Pro skier aims to get more Indigenous youth on the slopes in Juneau

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Professional skier Ellen Bradley at Native Youth Snow Sports Community Night at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Jan. 6, 2023. (Photo courtesy of K̲aachgóon Rochelle Smallwood)

Ellen Bradley is a professional skier, but a trip to Eaglecrest last winter was the first time she’d ever skied in her traditional homelands. Now sheʼs working to help Alaska Native youth in Juneau get the same benefits that she has from the sport.

“Spending time on the land can address so many things in a person’s life,” she said. “But I think mental health is especially one of them — to just move your body with the land.”

Bradley hosted the Native Youth Snow Sports Community Night at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall in Juneau on Friday. The event offered prizes, like a formline snowboard designed by Lingít artist James Johnson, and featured live music by Southeast Alaska favorite Ya Tseen. It’s part of a broader effort to remove some of the barriers that face Alaska Native youth who want to ski. 

Bradley, who is Lingít, learned to ski from her dad as a young child in Washington state. She says it helped her feel connected to the land, but she didn’t see many other Indigenous people on the slopes while she was growing up.

“I had my brother and I had my dad, and everyone else I skied with was white,” she said.

She says the sport can seem off-limits — even to people who are Indigenous to the land a ski mountain sits on. One program she hopes will start changing that offers ski trips for youth to Eaglecrest, hosted by the Douglas Indian Association. 

Benson Bullock with DIA was at the event, helping sign kids up for the trips. He says they started last spring.

“My supervisor said I should figure out a way to take kids up to Eaglecrest in March and April and get them lessons, get them gear, just get kids out on the mountain,” Bullock said.

This year, he wants the program to get even more kids on the mountain. The first trip will be in January, though the dates aren’t set yet. Another is planned for March.

Bradley thinks that efforts to get kids on skis could mean more Indigenous people in the skiing industry as a whole.

“So they can become the professional skiers, so they can become the ski instructors, the lifties. So they can eventually become the people running Eaglecrest and making the decisions about what skiing is, where it happens,” Bradley said.

Ryland Tompkins, one of dozens of kids at the event, could be one of the future pros Bradley is thinking of. He hasnʼt skied or boarded yet, but his uncle Joe Tompkins is a Paralympic ski champion.

Ryland said he wants to learn, too. 

Bradley is hopeful that more and more Indigenous kids will start participating in snow sports.

“I think the future of skiing in Alaska is Indigenous,” she said.

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