For big-mountain skier Connor Ryan, skiing is a deeply spiritual experience. As a Hunkpapa Lakota Native American, he believes the mountains themselves are alive with spirits, along with the spirits of Indigenous Utes who inhabited them for centuries before miners came to Colorado in the 18th century.
When Ryan climbs and skis big peaks blanketed in backcountry powder, he sings prayers in his Native language while hoping non-Native skiers and snowboarders understand the need to respect the mountains even as they use them for recreation.
“The ski industry, and the outdoor industry, they need to reconcile with the fact that this whole industry happens on Native land,” Ryan said in a ski film he made in 2022 called Spirit of the Peaks. “They are places that have been deeply related to Indigenous people for so long, and there’s not blame in that statement, but there is responsibility that’s needed on the other side.”
Ryan’s film was produced in conjunction with NativesOutdoors, a Native-owned creative and athletic collective that also has been involved in initiatives with Winter Park Resort, Ryan’s home mountain. Through the collective, Native skiers and artists worked to create art pieces installed on the mountain this year that reflect awareness of the area’s Native heritage, connection to the land and ecology.
At the summit of the mountain is a new monument with a pattern created by Native artists Jordan Craig and Vernan Kee. It depicts prominent mountains in four directions — Longs Peak to the north, Parry Peak to the east, Mount Blue Sky (formerly known as Mount Evans) to the south and Byers Peak to the west — along with a river flowing from them. On the monument is one Ute word, Heniiniini, which means “There is snow on the ground.”
Elsewhere on the mountain, a new snow stake incorporates the same four mountains, rivers flowing from them, and a snow measuring stick with a Native artwork pattern.
“I wrote the initial vision statement as someone who knew all the artists who were going to be working on it, but also as someone who closely knows the community of Winter Park and tried to find that intersection of where the work of the artists and the community intersect,” Ryan, who grew up in the Front Range, said in an interview.
“I do a lot of other work with (Winter Park) to get Native American folks up to experience the mountain through skiing. Less than half of a percent of skiers, according to Snowsports Industry America (an industry trade association) are Native American or Indigenous,” he said. “Increasing that representation starts with having a reflection of ourselves be visible on the mountain, but also the other work Winter Park does to be more accessible to people of all backgrounds.”
Two years ago, Winter Park issued a statement saying it “acknowledges and honors that the land on which we operate today is the traditional and ancestral homelands of the Nookhose’iinenno (Arapaho), Tsis tsis’tas (Cheyenne), and Nuuchu (Ute).” That statement also pledged, “We reaffirm and recognize that connection both through our words here and our actions.”
Reverence for the land reflected in the new artworks on the mountain also is a call to environmental sensitivity. Snowmelt at Winter Park drains into the Fraser River, which feeds the Colorado River not far from its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park.
“All that snowfall is going to provide life to countless ecosystems and communities between here and the Sea of Cortez,” Ryan said. “People through skiing are getting connected to the snowpack, to ecology, and realizing a lot of the things that Native American people have valued about these landscapes for a really long time. To me it’s a place where we can find that commonality around conserving and protecting what is valuable, and at the same time for Native American folks, it represents a potential economic and career space for our people to be in that is more in line with our cultural values. Recreation is far more sustainable than extractive industry.”
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