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Arizona's Native Deep

Arizona's Native Deep

Features
By Andrew Slough
posted: 01/15/2002

In the land of the sun, Sunrise resort surprises skiers with 11,000-foot peaks and snow that seems heaven-sent. No wonder Apaches revere these mountains. At 31 years old, 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, with dark eyes and crow-wing-black hair, Ivan Kasey is a quiet man. His name may evoke a romantic pairing of pale English and White Russian aristocrats, but in truth, Ivan Kasey is a full-blooded Apache whose quiet modesty owes much to his father, Earl Kasey, the White Mountain Apache tribe's first fish and game officer. Ivan's great-grandfather was Chief Alchesay One, an Apache scout who earned the U.S. Medal of Honor during the Cochise Wars between the U.S. and the Apaches in the 1860s.

It's late January, and the combination of an arctic outbreak and a subtropical jet stream has dumped a foot and a half of blue-smoke powder on Arizona's Sunrise Park Resort. Standing in the shadow of the ancient wolf pines that ring the 10,700-foot summit of Sunrise's Cyclone Circle, Ivan Kasey pauses to study Tempest's sheer face. Loaded chairs are stalking us up the mountain, and a dozen frenzied boarders will soon cut the pristine surface to ribbons. But Ivan is in no hurry. On this, his day off from the Sunrise Ski Patrol, he plans to savor the untracked snow.

He gestures for me to follow.

The image of a smiling Ivan Kasey skiing deep powder offers a stark contrast to Apache history. Though Ivan's ancestors once claimed 60 million acres across what is now Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico, in the three centuries since the tribes first made contact with Spanish settlers, and later with the U.S. Army, generations of Apaches have suffered severe privation.

The Apaches called the soldiers ndah, which translates to "white man." The ndah could not pronounce or make sense of the Apache language, so to keep track of the braves, the soldiers gave them English names. If they were lucky, it was Kasey, Endfield, Hughes or Lee. If not, it was simply a number. Either way, the soldiers helped strip the Apaches first of their identity and later their land.

The 1861 arrest and subsequent shooting of the Chiricahua Apache leader Cochise started the decade-long Cochise conflict. The first confrontation between the White Mountain Apaches and the U.S. Army occurred in 1869, when Brevet Col. John Green led a small expeditionary force that burned more than 100 acres of the Apaches' corn and destroyed a number of buildings that contained stored food-decimating their winter food supply. Green's act should have sparked a battle, but instead an agreement was made with Green to protect the peace-loving White Mountain Apaches from the encroaching miners, loggers and settlers.

On May 16, 1870, Fort Apache was built by the First Cavalry near the town of White River. While the fort was under construction, the soldiers arrested a Medicine Man named Noch-Ay-del-Klinne.

Settlers had accused the Medicine Man of stirring up the tribes. In the ensuing Battle of Cibecue, Noch-Ay-del-Klinne, a number of his followers and eight U.S. troopers were killed. Weeks later, mounted braves were driven off when they attacked Fort Apache in retaliation. The war ended when Apache leader Geronimo and the Chiricahuas were loaded into boxcars and exiled to Florida. Geronimo was eventually transferred to Fort Sill, Okla., where he died in February 1909 without ever being allowed to return to Arizona.

Now, a century later, I point my tips down Tempest, explode a bump, unweight, explode another and then stop in amazement. The last thing I expected to find in Arizona was deep powder under blue skies. Where are Arizona's prickly saguaros? Or its poisonous Gila monsters?

The truth is that skiers rarely think of Arizona as a vacationdestination. And when they do, they're usually convinced it is too far south and thus too warm and too dry to support a ski area. Absent from that impression is the fact that Arizona's five 11,000-foot peaks-all considered holy by the White Mountain Apaches-regularly rake moisture from the subtropical jet stream. And when it does snow, it snows with fierce intensity.

Located 220 miles northeast of Phoenix the eastern boundary of the White Mountain Apache Reservation, Sunrise encompasses three mountains: 10,700-foot Sunrise Peak, 11,300-foot Apache Peak and the 10,700-foot Cyclone Circle. Owned and operated by the White Mountain Apaches for all of its 32 years, Sunrise is Arizona's largest ski resort. (See page 88 for information on Arizona's three other ski areas.) About 80 percent of Sunrise's 200,000 annual skier visits comefrom in-state, with the remainder drawn from New Mexico, Southern California and Mexico.

