Lakota Skier Connor Ryan Wants You To Care

Photo: Matthew Tufts

To the Lakota people, water is life. This inspired pro skier is making deep turns (and films) to show why we all need to treat it as such.

“Growing up, I didn’t have any cultural relationship to being Native,” says Ryan, now 29. “It was more just like this piece of paper somewhere, a fun fact about my mom and my heritage.” It was his Irish father, after all, who taught him how to ski, while he jokes that his mother, a Lakota Native American, was “a famously bad skier.”

His outlook began to change when he was randomly assigned a project in his political science class at Metropolitan State University of Denver, on Native American voter participation, and he began to question “a lot of things.” He’d fallen out of skiing in his teenage years, but with newfound perspective and a few years cycling through “what it’s like to be young and broke and trying to find your meaning and purpose in the world,” he got back into the sport. At the same time, Ryan began revisiting his heritage, meeting people from his Lakota culture in the Black Hills of South Dakota and closer to him on the urban corridor of Colorado’s Front Range. 

Though the two budding interests “lived separately for a while,” it didn’t take long for them to overlap. Now a professional skier and filmmaker, Ryan recently debuted a 2022 environmental ski film called Spirit of the Peaks. It asks the question, he says, of “what it means to be in a relationship with the lands and honor the people who came before us.” Ryan still hosts showings and talks at universities and grade schools alike, speaking to Native students as often as he gets the chance.

Public Lands caught up with Ryan on location in Alaska, shooting his next ski and environmental film. While the project is still unnamed, the focus is on the Indigenous perspective and community impact of skiers and outdoor adventurers filming and extracting imagery from lands they’ve been on “since time immemorial.” He shares how he discovered a profound connection between the frozen water on which he skis and his culture, and why he thinks we all need to better honor water and rethink how it’s managed.

PUBLIC LANDS: When did the two of your passions—for skiing and Native American culture—first coincide for you?

CONNOR RYAN: We had a sweat lodge just outside of Nederland, Colo., and to do a ceremony that close to where I was skiing at Eldora made me realize that this water is the same snow I skied on, and I started to have this kind of spiritual idea of what it is to be part of Native culture. Water is in the ecosystem around us, in the case of Colorado and almost all the continental United States. It really started to help me see the ways these different parts of my life, that I thought were separate, really kind of pointed to the same thing.

Photo: Matthew Tufts

How does water, and how Native American people view it, relate to your skiing? And how is that connection so meaningful to you? 

That’s a really crazy thing that never stops being deeply transformative and spiritual in nature: To consider the fact that when you go to ski in the backcountry and some big open bowl full of snow, all that you’re moving through and interacting with is going to become part of countless other beings. That’s going to be in the cells of a tree, and in the cells of a bird and a deer, and also in human beings.

That moment when it’s just us there [in the mountains] with that [snow], and you get to move through it, and it brings you joy, and you have a smile on your face as you touch all those molecules of water that are going to go on and have this life-giving cycle beyond you: That, to me, is what I understand spirituality to be. It’s this deep sense of interconnectedness and joy and gratitude. And just this humbling sense of like, ‘I’m a really small part of all this that I’m skiing through and dancing through—and it’s like 60% of what I am, too.’ That’s a really moving and recharging thing to experience.

Should we all think like that?

If we can take that thought into consideration as we interact with nature, it can inform a lot of how we want to be in the world when we’re not on top of a mountain.

I realized all that because of my cultural connection. But no matter what your background, the color of your skin, where your ancestors are from, you’re touching water from the environment that’s going to travel through the environment. That’s an undeniable human thing.

What do you think is everyone’s common ground?

I think the simplest thing is water. When you look at the San Juans [southwest Colorado mountain range], they’re right above this vast expanse of desert that is dealing with the repercussions of how we manage water in the West. We’re looking at all these dams going dry, a dry year ahead of us with some of the most drastic water cuts we’ve ever seen. And it’s all from this mismanagement of water. Water is like the most essential thing for life—ours as human beings, but also for everything in the ecosystem. It really starts there, with gaining this understanding of, ‘Who’s water is this?’ Because, oftentimes, tribes are the first ones to experience the most harmful ramifications of industrialization and settler colonialism and capitalism. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not going to get passed along to the rest of the community.

People on the reservation are tracking water to their homes; they don’t have running water. And now we’re looking at a situation where all golf courses are still being watered. Ski areas still blow fake snow—the impacts of the economy making way more of its share than if you consider the ecology.

It could be agriculture as well. In a lot of cases, it’s like, ‘Why do we have giant freaking almond farms north of Tucson that are watered with all this water from the Colorado River basin? Why are we pumping water all the way to almonds in the F-ing desert?’ We’re doing the things that are profitable. It’s at the cost of ecology. And as human beings—we are nature—we also water things like lawns in front of our houses, but all the money in the world can’t make up for a river that isn’t flowing.

What can help the situation? Is it more awareness and activism or lobbying?  

The environmental expert we talked to for the making of the film said the first thing you can do is get rid of your lawn. People just pour exorbitant amounts of water to grow a non-native species right in front of their house in a climate where it doesn’t belong just for the aesthetic. We’ve all got our own little golf courses. And all those add up.

People make those decisions without being bad people. It’s just the cultural context with which we operate. And so that’s why I think it’s imperative, especially when it comes to public land management, to bring in Indigenous leaders and Indigenous values right away.

What about on a larger scale, what can be done?

From a policy standpoint, we need to treat resources like they are public, like public lands. But you can have all this public land and let a private company come in and take all the water from it, left and right.

I think LandBack policies and tribal co-management policies are a great place to start. Ecological understanding of what it means to be human is at the cornerstone of Indigenous values. In our culture, we call water our first medicine. We have this deep understanding. And so, it’s very unlikely we’re going to make a public lands management policy that puts water as a sacrifice.  

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