My grandfather was born and raised on the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas. But he was taken away to the Roman Catholic Residential Schools in Missouri. They cut his hair and took away his language. He was part of the Stolen Generation. When World War II started he had no family to speak up for him and he was drafted into the Navy at age 15. He was a POW. He had a hard life. Later he settled in Watts and Compton, California. His name was Francis Michael Evans, but that was just the name the Catholics gave him. We only know that his mother’s last name was Little Bear.
My mother earned a scholarship from the Native American Rights Fund, and we moved to Boulder, Colorado. I learned to ski as a kid at Eldora, but that ended when the economy got bad. But it was in Boulder that I first made a connection to the land. This was the fringe of my ancestors’ territory, and it changed me knowing that they had walked this same ground. I was pulled into the local Lakota community and attended sweat lodges and learned the songs. I’m still learning the language.
I reconnected with my heritage and culture at the same time I rediscovered skiing—when I was 21. I started out at the resorts again, but then a friend gave me a pair of Marker Duke AT bindings. Getting me to ski the backcountry with him was more important to him than the money he could have made selling the bindings. That’s all it took. I’m really just a powder skier, but the backcountry lets me slow the process down and build a relationship with the land. In the backcountry I can gather medicine or sing songs. I feel as though I’m keeping pace with the rhythm of the natural world.
That connection has been part of my way back into my Lakota heritage. The Lakota didn’t choose the locations of their reservations. If they had they would have been in the Black Hills. Native peoples were mountain people too. But they didn’t get those canyon lands down in the yellow cottonwoods. The Wasatch is a Ute word, but the Ute don’t live there anymore. When I ski in the Black Hills, I feel like I’m reconnecting with sacred Lakota lands.
I first learned about the NativesOutdoors group when a friend sent me an instagram post. It said “Calling all native senders and defenders.” At the time I was fighting fracking in Weld County. When I learned more about what NativesOutdoors was doing I realized it was my dream to merge my skiing with Native rights and representation. I skied in the backcountry on Berthoud Pass with NativesOutdoors founder Len Necefer. It was the first time that either one of us had skied backcountry with another Native American. We were like, “this can’t end here.” Skiing has always celebrated the best athletes, but it needs to celebrate people too.
Skiing is such a white sport because there are barriers. The sport and the mountains can let us reconnect with the land, but it will take help from the people that control the systems. One simple thing would be to include a land acknowledgement in their communications to recognize that the land that they’re on is the land of Indigenous peoples. That would help end that perception that these mountains were empty before whites came along. Then people will see that Natives belong. I’m also working with NativesOutdoors to develop a nonprofit gear exchange so folks can donate equipment to Native people around the country.
For more information visit natives-outdoors.com.
And check out Ryan’s film, “Paha Sapa” on tentongravity.com