“Snow Sisters” Sculpt Ice into Indigenous Stories

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from left, 2022’s shawl dancer and, from 2023, knitted fabric and “Ngig Nibi Ganawendan (Otter Water Protector)"

Laurie and Debbie say:

Three Anishinaabe women are making a beautiful cold name for themselves as “Team Kwe,” sculpting snow into fine-art images. Roxanne Hoorn profiles them and their work at Atlas Obscura.snow

It was the trio’s first time competing in the National Snow Sculpting Championships. They call themselves Team Kwe, after an Anishinaabemowin term for women; as far as they know, they are the only snow sculpting team in the United States that’s made entirely of Indigenous women. The towering sculpture that emerged that wintry Wisconsin night in 2023, an otter diving beneath lily pads titled “Ngig Nibi Ganawendan (Otter Water Protector),” won them second place in the People’s Choice category at the competition.

Team Kwe’s captain—and the most experienced of the trio—is Heather Friedli, a visual artist based in St. Paul who has spent the last 13 winters as a professional snow sculptor. Friedli recruited her sister, Minneapolis karate teacher Juliana Welter, in 2019. Kwe’s third member, who joined in 2021, is Maggie Thompson, a Minneapolis-based textile artist. The team uses their snow sculpting designs to connect to their own identities as Anishinaabe women—the sisters being of Odawa descent, and Thompson, Ojibwe—and to tell a story with their work. “Traditionally in the Ojibwe culture, storytelling season is when there’s snow on the ground,” says Friedli. “For us, telling a story is important.”

Hoorn’s article makes it clear how much hard physical labor goes into snow sculpting: the otter sculpture (third in the group above) took over 50 hours to compete — and, of course, the conditions that keep snow sculptable are not comfy for humans. As Friedli says, ” During a competition, snow sculpting teams often work straight through the night, aided by fresh socks, hot coffee, and plenty of what Friedli calls ‘vitamin ibuprofen.'”

Their 2023 competition theme was

knitting, a craft generally done by women, who are rarely represented in the male-dominated field of snow sculpting. Team Kwe’s design would feature a ball of yarn, needles, and knitted fabric. To demonstrate the pattern, Thompson ran to the restroom and came back with toilet paper, which she expertly knitted between two paintbrushes.

As a knitter herself, Debbie knows what it takes to knit toilet paper with paintbrushes, and is not surprised that this is the work of an artist.

Their work ranges from the intensely serious to the near-slapstick:

In 2022, for the Indigenous Arts Festival in Mankato, Minnesota, their sculpture featured a bison and a shawl dancer, honoring missing and murdered Indigenous women. While their pieces often have serious social messages, Team Kwe also has a sense of humor, says Friedli. For States in 2022, they carved a winged bison with a pair of jeans snagged on its horns, based on an infamous tourist misadventure when “a lady got her pants ripped off by bison,” says Friedli.

From left: Team Kwe captain Heather Friedli, Fern Naomi Renville, and Maggie Thompson. Newcomer Renville joined the team as a substitute at the last moment for the 2024 Minnesota State Snow Sculpting Competition

They’ve had their share of mishaps and quick team switches.  In 2023, Thompson, who knew most about knitting, had to drop out and was replaced by Kelly Thune, a star from another indigenous team with which Team Kwe gets along extremely well. In 2024,

Welter had to bow out due to a sudden illness. In a situation that echoed events in 2023, Team Kwe put out a call on social media. As fate would have it, just a week earlier, Fern Naomi Renville—a St. Paul-based theater artist and enrolled citizen of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate—had admired the designs at the Worlds and decided she wanted to try snow sculpting. The following weekend, she was in her first competition as part of Team Kwe.

The team’s sculpture was called “Wenabozho and Dadibaajimad Journey on the River of Souls,” and was a homage to Ojibwe artist Jim Denomie, who died in 2022. The piece illustrates a traditional Ojibwe story of two figures—Wenabozho and his brother Dadibaajimad—on an otherworldly journey. According to Ojibwe tradition, when someone dies, they travel the Milky Way in a canoe to join relatives who have passed before them.

In 2024, they also had to contend with above-freezing temperatures, which unsurprisingly really complicates snow sculpting. So the ravages of climate change affect — but so far have not stopped — their art.

St. Paul is, coincidentally, the first big city in the United States to have an all-female (but not all indigenous) city council, which makes it an especially apt place for the center of this exciting work.

I feel really interconnected with the world when I’m out there sculpting, creating, and knowing that the pieces go right back to nature,” [Friedli] says. “It’s the circle of life, and reminds us that even we’re impermanent, just like the sculptures.


Thanks to Mona Eltahawy’s invaluable newsletter, Feminist Giant, which hosts Samiha Hossain’s global roundup of feminist news.

Debbie has deleted her Twitter account. Follow her on Mastodon.

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