Connor Ryan’s Home in the Peaks

Take a deep breath, close your eyes. 

I need you to imagine you are a small child, barely old enough to stand, let alone walk or speak.  

You’re too young to understand where your parents are but you know they aren’t there. Some say they might have been in a car accident and they aren’t coming back. The prairie winds knock you down and you hide in your grandmother’s shawl when you can. It’s safe and warm there. It’s home. 

Then one day you aren’t home. It’s a long, strange trip to a dirty city by a muddy river. You aren’t warm, but cold at night, in a crowded strange bedroom filled with other small kids who look like you, lorded over by people who don’t look like you. You don’t know where your grandmother is, you don’t know where home is. You never will again. 

Open your eyes from that terrible dream.

That was the reality of Lakota skier Connor Ryan’s grandfather and tens of thousands of other Indigenous children from the 1870’s to the 1970’s.

As a toddler in the Depression-era, he was taken from his home on the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to be raised in a Catholic boarding school in St. Louis, Missouri. The agency disapproved of the child being raised by his Native community instead of a cohesive family unit and did what it saw fit to rid him of such culture. It worked. 

Eventually he was shipped off to World War II at 15, became a Japanese prisoner of war (a captive in a strange land again because of Uncle Sam) and battled substance abuse issues stemming from his war experience for the rest of his life. 

“He never came home from the schools that took him,” Ryan said to me over the phone.

Connor Ryan

He shared this with me a week after I saw a screening of Ryan’s new outdoor film Spirit of the Peaks at the Boulder Theater in Boulder, Colorado. His grandfather’s kidnapping is barely alluded to in the film but it was something that never escaped my mind and gave light to the greater journey Ryan and his family have been on “figuring out how to reclaim our identity and culture.” 

It raised the stakes of the film to something greater than the adventure of backcountry skiing. The fact such a tragic truth so universally experienced by a nation of people was even in an outdoor movie to begin with spoke to the fact that this story would be told from a decidedly Indigenous perspective, which has never really been showcased or understood in the outdoor industry. 

The reason Ryan’s grandfather’s story was so impactful is because it dealt with the notion of home and what Spirit of the Peaks does so masterfully is examine how we define home and what we do to take care of it. 

Ryan has dealt with such themes before and it’s obvious he uses skiing as a vehicle to explore broader philosophical questions in his life. His first outdoor film Paha Sapa: The Skier’s Journey followed the Boulder native as he skied his ancestral Lakota lands in The Black Hills. Spirit of the Peaks, finds Ryan skiing in his home state of Colorado, mostly in the San Juans. He cruises massive peaks in Silverton with Cody Townsend and carves beautiful turns at Wolf Creek Pass. 

Ryan recognizes in the film that he skis not on his land but on that of the Utes. But where are the Utes and what has happened to their home? Spirit of the Peaks explains in succinct, bloody terms how in the late-1870’s and early-1880’s, the Utes were systematically killed and expelled by American and European settlers from their homes in most of Colorado to their current holdings in Utah and southern Colorado. Treaties and humanity were disregarded when Ute land became too valuable to mine, exploit and dissect into parcels to fuel a ravenous, capitalistic society.  

Much of that same land is still prized today, especially by the outdoor industry. Colorado is lauded as an outdoor destination and many outdoor companies and athletes have made careers by capturing their wild adventures on the land with zeal and spirit on camera. It’s home to millions of descendants of settlers – good, honest, caring people – who wouldn’t want to call any other place home.

While it is hard to reckon, it is true that many of these outdoor-loving, environmentally-friendly, peaceful people who call Colorado home do so because their ancestors violently stole it from the Utes and other tribal nations. While it is hard to reckon, it is true that Rocky Mountain National Park is a blatant land grab and its conservation is of similar if not worse injustice as the treasures of Egypt holed up in British museums. While it is hard to reckon, it is true that the perfect, white powder of Vail is stained by the blood of Indigenous refugees. 

Spirit of the Peaks clearly lays out the reality of who originally called Colorado home and why many don’t anymore. The truth is alarming to uncover and relearn, but it’s fundamental in understanding Ryan’s and the greater Indigenous perspective on land rights, home and how it intersects with the outdoor industry and environmental activism. 

Once the Utes’ ancestral homes became that of settlers, what did they do with it? They exploited it for natural resources and personal wealth in the form of mines, railroads, casinos and capitalistic industry.

They were greedy with the most valuable commodity and basic right – water – and made sure they filled their cups first. Generations later, as the effects of climate change grow ever more dire (itself a environmental disease self-inflicted on the world by Western society) – and water becomes ever more important to Coloradans, especially the marginalized tribal nations who still call this state home, they’ve only become more selfish. 

As we all learned in elementary school, the water cycle is an essential part of the environment and humans’ existence on earth. Connor traces this cycle from the deep pow stashes in the San Juan Mountains he snorkels during the winter to the snowmelt that forms rivers and streams that flow through the Southern Ute Reservation in southwest Colorado during the spring and summer. This is where Lorelei Cloud calls home. 

Photo Provided By Connor Ryan

In the film, Ryan visits Cloud on the dusty expanse of her ranch. She is on the Southern Ute Tribal Council and a member of the Water and Tribes Initiative, someone who knows everything there is to know about water rights and tribal treaties. Like most on the reservation, she travels multiple hours each week hauling loads of water in hundred gallon tanks bolted to the beds of their trucks. Water is scarce on the reservation but it’s not that there isn’t water to go around. 

Local governments and water agencies have stymied and interfered with water flows that have been legally granted to Utes and other tribal nations through treaties. It’s usually been easier to placate Native outrage with empty promises and faux inclusion than to adhere to their obligations and responsibilities. Cloud and her nation must fight for every last drop of water that trickles into their cups at home.

