Spirit of the Peaks is a Radical Act

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Near the end of Spirit of the Peaks, Hunkpapa Lakota skier Connor Ryan explains, “Indigenous joy on the land is radical.” The line is subtle, in part because it is not specifically about skiing. Rather, he is talking about sharing space, songs, and smiles on the mountains. He is talking about love, friendship, and the more-than-human world. Skiing, it seems, is an afterthought.

“Indigenous joy on the land is radical.”

Connor Ryan

In this, Ryan has separated himself from a growing genre of social-justice-oriented outdoor films. The movie does not focus on bringing Indigenous people into the skiing world, nor is it really about bringing the ski world to Indigenous people. The film is not even about politicizing skiing or using skiing as a political tool. Instead, Spirit of the Peaks is about the radical potential of taking up space, of claiming that space, and of remaking that space. Old ski culture is dispensable because the project is not about skiing, it is about reclaiming Indigenous places with Indigenous joy.

In Spirit of the Peaks, Ryan sets off to explore his backyard, the Colorado Mountains. From the very outset, the movie turns the outdoor adventure genre on its head. Over the past thirty years, skiing has centered around the extreme. The Jeremy Jones series Deeper, Further, and Higher; The Dawn Wall featuring Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson; the film about Marc-André Leclerc called The Alpinist; and even classic ski movies such as The Blizzard of Ahhhhs all emphasize people taking unprecedented risks in their attempt to conquer mountains. But Ryan seems generally uninterested in conquering mountains. Only something like ten out of fifty minutes of the movie involves skiing, and by ski-movie standards, the lines are tame.

Instead, Ryan finds relations in the mountains, but the relationships are also fraught. Throughout the movie, he struggles over his relationship with the Rockies. Being Lakota, Ryan’s ancestors traveled the plains, but here in Colorado, Ryan is on Ute lands. The tension, Ryan’s Indigeneity, and his passion for a settler sport leave him in limbo between two worlds. But he also learns from this limbo. Learning to live in relation with other people’s lands, he builds a story that is both exclusively Indigenous and provokingly engageable for settler-skiers.

Norwegians skiing with a single pole, 1870.
Norwegians skiing with a single pole, 1870. Illustrasjon hentet fra boken Nordiska taflor av ukjent forfatter og utgitt av Albert Bonnier (se, 1870). Wikimedia Commons.

Although the film skirts the history of skiing itself, the relationship between skiing and decolonization is fraught, in part because Alpine skiing was not only a settler sport, but it was also a key part of colonization projects in both Scandinavia and Turtle Island. Traditionally a Saami mode of transportation, Norwegians turned skiing into sport as a key part of their nineteenth-century nation-building project. Slowly they brought the sport to other parts of Europe. Eventually, Austrians, Swiss, French, and British outdoorsmen appropriated skiing yet again, bringing Nordic (cross country) skiing and ski jumping to the Alps, where they transformed it into Alpine (downhill) skiing.

“The relationship between skiing and decolonization is fraught, in part because Alpine skiing was not only a settler sport, but it was also a key part of colonization projects in both Scandinavia and Turtle Island.”

Skis also played an underappreciated role in the colonization of the American West. U.S. settlers and the U.S. military fought their way into the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains in pursuit of gold and silver. Without skis, however, the winter isolation may have been enough to dramatically slow settlement. Skis allowed miners to travel from door to door in snow-filled towns, they were used as transportation to get to the mines where they ripped holes in the mountains’ bodies, and the communities used skis to stay in touch with the outside world through mail-carrying skiers and skiing preachers. In other words, skiing was not simply a part of settler colonialism because settlers brought it to the United States. Rather, skiing was a key technology in the process of colonizing and removing Natives.

At the same time, skiing as a sport grew out of the slowing of European military expansion near the end of the nineteenth century. This is something that other Native athletes have pointed out. On Caroline Geich’s podcast, Native photograph and outdoorswoman Michilli Oliver, who is a descendent of Amskapi Piikani, explained how the hyper-masculine culture of skiing, maybe the most frequently critiqued part of the sport, is better understood as colonial. Conquering, she contends, is a result of a long history of colonial expansion – when lands dried up, imperialists took to mountains, deserts, oceans, and rivers. Men such as Fredrick Nansen – himself a skier – became famous for crossing Greenland in 1888, inspiring people throughout Europe to take on the sport, which had previously been derided as a backward tradition of the Saami people. Explorers like Nansen transformed the colonization of people into the colonization of nature. Without wasting breath and the audience’s attention on this history, Ryan powerfully refuses the terms. In the process, he makes skiing work for his community, not the other way around.

