This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
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Connor Ryan has a wish for every skier and rider who comes to Winter Park resort — and it doesn’t involve snow billowing over your head with every turn or a snorkel to survive skiing it.
He wants them to pause, take in their surroundings and let the feelings the snow, the mountains and skiing bring up in them guide them to greater appreciation. The place he wants them to appreciate is the Arapaho National Forest and the Fraser River watershed, both of which cradle the slopes of Winter Park and Mary Jane. And thanks to him, a collective of Indigenous artists, Alterra Mountain Co. and Winter Park, he believes, it’ll now be easier for the consortium interested in honoring Indigenous ancestry to do that.
A Hunkpapa Lakota professional skier, activist and Winter Park ambassador, Ryan is a member of NativesOutdoors, which works to promote Indigenous connections to the outdoor industry.
On Wednesday, he stood in front of Sunspot Lodge at the top of Winter Park in Grand County next to the centerpiece of a multipart public art installation the creators and supporters of which hope will help connect the “sense of awe, gratitude, appreciation and purpose” people feel when they’re skiing and riding to “the languages and cultures that have been connected to here since time immemorial,” he said. It also highlights “the role snow plays in our lives, cultures and ecosystems,” Winter Park says.
The feeling Ryan wants others to experience has a name in the Arapaho language — heniiniini’ (pronounced hee nee nee neh). Its direct translation is “there is snow on the ground.” The word is emblazoned on the main installation, which features the four most prominent mountains in the area — Blue Sky, Byers, Parry and Longs — and the outline of a river winding out of them that conceptually and in real life will feed a garden bed full of native plants at the bottom of the resort come summer. More nods to the culture are scattered across the mountain, in a snow stake, used to measure snowfall, festooned with an accordion of mountains and a river flowing down, updated Arapaho–named trail signs and the addition of Native and Indigenous perspectives to historical trail markers.
Ryan says the installation is important because “the power of art lives in that space between what we can say with words and what we can feel. So it’s really our hope that you can see the art piece and say, ‘Oh, these are the peaks. This is where I am. And this is the water that connects (us). When you can see that visually, I think it helps to break down the barrier for someone who might not be reached by just talking about it.” He hopes the work will get people asking questions about the place.
Winter Park has worked to acknowledge the people who inhabited the land before the resort was developed on it. Ryan says the resort was the first of its kind to do a formal land acknowledgement, this one of the traditional and ancestral homelands of the Nookhose’iinenno (Arapaho), Tsis tsis’tas (Cheyenne), and Nuuchu (Ute), in 2021, on which the resort sits. All of the runs in the Eagle Wind territory were named through discussions with Arapaho elders in the early 2000s as a way to properly honor and pay tribute to the area. And resort officials spent four years working with NativesOutdoors, the Tesuque Pueblo, Diné/Navajo and Southern Ute artists, and Neyooxet Greymorning, an Arapaho language scholar from the University of Montana, Ryan said, “to bring this to the highest point of authenticity.”
Earlier, he’d thought back to the day of skiing he’d just had, in snow that piled up to a foot over 24 hours, saying, “It feels beautiful to have put the piece up … and then to watch the snow just come blanket the ground in the hours immediately following.
“That feels to me like good medicine, a good sign. It’s like the mountain hears and recognizes and acknowledges (what we’ve done), which is such a big thing at the core of so much of our Indigenous cultures,” he said. “You know, recognizing our relationship to the natural world, to interconnectedness. This just feels like a step in that reciprocity recognition.”