Billings, Montana, to change pioneer-themed ad campaign called out as racist

"The same language that was used to justify the genocide of Native Americans: onward pioneer, conquer, take, it’s ours."

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By Elisha Fieldstadt

A Montana city is scrapping an advertising campaign after a blogger pointed out that its pioneer theme was racist and insensitive to local Native Americans who were victims of hundreds of years of displacement, genocide and forced assimilation.

“Today is ours for the taking — tomorrow too," was the tagline for the Billings Chamber of Commerce Visit Billings campaign. Billboards throughout the city read "Onward Pioneers" and "Conquer New Endeavors."

Alexis Bonogofsky, who writes the blog "East of Billings" wrote a detailed post criticizing the ads on Monday.

"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," Bonogofsky wrote. "Words have definitions. Words have histories. Those words in this geographical place cannot be used without putting them in this context."

"Today is ours for the taking, tomorrow too. All I hear in that statement is: the land is ours for the taking," Bonogofsky wrote, noting that all of the people on the billboards are white, and there are very few photos of Native Americans on the Visit Billings website, despite their long and rich history there.

A Montana Chamber of Commerce statement said the campaign had been used for 18 months and was "designed to celebrate the warm, genuine, hardworking people who possess a perspective on life that is uniquely Montanan."

"While not the intent of the campaign whatsoever, we now see that the campaign reads insensitively," the statement said, adding that the chamber of commerce was "responding with utmost urgency to amend and revise the campaign immediately."

The billboards will come down and the Visit Billings website will be overhauled with guidance from tribal leaders and consultants, according to the chamber of commerce. The statement did not specify how long the changes would take or how much they would cost.

"The character of our community is the very foundation of our brand, and we didn't go far enough in representing the entirety of the community and region," their statement said.