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.

NPR producer, award-winning science writer to mentor 2016 Crown fellows

Two science journalists with a national reputation and a knack for working with young reporters will mentor this year’s recipients of the Crown Reporting Fellowship.

npr crown

NPR Senior Health and Science Producer Jane Greenhalgh will work with Nicky Ouellet, a second-year graduate student at the UM J-School, while Hillary Rosner, an independent science and environment writer, will mentor first-year graduate student Katy Spence.

“Both mentors are stellar journalists who know the region and have ample experience in covering science and the environment,” said Henriette Lowisch, director of the Master’s Program in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism at The University of Montana. “Their guidance and example will be invaluable to our student fellows as they report, produce and pitch their stories from the Crown of the Continent.”

Ouellet’s radio feature will look at how decisions made by forest supervisors affect individuals and communities that depend on the Crown’s forest products for their livelihoods, while

Spence will report on how citizens on both sides of the US-Canadian border perceive the link between beavers and climate change.

While the students will report their stories in the field, their mentors will recommend sources, edit drafts and help place the final product in a regional or national publication.

Greenhalgh, a Portland-based producer and editor for National Public Radio who specializes in science and health coverage, said mentoring younger reporters was one of her favorite things at NPR. “I loved Nicky’s pitch so I’m excited at the prospect of working with her,” she said.

Rosner, an award-winning journalist who covers science and the environment for National Geographic, Wired, Scientific American and other publications, said she was excited about the chance to work on an important story with a young writer one-on-one. “Katy seems like a sharp and talented reporter, and I’m looking forward to seeing her project unfold,” the Colorado-based writer said.

Now in its second year, the Crown Reporting Project aims to advance quality storytelling on landscape-level conservation, conflicting demands for natural resources and community efforts to build climate resilience. It was inspired by Ted Smith, a pioneer of large-landscape conservation who recognized a need for journalists trained to engage communities by explaining the science behind the policies that affect our backyards.

In 2015, graduate students Ken Rand and Celia Talbot Tobin worked with Chris Joyce, of National Public Radio, and Ted Alvarez, of Grist and Backpacker Magazine, to report stories on aquatic invasive species and mining waste.

By Henriette Lowisch

Two grad students win fellowships to report from Crown of the Continent

Logo for the Crown of the Continent Reporting Project
The Crown Reporting Project sponsors students at the University of Montana to produce stories about the environment in the Crown of the Continent region.

For the second year in a row, two journalism master’s students from the University of Montana will head into the Crown of the Continent, to report in-depth, unique stories about the landscape and the people who live there. The 2016 Crown Reporting Project Fellows are Nicky Ouellet and Katy Spence. Spence will report on the role of beavers in helping to deal with climate change, while Ouellet will look at how decisions made by forest supervisors affect individuals and communities that depend on the Crown’s forest products for their livelihoods.

Both fellows are graduate students in the University of Montana’s Master’s program in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism. A native of the Kansas, Spence hopes her outsider’s perspective will allow her to approach her story with few preconceptions or biases. “So many people are excited about the possibility of using beavers as a natural water mitigation strategy, but just as many think of them as pests,” she said.

Ouellet’s journey took her from New Hampshire, where she grew up, to Ohio, Russia and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation before she enrolled at UM. She’s currently completing her master’s work on Native American natural resource management. “The Crown Fellowship means I get to spend time with a mycologist chasing down people in the forest and speak with them about what this really unique place means,” she said. “It’s almost an excuse to go camping, learn about the ecology and economy of mushrooms and meet really interesting people – all to produce some great radio that will hopefully connect listeners with a place I love so much.”

head shots of Nicky Ouellet and Katy Spence

Through the Crown Reporting Project, both students will be matched with seasoned journalism professionals who will guide them as they report, produce and pitch their work. In telling her story, Spence plans to combine photography and writing skills she’s cultivated since her time at Truman State University, where she earned a B.A. in English with minors in Biology and Photography. “This story is important for the landscape and for the people within it, and working with a professional journalist to develop it may be the most important journalistic opportunity I’ve ever had,” she said. “I can’t wait to start reporting!”

Ouellet is gearing up to telling her story as a radio piece. She recently won Best in Festival in the student news competition for the Broadcast Education Association’s Festival of Media Arts, for “An ‘80s Cover Band With Global Dreams.” “The Crown Fellowship is the biggest opportunity this school has to chase down an in-depth story about how people are connected to landscapes,” she said. “And I’m really excited to do that in radio because that takes a lot of time – you have to be there to capture the voices of the people – and this fellowship really makes that possible.”

The Crown Reporting Project was inspired by Ted Smith, a pioneer of large-landscape conservation and lover of the Crown. In 2015, graduate students Ken Rand and Celia Talbot Tobin worked with Chris Joyce, of National Public Radio, and Ted Alvarez, of Grist and Backpacker Magazine, to report stories on aquatic invasive species and mining waste.

By Henriette Lowisch