From Breckenridge to Pine Ridge: The Tipi Raisers ride 400 miles on horseback to rebuild old ski lodge
As a cold, steady drizzle fell on Sunday, Sept. 21, two riders on horseback approached the west side of the Eisenhower Tunnel and stopped.
They stared up at the mighty Continental Divide and the thunderclouds in the distance.
The riders were Theo Two Eagles, a 23-year-old from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and Dave Ventimiglia, the 49-year-old executive director of The Tipi Raisers, a nonprofit working to strengthen the Lakota community in and around Pine Ridge and share the tribe’s culture.
On the third day of The Tipi Raisers’ 400-mile horseback journey from Breckenridge to the Pine Ridge reservation, Two Eagles and Ventimiglia took advantage of a short break in the weather and led their horses up the Divide.
At the top, Ventimiglia said Tuesday, he was awestruck by the stunning scenery. Two Eagles has been riding horses since he was 3, but he had never ridden one up and over the Continental Divide.
“Theo was just incredibly proud of himself,” Ventimiglia said.
On Friday, Sept. 19, The Tipi Raisers began their ride from the Breckenridge Nordic Center, which donated an old ski patrol lodge to the nonprofit in August. The Tipi Raisers, or Ti Ikciya Pa Slata Pi in Lakota, brought a crew from Pine Ridge who deconstructed the lodge in 10 days and transported it to the reservation.
There the organization plans to turn the lodge into a multi-use facility that will provide employment in a community with an 80 percent unemployment rate. The facility will serve as a headquarters for future Tipi Raisers projects and programs and as a Lakota-staffed retreat center for non-natives to stay while they engage in community service, immerse in Lakota cultural traditions and enjoy outdoor recreational activities at Pine Ridge and in the Black Hills.
Now though, the organization doesn’t have the money to rebuild the old lodge, Ventimiglia said, so it sits on the reservation like jigsaw pieces.
The Tipi Raisers’s ride aims to raise funds to rebuild the lodge while educating people about Lakota culture and the realities of issues like suicide and alcoholism facing the people of the reservation.
“There’s a real sadness and tragedy to what’s gone on with the Native Americans and the Lakota on Pine Ridge,” Ventimiglia said. “The Lakota have an enormous amount to offer the modern world.”
Ventimiglia said he hopes to raise $40,000, and the organization is already a quarter of the way there.
He plans to ride the entire four-week trip, while riders from Pine Ridge will swap out every week or so. People on the reservation are praying everyday for the small group, who are aided by one person helping to shuttle horses and coordinate other logistics like lodging and stabling for the horses.
“The horses are magnificent. You can’t help but bond with them,” Ventimiglia said.
In just a few days of riding, Ventimiglia said he and Two Eagles have traveled about 20 miles a day through high-alpine tundra and dense forests. The riders have visited one school so far, and they have been relying on the kindness of strangers as they have been invited into people’s homes to sleep as well as camping outside.
“You gotta be a little hardy,” said Ventimiglia, describing pushing through thick lodgepole pine stands and jumping over creeks. “It’s almost an altered state when you’re on a horse for hours.”
Breckenridge resident Joanne Stolen said she met The Tipi Raisers through Gene and Therese Dayton, the owners of the Nordic center who donated the lodge, and she went to see the riders off when they left the center Friday.
“Gene really wants to make sure that building gets built,” she said.
Stolen thought of friends who give aid to people in Latin American and Africa and decided to do something.
“We have people who are living in third-world conditions right in our country, and we’re kind of responsible for it really,” said Stolen, a retired microbiology professor and Nordic ski instructor. “Here we are this wealthy resort town, and here they are, one of the poorest places in the country.”
She called her friend, local musician Leon Littlebird, and organized a benefit concert and cultural celebration for the reservation at the Riverwalk Center for March 28.
Meanwhile, The Tipi Raisers invite people of all ages and abilities to join the ride for a day, or even a mile, to learn and support their cause. Those who can’t ride could sponsor other riders for $100 per mile, Ventimiglia said, though any donation would be appreciated.
To ride, donate or learn more, contact Dave Ventimiglia at (720) 412-3335 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit The Tipi Raisers website at thetipiraisers.org.
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