Expert chutes such as Eclipse and Ronnie's Dream plummet off Cyclone, while Apache Peak's broad Young Girl and Elkhorn are favored by intermediates. Snaking from Sunrise's summit, Crown Dancer and Maverick are typical of the resort's wide, fir-flanked alleys, which mix Apache history with perfect fall lines. Sunrise skis larger than its 800 acres, and on this bright, cold morning, Ivan and I explore the knee-deep, barely tracked snow on Arrowhead and Superstition, then catch the gentle Lodgeview lift back to the modern base area.

While loading the Sunrise Quad, I listen as Ivan speaks Apache to the lift attendant. Framed in low vowels, soft consonants and short pauses, the language's ancient rhythms make me realize that every Western movie I'd watched as a kid got it wrong. Ivan confesses that while the older men and women will answer in Apache, reservation children and teenagers reply in a pidgin of English and Apache. He laments the cultural erosion. "Apache is the polite form on the reservation," he says. "But the younger generation now relies more on English."

Noting half a dozen kids riding the lift, I wonder aloud if Sunrise has a chance of placing the first Apache on the U.S. Ski Team. Shaking his head, the solidly built patroller replies that most of the young skiers come from Springerville, Pinedale and Show Low, all towns outside the reservation.

Born and raised in the White Mountains, Ivan remembers that learning to ski was an easy choice. If he kept his grades up, he could get out of school one afternoon each week. For that reason, he is unsure why more Apache children don't ski. With roughly 60 percent unemployment among the 18,000 people on the White Mountain Reservation, expense certainly plays a part-even at a school-group rate of $15 per day for lifts, equipment and instruction.

Sunrise Mountain Manager Bill London offers to drive me to Fort Apache one afternoon. London, who is one-quarter Native American, was raised on the White Mountain Reservation and learned to ski at Sunrise, where he later worked for the ski school, ski patrol and then as marketing director. During the drive I admit I'm surprised by Sunrise's snow. London tells me that though Sunrise suffered consecutive droughts in 1999 and 2000, during a normal season the resort's peaks capture 250 inches of snow and hold it well into April. Making the turn into Fort Apache, he says Sunrise is typical of most ski resorts. "When skiers switch to golf, tennis and mountain biking in the spring, the lack of numbers, not the lack of snow, forces the mountain to close," he says.

Located on a defensible promontory near the town of White River, and with more than 20 buildings dating from 1870 to the 1930s positioned across its 288 acres, Fort Apache's school, military cemetery, restored village, cultural center and museum offer powerful insights into Apache history.

London introduces me to Ramon Riley, the Apaches' cultural resource director. A strong man in his mid-50s, Riley is responsible for the preservation of Apache oral histories, archival materials and objects of cultural, historical and artistic significance. Surrounded by the Cultural Center's haunting photos and artifacts, Ramon relates how, as part of the young braves' conditioning, they would fill their mouths with water and then run to the top of a high mountain. Hours later, and well past dark, they would return to camp without having drunk a drop.

Riley is the son of Mary Riley, the first woman to sit on the Reservation's Tribal Council. He's an accomplished musician whose White Mountain Apache tape of traditional songs reveals a man reconnecting with his heritage. Flipping through a binder filled with photographs of artifacts now owned by New York museums, Riley relates how some were purchased from starving Apaches for a can of soup, while others were stolen at the point of a gun. He is now working to have the intricately woven baskets, ceremonial dresses, and hundreds of other artifacts and human remains returned to the White Mountains. Among the most valuable are the war shirts and shields of long-dead braves. Ramon explains that the pieces are extremely potent and must be returned to the reservation. "They possess powerful war medicine and are bad for the ndah," he says. "Once they are returned to the reservation, a ceremony will be held, and they will be put away for safe keeping. Only then will our life be at peace," he says, shaking his head.

Besides the Sunrise ski resort, the White Mountain Tribe generates income from timber harvests and from the sale of trophy-elk hunting permits. But the biggest moneymaker by far is the Hon-Dah Casino. Meaning "welcome" in Apache, the Hon-Dah runs slot machines and games of draw poker. I've never been especially lucky at either, and this night I feed a one-armed bandit in a futile attempt to win a 2001 turbo Mitsubishi. Brent Kurth manages the Hon-Dah, and tells me the casino donates $1 million a year to tribal education and scholarships. It's just as well I don't win the Mitsubishi; I dismiss my gaming losses as a worthy donation to higher education.

