HELENA — As Americans celebrate the Fourth of July this year, we’re just three years away from a big milestone: the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Many states have started their own commissions to get people engaged with the anniversary, and Montana just joined that list.
“I think there's somewhere upwards of 30 of the states in the country that already have commissions in place, and so we're excited to join those and move forward and work with the governor's office on this,” said Molly Kruckenberg, director of the Montana Historical Society.
During their 2023 session, the Montana Legislature approved House Bill 377, sponsored by Rep. Linda Reksten, R-Polson, which established the Montana 250th Commission – tasked with encouraging civic engagement ahead of the U.S. semiquincentennial. Gov. Greg Gianforte signed the bill into law in May.
“This enables us to get to our local communities, to talk about local history, to get Montana's history and civics and government lessons a little bit more widely recognized, more into the classroom spaces,” said Kruckenberg. “We can work to get maybe some of our less understood and less studied parts of our history – parts of our past – more accessible to the public.”
The Historical Society will have administrative responsibility for the commission. Kruckenberg or another MHS representative will be one of the commissioners. Other members will include lawmakers from both parties, a high school teacher and a college professor who teach history and government, a tribal representative and members of other community organizations.
HB 377 calls on the commission to plan and implement a program to build awareness of and encourage participation in the country’s 250th anniversary. They’re charged with helping support students’ knowledge of U.S. and Montana history and government, showcasing achievements of Montanans and highlighting the service of veterans.
Of course, in 1776, Montana wasn’t even part of the British colonial territory that declared independence. However, the land had vibrant native populations, cultures and history worth highlighting.
“There was not a Montana government, clearly; the Declaration of Independence was not part of what was happening here,” Kruckenberg said. “But part of the work of the commission as outlined in the bill is to ensure an understanding of indigenous history in Montana.”
The other commissioners haven’t yet been announced. Kruckenberg said, once the full commission has been chosen, they’ll be the ones who make the specific decisions on how to move forward with the work.
Montana celebrated its 100th anniversary of becoming a territory in 1964 and its statehood centennial in 1989. On both occasions, the state set up similar commissions to work on ways to commemorate those milestones. Kruckenberg said those commissions did a variety of projects, from encouraging the publication of local histories to working with classrooms to providing grants for local organizations.
“We're looking at the works that those previous groups have done as potentially a model for how this commission might work as well,” she said.
HB 377 says the commission “may and is expected to seek gifts, donations, grants, and other sources of funding to support its activities.”
By the time 2026 arrives, MHS plans to have opened on its new Montana Heritage Center, currently under construction. Kruckenberg says they hope to make that a resource as the 250th anniversary commemorations move forward.
“By 2026, we'd love to see more and more students coming here, touring the Montana Heritage Center, understanding that that broad Montana past, along with the emphasis on Indian history – and also touring the Capitol building, to combine that history and civics part,” she said.
Kruckenberg says she expects the 250th Commission to begin its work in earnest this fall and winter.