population. The legacies of all this history reside in the scores of sites, museums, and parks throughout the region that range from the world-famous Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument to Makoshika State Park in Glendive.

Just like the place and its past, tourism in Montana can be big. But the open spaces and charm that make the state what it is also present challenges for tourism. The Pictograph Caves National Park near Billings features 4,500-year-old cave drawings. Over near Ekalaka is Medicine Rocks State Park, where other prehistoric remnants—huge irregular-shaped masses of sandstone—jut high above the grassy plains. Must-see sites, both. But you’re looking at a 260-mile journey. And that’s in only one part of the state.

With minuscule annual budgets and one- or two-person staffs, some of these cultural attractions are hurting, unable to market to tourists or even effectively communicate with rural in-state audiences. One of the biggest museums in Montana—with five full-time staff people—is the Western Heritage Center (WHC) in Billings. “ We figured since we were a museum charged with interpreting a huge region, maybe we could play a central role in overcoming the state’s tourism challenges,” says Lynda Bourque Moss, WHC executive director.

With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the center began an extensive research and interpretive project involving other historical, arts, and cultural facilities in Montana as well as humanities scholars and community representatives. “We invited everyone we could think of with a stake in the Yellowstone region’s cultural preservation,” says Moss.

Fifty people accepted and together the consortium created the first long-term exhibit, Our Place in the West: Places, Pasts and Images of the Yellowstone Region from 1880-1940. An extension of that exhibit was a series of NEH-funded public Gatherings, which featured scholars who made presentations at museums and cultural sites in small rural communities in the Yellowstone region. Publications including Along the Yellowstone: A Guide to Historic Sites in the Yellowstone Region provided other ways to interpret the project’s themes.

“Through our research and the work with the map and narrative guide for Along the Yellowstone, we became aware of the wealth of sites and stories in the region,” Moss says. “It became clear to us that what we needed was a way to coordinate educational activities and develop regional marketing campaigns to benefit the sites as well as the communities.”

“Yellowstone Heritage Partnership works to promote the Yellowstone River Valley as a place valued for its life; communities that respect the region’s natural and cultural heritage and consider these values in their developmental projects; a region with a sustainable economy that offers opportunities for growth and employment while managing change; and a people that cooperate through the free exchange of ideas and develop consensus.”
— Yellowstone Heritage Partnership vision statement

What Happened Next

The WHC, with planning assistance from the National Park Service’s (NPS) Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance (Rivers and Trails) program, hosted a conference of representatives of cultural, historic, and natural resource sites, community representatives, elected officials, educators, and representatives of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne nations to discuss the establishment of a heritage area. Agreeing to work together to protect and promote the Yellowstone River Valley’s natural and cultural heritages toward a sustainable economy, the 40 attendees from communities in Montana, northern Wyoming, and western North Dakota created the Yellowstone Heritage Partnership (YHP) in 1996.

To explain its purpose and goals to the public and gather ideas from citizens, the partnership hosted 10 meetings in the spring of 1997. Facilitated by Rivers and Trails, the meetings were held simultaneously in small communities in the three-state region. The outcome of the meetings came together in YHP’s first major project, “Explore the Yellowstone!” This traveling exhibit—funded with grants from NPS, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), local governments, the WHC and private trusts and foundations—presents the cultural, historic, and natural resources in the region through historic and contemporary photographs, oral histories, interpretive text, and student art. It is hauled in a stock trailer to places where people gather: rodeos, fairs, pow-wows, shopping malls, libraries, and museums.

YHP developed two electronic field trips aimed at sixth graders, which takes armchair travelers on an e-journey to Chief Plenty Coups State Park and Museum and Pictograph Cave State Park and National Landmark. These parks are open to the public only during the summer months, but through cyberspace, their wonders can be shared with virtual visitors all year, all the time. Funded by a Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, each e-field trip website gets more than 2,000 monthly hits from online visitors.

In 1999, through an Economic Development Agency grant, the Yellowstone Heritage Partnership conducted a survey of the economic impact and potential for cultural tourism in the Yellowstone region. Based on visitor surveys and other data analysis, the partners planned a humanities-based series of exhibits, entitled “Living in Modern Times,” which includes a long-term exhibit at the WHC and at satellite sites like highway rest stops and chambers of commerce.

Regional outreach continued in 2000 as the partnership began developing cultural loop tours, modeled after the popular Heritage Craft Tours produced by Hand-made in America in Asheville, N.C., in which traditional crafts and arts are highlighted. An NEA-FS Arts and Rural Community Assistance Grant allowed Montanans to visit North Carolina to learn more. The partnership plans to publish a guidebook and accompanying CD-ROM and website.

Making the Most of Opportunities

Collaborate: Power in numbers proves itself in Montana. Individual museums, parks, and other cultural attractions were often unable to secure funding, but as a collective have been able to get the attention of larger foundations and apply successfully for grants. The effort has crossed not only organizational, but state lines as well, going into North Dakota and Wyoming.

Find the Fit between the Community and Tourism: Investigating local customs is one thing, but visitors should be aware of and sensitive to the etiquette of looking closely at other cultures. At the annual Crow Fair, the WHC staffs an interpretive teepee with a Native American employee. The teepee serves as the official greeting site for all non-native people at the fair, helping them better understand the tribe’s traditions to enhance the experience and ensure respect for the Crow culture.

Make Sites and Programs Come Alive: Through its “Museum without Walls” program, the WHC provides interactive experiences outside the museum itself. One popular tour is “Ethnobotany on Horseback,” a program presented on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. Native guides from the Cheyenne Trail Riders outfitting business lead horseback tours and teach guests about the uses of local plants for physical and spiritual healing.

Focus on Quality and Authenticity: Going directly to the source is required for authenticity when creating cultural programs. For its loop tours, WHC is inventorying authentic folk culture in the region. Traditional artists, craftspeople, and folk artists, such as saddle-makers, fly-tiers, gunsmiths, and quilt-makers are among those who will be featured.

Preserve and Protect Resources: Guided tours of significant historical and archeological sites in the Yellowstone River Valley provide opportunities not only for tourists, but also for the sites’ stewards, who can carefully control the extent and type of visitation each site receives in order to protect it from overuse or undue deterioration. Another Museum without Walls tour is led by Crow oral and cultural historian, Lawrence Flatlip, who takes visitors to several historic sites on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations, including Pictograph Caves, Medicine Rock, and Village Under Siege. Flatlip indicates where picture taking is permissible and restricted, and explains the conservation methods employed to protect the sites.


The “Explore the Yellowstone!” exhibit has been in 15 communities in the three-state region and has been seen by more than 20,000 people.

Through that exhibit and the partnership’s other activities, the public has developed an increased awareness about the economic benefits of cultural tourism and the potential to strengthen existing sites through collaboration and cooperation.

The YHP numbers more than 40 people from the Yellowstone region who represent both public and private interests.

The partners have successfully secured almost $200,000 in grants for sites of all sizes and natures in the past five years.

In recent years, a number of national and regional organizations have established offices or are working in the Yellowstone region, including the Nature Conservancy, American Rivers, and the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council.

The Setting
What Happened Next
Making the Most of Opportunities