Long ago when people still traveled the mountains on foot and horse, and before anyone thought of mechanized chairlifts and skis or snowboards, members of the Crow Nation traversed the Bighorn Mountains. They climbed the slopes in the area of what would one day become Antelope Butte Ski Area, while on vision quests and seeking a sacred tobacco seed that grew in the valleys on the other side of the mountain, said Truman Ropes Good, a member of the Crow Nation.
“This is Crow Country,” Ropes Good said standing in front of Antelope Butte. “This is a sacred mountain.”
On July 18, Ropes Good and Leonard Bends, a Sundance chief and medicine man, blessed the mountain on behalf of the Crow people and in anticipation that it may reopen in winter 2016-2017 as a community ski area.
The blessing took place during a summer festival July 17-19, which kicked off a public financing campaign to reopen the mountain, said Jamie Schectman, executive director of the Antelope Butte Foundation.
In early July the foundation signed a purchase agreement with the U.S. Forest Service for $275,000. That buys the existing infrastructure, including the lodge and chairlift. The foundation has 45 days to raise the first $55,000 payment as well as $30,000 for an assurance bond. The final payment for the purchase sale agreement is due in November 2016, Schectman said.
Reopening the ski area also requires the foundation to raise about $4 million to repair and buy new equipment and infrastructure, he said.
Antelope Butte opened in 1960 with a single rope tow. It grew into a small ski area that eventually included a chairlift in 1987. It was here, with cheap lift tickets and few frills, where local kids learned to ski before making their way to the big-name ski areas with massive terrain, fast lifts and expensive tickets. Despite its popularity among locals, it closed in 2004, said Mark Weitz, president of Antelope Butte Foundation.
In 2011 Weitz and a group of area residents formed a nonprofit with a goal to reopen the ski hill, located 59 miles west of Sheridan and 35 miles east of Greybull. It’s a community asset they believe is too valuable to lose. They hope to revitalize it as a recreation area with summer offerings and more skiable terrain, while keeping with its historic importance as a place where kids from all backgrounds can learn to ski. That will include kids from the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana, Schectman said.
Skiing and snowboarding is often a luxury sport, inaccessible to those without resources — transportation and money for gear, lift tickets and lessons, Ropes Good said.
While a formal plan isn’t yet complete, the ski area will partner with the Crow Nation to make sure kids from the reservation have the opportunity to ski at Antelope Butte, Schectman said
“This is their mountain,” he said.
The partnership between the Antelope Butte Foundation and the Crow Nation is important because of the Crow’s ties to the area. The partnership also fits the mission of the ski area, which is to make skiing a more accessible sport, Schectman said. The average lift ticket at big resorts is now more than $100, he said. That isn’t attainable for many people to pay to learn the sport.
The mountain blessing this month was the first Ropes Good ever offered at a ski area, but the mission of the foundation is important to the Crow people.
“It makes my heart beat a little faster to think of our kids saying ‘Let’s go skiing,’” Ropes Good said.
It will offer a chance to not just learn a new sport, but also to connect the younger generation to the mountains that have been so important to the Crow, he said.
His ancestors camped in the area and regularly traveled across the mountains. Every year, near what is now Ranchester, the Crow gathered. Today there are kids on the reservation who rarely, if ever, travel through the mountains. Many haven’t seen Antelope Butte.
Several dancers and drummers accompanied Ropes Good and Bends to Antelope Butte for the blessing. They demonstrated traditional dances and asked spectators to join in one group dance. The mountain already was bringing people together and keeping the traditions of the Crow alive, Ropes Good said.
Bends offered a prayer in Crow and performed a smudging ceremony, blessing each cardinal direction.
In the blessing Ropes Good and Bends prayed for the foundation’s success in its fundraising and efforts to open the mountain. They also prayed for the people who will one day come to the mountain to ski and ride, Ropes Good said. For them they prayed for safety, but also that they’d find joy and an appreciation of the mountain that will continue to be passed down through the generations.