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'Ground blessing' performed at future site of Montana Heritage Center
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'Ground blessing' performed at future site of Montana Heritage Center

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Steve Lozar, Montana Historical Society board trustee and member of the Salish, Kootenai, and Assiniboine tribes

Steve Lozar, Montana Historical Society board trustee and member of the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d'Oreille tribes, performs a ground blessing on Wednesday during the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Montana Heritage Center.

The site of the new Montana Heritage Center underwent a "ground blessing" ceremony Wednesday morning.

Steve Lozar, a member of Montana Historical Society's Board of Trustees and tribal councilman with the Confederated Salish, Kootenai and Pend d'Oreille Tribes performed the traditional blessing, known as a smudging, in front of a limited crowd that included Gov. Steve Bullock, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and state legislators.

In addition to the smudging and prayer, Lozar symbolically ingested a pinch of earth from the site, acknowledging its historical significance as a trail to traditional buffalo hunting grounds.

"We take it in as a sign of unity, that everyone who walks into this place walks in with equality, walks in with a pure heart, and finds what this ground really is," Lozar said. "It's a place of discovery where we discover who we are, how we connect. We can see how we've connected in the past. We can take joy and pride in the things we've collectively done well, and we can learn from our mistakes."

Officials break ground on the new Montana Heritage Center during a ceremony on Wednesday.

Officials break ground on the new Montana Heritage Center during a ceremony on Wednesday.

Construction of the approximately $50 million museum expansion will be completed in three phases, the first of which is parking. Phases two and three entail new construction and a renovation of the existing space, respectively.

The project is expected to be entirely completed by early 2024.

"The Historical Society is such a special place for both Montanans and visitors," Cooney said. "It's collections and research are priceless. It's time we have a building that will do justice to the extensive collections that tell Montana's many stories."

Montana Historical Society Executive Director Bruce Whittenberg,

Montana Historical Society Executive Director Bruce Whittenberg, right, kicks off the groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday for the new Montana Heritage Center.

MHS Executive Director Bruce Whittenberg profusely thanked the politicians and board members for keeping the dream alive. Funding for the project passed in the final days of the last legislative session after years of unsuccessful attempts to secure funding. 

"To get here today took leadership and courage," Whittenberg said, specifically acknowledging Sens. Terry Gauthier and Jill Cohenour and Rep. Julie Dooling. "Kicking that can is over."

The project's first phase is now underway, and the plan is to overhaul the museum's parking options prior to the start of the next legislative session, adding much needed parking in the Capitol complex.

To allow the Historical Society to remain open, the current phasing concept will involve construction of the new addition from May 2021 to December 2022 and then upgrade the current Historical Society building through all of 2023, with a grand reopening event tentatively planned for early 2024.

Gov. Steve Bullock speaks at a ground breaking ceremony on Wednesday

Gov. Steve Bullock speaks at a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday for the new Montana Heritage Center on the State Capitol complex.

Bullock promised the museum will be a "world-class facility."

"This is really a day of celebration," he said.

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Local Government and Crime Reporter

Nolan Lister is a reporter at the Helena Independent Record with an emphasis on local government and crime.

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