Embracing her place within the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc people while pursuing a life of adventure is central to who 20-year-old Thompson Rivers University (TRU) student Kiya Bennett is. The Adventure Studies program has allowed her to focus on both.
“My Indigenous heritage is a big part of who I am,” says Bennett, who recently learned she’s the first recipient of the Mustang Powder Indigenous Adventure Studies Award at TRU. The award was created to encourage Indigenous students to pursue careers in backcountry guiding.
“Being in the Adventure Studies program has inspired me to share what I can and integrate (Indigenous knowledge) into my teaching lessons, which I think is pretty awesome. The best part is that people seem to listen and respect what I have to share. This is a program that encompasses who I am more closely than others. It’s a great balance of school and adventure.”
The award provides financial support but it also comes with mentorship and employment opportunities at Mustang Powder, a cat skiing operation and lodge owned by Ali and Nick Holmes-Smith located between Salmon Arm and Revelstoke in the Monashee Mountains. The duo started Monashee Powder Cat Skiing (now known as Mustang Powder Cat Skiing) in 1998 and six years later opened Mustang Powder Lodge. They also operate a summer business training horses and host the Mustang Powder Horse Trials annually.
“In our early years of operation, we were flat-out busy trying to make our business a success. Now that our company is well established, we are in a position to assist local First Nations youth to pursue careers in adventure tourism. We are fully aware that Mustang operates on First Nations land (Secwépemc) — and for that we are grateful,” says Nick Holmes-Smith, adding that Bennett is an ideal choice for the award’s first recipient.
“We hope that Kiya has a successful second year at TRU and upon her graduation, we are very keen for her to come and work at Mustang Powder next winter.”
Always up for a challenge, Bennett admits she doesn’t have the required skills to join the operation yet, but she’s excited to learn and says Holmes-Smith has been incredibly supportive about helping her access gear, ski lessons and whatever else she needs to build her skills before joining the team. The financial portion of the award will also help her buy gear she needs.
Since starting at TRU, Bennett has found a passion for paddling. Now that paddling season is paused for winter, she’s determined to add ski touring to her list of skills. While she plays multiple sports and has been snowboarding for years, her skiing experience is limited. Still, she is undaunted.
“It’s good to have something to work toward and it will open my experience and mind to new opportunities. If I want to go up there, I have to learn to ski and put in the work, so it’s a more rewarding process than if it was just handed to me,” she says, adding she looks forward to learning all aspects of operations at Mustang Powder, from cleaning to snow-science training.
Bennett is stoked about the award and acknowledges the significance of its connection to her Indigenous heritage. She attended Little Fawn Nursery and then Sk’elep elementary school, learning the culture and Secwépemctsín (Secwépemc language) for as long as she can remember. She is still learning, educating others and believes businesses need to do their part as well.
“I think that it’s not only important for the industry and businesses to support Indigenous students, but Indigenous people as a whole. To give them the recognition they deserve and to share their stories are what I think is important,” she says.
Faculty extends appreciation for new award
Doug Booth, dean of TRU’s Faculty of Adventure, Culinary Arts and Tourism, sees numerous benefits from the award.
“The Faculty of Adventure, Culinary Arts and Tourism, and the Department of Adventure are extremely grateful to Mustang Powder for the support it is extending to Indigenous students in the Adventure Guide Certificate and Diploma programs,” he says. “Hearty congratulations to Kiya Bennett, this year’s recipient. In her first year in the certificate program, Kiya has demonstrated outstanding leadership, and faculty believe that she has excellent potential moving forward to mentor other young Indigenous students.”
Holmes-Smith and the rest of the crew at Mustang Powder look forward to expanding their pool of potential employees through their partnership with TRU.
“The two-year program at TRU gives students a great foundation on which to move forward with their guiding career,” he says.
“The road to becoming a certified guide is long and expensive, so the Mustang scholarship program certainly helps students financially. My wife and I have been very fortunate to have created a successful business and we want to do as much as possible to assist others.”
Mustang Powder Lodge Inc. donated $50,000 to create the Mustang Powder Indigenous Adventure Studies Award to be disbursed through individual awards of up to $5,000. Prior to the formal creation of the award, Mustang Powder had already provided financial support to Indigenous students in the Adventure Studies program. They are also extending opportunities for graduating students to provide mentorship to Indigenous high-school students.
“This forward-looking initiative will help recruit students into the industry and undoubtedly contribute to the industry’s sustainability,” says Booth.