Indigenizing Ski Resorts

Historian Andrew Denning, studying the rise of Alpine skiing in the European Alps coined the term “Alpine modernity.” Slim wood physically binds skiers to the soft white snow beneath. The diminished friction paradoxically linked the skier to the wild, primitive, and rugged Alpine landscape. At the same time, the lack of friction tied skiers to a distinctly modern obsession – speed. In the early 1900s, Alpine skiing turned an old and slow form of transportation into a fast, reckless, and adrenalin filled thrill ride. In the process, Denning demonstrates that the “Alpine wasteland” of the Alps was transfigured, in the eyes of many, into a “winter wonderland.”

Southern Ute Indian Tribe performed a snow dance at Vail Mountain on Jan. 7.

I think Denning’s concept translates well to the United States, but Alpine modernism is a bit different this side of the Atlantic. In Europe, Denning showed how the unsolved paradox paradox of skiing is how skiing downhill has come to rely on the varying technologies used to bring people up the mountain, to manufacture snow, and to build sufficient infrastructures to deal, at times, with thousands of people. Ground lifts, chairlifts, and snowmaking highlighted the technological, not the premodern, side of skiing. As a result, for Alpine modernity to function over a sustained period, it needed to change.

Alpine modernity is fluid, its paradoxical nature shifts constantly to adapt to material changes over time. In the United States, the meaning of technology and modernity versus anti-modernity and “primitiveness” was closely related to westward expansion and the image of the “Indian.” As a result, in the U.S. many ski resorts hired Indigenous people to “play Indian,” in the hopes that this physical embodiment of an imagined pre-technological past could counteract the visibility of technology on the ski landscape.

Recently, Ojibwe historian and ethnographer Katrina Phillips wrote a masterful work called Staging Indigeneity, in which she coins the idea of “salvage tourism.” She writes that “by the late nineteenth century, the growing sentimentalism for the apparently dominated and disappearing wilderness turned native peoples and places into commodities.” (You can find it here. If possible, buy local! Other good options are Biblio.com) Skiing, although far different than the “Indian pageants” that Phillips writes about, partook in this process. Indigenous people were often hired to be commodities. In other words, Indigenous people, as far as the ski resorts were concerned, functioned the same way as snow, skating rinks, skis, and (as Annie Coleman demonstrates) ski instructors. They were all part of the experience for which people paid (Hal Rothman). The hiring of Indigenous people tied skiing to the ideal of wilderness. It also helped people understand ski resorts (which were massive feats of technology and infrastructure) as places where they could engage with the nature. In this way, American skiers embraced the use-value of modern technology, and an anti-modernist romanticism of primitivism.

Despite their roles as commodities, Phillips demonstrates that Indigenous people understood how these tourist towns were using them. And in certain situations, tribes (not just individuals) benefited from this economic interaction. Selling a sanitized version of themselves as Indian (at times) allowed them to maintain cultural practices. This became especially important during termination, when Native nations had to fight to continue their political and geographical existence. Additionally, these people were not forced to engage in the tourist market. Rather, as Erika Bsumek has demonstrated, Indigenous people often sought out settler-colonial markets. While ski resorts willingly and knowingly took part in a national process of cultural genocide, that does not diminish the agency of Indigenous people who worked to resist settler-colonial capitalism through specific interactions with markets. While not all Indigenous people engaged ski resorts in the same ways, this series will serve as a place for me to explore the role of Indigenous people at ski resorts. The first article will explore the hiring of an Indigenous Alaskan man to drive a reindeer pulled sleigh at Sun Valley. The second will explore the decision to advertise snowmaking at Ober Gatlinburg with a Cherokee chief. The rest are left open for future topics.


Published by Jesse Ritner

I am pursuing my PhD in history at the University of Austin Texas. I specialize in Native American Histories, American Imperialism, environmental history.

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