Winter Park Resort acknowledges it operates on ancestral Indigenous land

Now what?
5 min. read
West facing slopes covered in October snow on the Continental Divide as the sun sets, with Winter Park in the foreground at right, Tuesday evening, Oct. 27, 2020.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Winter Park Resort is located on ancestral Indigenous land. Resort staff acknowledged the fact on Friday.

The park's new land acknowledgment statement goes like this: "Winter Park Resort acknowledges and honors that the land on which we operate today is the traditional and ancestral homelands of the Nookhose'iinenno (Northern Arapaho), Tsis tsis'tas (Cheyenne), and Nuuchu (Ute). We recognize and honor these Native Nations, their people, and their continued connection as the original stewards of these lands and waters where we recreate today. We reaffirm and recognize that connection both through our words here and through our actions."

The statement was drafted between staff at Winter Park Resort, Lakota pro skier and filmmaker Connor Ryan and Len Necefer, a Navajo Nation member and the founder of the media company NativesOutdoors, which works to get Indigenous youth into nature.

"I hope it sets a new precedent for what all ski resorts should be doing," Ryan said. "All ski resorts operate on Native land that was taken from Native people."

Winter Park. April, 2019.
Nathaniel Minor/CPR News

But neither the genocide nor the theft of land is addressed in Winter Park Resort's land acknowledgment.

The acknowledgment does not explain why the land is no longer in Indigenous possession.

That move bucks recommendations from the Native Governance Center, a nonprofit which works to strengthen Native nations' governing structures.

"Don't sugarcoat the past," suggests the group in a guide to drafting land acknowledgments. "Use terms like genocide, ethnic cleansing, stolen land, and forced removal to reflect actions taken by colonizers."

Since Winter Park Resort is a company and not a government entity, Ryan said the land acknowledgment did not need to explicitly address the past. Instead, it is designed to express what's next.

"For indigenous people, we know our history," he said. "We don't need to be reminded about that at every turn. It can be triggering for us... We wanted to have a land acknowledgment that was future-oriented."

For Winter Park Resort, which operates somewhat independently from its parent company Alterra Mountain Co., the ski resort is not qualified to address larger historical issues such as genocide and land theft, said resort spokesperson Jen Miller. But the park is better equipped to share the spiritual connection people have with the land, she added.

"Native and Indigenous people have had that connection much longer than we have," she explained. "It was more acknowledging and recognizing that there is something special about this place. Not everybody can put their finger on it, but it stretches back to the people who were the original stewards of this land."

Winter Park. January, 2020.
Nathaniel Minor/CPR News

Understanding who actually owns that land at Winter Park Resort is a little complicated.

Winter Park Resort was founded by the City and County of Denver's parks department in 1940. Around a decade later, Denver realized operating a ski resort was harder than running a park, so it formed the Winter Park Recreation Association which operated the slopes until the early 2000s when Intrawest Resorts took over. Then in 2017, Ikon Pass operator Alterra secured the contract with Denver.

The slopes themselves, owned by the United States Forest Service, are leased by Denver as part of Parks and Recreation's Mountain Parks.

Both Denver City Council and Denver Parks and Recreation have land acknowledgments that explicitly address indigenous erasure, though they have not been presented.

"As a city, we try to be truthful and honest and acknowledge the truth about it," explained Denver Parks and Recreation's Deputy Executive Director Scott Gilmore. "We don't do a land acknowledgment just to read words. We do a land acknowledgment to try to address the past historical issues that this country was built on."

Land acknowledgments are often accompanied by concrete action.

Denver Parks and Recreation donated bison from its city herd to Arapahoe and Cheyenne tribes and plans to continue bison donations to tribes through at least 2030.

Winter Park Resort also plans to take some action and host events with Indigenous people, forging professional relationships with Native skiers and outdoor enthusiasts who will work with the resort on inclusivity and sustainability, and collaborate with tribal leaders to bring more Native youth into winter sports.

Ryan, the skier, is particularly excited about how the resort and Alterra have committed to making skiing accessible to Ute youth. The park offers a scholarship program, free lodging, rentals and lessons, and is exploring other actions to remove barriers that prevent Native people from accessing their own homelands.

Ryan hopes Winter Park Resort's land acknowledgment and recent attempts to become more inclusive serve as a model for other ski resorts.

"The outdoor industry is full of people who appreciate the land," he said. "At the same time, it's an industry operating in an extractive way with Native lands. They're profiting billions of dollars off of stolen land -- the outdoor industry as a whole. Working as a whole with the outdoor industry, how do we address that? How do we create equity there so Native people have a way of being on our own land?"

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