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.

Journalism Graduate Students Land Big Stories, Earn Awards and Launch New Projects

The School of Journalism’s graduate program in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism is having a terrific year so we thought we’d share some highlights.

One goal for our students is that they develop a professional portfolio of published or broadcast work while at UM. This advances their network of peer and professional contacts and teaches the art of story pitching and the grace of completing what you set out to do.

This fall, first-year grad students found success with stories about recycling vegetable scraps for area pig farms, the arrival of chronic wasting disease in Montana and a project to protect cutthroat trout on the South Fork Flathead River.

For the second-year students, fall was simply a hair-on-fire semester in the best possible way:

  • High Country News published the work of our Crown Reporting Project winners this fall: Beau Baker’s piece on preparations for the arrival of invasive mussels in Montana, and Olga Kreimer’s overview of a proposed bottled water plant near Flathead Lake.

  • In addition to publishing work in Hakai Magazine and on Montana Public Radio, Matt Blois oversaw production for the launch of Big Bio, a podcast that tells the stories of scientists tackling some of the biggest unanswered questions in biology. He also landed a piece in Civil Eats that looks at meat processing in Montana.

  • A team investigation led Zachariah Bryan to shine a spotlight on the limited help pregnant Montanans get kicking their addiction.

  • Nora Saks’ work in Butte focused on new the use of drones to save wild birds from a toxic stew, as well as pressure by the Trump Administration to speed up work on the nation’s largest Superfund site. Her story on two sisters tackling drug use on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation that aired on Montana Public Radio and NPR’s Weekend Edition last spring won the “award of excellence” from the Broadcast Education Association.

  • Videographer Jayme Dittmar is poised to defend her professional project, Paving Tundra, this winter. She already won the Innovator Award from Planet Forward from a related side project, “Redefining Progress.” Watch for Paving Tundra at a film festival near you in 2018.

Alums have been busy, too:

  • At Montana Public Radio, Nicky Ouellet has continued to cover the Flathead Lake Region like snow covers Glacier National Park. She led national coverage about a small Montana firm that won a huge contract to restore power to Puerto Rico, and she completed a fabulous podcast, Subsurface, about invasive mussels.

  • Kevin Dupzyk is producing the Popular Mechanics Podcast in his role as senior assistant editor at the magazine.

  • Recent graduate Madison Dapcevich is off to San Francisco where she’ll work at I F’ing Love Science as a science writer.

Correction: This article has been edited to clarify that Nicky Ouellet led national coverage on the Puerto Rico power shortage but credit for breaking the story goes to reporter Yanira Hernández Cabiya at Caribbean Business.


The School of Journalism’s graduate program is a hands-on, skills-based program that puts students in the field reporting on issues affecting society and the natural world.

Applications for Fall 2018 are accepted through April 15. Learn more and find out how to apply here.

The master’s program is an advanced curriculum for applicants with undergraduate degrees in journalism, environmental and earth sciences, environmental studies or natural resources. We also seek applicants with professional experience in journalism, the natural resource industries and environmental nonprofit organizations.