Aliyah Merculief focuses on her run while snowboarding at Snow Camp. (Photo by Lee House / Sitka Conservation Society)

Aliyah Merculief focuses on her run while snowboarding at Snow Camp. (Photo by Lee House / Sitka Conservation Society)

Resilient Peoples & Place: Bringing up a new generation of Indigenous snow shredders

  • By Lee House
  • Friday, June 2, 2023 2:26pm
  • News

“Yak’éi i yaada xwalgeiní” (“it is good to see your face”) reads one of the first lines of a Lingít phrase sheet given to youth participants of Douglas Indian Association’s (DIA) Snow Camp. The camp at Eaglecrest Ski Area is geared toward creating opportunities for Alaska Native youth to go skiing and snowboarding throughout the winter. John Bullock, a chaperone for the camp and Lingít speaker, puts together the list of phrases and also records pronunciation videos so the kids can connect the language with the outdoor activities they are participating in.

The camp, having just completed its second year, is growing with an infusion of new resources and supporters. This year more than 20 youths hit the slopes during the camp and, through a partnership with Sitka Conservation Society, participants from Sitka traveled to Juneau to share in the Snow Camp experience — many of whom tried skiing and snowboarding for the first time.

John’s brother, Ben, is the leader of the Snow Camp and also coordinates year-round youth outdoor activities for DIA.

“It’s really all about getting kids outside and introduced to opportunities that reinforce how amazing their backyard is,” Ben Bullock says.

He grew up in Juneau and has a deep appreciation for the lands, but he also emphasizes how important it is to share opportunities with Indigenous youth in his community who have ancestral ties to this region since time immemorial.

From left to right, Ryland Carlson, Judah Haven Marr, Makia Mills, and Dylan DeAsis, four Douglas Indian Association Snow Camp participants, gather at the top of a run before dropping in.

From left to right, Ryland Carlson, Judah Haven Marr, Makia Mills, and Dylan DeAsis, four Douglas Indian Association Snow Camp participants, gather at the top of a run before dropping in.

Dleit gé ituwáa sigóo? (Do you like snow?)

Each Saturday morning for the past two winters, Bullock has driven from Mendenhall Valley to Eaglecrest, picking up a car-load of teenage Snow Campers along the way. On those mornings one participant in particular, Alex Marx-Beierly, would stand eagerly at the stop sign near his house in the predawn cold — sometimes through snow storms — waiting for the ride up to the mountain.

Alex’s excitement shows just how much the kids care about snow camp.

“The other kids are definitely a main reason I wanted to go every day,” Alex reflects, “I love skiing, but the kids there just make it ten times better. The chaperones are great too. Everyone is just so positive and we all try to help each other out.”

Campers holler to each other to and from the lift as they zip along on the runs below, waving and saying “Hi! Hello!” After getting off the lift, a group stands at the top while one of the kids says, “Hey, let’s wait for the others still on the lift!” At the base of the slope, one participant is steadied on their skis by holding the arm of a fellow camper. Nearby, a chaperone links arms with a youth to hold them up for their first slide on a snowboard.

Ben Bullock, outdoor education program coordinator for Douglas Indian Association, stands at the base of Eaglecrest Ski Area, where he typically spends his day coordinating Snow Camp alongside volunteers, chaperones and Eaglecrest staff.

Ben Bullock, outdoor education program coordinator for Douglas Indian Association, stands at the base of Eaglecrest Ski Area, where he typically spends his day coordinating Snow Camp alongside volunteers, chaperones and Eaglecrest staff.

“I think it surprises people how simple it was,” Bullock says as he recalls starting the program, “We were having an Education Team meeting at DIA and my supervisor just said ‘I don’t feel like our kids get out a lot in the wintertime. We’re so active in the summer with camps and activities, but we don’t do a lot in the wintertime. What is there for activities we can do that get them outside?’”

The answer: bringing kids to their local mountain to go skiing and snowboarding.

