Folks attending the first Blackfeet Skijoring last month enjoyed two days of horse and ski racing plus assorted other events. In addition, they witnessed the culmination of a process that began in 2016 when the Skijoring community took interest in staging the event in Blackfeet Country.
“For seven years we’ve been trying to do winter activities,” Blackfeet Manpower Director George Kipp IV said. Manpower held its first such event at Red Eagle Campground in 2021. Called the “Winter Wonderland,” it offered cross country skiing and an assortment of snowy activities for Reservation young people.
In the meantime, skijoring experts had already identified the Reservation as a possible place for that sport to occur. Beginning in 2016, they inspected various locations that might serve, including Chewing Blackbones, Red Eagle and the Buffalo Calf Spirit Ranch. The first two, they decided, were too far away for folks to get to easily while Buffalo Calf lacks parking.
Also in 2016, it was Manpower that put together the first annual Veterans Powwow at Chewing Blackbones on the Fourth of July. Gayle Skunkcap reports it was the Reservation community that asked for such an event and George Kipp IV who went to his staff to pull it off.
The following year in 2017, Vacation Races chose Looking Glass Road and the East Glacier Park Lodge as their site for the Glacier Half Marathon. Once again, Manpower organized the event, a vast undertaking involving literally thousands of athletes with their families and friends. Their success was such that the half marathon is now an annual event that draws hoards of visitors to Blackfeet Country each June.
These successful ventures led Manpower to develop what Skunkcap called a vision of tourism. With that in mind, Kipp sent his staff to Albuquerque to the national meeting of the Native American Tourism Association.
“It all started at Chewing Blackbones, but that was a summer event and we wanted something for the winter,” Skunkcap said. “We wanted skijoring and knew about it for years, but the weather wouldn’t cooperate. We were discouraged so we started the events at Red Eagle Campground … and there was a lot of interest for something other than high school sports. The fee was $25, and we went to Tribal programs and the schools to sponsor kids so everyone could go. Now we’re partners and we’ll probably do it again. And the Tribal Council recognized our organizational skills to pull it off.”
In light of their accomplishments, the Tribal Council transferred the properties managed by Parks and Recreation to Blackfeet Manpower in 2021, including Charging Home Stampede Park.
Lack of snow precluded skijoring the last two winters, but this year conditions looked better, so the Manpower director sent a team to Whitefish to observe the event. There they met the founder of Skijoring magazine, Scott Ping, who welcomed them and offered help.
“We partnered with them there,” Skunkcap said. “He was so happy he gave us the plans for their track with a J-hook for the horsemen, and the rules — the whole playbook. But they were skeptical because the time was so short, just two weeks. They take four to six weeks for planning and construction, but we totally amazed them because of George’s staff. They were totally blown away that Manpower could do it so fast … [Scott Ping] said it was one of the best events he’s seen in 25 years.”
Assembling such a large event also meant jobs for clients of Manpower.
“Our goal is employee training,” Skunkcap said, “to get the clients out in the workforce to get stability in their lives, and we’ve had success stories that have brought funding to our training programs. It was because of Manpower funding that we were able to employ so many people.”
From security to cleanup, scores of folks found work at the event, including 60 adults and 15 students from Browning High School.
“We utilized the community and Tribal members to enhance the area, and now we’re a national model,” Skunkcap said. “Other Tribes are visiting us for advice.”
Another unexpected benefit of skijoring is a possibly earlier opening of Charging Home Stampede Park to spring and summer events.
Skunkcap said, “It was a learning experience for Manpower. For example, the snow fence on the south track was full from the east to the west side. Horsemen have complained every year about wanting to get in, but the snow isn’t out until May. Moving snow in the winter can bring an earlier opening in the spring.”
Now that the first iteration of skijoring is in the books, folks at Manpower are already debriefing and preparing for next winter. Christy Horn reports her brothers are getting ready with proper equipment, and Kipp IV said Manpower is planning ski instruction for next year’s riders.
“The skijoring network are all talking about it,” Skunkcap said. “It was really emotional for people who have been doing it for years.”
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