Reporter’s Notebook: Local Guides Lead Graduate Student Samantha Weber Across Time, Vast Landscapes

By Samantha Weber, Crown Reporting Project

BROWNING, MT — Ernie Heavy Runner can often be found at a desk in the corner of the Blackfeet Heritage Center & Art Gallery near the middle of Browning, Montana. At 81, the elder docent is content to wait for visitors to seek him out. When they do, as I did, he leans forward in his chair and spins tales that illustrate how vast the landscapes just outside the building are, and how embedded they are in the culture of the people who live there.

Heavy Runner traces his people back on the land surrounding the Heritage Center to times when names like “The Backbone of the World” were first bestowed on the mountain peaks that define the horizon west of Browning.

Photo by Robinsoncrusoe [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons.
Imagining time and personal history on that scale is disorienting. I know what countries my great-great-grandparents were born in, but beyond that, I lose track of my family’s stories. Heavy Runner’s go back dozens of generations, to a time when the terrestrial world and the spirit world informed each other more completely. He can explain how the early Blackfeet people learned to tap into nature’s higher power, the spiritual and visceral significance of the bison to his tribe and the lessons his ancestors learned from the land and animals they lived among.

“Science says if you can’t measure it, you can’t calculate it, it doesn’t exist,” Heavy Runner said, grinning and throwing his hands in the air. “But hey, the world’s full of mysteries.”

I’ve come to Browning, the largest town on the Blackfeet Reservation, to learn about the relationship people here have with Glacier National Park and what that relationship could produce for the tribe in the future. People like Heavy Runner have become my guides along the way on a winding journey over miles and time that would otherwise be difficult to grasp.

Understanding the Blackfeet people’s past and its context within the national park story is crucial to writing a story about their future.

Photo by Samantha Weber.

Those mountains to the west of Browning mark the eastern edge of Glacier National Park. Mountains to the southwest are the Badger-Two Medicine area. All are now owned by the federal government, as national park or Forest Service lands. All were once Blackfeet territory.

Less than 200 years ago, the U.S. government removed many tribes from their ancestral homelands and relocated them to unfamiliar, undesirable places. But the Blackfeet people have lived around the Crown of the Continent – including the east side of Glacier National Park – for centuries.

They held the lands of East Glacier National Park, but sold them during times of unthinkable hardship to the federal government. Those became the heart of the park — a lure to recently record-breaking throngs of tourists – backpackers, adventurers and drive-through admirers.

How have the Blackfeet people related to these lands since they sold them to the federal government? And what kind of new relationship might they build with these lands and the millions of people who come to visit them these days?

Heavy Runner feels that time has chipped away at the cultural understanding he shares with visitors.

“Each generation loses a little something,” he said. “It gets eroded.”

Building a stronger tradition of cultural tourism might help retain the knowledge—passing it to tribal members as well as visitors from near and far.

Heavy Runner is just one of the many Blackfeet people who sees opportunities in the herds of tourists who come to experience “The Backbone of the World.” Each person I speak with sheds a bit more light on how the tribe’s deep relationship with the land can help them engage with that tourism and chart a new course for the future.

Samantha Weber is a graduate student in the Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism master’s program at the University of Montana School of Journalism. She’s a reporting fellow with the Crown Reporting Project, which seeks to inform public understanding of landscape-level conservation, conflicting demands for natural resources and community efforts to build climate resilience. Students head into the field backed by a mentor — a veteran journalist familiar with their area of work. The Crown Reporting Project bridges journalism, science, policy and conservation, helping students develop specialized expertise that can lead to careers in science or environmental journalism.

Student Work Lights Up The Summer

We say our students “learn by doing” at the School of Journalism at the University of Montana and spring and summer are prime time for many of our students to practice what we teach here. They’ve been out on assignment, finishing capstone projects, traveling abroad and doing big internships.

So, we thought we’d give you a quick recap of some of the stellar student work out there in the world right now:

In late May, the student documentary unit premiered “Montana Jails: Slammed for Solutions,” a deep dive into the overcrowding in Montana’s corrections system. Watch the documentary on Montana PBS here.

And, the Montana Native News Project, which sends teams of journalism students out across the state to cover stories with big impact on the state’s seven Indian reservations, covered the issue of sovereignty this spring. In their words: “With seven vastly different reservations across the state of Montana, each tribe has the tedious task of navigating a relationship with bureaucracy from several levels: federal, state, county, while keeping their culture intact. The 2018 Montana Native News Honors Project takes an in-depth look at those relationships and the meaning of tribal sovereignty.” The team, led by Professors Jason Begay and Keith Graham, publishes their work in print in the Missoulian and online, reaching about 60,000 readers. See their work here and here’s a snippet:

“In Their Hands” – Nearly a century after the Indian Reorganization Act, Montana’s tribes are still molding self-governance from Montana Journalism on Vimeo.

