Bringing the Artic to Sun Valley

(This article is part of a larger series on Indigenous people and ski resorts.)

Resorts are mythical places, and Sun Valley is the origins of this myth making.[1] In the United States, Indigenous people play a central role in building fanciful resorts. By hiring Indigenous people to “play Indian,” American ski resorts used Native people to tie an otherwise European pursuit to the American landscape. The fact that many of those hired would never strap on skis didn’t matter. It was probably better. At least, as far as ski areas were concerned. Regardless, the Indigenous people served as a type of salvage tourism,” selling a supposedly disappearing past with what was still a national fad. Skiing, in turn, became an American sport, so much so that the United States has become a major player in international competitions.

Prestigious American resorts also sold a taste of European high culture. And at middling resorts often hinted at the Swiss, Austrian, or French Alps through architecture, place and slope names, and food and drink. Meanwhile Indigenous people and names routinely appear at ski resorts nationwide. Despite the aspiration to attain Europeanness, no one seems particularly perturbed, confused, or de-engaged from the environment by reminders of the United States’ settler past and present. Somehow Indigenous and European markers sit side-by-side, magically morphed into a single experience of place.

Figure 1 Grand Targhee’s trail map is littered with Native names, terms, and references.

Many ski histories start at Sun Valley. And like the chairlift, the ‘ski resort,’ and the celebration of exclusivity, Sun Valley was the first ski area in the nation to employee Indigenous people to play Indian. In 1937, Sun Valley’s second year of operation, Averell Harriman bought reindeer and transported them from Alaska to Sun Valley in order to pull a sleigh. Harriman believed (and recent studies prove him correct) that feelings associated with Christmas (warmth, family, fireplaces, and sleigh rides) are often as desirable among winter tourists as the desire for sun and warmth.[5] Regardless, Harriman undoubtedly had Christmas in mind – a reindeer pulled sleigh was a clear reference to Santa Claus. Yet, Santa did not drive Sun Valley’s sleigh.

Harriman could have found a pale, bearded man. But he chose not to. Instead, he wanted a Native American man to drive the sleigh. (An interesting choice for a place that intentionally mimicked the Alps.) The man would tie the resort to America – making it clear that while many parts of skiing were European, Sun Valley was also a part of the frontier. This small idea made the resort distinctly American. As a result, with his sleigh, Harriman built a hybrid fantasy that tied Christmas to a pre-colonial, and “primitive,” engagement with the landscape.

Harriman, rather than focusing on race, could have focused on finding a sexy Santa – wherever that man may have been from.

In the fall of 1937, Averell Harriman hired Ernest Ahsook to drive the sleigh. But he was not the only person hired to deal with the reindeer. Indeed, he was part of a team. In a sense, Ahsook was the designated driver. But that did not put him in charge. Rather, a man refereed to in the newspapers exclusively as Bango was the head herder and trainer. Bango, however, was a different type of settler than the people who frequented Sun Valley’s slopes. He was Sami – making him, like Ahsook, Indigenous.

Unlike in Scandinavia, there is no Indigenous tradition of caribou (reindeer) herding or domestication in Alaska. Hence, Bango (who also lived in Alaska) was needed to break, train, and care for the recently wild caribou. Ahsook, in comparison, may or may not have had experience with reindeer herding or domestication prior to his hiring. As a result, it is interesting that when Harriman could have pushed for a theoretically authentic experience of a reindeer pulled sleigh with a Sami driver, he opted to hire a Native Alaskan as a key part of the attraction.

While hiring Bango and Ahsook was a relatively simple matter, getting the reindeer to Sun Valley required carefully choreographed transportation. First, the caribou were flown on transport planes to Nome. From there, they boarded a boat to Seattle. Once again on dry land, the reindeer experienced the classic trip to Sun Valley, taking the Union Pacific from the coast to the Rocky Mountains. It was reported by the Idaho Daily Stateman, that the reindeer had been in captivity since August, although there was no mention of Ahsook. Nevertheless, the article informed readers that Bango and his team had begun training the reindeer before their long trek. Already at least partially domesticated, the caribou, it seems, had a pleasant of a trip – at least as far as captive animals could be expected to have on planes, boats, and trains. However, at Sun Valley the tide turned.

Sun Valley’s management had planned to feed the reindeer alfalfa in place of their native diet of arctic moss. But the reindeer were picky eaters. Refusing to eat the alfalfa, they almost starved themselves. Luckily for them, Bango knew this could be an issue and had the forethought to bring 100 pounds of moss as a backup. Mixing moss with the alfalfa, after weeks the reindeer finally acclimated to the new type of food. But it didn’t matter much for Harriman. The reindeer may have started eating, but they were not done rebelling against their captors. The caribou refused to pull the sled. Bango and his team of trainers were at a loss. Harriman’s hopes of providing a luxurious reindeer pulled sleigh failed. But even without it, Ahsook continued to reinforce the rustic-ness of the lodge. For example, likely to Harriman’s glee, articles circulated the States which joked that Ahsook, who had asked for better lodging, was moving into an igloo. It is not clear where these reports came from. They may have been an early twentieth-century PR blitz by Harriman’s well regarded publicity team. But, while the origins would be nice to know, they are not necessary to understand the role Ahsook’s employer desired. He was paid for his labor, but the reindeer, Ahsook was a commodity. He was there to be (culturally) consumed.

Unlike resorts to come, Ahsook had no direct connection to Idaho as a place. This is not particularly surprising. At ski resorts reality is not the primary concern. More often the opposite is true. Ski resorts like Vail have gone as far as building exchange programs with Disneyland in order to train their staff in the ways of the fanciful. And Sun Valley, like Vail and Disneyland, was intentionally mythical. Harriman brought all modern conveniences together with an image of the American frontier. In the process, he offered something more appealing than reality. It was an escape from the real world.

In the rapidly industrializing United States, Ahsook helped tie Sun Valley down to America’s mythical frontier past. Furthermore, meeting Ahsook, for the many metropolitan visitors to Sun Valley, was an experience. Many had likely never met an Indigenous person – or at least were not aware they had – and few if any would meet an Indigenous Alaskan outside the resort. Ahsook’s employment did not protect the cultural practices of his tribe, but he was still part of a larger process of salvage tourism. And this salvaging of a perceived lost past played an overlooked role in Sun Valley’s (and future resorts) image.

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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