Beyond Acknowledgment: Winter Stories

Finding Balance in Traditional Ecological Knowledge
By Geneva Mayall, Neshnabe (Citizen Potawatomi Nation)

Photo by Micheli Oliver (@micheliphoto)

This write-up was originally featured in our Spring 2023 Trail Break issue.

The Bodwéwadmimwen (Potawatomi language) word for “winter” is bbon, which translates to “everything has stopped.” My ancestors come from the Great Lakes, a place where winter has a way of freezing time, agendas, egos, and forcing people to bundle up and be in community. This teaching is such a juxtaposition to the fast-paced, “get after it” attitude that I often see take over the growing mountain town that I live in, the town currently known as Bend, Oregon.

Being a multicultural woman in these types of communities has given me the gift to learn to walk in two worlds. My love for big days in the mountains, dawn patrols before work, and getting rowdy at the resort is balanced with my reverence for Segmekwe (Mother Earth). I believe it can be such a gift to get to play hard, go fast, and also find the moments to whisper migwetch (thank you) to the relatives—both plant and animal—that commune on Turtle Island.

Our tribe recognizes winter as a time to tell stories. When gon (snow) blankets the earth, it means the spirits are asleep so we are safe to tell stories about them. These stories are not just for entertainment; they are our classrooms; they are what hold Traditional Ecological Knowledge; they teach us how to be in relation with the natural world. I listen to these stories and learn to be observant, to be humble, and to listen to and respect our plant and animal relatives.

When taking my Avy 2 course last winter, I had a realization that much of the curriculum is about making observations in the field: listening, trusting intuition, and putting ego aside. I remember a distinct moment of belonging and connection because it reaffirmed all of the teachings of my ancestors that I knew already. The lessons of backcountry safety are innately Indigenous. How we look at the slope, observe where the snow has been transported by wind—even observing the trees and how snow encapsulates their branches can tell us a story about the snow. These aspects of the backcountry are in their own way storytelling. This is my connection to winter, my connection to backcountry skiing, and my connection to my culture.

With a degree in environmental studies, I can’t shake the weight of the climate crisis. I can’t help but think about the implications of climate change on my culture. Without snow, we cannot tell our stories; without our stories we cannot share our traditional knowledge —both ecological and anthropological. Protecting winter is protecting culture and vice versa. It is a reciprocal relationship. A great first step to becoming involved in this protection is to acknowledge whose land we recreate on. Then we can take it a step further. As a storyteller and story seeker, I urge my communities to seek out the stories that make up the land we recreate

Learning a story builds a deeper relationship. Building relation with the land and the original people who still reside on those lands only brings more knowledge and connection. It is through this community-based storytelling and seeking that we can help protect and preserve the traditional knowledge embedded in our endangered winterscapes.

Migwetch (thank you).

In our photo captions throughout Trail Break, we acknowledge the ancestral and ongoing stewardship of Indigenous lands. We recognize that this acknowledgement is only a first, insignificant step toward addressing the many historical and ongoing injustices that underlie and undermine our current public lands system. Winter Wildlands Alliance is committed to improving our allyship with the Indigenous communities on whose lands we have the fleeting privilege to work and play, and to taking impactful action toward equitable access, environmental justice, and the restoration of Indigenous leadership in the stewardship of the Earth we all love and depend on.

GENEVA MAYALL is a multicultural woman who walks in two worlds, honoring her Potawatomi ancestors and living in a recreation-based mountain town. When she’s not in the mountains with two skis on her feet, she’s in a classroom helping Native youth find their voices and empowering them to graduate, hone their skills, and give back to their communities and Turtle Island.