Snow sisters: Team Kwe, the only all-women Indigenous snow sculpture team in the U.S.
A look at the tight-knit community behind snow sculpting, the "crazy little art sport"
FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. — As the wind blows across the darkened Minnesota State Fairgrounds, snow sculptor Heather Friedli is feeling the almost-zero temperatures in her knees. They feel “rubbery,” and it’s happened before. In fact, Friedli, who has been snow sculpting for 15 years, says she’s developed something like permanent callous on her knees from all her bouts of frost bite.
It’s nearing the end of day two of three of the Minnesota State Snow Sculpting Competition, Jan. 27-29, at the Vulcan Snow Park. Friedli, the captain of Team Kwe, is joined by her sister Juliana Welter and her “snow sister” Kelly Thune, a team substitute (the best you can get, really, Thune was on the team that won the World Championships in Stillwater the week before).
Their 2023 sculpture design — knitting needles, yarn and knitting — is inspired by Team Kwe member Maggie Thompson, who had to bow out at the last minute due to a family emergency. Thompson is a textile artist and knitter.
The trio gather around their chiseled mound, what started the morning before as a 8-by-8 foot packed cube of snow. It’s three degrees Fahrenheit.
Surrounding them, spotlights cast strange blue shadows of creatures rising from other teams — a lacey fungi cluster; a snake and bird in a fight to the death; a swan mother nuzzling her cygnets; “Thing” from “The Addams Family.”
With less than 20 hours to go, there is much work to be done. Thune the sub couldn’t start helping Team Kwe until 6 p.m. the first day, so they’re behind and they’ve run into trouble carving the needles straight. The ball of yarn is also more difficult than predicted.
“You would think a sphere is a sphere, but it’s actually really difficult to sculpt a sphere,” Friedli says. “We’ve been doing this a long time and we were like, ‘What the h---?’ ”
The team laughs. After dozens of hours on site, are they still having fun?
“This is what I call ‘type two’ fun sometimes, where it's really hard when you're doing it, but after you go ‘That was great.’” Friedli says.
“If we didn’t like it, we wouldn’t do it,” Thune adds.
Joy — and motivational fuel — to work in freezing temps, they say, comes from spending time with their “snow family,” fellow sculptors who they see mostly during the intense competitive snow sculpting season that runs through January and February.
Thompson later adds she thrives on “the endurance you have to have with the intensity of Minnesota winters,” and the camaraderie.
In what Friedli calls her “crazy little art sport,” bonds form over sharing tools and staying up all night, taking breaks in warming houses, or, in the case of the Minnesota competition, the warming chapel. Thune’s brother Dusty, captain of House of Thune, the team that won the World Championships, often brings music to play through the night. Friedli says it helps her to chisel to the beat.
That night, Friedli will remain on site, grabbing an hour or two of sleep on the chapel floor. The day before, it was just the sisters. Friedli and Welter were working in the icy sunshine, scaling their block like ants on a sugar cube.
As they chisel, brush and push-shovel, they explained how the team formed in 2021, with veteran snow sculptor Friedli, who is also a painter, as the lead.
Friedli is a bit of a star in the snow art world. She got her start with a friend 15 years ago in Ely while she was working as a camp counselor. Then she was on Team Dino Fight!, which won the 2017 state competition, and the 2019 national championships. She also subbed on the German team for the 2022 World Championship in Stillwater. And she competed on the Disney+ reality competition, “Best in Snow,” which aired in November 2022.
For her current team name, they chose “Kwe” because it is an Anishinaabemowin term for woman.
“We all have Anishinaabe roots, so we decided that we would pull from that strength and call it Team Kwe,” Friedli says, squinting in the whiteout sunshine.
Friedli and Welter, who live in St. Paul and south Minneapolis respectively, are first generation descendants of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. Thompson, who was born and raised in Minneapolis, is an enrolled member of the Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
To their knowledge, they are the only all-women Indigenous team in the country.
“This sport is male-heavy, first of all, so being an all-female team is kind of special,” Friedli says. “But also, you don't see too many people of color out here snow sculpting.”
“We're in Minnesota on Native land, so it really feels important to have that influence in the snow as we're working with something that comes from nature and goes back to nature,” Welter adds.
“It's important to share those stories,” Friedli says. “Especially during storytelling season. It's winter. The snow is on the ground. This is the traditional season for telling those stories.”
Because of the lack of Indigenous representation in the small world of competitive snow sculpting, Team Kwe tries to weave in stories of Anishinaabe culture.
For the team’s first Minnesota state competition in 2021 (which was only a drive-by symposium because of the pandemic), they sculpted the regalia of a jingle dress dancer. Thompson herself was a jingle dress dancer, Friedli explains. The sculpture won the People’s Choice award.
“Our grandma was a jingle dress dancer,” Friedli says, nodding to her sister. “But also, the jingle dress specifically was made during the last pandemic, which was the flu pandemic of 1918, and it was created because somebody had a vision that if people would dance with this jingle dress on, that it would bring healing. So, we wanted to bring healing to that.”
At the 2022 Indigenous Arts Festival in Mankato, the team, with the help of Kelly Thune and friends, created a “fancy shawl dancer” sculpture with bison to honor the victims of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic. And for last year’s Minnesota state competition, they carved a winged bison who had snagged the pants off some poor fellow with its horns.
This year, they chose the theme of knitting. This was to honor Thompson. Knitting is also historically a women’s pastime, something that may not show up often in this male-dominated “art sport.” Team Kwe also chose it because it was ambitious and technical.
With minutes left in the competition on day 3, Friedli, Welter and Thune are sanding and picking out the finer detail of the intricate knit pattern. While visitors begin stopping by to ooh and ahh, the team says its unfinished. They wish they had an extra day, Welter says. “There's never enough time in the world for any snow sculpture,” she says.
“There's one thing I know about snow: I usually say I'll never do something again and then I do it again,” Friedli says. Then she starts to sing: “Because we’re masochists.” They laugh.
A horn blasts at noon, and the team puts down their tools. The trio hugs for a prolonged moment. Murmurs of “I love you” and “That was tough” seep out of the parka-clad huddle.
What are they feeling?
“Tired,” Friedli says.
“Pain,” Welter says.
“Emotional,” says Thune. They miss Thompson, they say. But they’ve been texting her updates the whole time.
The team is also beginning to crash from the adrenaline.
“You just put so much heart and soul into it,” Friedli says. “Your whole body is in it so your whole body is exhausted.”
House of Thune is announced as the winner with its fungi sculpture, “Flakeophora sculptorious.”
Team Kwe already must turn their attention to the next competition: The National Snow Sculpting Championships in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Feb. 1-5. Their design is an otter swimming underwater with lily pads floating above, all framed by traditional beadwork and floral patterns. Thune has agreed to join them, again. They begin Feb. 1.
Welter looks back at their creation.
“I'm feeling good now that it's over. The sun is on my back, but it's cold so the sculpture is looking good, and I'm just happy. We did it together, and it kind of came together,” she says.
“I love you, sister,” Friedli says.
To follow Team Kwe’s journey through Nationals, find @friedliarts on Instagram or Facebook.