"The outdoor industry needs to recognize how exclusive it is to Native people, and act to address that as more than just a marketing ploy." (Photo: Courtesy Jaylyn Gough)

Jaylyn Gough Asks: Whose Land Are You Exploring?

The founder of Native Women's Wilderness talks about how she developed her organization and how far we still have to go

Courtesy Jaylyn Gough(Photo)

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Jaylyn Gough, a full-blooded Navajo adopted and raised by a white woman on a reservation in New Mexico, founded Native Women’s Wilderness in 2017. She spoke to us about her upbringing, her mission, and how the outdoor industry both helps and hurts her cause. As told to Jayme Moye.

As a little kid, I was outside all the time. We lived in Tohatchi, New Mexico, which is rez country, and we were hardly ever allowed to watch TV. My mom was constantly pushing us outside. “Go explore,” she’d say. “God made this land for you. Go explore.” So we did. It was perfectly normal to flip baby rattlesnakes at each other, for the boys to put black widow spiders in the girls’ hair. We had this sense of curiosity and adventure about the land, this feeling that nothing was off-limits. Except for playing in the arroyos. That was the absolute no-no because of the flash floods. Of course, we still played in them.

We had the Chuska Mountains around us and all this wide-open space. The smell of sage blowing in the wind. We sat and watched the sunset a lot. And then, when we moved to Gallup when I was in elementary school, we lived by mountains known as the Hogbacks. The rest of my childhood was spent exploring their flanks, scaling their cliffs, and answering every dare of “I bet you can’t climb that” with “I bet you I can.”

It was near the end of elementary school when I decided that I was going to be an explorer for National Geographic. My mom—who, along with my aunt, always encouraged me that I could be anything I wanted to be—subscribed to the magazine. I was completely engrossed with expeditions and exploring, really intrigued by Mount Everest and K2. But there weren’t any women, let alone women of color, represented on the world’s tallest peaks. That was my first glimpse that exploration is a white man’s world.

In college, at Fort Lewis in Durango, Colorado, I was introduced to the commercial outdoor industry. Until then, I’d never heard of REI or realized there were names for the things we’d done as dares as kids, like rock climbing and downhill mountain biking. And all the gear! I’d only ever climbed freehand. To learn that people climb with a rope and a harness, I was like, wait, why? On summer breaks, I worked at a nonprofit as a guide for youth backpacking and mountain biking trips and got my first pair of hiking boots. That’s also when I climbed my first fourteener.

The trail that John Muir explored—the 210-mile route through the High Sierra backcountry that now bears his name—is actually an ancestral Paiute trade route.

After college, I started a career as a social worker in Gallup. That’s when I realized the outdoors wasn’t just something I liked; it was something I needed to cope with life. Being a social worker is hard. People are going through some of the worst things you can go through: poverty, desolation, substance abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse. And you’re going through it all with them. I’ve come to understand it as the pain of my people. I was conceived in this pain, abandoned by my birth mother in this pain, and sexually assaulted on the reservation in this pain. As an adult living in Colorado, I was singled out in a crowd by a white supremacist because of my race and verbally assaulted in this pain. I deal with it by trail running and mountain biking or just jumping into my Jeep and driving into the woods after work. The outdoors is where I scream into the wind, cry, and ride out my anger. It’s what keeps me sane.

But for a while, I didn’t see other Native Americans out there. Literally years went by—I think it was 2012—before I saw someone else like me. I was at an endurance mountain bike event in Gallup called Dusk ’Til Dawn with Zia Rides, an organization I worked for on the side as a race coordinator for eight years. There was this Native guy racing named Randy. We talked, and we were both kind of shocked. I was like, “I thought I was the only one!” And he was like, “I thought I was the only one.” We seemed to be operating in a world that was solely the realm of white people.

It didn’t get any better when I moved to Boulder, Colorado, in 2015. I immediately got into climbing fourteeners and felt like the lone representative of Native Americans doing that in their ancestral lands. I also noticed that even though there were way more outdoor retailers in Boulder, I only ever saw white women in the advertising materials and signage. It was kind of like National Geographic all over again. I remember thinking, “There has to be more of me out there.”

