FORT HALL, Idaho - The Utes and the Navajo call her Snow Woman and rightly so. Captain of the U.S. Women's Olympic ski team at Grenoble in 1968 and three-time world champion freestyle skier, Suzy Chaffee's element is snow and the mountains are her heart's kingdom.
America's ski darling for decades, since 1997 Chaffee has focused on helping tribes and their youth reconnect with the world of snow by opening the mountains and high passes of their former territories back up to them through skiing.
Through the Native Voices Foundation which she established in 1996 with Colorado Ute Unity Leader, Alden Naranjo, Chaffee is building partnerships between Indian nations, U.S. ski resorts and athletes from around the world.
In the past two years, Chaffee helped more than 1,000 Indian children learn to ski by setting up a cross-cultural exchange between tribes and ski areas. Exclusive resorts such as Aspen and Vail opened their doors to Native dances and healing ceremonies. Pristine mountain slopes ring with chants not heard for more than a century.
In exchange for healing and cultural presentations, resorts give thousands of dollars in lift tickets, ski lessons and equipment rentals to Indian children, opening up the opportunity for them to learn to "fly like eagles" down the slopes of their native homes.
It is the ecstacy of such an experience Chaffee wants to pass on to Indian youth.
"Skiing opened up so many doors to a magical life, that my way of giving back is to help ensure that future generations will have these joyful opportunities in these majestic mountains," Chaffee says. "In welcoming back Native Americans to their ancestral land, to honor their gifts of ecology and democracy and share the joy of skiing, ski areas are finding that the sustainable wisdom of our First Americans is rubbing off."
Ski areas and tribes also find mutual cooperation is paying off.
This ski season Chaffee's focus is on the "Red Road to the Olympics." From the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes in Maine to the Ute, Paiute and Goshute tribes of Utah, Native Voices Foundation unites tribes and their local ski resorts in an effort to coach the "best of the best" skiers and snowboarders in Indian country.
Chaffee plans to coordinate the finest young Indian skiers and snowboarders the foundation helps hit the slopes this season, incorporating them in ceremonies and events scheduled during the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City next year.
"She is nurturing our youth to have Olympic dreams with her credibility and enthusiasm," says Rose Ann Abrahamson, cultural coordinator for the Native American 2002 Foundation. "You should see the students when they are around her. She's giving these children the opportunity to experience the Olympic experience ... nurturing them with the hope that someday they can be an Olympic champion."
The Salt Lake Organizing Committee has invited wide-scale participation from American Indians during the Olympics. Although plans for the ceremonies are extremely hush-hush, it is clear the Native profile will be high. Chaffee sees a tremendous opportunity for tribes to come to the cultural and spiritual forefront at the international level during the Games and is doing her best to facilitate tribal participation through the Native Voices Foundation.
If the recent World Cup competition at Park City, Utah, is any example, Chaffee's and tribe's efforts will bear fruit.
At the World Cup in November, European, Asian and American spectators watched as the mountain was blessed and the four cardinal directions honored in Paiute, Ute and Navajo by the president of the southern Paiute tribe. Abrahamson, a world champion dancer and a descendent of the Lemhi-Shoshone Sacajawea, headed up a group of Native American ambassadors who welcomed and congratulated competitors at the finish line. World champion fancy dancer Daryl Jack dazzled everyone with his spirit and athleticism. Recording artist Herman Begay sang traditional songs that echoed through the Wasatch mountains.
"This ceremony was an ideal way to start this important warm up season," said Park City event coordinator Ed Fraze. "The Native prayers for the mountain and competitors ... gave everyone a lift.
"The feedback has been fantastic."
So far a handful of tribes have committed to participate in the Native Voices Foundation and the Red Road to the Olympics effort. Chaffee and Abrahamson hope to have children from at least 20 tribes from all areas of the country represented at the Olympics next year. But contributions are needed to help make the magic happen for the estimated 2,000 youngsters who could be part of the program this season.
Although the resorts supply lessons, equipment, lift tickets and even transportation to the slopes, individuals and organizations are needed to help supply accommodations for the young people who ski and tribal members who participate in dances and ceremonies. Simple but vital things like ski gloves, jackets and pants for the young people are still needed.
Chaffee and Abrahamson hope tribes will take advantage of Olympic fever to make permanent inroads at the resorts. They also hope they will step forward to help - even if it's just supplying a day's lunches for the kids.
"I want to find the biggest-hearted tribes and the biggest-hearted ski areas in each state or region," says Chaffee. "And it will spread to the other ski areas like it did in Colorado."
Honoring nature's laws
Chaffee is the first person to admit her efforts are based upon the foundation of time and other people's contributions.
Recognition of tribes' importance began to dawn in the 1970s at Vail and Aspen where tribal medicine men "saved their butts," as Chaffee puts it, when lack of snow threatened resort economies. Medicine men agreed to help and performed ceremonies blessing the cardinal directions and invoking the snows. The result? It snowed and snowed and snowed.
Although resort administrative staff were both impressed and relieved, Chaffee said they really didn't honor the tribes for their contribution.
"It was more of a Republican, economic thing," she says. "But it was a start."
Chaffee, who had been coached by an Abenaki tribal member in Vermont when she was 5, also learned a profound respect for tribes and their knowledge of the natural world and its laws. Using "chairlift diplomacy" she impressed the powers that be with the advantage of further cooperation.
"I went to them and said, 'Look. If you were a Creator and you were thinking about blessing a place with some snow, would you look even more fondly on a ski area that also honored the guardians of Mother Earth who did the ceremony?'
"And they said, 'Yeah, I guess that makes some sense.'"
Today, with the environment in obvious trouble, people involved in outdoor sports are waking up to their responsibilities. Resort administrators are welcoming sacred ceremonies for more reasons than the economic bottom line. They welcome the examples of care-taking and wisdom that the tribes provide.
And tribal children reap the harvest of cross-cultural unity
"All of these tribes used to have mountain vision quests," Abrahamson says. "Their spiritual connection with the mountain, to be up there where the eagles fly, to be there, close to the Creator; to be there within the strength and power of the mountains ... I think that's been lost.
"She's bringing it back to them through a very thrilling sport that many of our children can ill afford."