Ryan shreds. Amateur skiers (like me) will watch in envy, wishing they had the skills, the knowledge, and the boldness to take on the highly technical lines he cruises through. But he does not summit never-skied peaks and he does not emphasize the stress he is putting on his body. What he does, in contrast, reflects a radically different mentality. While Ryan skins up the mountain, he chants. At the top, he burns sage. Ryan skis what is there. He accepts what the mountain, what the weather, and what the world hands him, and learns from the people, animals, and terrain of the land.

To some skiers, Ryan’s philosophy will feel familiar. Since Dolores LaChapelle wrote Deep Powder Snow: Forty-Years of Ecstatic Skiing, Avalanches, and Earth Wisdom many skiers have embraced a sort of biocentrism, in which they find their true selves skiing. The harder they push themselves, the wilder the wilderness they inhabit, the more they become one with the environment. But it is a disservice to place him within this same tradition. Ryan practices holistic traditions common (although certainly not uniform) among Natives on Turtle Island. Ryan never becomes one with the mountains. He skis in relation to the mountains. The mountains are inseparable materially, cosmologically, and spiritually from himself, but they are not one homogenous being, and in demonstrating this connectedness and separation, Ryan shows that decolonizing skiing means decolonizing how people relate skiing with the environment.

Ryan demonstrates how ski culture can evolve to be safer, and healthier, and capable of embracing snow, mountains, and change as they come. For Ryan, skiing is “living with all my relations… The place is perceiving me,” he explains.  “I’m here to make myself better so that I can show up for my family, for my community, for all my relations.” In other words, he does not serve skiing, skiing serves him.

Post from Connor Ryan’s Instagram Profile (@sacredstoke).

Ryan’s film moves beyond promoting diversity. His purpose is not simply to be an Indigenous face and an Indigenous voice in a ski world that is too white. He is not trying to rescue skiing. And he did not make the movie for the ski world’s sake. Rather, he imagines a new way forward. To bend the phrase made famous by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, Ryan has done the impossible. He is starting to materially decolonize skiing – for him decolonization is not a metaphor.

Following Ryan on this quest requires hard work. After a screening on Monday, Cody Townsend  (a professional skier and a close friend and supporter of Ryan’s) explained his experiences filming the movie with Ryan. He talked about learning from Ryan and his mentor Len Necefer. But Townsend also highlights the hard work and the incompleteness of his work in understanding, appreciating, and contributing to the movement. As he made clear, decolonization is easy in theory but hard in practice—which is all the more reason to praise Ryan’s accomplishment. (Len Necefer has put together a wonderful reading list for those hoping to learn more.)

“Pause for a minute and imagine Ryan’s message is heard, that skiing turns away from environmental dominance and that we stop connecting to the environment by conquering, regardless of whether we overcome the world’s tallest mountains or on the bunny hill.”

Pause for a minute and imagine Ryan’s message is heard, that skiing turns away from environmental dominance and that we stop connecting to the environment by conquering, regardless of whether we overcome the world’s tallest mountains or on the bunny hill. Imagine if skiing became a pathway to strengthen communities—regardless of whether those communities embrace skiing or not. Finally, imagining Ryan’s message of living in relation becoming so ingrained in skiing that the ski bum mantra “no friends on a powder day” is understood as a deeply colonial concept based around the individual, personal accomplishment, and biocentrism.

Near the end of the film, Ryan makes his most explicitly political statement of the movie, “Indigenous people should be the ones to lead the way.” But we might push it one step further. With Ryan at the helm, Indigenous skiers are leading. Like Caldwell, the rest of us need to listen, to follow, and to put in the labor necessary to turn Ryan’s vision into reality.

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Jesse Ritner is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas, Austin. His dissertation, "Making Snow: Climate, Technology, and the U.S. Ski Industry" examines how the ski industry relied on climate-adaptive technology to grow into a $20 billion industry. Jesse also writes historically-informed commentary about the outdoor world. He is a member of the Science Alliance at Protect Our Winters, a former ski instructor at Snowmass, and an avid skier.

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