A photo essay honoring those who work and shape land in the West.

Reflections are in their own words.

The American West captures the hearts and minds of people across the world. The wide-open, remote landscapes resonate, inviting a sense of freedom, introspection and soulfulness. But the American West has also been a place of great despair, and it carries the trauma of one of the greatest American tragedies: the mass herds of buffalo that once roamed the continent were systematically slaughtered in the name of progress, and in an attempt to decimate Native American tribes. For as long as humans have lived here we have shaped the land, and the land has shaped us. Today, we often do so in ways that fit our own needs, and we risk destroying the essence of the places we love.

With new waves of people moving West, this essay seeks to honor those who have been working and shaping this land for the better. We chose 11 people and asked them to answer the question, “What does the West mean to you?” As the Greater Yellowstone shifts before our eyes, it is critical to surface the voices of those with a close relationship to the land, and who set examples for new ways of knowing and respecting the landscape. – Louise Johns

Alia Heavyrunner: Blackfeet tribal member, named ‘Miss Blackfeet’ in 2019
Browning, Montana

My people, the Blackfeet Natives, share with all the animals a pristine environment of the Great West. We haven’t changed our concepts of respect for water, trees, grass and all living things. This comes from the elders still retaining and sharing the knowledge.

At night in the West the cosmos are in full view: The Wolf Trail (Milky Way), Seven Brothers (Big Dipper) and many more. The Big Sky (Montana) is a beautiful place to live.

Bree Morrison: Range rider, ranch hand
Centennial Valley, Montana

I find that the land, animals and people keep me honest and humble. I’m engaging in the basic meaning of life: helping what is living live and meeting death and then seeing life grow from its stillness.

The people I’ve worked for in Montana and Idaho are of the highest standards of what it is to be a human being: asking hard questions and striving for excellence and knowing mistakes are part of the learning. The traditional story of the West was all about bending the land to your will, forcing it to grant you sustenance, otherwise you died. Now it’s the land we have to protect, and the planet which might not survive. Shift the mindset.

Matt Skoglund: Owner, North Bridger Bison
Shields Valley, Montana

Montana is a place of great contrasts for me. It makes me feel small and insignificant. It also makes me feel like anything is possible. I am wildly in love with this place.

Sadie Collins: Farmer, Highland Harmony Farm
Wilsall, Montana

I used to want to move East to be part of bigger thinking. But as an adult I see how living in the wide-open West gave me room to think and experiment.

I’ve always been partial to soil conservation, and now regenerative agriculture has my full attention. It admits nature knows what she’s doing. The switch regenerative agriculture is not for the faint of heart, but in the end it benefits the farmer, her precious soil and the
whole earth.

Whit Hibbard: Cattle rancher, Low Stress Stockmanship expert, Sieben Ranch
Cascade, Montana

As a fourth-generation cattle rancher, I feel a deep sense of history and heritage that goes back to 1864 in Montana Territory. Montana and the American West represent an ethic of individualism, self- reliance, honesty, integrity and responsibility.

In the rural West I grew up in there was a traditional ideology of small government, living close to the land in communion with family and neighbors. You made eye contact with everyone you passed—friend or stranger—and your word was your bond, your handshake a contract.

Abby Nelson: Wildlife biologist, ranch hand
Big Timber, Montana

As a species most people tend to see themselves as civilized or separate from nature. But as a biologist I don’t think it is possible to untangle our species from the environment. Animals in the West like elk, like grizzly bears, like wolves, all have a different combination of strengths, whether endurance, brawn, or wily intelligence. Just like us. We are intellectual carnivores and we dominate territories. We too have a niche we occupy and there are wild animals that compete with our interests.

But it’s not the differences between all of us that get us in trouble, it is the excesses that do: excess time, money, power, violence, and disconnection from the blood and soil that makes this place (and us) wild.

Steve Becklund: Cowboy, ranch hand, J Bar L Ranch
Twin Bridges, Montana

When you’re working on the land you are, in a way, more free. Being out there alone in nature you get a better feel for the land and the animals you’re with, whether horses, cows, dogs, or antelope and deer fawns. You get to watch them grow. Your kids grow up knowing where their food comes from because they’re around it and can see it.

There’s something about living out here and those relationships with animals. I wouldn’t trade that feeling of peace for anything.

Kyle Turner: Hunter, fisherman
Livingston, Montana

The West to me is where I recreate, find passion and connect with my past. As long as humans have been here, we have been able to live off the land. For me this includes hunting and fishing. Western public land is what we all have, partly mine and partly yours. I don’t have to own any part of the land but I strive to protect it as if it’s mine. Western public lands encourage a sort of wanderlust in me. I don’t have to ask permission. I can just go.

Katie Geray-Applegate: Sixth-generation rancher, Geary Ranch and cafe owner
Helmville, Montana

As a kid growing up in a rural Montana town, everyday life seemed so natural and easy. Chores, all seasons of weather, hours of outdoor play and recreating, and groceries bought to last a month instead of days. Not until leaving Montana did I realize there’s a general sense that it’s still wild, uninhibited, cowboys and Indians, and endless mountains. Everyone owns a rifle, there are no speed limits, and a horse could still be a mode of transportation. Now, I think the West is perceived less wild, more as a place of safety and simplicity.

Smoke Elser: Horse packing outfitter
Missoula, Montana

The West is a wild, open space where a person can breathe clean air and drink clear, cold water; where a human can let his mind relax and get away from the fast-moving electronic world. It’s a place to regain sanity and look at mountains with snow, walk in deserts with cactus blooming, and through meadows with wild grass knee high; where he can float wild rivers and from the bank cast a line and catch native fish. He doesn’t have to go to a manmade zoo to observe native wildlife. Humans can look up at the big, blue sky and refresh their souls.

Peggy White Well Known Buffalo: Crow Tribe Elder, owner, Center Pole wellness center
Hardin, Montana

As an original people, the West means being part of the land and being part of survival. We had everything we needed for survival here. And we still do: oxygen, fresh air, healing plants, open spaces. Now we ask ourselves how we can make more use of this today, given our situation. The original people, the Crow people, were left conquered and put on reservations by the U.S. government.

The sweat lodge is the most important for our survival. As soon as we’re born, we know what it is. It has been in our lives for thousands of years. The sweat lodge is a cleansing, a healing place to take care of my body, to rest, say prayers, appreciate. As Crow people, it is very close to our hearts.

Louise Johns is a documentary photographer and journalist based in Montana. She has a master’s degree in Environmental Science Journalism, and her work examines the relationships between people, place and animals, with a particular focus on rural, agricultural and indigenous communities. Her work has appeared in a variety of outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, High Country News and National Geographic.