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On the road to the Olympics

LEAD, S.D. ? The list of Winter Olympic athletes for the Salt Lake Games of 2002 makes an obvious error ? no American Indian athletes.

Consider that the fastest downhill skier in America, Ross Anderson, is Cheyenne and Arapaho. It doesn't matter. His event isn't included in the Olympics. He's also the second fastest man in the world on skis at more than 173 miles per hour.

The Winter Olympics has not been an event that many young Native people have had an opportunity to explore and compete in at the lower levels of competition, until now.

An organization called Native Voices foundation has been working feverishly to create an atmosphere where young American Indian potential athletes can have a chance to explore the winter sports on skis and snowboards. Its board of directors includes people from many sports, tribal and federal governments, and tribal members who care about youth.

A Dec. 22 ceremony at Deer Mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota honored American Indians and blessed the mountain. It was a kick-off for other ski areas to follow. Special prayers and events not only asked for young people to participate actively, but sought to help them along the journey to become more involved in winter sports.

The ceremony was also a time to announce the commitment by winter sports suppliers to provide gear free of charge to American Indian athletes. Deer Mountain will receive some $30,000 worth of skis, boots and clothing for free use by American Indian students who come to the resort.

"I was looking for an avenue to combine the cultures. I saw the program on the Internet. I told them we have some 30 schools from the reservations that come to Deer Mountain to learn to ski, and that's what started this," said Randy O'Neill, owner of Deer Mountain.

"The equipment is free for American Indian youth to use," he said.

He said there was a growing involvement with American Indian students and with the equipment and right encouragement and training, he said he hoped there would be a tribal youth from the Great Plains in a future Winter Olympics.

Bryce In The Woods, councilman for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said this program was an opportunity to bring about diversity and look forward for the young people. "I am hopeful that Olympic-caliber athletes will participate in winter sports. Some people here today are from one of the poorest counties in South Dakota and we need to turn this around with an opportunity like this for the young people," he said.

Arvol Looking Horse, 19th Generation keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Woman sacred Pipe, broke away from the spirit or unity ride to Wounded Knee to attend the ceremonies at Deer Mountain. He brought seven of the spirit riders with him formally to honor the mountain and the ski program for young people.

"We come here to promote unity and peace. The children need a better environment and future, the future is our children.

"We see things that hurt, but also see good things," Looking Horse said.

Looking Horse took advantage of the ski lessons held after the ceremony. James Kleinert, Seneca, former U.S. Freestyle Team member, told the former rodeo rider to do what he knows best. That is promoting world peace and unity, but in sports, Looking Horse is from the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, which has spawned many professional rodeo figures. This year Tom Reeves of Eagle Butte, a Cheyenne River tribal member, became the world champion saddle bronc rider.

The ski program promotion for ski resorts across American began with Suzy Chaffee, Olympic gold medal winner in the 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympics. She acts as the co-chair for the foundation. Chaffee redefined the art of skiing with ski dance and her own freestyle creations.

Chaffee became involved with American Indian skiing by working with the Ute and Navajo nations. She was honored with the name Snow Woman for her efforts. Now the ski program that offers free equipment and opens the resorts to all peoples is growing with the help of senators, representatives and business leaders.

Chaffee started a program to award an athlete from each tribe a set of skis provided by the ski equipment industry. The recipient at the Deer Mountain ceremony was Leilih Smart, an eighth grader at Cheyenne-Eagle Butte School on the Cheyenne Indian Reservation. Leilih participates in track, basketball and cheerleading. Although she hasn't skied for six years, she said she liked the program and will spend more time on the slopes. She was cheered on by Ross Anderson.

Students from Takini School and other schools on the Cheyenne River Reservation participated in the Deer Mountain program and were treated to lessons and two days of skiing. Chaffee and Kleinert provided the lessons to anyone who wished to participate.

"This is a grass roots program that started at Deer Mountain," Chaffee said.

Some role model American Indian athletes will participate in the ceremonies at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Billy Mills, former Olympic champion; Tom Reeves, rodeo champion; Ross Anderson, fastest American on skis; James Kleinert, Seneca, will be among the dignitaries at the ceremonies.

To promote and show American involvement in the 2002 Winter Games, Lloyd Bald Eagle from Cheyenne River is producing a documentary called "The Red Road to the Olympics." His film crew includes Kleinert, who became an award-winning filmmaker as well as skier. It was filming during the Deer Mountain ceremony.

The Ute, Navajo, Shoshone and Bannock tribes will have villages and cultural awareness presentations during the Winter Olympics. A tipi village will also be on display to honor the American Indians of the Great Plains.

For more information about the ski programs organized by the Native Voices Foundation log on to www.nativevoices.org.