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Billings chamber pulls tourism campaign after concerns raised about insensitivity to Native Americans

Posted at 9:15 PM, Dec 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-18 00:32:12-05

The Billings Chamber of Commerce is removing three billboards in south-central Montana designed to attract tourists after a local blogger raised concerns they were culturally insensitive toward Native Americans, using language associated with the taking of tribal lands in the old American West.

In a Tuesday Facebook post, the chamber wrote that its "Forge Your Own Path" campaign was intended to celebrate those with a "perspective on life that is uniquely Montanan," but officials there now recognize the campaign reads insensitively. The campaign was launched by Visit Billings, the tourism arm of the chamber.

The action comes in response to a Monday post on East of Billings , written by blogger and activist Alexis Bonogofsky. In her post, titled "Onward Pioneers: Visit Billings's Manifest Destiny Tourism Campaign," Bonogofsky took issue with language on the billboards, particularly "Onward Pioneers," that had historically been used to justify white settlers' cruelties toward Native Americans in the territorial days.

"The language being used by Visit Billings is the same language that was used to justify the genocide of Native Americans: onward pioneer, conquer, take, it’s ours. Words have definitions. Words have histories. Those words in this geographical place cannot be used without putting them in this context," Bonogofsky wrote.

She added that the history section of Visit Billings website included no profiles of Native American historical figures and contained key inaccuracies about the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations a few hours east of Billings.

Read the full piece here .

The three billboards were placed more than a year ago along the interstate: one in Garryowen on the Crow reservation, one in Lockwood and the third between Billings and Laurel.

Chamber officials said they are also removing insensitive portions of the campaign from the VisitBillings.com website and the visitor guide. They are also reaching out to the Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development and its tribal tourism officer for guidance on how to move forward.

Alex Tyson, director of Visit Billings, told Q2 Tuesday that she also plans to reach out to representatives from the Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribes.

"It's our top priority," she said.

She added that Visit Billings had attempted to submit a comment on the blog that wasn't posted, and she also spoke with Bonogofsky Tuesday morning.

"We're very grateful for (her) perspective. We're very humbled for the perspective," she said.

The billboards cost less than $50,000 in the local area, according to Tyson.

Here is the full Facebook post from the chamber: