Connor Ryan: Better Relative

Caught between athletic passion and cultural obligation, a Hunkpapa Lakota skier learns to be a better relative to the mountains he skis and to the people who once called them home.

From a young age, the educational experiences of the natural world taught me to perceive nature as something outside. Outside of myself, outside my front or back door, out a window and up a mountain in the distance. Nature was something accessed at a hiking trail or visible from a scenic overlook. The faraway forests in books seemed far removed from my inhalations of the moment or sips from a water fountain between class periods.

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I see things much differently now. It all shifted for me one spring not long ago as I filled a bucket of water from a creek at the foot of a mountain. My eyes traced the flow of water up the drainages of the mountain back to the snowy slopes I’d spent my days on all winter. I was about to carry this bucket to the traditional sweat lodge ceremony my uncle was leading, when suddenly I felt two worlds collide. My actions as a skier sharing conversations about the love of powder days on the chairlift became inseparable from the songs I was learning to sing and the words I was beginning to learn about my connection to the land as a Lakota.

My life has included a particularly arduous journey of learning and reclaiming my culture and language. My grandfather was Hunkpapa Lakota born on the Standing Rock Reservation. He was taken by one of the countless boarding schools that stole Native youth from their families and stripped them of their names, languages and spirituality. This policy, known by the moniker “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” was enacted on countless Native children from every tribe in the U.S. from roughly 1860 to 1978. The damage it caused is still felt daily in nearly all aspects of life for many Native people, including myself. I consider myself very fortunate to have had the elders, allies and relatives in my life who have helped me earnestly embark on what will be a lifelong journey of reclamation. I am also especially grateful to the irresistible act of skiing powder, which helped me fall deeply in love with what the English language calls “nature” in ways I had never imagined from a classroom in the city.

In Indigenous cultures, we don’t have the same idea of this separation between ourselves and nature. I am a student of my language, Lakotayapi, and I have a lot to learn, but in a short time it has taught me more about skiing than I would have ever anticipated learning from a language with no word for skis. I spent several seasons without another Indigenous person beside me on a chairlift or a run and despite the efforts of a few close friends who did their best to embrace me and my perceptions, I spent most of my days on the mountain without other humans by my side. Over the years I took risks “skiing alone” that I probably should not have. As I look back with more snow safety knowledge I don’t know if I’d do it all again. However, I think I did those things because of a concept in my language that at the time I could feel far better than I could have communicated in English.

In Lakota, the phrase “mitakuye oyasin” is a central concept. Translations are very rough between Indigenous languages and English, but essentially it means “everything is related.” I’ve experienced the essence of this phrase most while on skis and in traditional ceremonies. To me, it is a tangible perception of my interconnectedness to the natural world. A sense somewhere between touch and intuition. It is visceral knowing, a feeling while inhaling fresh air that reminds me I am just sipping oxygen from a pool held to the Earth by gravity, consuming a gas that exists in a finite amount generated because of biological interaction on the surface of a planet I share with countless others. I don’t think I am alone in feeling things like this, or in it being especially perceptible moments after a perfect powder turn and other moments where my senses are heightened by bliss and connection to the environment. Reminders like this phrase from my language, and ones much like it in other Indigenous languages, reassure me of the value and purpose of my existence. Chasing this feeling and desire for education by natural experience to the tops of mountains and back down them led me to my life as a professional skier. The gratitude I have for the experiences that got me here is similarly hard to capture in English. The landscapes and ecosystems that have empowered my journey feel like parties in my success most likely surpassing me in responsibility for the lifestyle I lead.

Looking at landscapes in an era of climate change quickly makes me understand the value of the human element of ecosystems. It is by human decision that we find ourselves in a world filled with heat waves, wildfires, droughts and superstorms. This has not been lost on me as I travel to ski and experience numerous landscapes. For this reason, land acknowledgments have always been a part of the content I create as a skier. When in a few hundred years the current systems of governance and commerce have caused ecological devastation, it has always seemed very important to highlight those whose practices preceded this era.

Hunkpapa Lakota skier Connor Ryan co-directed “Spirit of the Peaks,” a film about the struggle for balance between two worlds. Photo by: Micheli Oliver.

So, as I skied in Colorado where I grew up and eventually in Utah, I found myself constantly acknowledging the Utes, on whose land I was skiing. It felt necessary to know who they are. I can experience the land as a skier because of their choice to see this land as a living relative as opposed to a source of resources for extraction. However, my statements of acknowledgment quickly hollowed out as I realized I did not know any Utes and could not recall them ever being acknowledged or celebrated in a ski resort or mountain town during my journeys in their territory. That feeling was one I could not ski with. Every day that I climbed and rode without taking action, I was haunted by obligations I was not fulfilling.

Initially, even as a Native person, I didn’t know exactly how to connect and better listen to Indigenous people where I skied. Then I met Lorelei Cloud, a member of the Southern Ute Tribal Council, through NativesOutdoors, a Native-owned athletic and creative collective. We were introduced through mutual friends, but we first shook hands at the base of Wolf Creek Ski Area in Colorado. I don’t think that’s where most people expect to meet a tribal councilperson from a Native American tribe, but within a few chairlift rides filled with the conversation it all made perfect sense.

Listening to Lorelei was a reintroduction to the way of thinking that skiing had taught me but from a new perspective. She is an expert on water law and policy, something that impacts her deeply on a reservation where not everyone has access to water in their homes and is positioned in the southwest which is further gripped by drought each year. However, when Lorelei spoke about water, she spoke about it as a living relative. Lorelei’s relationship with the snowpack was personal, friendly and above all, loving. She told me how much she cherished her days on the mountain, not just because they were fun and could be shared with her family, but because the mountain and everything on it is a part of her family as well. She told me about how she felt her people didn’t get enough credit for principles that others in that outdoors have borrowed without giving credit to Indigenous people. She talked about concepts like “Leave No Trace” and traditional fire practices as we stood in a forest filled with trees that stood dead from pine beetle infestation. Seeing how she felt about the land and the water made me grateful that she was in a position to make some local decisions for her people but also saddened that she didn’t have the means to oversee these lands for more of us.

For those who don’t have a culture like mine or Lorelei’s, experiences as a skier or through some other kind of outdoor recreation may be the only way they can come to understand these crucial concepts that bring human interaction to the center of ecological stories. In this time of change and uncertainty for places we love, this idea is more important than ever. This makes listening to those of us who come from a culture with the missing words for these feelings we all share more important than ever. For you, like me, it might start with listening to the land or doing a land acknowledgment. But hopefully it also evolves, from a passive act like listening or knowing, and turns to action, like researching the history of Native people where you recreate or maybe sharing a chairlift ride. We’re all connected to these lands now, sipping from the same air generated by the trees we ski between and eventually having the snow that melts from below our skis flow through our veins. There’s a deep bond with nature that puts it closer than out the door or up the mountain. For this reason, I think it’s time skiers and those who love the outdoors bring Indigenous people—who’ve felt and understood these things longest—to the forefront when we speak about and care for the land.