Winter can be difficult with longer, darker days known to affect peoples’ mental health. Add to that a recent 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services showing one in three Alaska teens reported feeling sad or hopeless for two weeks or longer. The survey also cited increases in teens considering, planning and attempting suicide — all of which doesn’t account for the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. This underscores the value of getting youth out and active during the winter months.

After the DIA team meeting, Bullock reached out to Eaglecrest and began building the program in collaboration with their Snowsports School. The biggest barriers to getting involved with skiing and snowboarding tend to be the costs, access to the specific gear and getting opportunities to hone skills through lessons. DIA Snow Camp participants are provided with rides to the mountain, outfitted with gear as needed and recieve lift tickets paid for through the program. During each Snow Camp session participants also receive an hour-long lesson in small groups.

Hania Richey smoothly rides down a run from the Hooter chairlift, where Snow Camp participants go after they’ve graduated from the more mellow slopes. (Photo by Lee House / Sitka Conservation Society)

Hania Richey smoothly rides down a run from the Hooter chairlift, where Snow Camp participants go after they’ve graduated from the more mellow slopes. (Photo by Lee House / Sitka Conservation Society)

Eaglecrest Snowsports School managers Erin Lupro and Dianna Pierson help Bullock administer the program by keeping a keen eye towards what each student needs to build their skillset that particular day. Based on where participants are in their learning journey, they are put into small group lessons. In doing so, Lupro, Pierson and Bullock have watched as the youth have progressed from week to week — and now year to year.

Sofia Lindoff, a two-year participant says, “Every year I got progressively better because of the instructional part of camp and it has helped with my fear of heights.” One day, Sofia came running up to Lupro, Pierson and Bullock yelling that she’d done it. She’d gone down the run from the Hooter chairlift for the first time and she wasn’t afraid. “I love being at Snow Camp.” Sofia says. “It’s always a fun experience and without it I would never be able to go skiing.”

“Whoosh,” one of the participants, Nathaniel Blake, yells gleefully as he zips by on his snowboard. Down the hill he continues, singing a tune, “I got this feeling…” he rides further, “inside my bones…” and trails off out of sight. Later, Judah Haven Marr goes by on the chairlift overhead humming a song of his own, swinging his ski-clad feet beneath him to the tune. Aliyah Merculief, a participant visiting from Sitka, was at first uneasy about going on the more challenging slopes, but eventually grew into it. “Going on the steeper hill was my favorite.” says Merculief, “I was like ‘woah, how am I going to get down this?’ and then it happened, I went down, and it was all okay.”

These little moments all add up to something more: cold, fresh air, time spent together, friends old and new, laughing, falling, getting back up, helping each other, learning something new together. The simple joy of sliding on snow becomes tangible in the way each camper’s face beams with joy, and when their cheeks are cold and their legs are tired, they come in glowing from a day well spent.

Photo by Lee House / Sitka Conservation Society
Judah Haven Marr stands with his skis before heading up to the chairlift.

Photo by Lee House / Sitka Conservation Society Judah Haven Marr stands with his skis before heading up to the chairlift.

Aan yátx’u sáani haa sitee (We are children of the land)

“Being on the land and moving your body with the land can address so much in a person’s life,” says professional skier Ellen Bradley, who began volunteering with DIA’s Snow Camp this winter. She emphasizes the mental health benefits that skiing can have.

“I am Lingít, but grew up in Coast Salish territory near Seattle,” Bradley says, “Skiing was my connection point to the land I was on.” In the winter of 2022, Bradley had what she calls her “ski homecoming” in which she came to ski in her traditional homelands of Lingít Aaní (Tlingit Land) for the first time.

“From my perspective, skiing is an Indigenous act,” says Bradley. “We see that skiing comes from Indigenous peoples in China and Mongolia, and there is even some evidence to suggest that some parts of Alaska had skis too.”

