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.
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.
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.