On my last day at Sunrise, I arrange to meet Ivan on the mountain. As he skates toward me, I realize how much has changed since the Apaches followed migrating game out of the snowy peaks and into the desert.

Named after Russians and Englishmen to whom he bears no relation, Ivan is as proud of his Apache heritage as he is of his wife, Bonnie Ann, whom he met while instructing, and their year-old daughter, Mikayla Nalyinn (Young Girl). While riding the chair, he says he wished he had seen the White Mountains in the 1800s. He speaks of Yolsin, the sole Apache god, and describes holy places known only to tribal members. He mentions a place of prayer behind Apache Peak and tells me of a cave on the Salt River where the ancients once made offerings of turquoise beads. Holding out his hand, he says, "If you do not come with respect and honesty in your heart, if you reach into the cave to steal the turquoise, a rattlesnake will curl around your arm."

Ivan and I ski the gentle runs off Apache Peak and the steep faces off Cyclone Circle. While the snow falls in cold torrents, we take a left onto Arrowhead off Sunrise Peak. On this gray day, Arrowhead's perfect pitch is softened by deep powder. I ski near the trees, where the snow washes up past my knees. Pointing my skis into the next bump, I feel the light crystals wash across my face.

No...this is not what I expected from Arizona. Not snakes in caves, nor war shirts that evoke power, nor snow that cascades over your head. Not Holy Mountains, nor the living history of the 300 Apaches who tune skis, load lifts, groom runs, teach skiing and fire the bright spectrum of Sunrise.on of Mary Riley, the first woman to sit on the Reservation's Tribal Council. He's an accomplished musician whose White Mountain Apache tape of traditional songs reveals a man reconnecting with his heritage. Flipping through a binder filled with photographs of artifacts now owned by New York museums, Riley relates how some were purchased from starving Apaches for a can of soup, while others were stolen at the point of a gun. He is now working to have the intricately woven baskets, ceremonial dresses, and hundreds of other artifacts and human remains returned to the White Mountains. Among the most valuable are the war shirts and shields of long-dead braves. Ramon explains that the pieces are extremely potent and must be returned to the reservation. "They possess powerful war medicine and are bad for the ndah," he says. "Once they are returned to the reservation, a ceremony will be held, and they will be put away for safe keeping. Only then will our life be at peace," he says, shaking his head.

Besides the Sunrise ski resort, the White Mountain Tribe generates income from timber harvests and from the sale of trophy-elk hunting permits. But the biggest moneymaker by far is the Hon-Dah Casino. Meaning "welcome" in Apache, the Hon-Dah runs slot machines and games of draw poker. I've never been especially lucky at either, and this night I feed a one-armed bandit in a futile attempt to win a 2001 turbo Mitsubishi. Brent Kurth manages the Hon-Dah, and tells me the casino donates $1 million a year to tribal education and scholarships. It's just as well I don't win the Mitsubishi; I dismiss my gaming losses as a worthy donation to higher education.

On my last day at Sunrise, I arrange to meet Ivan on the mountain. As he skates toward me, I realize how much has changed since the Apaches followed migrating game out of the snowy peaks and into the desert.

Named after Russians and Englishmen to whom he bears no relation, Ivan is as proud of his Apache heritage as he is of his wife, Bonnie Ann, whom he met while instructing, and their year-old daughter, Mikayla Nalyinn (Young Girl). While riding the chair, he says he wished he had seen the White Mountains in the 1800s. He speaks of Yolsin, the sole Apache god, and describes holy places known only to tribal members. He mentions a place of prayer behind Apache Peak and tells me of a cave on the Salt River where the ancients once made offerings of turquoise beads. Holding out his hand, he says, "If you do not come with respect and honesty in your heart, if you reach into the cave to steal the turquoise, a rattlesnake will curl around your arm."

Ivan and I ski the gentle runs off Apache Peak and the steep faces off Cyclone Circle. While the snow falls in cold torrents, we take a left onto Arrowhead off Sunrise Peak. On this gray day, Arrowhead's perfect pitch is softened by deep powder. I ski near the trees, where the snow washes up past my knees. Pointing my skis into the next bump, I feel the light crystals wash across my face.

No...this is not what I expected from Arizona. Not snakes in caves, nor war shirts that evoke power, nor snow that cascades over your head. Not Holy Mountains, nor the living history of the 300 Apaches who tune skis, load lifts, groom runs, teach skiing and fire the bright spectrum of Sunrise.

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