In June, “Business Made in Montana,” a 25-year-old program that looks at businesses in the Big Sky state, aired on Montana PBS. The project is produced by students in Professor Kevin Tompkins’ intermediate videography and editing class, who find and research the businesses, set up shoots, shoot, produce and edit the five pieces that make up this half-hour show. See the show on PBS here.

Photojournalism student, Jiakai Lou takes photos of a food booth owner in Gwangjang market, a traditional Korea food market. A team of University of Montana students traveled this spring on an international reporting trip in Korea through Montana Journalism Abroad. See more of their work: and on Instagram: 📷: Ian.Baldessari.

Across the globe, the Montana Journalism Abroad team, led by Professor Joe Eaton, traveled to Korea to cover urban issues for The Atlantic’s CityLab site. They’re work covered the aftermath of the Olympics, Seoul’s “war preppers” and they were there report on reaction to President Donald Trump cancelling the North Korea summit in late May. See their work here.

Last summer, the Montana Journalism Abroad team covered the aftermath of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. That project took home a Society of Professional Journalists award for online news reporting this year.



A group of University of Montana Journalism students conduct an interview in Japan as part of the 2017 Montana Journalism Abroad reporting trip. Photo by Tate Samata.

Closer to home, students in Professor Jule Banville’s advanced audio class spend spring semester going back to high school to produce a podcast about and with students at Willard Alternative High School in Missoula. Students dug into stereotypes and stigma, school counselors and vampires. Yes, vampires. You can listen and subscribe on iTunes, or at the student-produced Willard Podcast site. The work also aired on Montana Public Radio this summer.

(Last year’s advanced audio project, “The Meth Effect,” co-led by Professors Jule and Lee Banville won a Society of Professional Journalists award for in-depth reporting.)

Also this summer, the fall UM News team, which produces a weekly television and online news show that airs on Missoula-based KPAX-TV and ABC Montana, took home three Awards of Excellence at the 55th Annual Northwest Regional Emmy® Awards in June. Maria Anderson and Tiffany Folkes won for their piece on the Farm-to-College program at the University of Montana; Sophie Trouw, Maria Anderson and Rene Sanchez won for their piece “Vietnam to Montana: Memories of War,” and the entire UM News team won in the overall newscast category.

2018 grads Maria Anderson, Meri DeMarois, and Tiffany Folkes representing at the #NWEmmys ceremony in Seattle.

Finally, a new team of graduate student fellows in the Crown Reporting Project got out into the field this summer. The Crown project seeks to inform public understanding of landscape-level conservation, conflicting demands for natural resources and community efforts to build climate resilience. Students head into the field backed by a mentor — a veteran journalist familiar with their area of work. The Crown Reporting Project bridges journalism, science, policy and conservation, helping students develop specialized expertise that can lead to careers in science or environmental journalism. This summer, fellow Samantha Weber has been reporting on the vast landscape and history of the Blackfeet Nation and how leaders there are dealing with balancing conservation with record visitation to Glacier National Park and the surrounding area. Meanwhile, fellow Breanna Roy is reporting (by hiking with conservationists into the high alpine terrain of British Columbia) on efforts to save the threatened white bark pine. 

Photo by Samantha Weber.

Why Student Work Matters

We’re firm believers that one of the best measures of a journalism school is the quality, breadth and reach of the work produced by students while they’re in college. And, the best way to get to know a program is through the eyes, and work, of the students in that program. So, take some time to dive into the stories, videos, photos and audio our students have worked so diligently on this last year and there you’ll find clues as to what’s possible for you too.

We have a great year ahead of us making media that matters here at the J-School. Until then, have a great rest of the summer.


Montana Journalism Students Nominated for Awards of Excellence from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences

The names of University of Montana journalism students are all over this year’s list of nominations for the Awards of Excellence from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Northwest Chapter. The awards will be announced at the Emmy ceremony in June.

In the overall newscast category, the UM News team was nominated for their work this fall.  UM News is a weekly television and online news show produced by senior broadcast students and aired on the Montana Television Network (KPAX) and ABC/Fox Montana.

The 2017 student documentary unit was nominated in the long-form non-fiction category for it’s documentary “Montana Rx: Unintended Consequences” which aired on Montana PBS last spring. You can watch the full film here.

In general assignment serious news, Aunica Koch was nominated for her piece on a dual language program at Paxon Elementary School in Missoula.

Tiffany Folkes was nominated as photographer and editor and Maria Anderson as reporter/writer for their piece on how local farmers work with the farm-to-college efforts at the University of Montana.

In general assignment news-light, Mederios Whitworth-Babb won a nomination for her project on the Read with the Griz program.

And, Meri DeMarois was nominated for her piece Ballet Beyond Borders.

In the public affairs/community service category, Sophie Trouw, Maria Anderson and Rene Sanchez were nominated for their work on “Vietnam to Montana: Memories of War,” which aired on Montana PBS and is available to watch here.