Helena historian and author Stephenie Ambrose Tubbs said the effect humanities have had on her life can only be described as "once upon a time."
From the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder that she read as a child to the stories of Lewis and Clark told to her by her father to the stories she journaled of her own family trips across the map, Tubbs loves the Wild West and writing about it.
Tubbs was one of five Montanans honored by Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney at the 2019 Governor's Humanities Award Ceremony on Thursday in the Capitol Rotunda. The award is given to Montanans who have had significant achievements in the humanities fields and advanced humanities in the state.
Tubbs, a historian and public humanities presenter, grew up surrounded by stories from her parents, who “shared their unquenchable passion for the arts and traveling on history-based adventures across the country,” she said. “They impressed us with the importance of place and the stories that connected people to place.”
It was their love of story that brought Tubbs to Montana on a family trip when she was 16. She returned to study, graduating from the University of Montana and deciding to stay.
“It was their love of culture and history that gave me an early appreciation for place and for this place in particular,” she said.
Receiving the award after the death of her parents was bittersweet for Tubbs.
“It’s a wonderful recognition for me and my family," Tubbs said. “My mom always said I’m not good at accepting compliments. But now I finally can be accepting of any compliment because I’ve gotten this high honor.”
Tubbs’ father, the late author and historian Stephen Ambrose, was a history professor. She says she followed him into education, but not in a traditional sense. She likes her freedom to come and go and adventure to learn and teach along the way.
“I’m an advocate for trails and for getting kids interested in history through play-space education; where you take them to a battlefield or alongside the Lewis and Clark trail to get their senses up, to pay attention to the story and look around and see where it all happened,” Tubbs said. “It makes a huge impression.”
Patty Dean, a public history consultant in Helena, nominated Tubbs for “her ‘rock star’ status for people who want to learn, her willingness to share her knowledge, and her commitment to doing so, regardless of the circumstances or context."
“Stephenie is an exemplary ambassador for the humanities and for Montana,” Dean wrote to the selection committee.
In her nomination letter, Dean referred to a rafting event she took with Tubbs as her guide. On her own time, Tubbs took time out to share stories with a group of disabled adults who heard she was nearby.
“Her well-worn journals excerpt book in hand -- and probably exhausted by three days of guiding on the river -- she nonetheless trotted over, prepared to tell the stories they needed to hear,” Dean wrote.
Following in the footsteps of her father, Tubbs has written several history books and published works celebrating the Lewis and Clark journey, including “The Lewis and Clark Companion: An Encyclopedic Guide to the Voyage of Discovery” and “Why Sacagawea Deserves the Day Off: Lessons from the Lewis and Clark Trail.”
It is because of her writings and continuation of her father’s work that Chere Jiusto, executive director of the Montana Preservation Alliance, wrote the selection committee to say Tubbs has been “a keeper of the flame” in telling stories and inspiring others to take the journey from St. Louis to Ft. Clatsop.
“Stephenie has long supported all in our state whose mission is to save history and places, as a clear citizen's voice for heritage and the humanities at the Montana Legislature, and recently, as a lead contributor to the book commemorating the Montana Historical Society's 150th year,” Jiusto wrote.
During her acceptance speech, Tubbs said that although she did not “have the good fortune" of being born in Montana, “I like to tell native Montanans, when they are recounting the number of Montana generations they represent, that for me it took some effort: I chose to live here. It makes me exceedingly happy and proud that Humanities Montana and the governor also chose me.”
The other award recipients were: Ellen Crain of Butte, Tami Haaland of Billings, Thomas McGuane of McLeod, and Elizabeth McNamer of Billings.
Since 1984, Humanities Montana has honored excellence in the humanities in Montana. In 1995, Gov. Marc Racicot and Humanities Montana (then the Montana Committee for the Humanities) conferred the first Montana Governor's Humanities Awards at a ceremony in Missoula.