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In Vermont, a ski mountain goes back to the future

By changing Suicide Six to the original Abenaki name Saskadena, the mountain’s stewards have honored history and Indigenous people while acknowledging one of the nation’s most serious public health matters should be treated seriously.

Abenaki Indians did a snow dance at a Vermont ski resort, Jan. 22, 1989.AP Photo/Associated Press

SOUTH POMFRET, Vt. — Standing at the base of this small mountain on the outskirts of the picturesque town of Woodstock, you would never confuse it with nearby Killington.

The summit at Killington Peak is more than 4,000 feet high, while the mountain here in South Pomfret tops off at 1,200 feet.

But in 1934, when the nation’s first ski lift, a rope tow powered by a Ford Model T engine, was installed on farmer Clinton Gilbert’s pasture, 24 years before Killington opened, this small mountain loomed much larger in the winter sports world.

Two years later, Wallace “Bunny” Bertram, a Dartmouth College graduate and ski industry pioneer, took over the operation and moved it to a steeper, adjacent slope, called Hill No. 6. Bertram dubbed the new slope Suicide Six, jokingly suggesting that skiers willing to take a run down it risk killing themselves.

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Its name remained Suicide Six for some nine decades, until this month, when the mountain’s current owner, Woodstock Inn & Resort, renamed it Saskadena Six.

By doing so, it honored history and Indigenous people. The Abenaki, the Indigenous people of this region, had called the mountain Saskadena long before a bunch of well-heeled Ivy Leaguers cleared some trees so they could ski down it. In the Abenaki language, saskadena means “standing mountain.”

The impetus for changing the mountain’s name was driven mainly by acknowledgement that the old name trivialized suicide, which is one of the nation’s leading causes of death, especially for young people and marginalized groups such as veterans, LGBTQ+ youth, and Native Americans. The suicide rate in Vermont has been 30 percent higher than the national average for 15 years.

“We embrace the need for the increasing awareness of mental health and share the growing concern about the insensitivity of the word and the strong feelings it evokes on those in our community who have been touched by the tragedy of suicide,” Woodstock Inn & Resort president Courtney Lowe said.

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Lowe told me that in the 13 years he’s been at the resort, the problematic nature of the Suicide Six name manifested itself in everyday interactions between staff and customers. Those whose families had suffered suicides of loved ones regularly remarked on what they considered the insensitivity of the name.

The negative reactions weren’t confined to actual and potential customers. Lowe said a member of the resort’s public relations team was rebuked by someone in an elevator in Manhattan for wearing a hat with the resort’s name.

Even from a pure marketing point of view, the name suggested dangerous, difficult terrain, while, as Lowe points out, “it’s a friendly, family mountain.”

“Some people told us they were so uncomfortable with the name, they wouldn’t ski here,” Lowe said.

The mountain’s owners sought the input of Chief Don Stevens of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki Nation in renaming the mountain. Stevens enthusiastically backed the name change.

“This ‘standing mountain’ has been used by thousands of Abenaki ancestors for over 11,000 years and hopefully many more in the future,” Stevens said. “By acknowledging the original language of this place, the name Saskadena Six will honor the ancient legacy of the Abenaki alongside that of the generations who have loved it over the past 90 years and into the future.”

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Lowe agreed.

“We looked at so many names, but in the end ‘standing mountain’ stood right in front of us,” Lowe said.

There has been some pushback. On social media, some have complained that the name change is evidence of political correctness run amok, with one skier claiming that having “suicide” in the name actually encouraged necessary conversations about mental health. But overall, Lowe said, the feedback has been positive.

Stevens said it’s far more than a corporate rebrand.

“This is more than renaming the place,” he said. “This is recognizing the original stewardship of this land and providing cultural education to those who visit this standing mountain.”

While sports teams like the Washington Redskins had to be shamed into changing their names, the owners of a small mountain in Vermont did the right thing in recognizing and honoring Indigenous culture without being asked.

So, if it’s politically correct to respect the culture of Indigenous people and support suicide awareness without trivializing it, count me in.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe reporter and columnist who roams New England. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.