“Part of my goal is to help divorce the extractive snow sports industry from the act of skiing, and reclaim the act as as traditional ecological knowledge — as knowledge on how to move through landscapes, through different seasons, how to connect with these places, and really trying to put that back in the hands of Indigenous people.”

Bradley started skiing at the age of four and has recently been carving out a pathway as an Indigenous skiing advocate.

“I currently am working on a lot of initiatives in the ski and snowsports industries to try to increase access and inclusion for Indigenous folks,” she says. She explains that in using these activities as a tool for connection to the land, she hopes to grow Indigenous representation and participation in skiing, snowboarding, and the many job opportunities associated within the sports.

Wyatt Miramontes makes a turn down the Dolly Varden run where most participants begin their journey learning to ski and snowboard at Snow Camp with lessons through Eaglecrest Snowsports School. (Photo by Lee House / Sitka Conservation Society)

Wyatt Miramontes makes a turn down the Dolly Varden run where most participants begin their journey learning to ski and snowboard at Snow Camp with lessons through Eaglecrest Snowsports School. (Photo by Lee House / Sitka Conservation Society)

In early 2022, Bradley became connected to a group of local snow sports enthusiasts from across the region. They all arrived at the same question that DIA had the year prior: how can we get more Indigenous youth on the ski hill? It all clicked when Anthony Mallott, CEO of Sealaska, shared the flier for the Douglas Indian Association’s program with the group.

“It was awesome to realize this thing we wanted already existed, and it allowed us to plug in, help to support the program, and identify any gaps we could help fill,” Bradley reflects.

That collaborative support coalesced in early January 2023 when Bradley and the many others working to involve Indigenous youth in snow sports came together to put on the Native Youth Snow Sports Community Night event in Juneau. Families were invited to learn more about the effort and also sign their kids up for DIA’s Snow Camp. Ben Bullock of DIA credits the event with more than doubling the amount of participants from the first year.

Partners found ways to rally around the collective vision without duplicating efforts. Since the program began Sealaska has been supporting by donating snacks, drinks and lunches for all of the DIA participants every Saturday, filling the critical need for food support that many federal grants lack. Tlingit & Haida donated the use of their Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall for the Community Night event. Lingít artist James Johnson, a snowboarder who hails from Juneau, arranged donations of door prizes for the event, and helped outfit DIA camp participants with warm beanies and socks for the mountain. During spring break, Bradley and Tlingit & Haida hosted an elementary-aged camp to add opportunities for kids younger than the teenagers that DIA’s Snow Camp currently serves. Bringing it full circle, DIA then reciprocated that support by purchasing gear for the elementary schoolers that needed it.

Bullock adds that he appreciates the support for the program that also comes in the form of volunteer chaperones, such as Bradley, who ski with the youth, share lessons and mentorship, and navigate the ski area with them.

“Don’t tell the kids this,” Bullock says with a laugh, “but a lot of them are definitely at the point where they can ski circles around me. It’s great we have other volunteers that are great skiers.”

Sitka participant Marina Marley (left), shares a ride on the chairlift with Juneau participant Kiana Twitchell (right) during the final Douglas Indian Association Snow Camp of the 2022-2023 season. (Photo by Lee House / Sitka Conservation Society)

Sitka participant Marina Marley (left), shares a ride on the chairlift with Juneau participant Kiana Twitchell (right) during the final Douglas Indian Association Snow Camp of the 2022-2023 season. (Photo by Lee House / Sitka Conservation Society)

Gáande naxtoo.aat (Let’s go outside)

As support has grown since DIA’s first Snow Camp so, too, has the interest from other communities. For two Saturday’s this winter, youth and chaperones traveled from Sitka with the Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) to participate in DIA’s Snow Camp. This trip is part of SCS’ Alaska Way of Life 4-H club, that aims to connect youth to the natural environment of the Tongass National Forest through hands-on experiential education and leadership opportunities (the program is run in partnership with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Cooperative Extension Service to bring the national 4-H youth development program to Sitka).

