Tribal ski resorts are doing well despite the massive challenges they face. Here’s what they’ve learned, and what all can learn going forward.
NOVEMBER 25, 2021
The White Mountains stretch, high and pine covered, across the belly of eastern Arizona. In 1962, Ronnie Lupe, the young Chairman of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, had a vision about those mountains, where his tribe has lived for thousands of years, and where, back in the 1870s, they were assigned by the government to live on a reservation.
“He wanted to have a large resort where people would gather from all around to see what the tribe had to offer, especially because the land holds some of the most beautiful landscape in the state of Arizona,” says Tyler Shultz, head of marketing at Sunrise Park Resort.
Lupe thought a good way to do that, and to underscore tribal sovereignty and economic independence in the process, was through skiing, so he spent a few years convincing the Apache elders that it was valuable, even though it was new and foreign. The tribe received a $26 million U.S Economic Development grant, and in December of 1970, they started turning the bull wheel on a double chair up 10,700-foot Sunrise Peak.
The resort was named for the Sunrise dance ceremony, the four-day coming of age ceremony for Apache girls, and the first run was called Crown Dancer, after another sacred dance, which the Apache believe the mountain spirits taught to them as a means of healing.
The ski area expanded quickly from there. It’s now grown to 65 trails, which spread across neighboring Apache Peak and Cyclone Circle. “We advertise 800 skiable acres, but it’s more like 1,200. It’s substantially larger than Snowbowl,” Shultz says, giving a side eye to the Arizona resort that gets the most attention. He thinks Sunrise gets overlooked because it’s farther away from major cities and highways, and because people don’t necessarily associate skiing with a reservation in Arizona.
Pull up the map of what we now consider ski country. Despite the fact that tribes once lived on all of that land—from the Nooksack and Skagit territory of Mount Baker to the Abenaki land of Mount Snow—Sunrise and Ski Apache, in neighboring New Mexico, are the only two tribally owned and managed ski areas (a third, Bear Paw Ski Bowl, is on Montana’s Rocky Boy Chippewa Cree and Metis reservation but is operated by outsiders), and they’re objectively in some of the worst places to make a business out of skiing.
But that’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? If skiing is culturally, physically, and economically valuable for tribes in the hot high desert of southern Arizona and New Mexico, couldn’t it also do the same in the snowy mountains of traditional Ute territory across Utah and Colorado, or in north Lake Tahoe where the Washoe lived in what’s now called Palisades Tahoe?
We’re at an inflection point right now. Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, is the first-ever Native American Secretary of the Interior, and she’s at the crest of a rising tide working to bring land, decision making, and power back to the tribes. As skiers, we can be part of the discourse, and we can look critically at how skiing can be a model to return land management decisions to the tribes and how it could bring economic, social, and cultural benefits in the process, both at already established ski areas and in places where skiing might be viable. Skiing isn’t everything, but it can be something, and it’s proven to be a useful tool.
Sunrise Park, which has the same elevation relief as Vermont’s Mad River Glen and Bridger Bowl in Montana and gets more snow than Killington, is the biggest economic driver on the reservation, both in winter and in summer. Seventy percent of the employees are tribal members, as are many members of upper management and the board, which governs the ski area’s operations.
Connor Ryan, a Lakota professional skier, says he gets fired up when he thinks about the ways skiing and ski resort management can be a way to both bring healthy jobs to tribal communities, and to transition management of traditional tribal lands into tribal hands—a federal policy that hasn’t been upheld since the U.S. Constitution was signed in 1787. “When I look geographically where the tribes that are doing it are, I think ‘if they can do that there then there’s possibility for tribes in other places, like mine in the Black Hills,’” Ryan says.