On Dzilh Yez (Hudson Bay Mountain, Smithers), skiing and Indigenous culture intersect
Dzilh Yez, Witsuwit’en territory (Smithers BC) — Fat flakes of snow fall lazily over the Seven Sisters Glades at Hudson Bay Mountain Resort as Keyento and Ashy Gagnon weave their way through the trees, laughing and squealing with joy when they find pockets of powder and tight little lines that connect pillowy drifts.
The teenage sisters are members of the Smithers Ski and Snowboard Club and they spend every weekend at the hill, honing and developing the skills they’ve learned since they started snowboarding at ages 9 and 10. They’re 15 and 16 now and sport matching nose rings and ride with ease and grace.
They love the ski hill and say they’re grateful they get to spend so much time here, through the youth programs the resort and the Witset community have established together. One of those programs, called Mountain Mentorship, gives kids from the community free lift passes to make sure they can get out on the slopes. Lex Rei-Jones, the resort’s general manager, says they’ve worked with a number of groups and individuals to make the ski hill more accessible to youth and adults alike.
But the Gagnon sisters still wish there was more on-hill representation of its Witsuwit'en roots and they're hopeful to see reconciliation on the ski hill continue.
“I didn't even know these stories,” Ashy says on the chair lift, talking about Witsuwit’en place names and the meanings behind them. This is where Dolores Alfred comes in. A Witsuwit’en language keeper and member of the Tsayu Clan, she is visiting the ski area and meeting with the Gagnon sisters to share some of that heritage with them, with the resort and with our SnowSeekers audience.
Dzilh Yez (Hudson Bay Mountain): a Witsuwit’en mountain of many uses
Non-Indigenous people call the mountain Hudson Bay Mountain but its Witsuwit’en name—which predates the arrival of nïdo (settlers) by thousands of years—is Dzilh Yez (Hudson Bay Mountain). It sits on Gidimt’en Clan territory. More specifically, it’s part of Cas Yikh (Grizzly House) territory, whose chief is Dinï ze' Woos.
Looking up at Dzilh Yez (Hudson Bay Mountain) from the sprawling valley below, the ski hill is on the left, its runs standing out in contrast to the darkness of the forest, and a glacier spills out from a notch to the right, locally known as Glacier Gulch. That part of the mountain is called Ts’idek’iy, which means “The Woman Who Gave Birth to the Valley.”
These are more than just names and stories. They carry deep meanings and have histories that thread through the millenia Witsuwit’en have stewarded the land.
“Traditionally when you go into the land, you have the intention and you say to the land that I'm here with respect to take only what I need,” says Alfred. These are learnings Alfred has been sharing with Tourism Smithers and Hudson Bay Mountain, to help further local recognition of the Nation and its place here.
Respect is called “wiggus” in Witsuwit’en and it underscores every part of the nation’s culture and ways of being. Going into the mountains is never taken lightly and one way of ensuring you’re paying proper respect to the niwhts’ide’nï, the ancestors, is by putting charcoal on your cheeks so they can see you.
Alfred’s dad taught her to respect the yintah (land) by communicating respectful intention, speaking to the animals and plants and to the land itself.
“He says, ‘Dolores, say that you're here for a little while to share the land with you … just here for a little while and I'll respect your surroundings.’”
Before the mountain became a place of recreation, it was mainly used for its natural resources, like whis co (devil’s club), horsetail and chaga, Alfred says. It still is.
Whis co grows abundantly on the mountain and is used for medicinal purposes. A variety of berries burst into life each summer and locals, Witsuwit’en and nïdo alike, regularly trek to their favourite spots to pick bucketfuls.
In winter, hunters used to harvest caribou. While the caribou are now endangered, hunters and trappers still harvest several other species during the colder months.
“And now Dzilh Yez is a place where children [and] adults enjoy skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing,” Alfred adds.
"Respect our awesome hill"
Rei-Jones says she’s proud of the work she’s been involved in to make sure Witsuwit'en community members can access those activities. She adds the resort works with Elders and knowledge-keepers to make sure staff know about the long history of the lands they’re working and playing on.
“The past couple of years, we've had an Elder come up on our team training day to do a traditional welcome and explain the territory that we're on to our staff,” she says. “They come from all over the world and they have no idea about the history and the cultural significance.”
This year, Tsakë ze' (Chief) Timberwolf, Mabel Forsythe welcomed the team to her clan’s territory.
For Ashy and Keyento, having opportunities to learn and share more about that heritage is a step in the right direction but they would like to see more.
Ashy points to the chairlift towers and says she’d love to see them painted with Witsuwit’en designs. “Indigenous drawings all over the hill would be pretty cool,” she says.
"And maybe just at the top of every lift, a sign like: ‘You're on Witsuwit’en territory. Be respectful.’ ”
Rei-Jones says conversations about signs that incorporate Witsuwit'en language and place names are in progress and she loves the idea of painting the towers.
While the resort and the community work towards greater recognition of the mountain’s Witsuwit’en roots, the sisters already feel a sense of connection here. They love that they get to spend so much time on their boards.
Snow in Witsuwit’en is “yis” and they both absolutely adore the stuff. Their eyes twinkle when they talk about what they love to do. For Keyento, it’s about freedom.
“You can be away from people most of the time,” she says, smiling. “You can go as fast as you want, as slow as you want, you can learn stuff—you can do whatever you want up here.”
“I'm very grateful I get to come up here,” Ashy chimes in. She says she loves the powder and racing with the club. She gets a mischievous look on her face when asked what she would say to people thinking about coming to visit.
“Spend all your money here. Don't get lost in the trees.” She keeps a straight face but her eyes are laughing. “Just respect our awesome hill.”
When you go
Smithers BC isn't just a destination; it's the homelands of the Witsuwit’en people. Learn more about the heritage the Nation has on this land, through this bio and introduction to Witsuwit’en culture with Dolores Alfred on the Tourism Smithers website.
When you choose to ski and snowboard at Hudson Bay Mountain Resort, you're showing support for a ski area that is taking reconciliACTION.
Here's how to make your Smithers ski and stay experience beyond epic.
Ski & ride: score a powder paradise at Hudson Bay Mountain Resort, which boasts pristine slopes that cater to all skill levels, making it a haven for all, including the Gagnon sisters and their clubmates.
Stay: after a thrilling day on the slopes, unwind in the charming mountain town of Smithers. Quaint shops, cozy cafes, and friendly locals create a warm and inviting atmosphere, making your ski getaway a truly memorable experience.
Ready to carve your own path in the snow? Book your ski & stay in Smithers BC for an unforgettable ski experience that blends adrenaline, natural beauty, and the warmth of a welcoming community. Your winter adventure awaits! #SkiNorthBC #SmithersVibe