Traveling to partner with other youth programs and share experiences across the region is a fresh dimension to the 4-H club that holds the majority of its programming in Sitka. SCS’ former Youth Community Development Catalyst, Emily Pound, says these travel opportunities allow participants to “share in new experiences, meet and bond with youth from other communities, and learn from the lands and waters of this region.”

Not only did the club join DIA’s Snow Camp this winter, but they also traveled over the summer to partner with the Yakutat Surf Club, an Indigenous-led surfing program that seeks to “empower, educate, and inspire the community through exposure to Lingít culture and the ocean.” SCS’ 4-H club also plans to reciprocate the cross-community experiences by hosting a mountain bike camp in Sitka, which is still under development.

The expansion of SCS’ Alaska Way of Life 4-H club into partnering with other youth programs in the region is made possible by funding support from the USDA’s Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy, in which the federal agency is investing in homegrown projects and community-led initiatives across the region that address sustainability, enhance community resilience, and conserve natural resources. Part of making Southeast Alaska a more sustainable and resilient region is investing in and creating more opportunities for local and Indigenous youth to develop skills, deepen their relationships with the land, and gain exposure to experiences and career paths that may inspire them to envision futures in the communities they call home.

Sitka participant Reece Howard (left), on one of his first runs holds hands for support with chaperone Lee House (right). (Photo by Lione Clare / Sitka Conservation Society)

Sitka participant Reece Howard (left), on one of his first runs holds hands for support with chaperone Lee House (right). (Photo by Lione Clare / Sitka Conservation Society)

“I’ve seen these programs spark youths’ confidence, empowering them to try something new and grow resilience in spite of the challenge that developing new skills often brings,” says Pound. She continues, highlighting the value of collaboration, “these programs are uplifted through partnerships dedicated to the development of young people. In ways that we can’t do as a single organization, our partners bring opportunities for youth to try new things, expose them to culture, identity, potential career opportunities, and build a sense of place, purpose, and confidence.”

Take it from what the kids are saying about Snow Camp. Ask any of them to describe it, and universally, without pause, they reply, “FUN!”

As the youth from Sitka sit circled up at the airport waiting for their flight back home, they have an opportunity to dig a little deeper and reflect on their experiences at DIA’s Snow Camp:

“I started by falling a lot, but I realized I was actually progressing,” says Ty Waldron. “It teaches you not to overdo it. You eventually get the hang of stopping, slowing down, and then you can start to go a little faster.”

“It was nice learning with a bunch of other people who didn’t know how to do it at first — you feel way more supported,” says Layla Matthews. “Trying new things isn’t that scary when you’re in such a good and safe environment.”

Landon LaDuke says, “I learned how to really slow down, and wait for people, and help them out too.”

“Yeah,” Odin Emley builds from LaDuke, “It’s a really free space and supportive environment where you can learn and focus on whatever you want to.”

Those lessons aren’t by mistake. Pound concludes.

“Even though these activities can often look and feel like play, they have the opportunity to make a meaningful and lasting impact in the lives of our youth,” she says.

Snow Camp is a program run by Douglas Indian Association. Support for the program can be provided by volunteering as a ski chaperone or through gear sponsors and partnerships to continue outfitting the youth. For more information contact: benson.bullock@diataku.com.

Supporting partners of Douglas Indian Association’s Snow Camp include: Eaglecrest Ski Area, Sealaska, Sitka Conservation Society, Tlingit & Haida, Coastal Avalanche Center, Ellen Bradley, James Johnson, Connor Ryan and more.

The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a dynamic collective uniting diverse skills and perspectives to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska. It envisions self-determined and connected communities where Southeast Indigenous values continue to inspire society, shape our relationships, and ensure that each generation thrives on healthy lands and waters. SSP shares stories that inspire and better connect our unique, isolated communities. SSP can be found online at sustainablesoutheast.net. Resilient Peoples & Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly.

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