“She shared this anecdote about being invited to a water conference. They had these ranchers and government people and whoever else at these tables so they could intermingle and talk. All the native people were put at one table in the corner so that they could only talk to one another. … Sequestering native voices is still a big part of how water issues are handled,” said Ryan. 

From the reservation Ryan travels to Silverton, Colorado, north into the mountains. This is the home of outdoor athlete and environmental activist Teal Lehto. From crooked, snowy peaks they descend together in athletic harmony until they cruise past the red rush of Cement Creek, as visually captivating as its history is spiritually crushing. This is the site of the Gold Creek Mine Spill in 2015 when the Environmental Protection Agency leaked 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater from old mines into Cement Creek. Another example of exploitation and mismanagement of Indigenous land.

What these water issues represent, according to the film, is a lack of “living in reciprocity” with people, with the mountains, with the earth. It is not clearly defined what that means in any one instance, which is an intentional stance from Ryan and the film’s producers at Wondercamp, NativesOutdoors and REI-Studios, but it’s clear that a sense of gratitude, empathy, understanding and perspective can lead one to find the small, unique ways they can contribute to healing the environmental and societal wounds that have been inflicted upon one’s homeland. 

Photo Provided By Connor Ryan

For Lehto, “reciprocity means acknowledging all of the ecological processes that occur to keep our planet habitable, and actively working to protect and preserve those processes for future generations. It means understanding that human beings are simply members of an ecological community and standing up for the other members of that community.”

Lehto works in Durango, Colorado as both a river guide and law assistant. She’d like to eventually practice law revolving around water and resource rights, so she can help overlooked communities have access to water and ensure she can recreate on the beloved rivers of her home as long as she can. Galvanized by her experiences with Ryan, she believes outdoor athletes have a responsibility to protect their homes from disastrous environmental effects and address the larger issues related to climate change if they are to keep their careers, integrity and reciprocity with the land in tact.

“Outdoors athletes owe their entire careers to the ecosystems that allow them to participate in their sport, and they owe it to those ecosystems and future participants of their sport to stand up for change. I’ve always wanted to run for elected office but I felt like I would have to depart from my outdoor passions to do so and [Ryan’s] statement made me realize that being a political activist and an outdoors athlete really should go hand in hand.” said Lehto in an email. 

Some of the reciprocity that must go around means gatekeepers in the ski industry must open doors for Indigenous people to enjoy their homeland as many others already do. This season Ryan has been working with IKON Resorts on a scholarship program for Indigenous athletes to break down the economic, societal and physical barriers that unfortunately renders the transcendental joy of skiing to a relatively exclusive few. 

In Spirit of the Peaks we get to experience what that reciprocity can look like with the story of Bird Red. Red’s main interaction with the outdoors has been through hunting and camping in the hills of his home on the Southern Ute Reservation in the high desert. Skiing the white-capped, alpine mountains to the north has never been more than a passing thought, if that. It’d be like exploring another world.

Most ski films wouldn’t spend a second on the bunny slopes unless it was for comedic tomfoolery, but Ryan and Red spend a whole segment earnestly doing french fries and pizza stops on the greens at Wolf Creek Pass. As someone who loves to ski, I recognized how cool it was to see someone else begin to feel that rush and excitement.o on two pieces of board. However, I can’t understand the spiritual magnitude of Red recreating on his ancestral home land in a way he had never been able to before. 

He had a newfound joy in skiing and a newfound freedom in understanding what opportunities are available to him in his homeland. He expressed himself by singing as enthusiastically as he could in his new home on the mountain, just the way he would in his old home on the reservation and connecting the two worlds under the one roof of his home. 

“His decision to sing at the top of the mountain at the end of the day was a big medicine for me. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve experienced. I set out to help him in a way but that was the day that changed the mood and tone about how I felt about the skiing we were about to film.” said Ryan. 

Photo Provided By Ryan

Indigenous perspectives have certainly been lacking in the outdoor industry from the beginning. One of the producers of the film is NativesOutdoors, the most prominent group trying to increase outdoor access and awareness for Indigenous communities. Founded by Dr. Len Necefer, part of the Navajo nation, his goal is to create a sense of community and home for Indigenous athletes, environmental activists and artists in the outdoor industry. 

Just in creating films like Spirit of the Peaks and promoting athletes like Ryan, Necefer and the collective are doing the valuable job of highlighting contemporary examples of Indigenous people who exist and thrive in the outdoors and their ancestral homelands in non-traditional ways. It’s something that Ryan admits was a motivating factor in producing this film and something he had never seen in anyone besides himself before he met Necefer a few years ago. The athlete also hopes the storytelling of this film can be a benchmark moving forward for outdoor films involving other marginalized communities.  

“We had the freedom to tell a story that is a Native story because of all the Native people included and the deeper intricacies involved, not just the fact we are Native. … I hope that can be the standard in a lot of ways moving forward for Native folks, black folks, and any people of color telling their stories in these places where they haven’t been told before,” said Ryan. 

By the end of Spirit of the Peaks, it’s quite clear what the spirit of the peaks is in Colorado. The spirit of the peaks is the fire crackling in the hearth of your spiritual home when you are outside on the land. It is our collective responsibility to keep that fire burning. Injustice, indifference and exclusivity will only weaken the fire, while sympathy, equity and reciprocity will stoke it. 

Connor Ryan understands being out in nature is his home. He is enriched communing on the land as his ancestors did before him and he finds a sense of purpose trying to protect it for both himself and future generations. 

It’s a deplorable fact that his grandfather was purposefully denied this sense of self when he was kidnapped from his ancestral home.

Imagine the life he could have lived if he had known where his home was. 

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