Makoshika enthusiast’s journals used to write a book about the park

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The story of Makoshika’s transformation into a state park is closely tied to the story of the local optometrist whose love of and infectious enthusiasm for it helped drive its creation as a park, and those intertwined tales are the subjects of a new book being written by Glendive native and local insurance agent Greg Hagenston.

With a working title of “Greg and Doc: Two Souls Surrounded by Badlands,” Hagenston’s new labor of love is a kind of a memoir chronicling the history of Makoshika’s creation and Dr. Robert “Doc” Hiatt’s decades of exploring the park he helped create searching for fossils, often with a young Hagenston in tow. It was Hiatt who first introduced an 11-year-old Hagenston to the wonders of paleontology and to the treasure-trove of fossils that is Makoshika, sparking a close connection that lasted for decades.

“Doc Hiatt was a good friend of mine and sort of a mentor,” Hagenston said. “Doc and I spent a lot of years exploring Makoshika together and sharing notes and whatever.”

Hiatt passed away in Billings in 2013. But he left behind some three decades worth of field notes and park creation history in the meticulous journals he kept.

“When Doc Hiatt passed away, I knew he kept a good record on everything,” Hagenston said. “He kept a lot of journals and he kept everything in chronological order.”

Hagenston was keen to preserve Hiatt’s volumes of notes on Makoshika, so he spoke to Hiatt’s daughter Betty in Missoula. She also wanted to do something to preserve her father’s life’s work, Hagenston said, so she agreed to turn all of Hiatt’s journals over to him. Hagenston made the long drive to Missoula to collect them, adding that he came home carrying three large tote boxes chock full of Hiatt’s journals. With the journals in hand, Hagenston started the long process of going through them one by one and the idea for his book was born.

“It’s a very interesting history that would be lost if it wasn’t recorded somehow,” Hagenston said. “It’s taking me on a journey, I can tell you that.”

It’s also been a learning process for Hagenston, as he said he’s never attempted anything like it.

“I’m not a writer, but I’m learning to be one,” he said.

At least he said his work is made a bit easier by Hiatt himself. Hagenston said Hiatt’s journals are written in the same folksy narrative tone that Doc used when speaking in life.

“Doc was a great storyteller and he wrote things down the same way,” Hagenston said. “He wrote his letters and so on just like he talked. He was a good speaker and a good promoter of Makoshika.”

The story Hagenston is piecing together begins in 1953 when Makoshika, thanks in no small part to Hiatt’s tireless efforts, was first created as a state park. It’s a story that Hagenston said even he is learning things that he never knew about Makoshika before through Hiatt’s journals.

One really interesting thing he’s learned — which the first chapter of the book chronicles — is how Makoshika actually got its current name. Originally, it was written as ‘Maco Sica’, a Lakota Sioux phrase which roughly translates as “badlands” or “land of bad spirits,” and exactly how it was pronounced was a matter of debate that escalated following the embarrasment of the State Parks division director during a speech he gave to the Glendive Chamber of Commerce.

“How it started was the parks division manager came and gave a talk to the Chamber, and when he was trying to say ‘Maco Sica’ he slaughtered the name and was embarassed about it,” Hagenston said. “So they put a committee together to decide the right way to pronounce it.”

To solve the matter, the committee sent letters to leading Native American linguists at higher learning institutions around the country. Several responded, but it was the opinion of the leading Native American linguist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., with which the committee ran. The Smithsonian linguist wrote back that the proper pronunciation was the one in use today and that the proper transliterative spelling in English should be ‘Mako’shika.’ Of course, the Montana Legislature would be the final arbiter of that decision.

“Then they had to get (the name change) through the Legislature, which took us on quite a journey,” Hagenston said.

Ultimately, the Legislature did accept the determinations of the Smithsonian’s linguist and passed the name change with the current pronounciation. However, they did make one change in the process —dropping the accent mark after the ‘o’. According to Hiatt’s notes on the matter, the Legislature decided to do so because they felt the accent mark was “too easy to miss,” and so the name ‘Makoshika’ was born.

So far, Hagenston has not gotten too far beyond that in his review of Hiatt’s journals. He is currently working on the book’s second chapter, titled “Mr. Makoshika,” a nickname locals gave to Hiatt during his lifetime. It’s a long, patient process going through Hiatt’s notes, he noted, given that there are over three decades and three large tote boxes full of them. And as Hiatt kept everything in chronological order, Hagenston is following suit.

“Right now I’m up to April 1956, and I usually spend about an hour every morning just going through the journals and documenting everything,” he said.

With so much material to sort through, Hagenston said he’s not sure how long it will take him to finish the book.

“I don’t know when or how or how fast it’s going to go,” he said.

But painstaking as it may be, he is determined to finish the work.

“It’s my new baby, in between my work and working on my garage,” Hagenston said.

When it’s done, all Hagenston really wants is that it be a fitting tribute to his late friend and mentor. He just wants people to remember how much Hiatt put into what became his life’s passion and how his efforts helped not only create the park, but put it on the map as a paleontology hot spot, and all just because he loved the place that much.

“Doc didn’t do any of this for any financial gain,” Hagenston said. “He did it because he loved the park and he wanted to share it and encourage tourists to stop and see it.”

Reach Jason Stuart at dcedc@midrivers.com.

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