Then, in 2016, Standing Rock happened. For the first time in history, 500 tribes came together to stand up against the government. It was a huge, huge deal. I went several times to help as a behavioral health worker. I really feel like it was the pivotal point in our history, where we, as Native people, were like, “Whoa, people are finally listening to us. Our voice matters now,” versus having always been the afterthought—the mud that you accidentally step in, the “last on the totem pole.” Standing Rock is where we finally rose up. It was also the first place since childhood where I felt safe to fully embrace my Native heritage, to walk tall in it, to own it.

If you look at the Native people who brought us Standing Rock, they were people in their late twenties and mid-thirties. My generation. And once we found our voice, we started using social media to amplify it—first for Standing Rock, and then so much more. Accounts were popping up on Instagram: Jolie Varela’s Indigenous Women Hike, Len Necefer’s Natives Outdoors, Erynne Gilpin’s Indigenous Womxn Climb. I was like, I knew it! I knew there were others out there like me. I launched Native Women’s Wilderness in 2017. I originally conceived of it as a platform for Native women and girls to showcase their photos and outdoor experiences—a virtual place to come together. Now it’s becoming a movement. I have six ambassadors—Native women who are active and adventurous in the outdoors and committed to improving the lives of people on the reservations. The plan is for each to begin leading group hikes and bikes and other outdoor adventures. We have our first gear sponsors, Deuter and Big Agnes, and we’re days away from having our 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.

One of my first initiatives is increasing awareness about whose land we’re exploring on. So, for example, Blanca Peak. It’s the fourth-tallest mountain in Colorado, located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Few people know that it’s one of the Four Sacred Mountains of the Navajo Nation, that it’s the traditional eastern boundary of the Dinétah [Land of the Navajo]. Its Navajo name is Tsisnaasjiní, which means “white shell mountain.” For whatever reason, we aren’t taught this in school or even in the guidebooks. But people seem interested in talking about it now. And getting that information out there feels like a positive start to the reconciliation of our history.

The outdoor industry needs to recognize how exclusive it is to Native people and act to address that as more than just a marketing ploy.

Sometimes the true history is hard to hear. Growing up, I was really enamored with John Muir as a naturalist and an environmental philosopher. Then I started doing research for my campaign “Whose Land Are We Exploring On?” and learned he said all these horrible things about the Ahwahneechee Tribe in Yosemite. Muir was complacent in their displacement and thought they were ruining the beautiful view of Yosemite. And the trail that John Muir explored—the 210-mile route through the High Sierra backcountry that now bears his name—is actually an ancestral Paiute trade route and already has a name: Nüümo Poyo. Nüümo means “people,” and poyo means “road” or “trail.” How do you reconcile that?

One idea—and this comes from Jolie Varela’s Indigenous Women Hike, not me—is to bring a group of Native women to hike all 210 miles of the so-called John Muir Trail as a symbolic act to reclaim their ancestral trade routes. I’m not Paiute, but I plan to complete the trek with them in solidarity and for the continued healing of women from all our Nations. I’m helping get the word out about this hike to outdoor companies, for potential gear sponsorship and support. I’m not having a lot of luck. I wonder if maybe the outdoor industry isn’t ready for something like this yet.

Canada is further along in this regard than the United States. Reconciliation with Native people is an official initiative in Canada. One of my ambassadors, Erynne Gilpin, is Canadian. She lives in British Columbia. Even Canada’s term for indigenous peoples, First Nations, conveys a deeper respect. It acknowledges that there were fully formed nations—as opposed to uncivilized tribes—living on these lands before white settlers arrived.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a formal apology for the boarding school effect [separating First Nations children from their families and forcing them into Western-style boarding schools designed to eradicate their native culture] and Canada’s other historical abuses to indigenous people. While there is still more work to be done, so much healing came from that—someone finally paying attention to and taking ownership for what had happened to the First Nations people in Canada. I dream of something like that happening here. What Obama did a few years ago, signing a letter of apology that was completely swept under the rug, is not the same thing.

I want to be optimistic that the shift we need in this country can start in the outdoor industry. Like coming together for Bears Ears and other public lands. Like how, in July 2017, for the first time ever, the Outdoor Retailer trade show attempted to address diversity in the outdoors through panel discussions—I was one of those panelists and was honored to participate. But at the same time, the outdoor industry needs to recognize how exclusive it is to Native people and act to address that as more than just a marketing ploy.

One way to do that is to stop romanticizing Native culture. Using the word “tribe” in your marketing or including teepees as part of your Outdoor Retailer show product display is offensive. It completely glosses over the hardships Native people endured. It’s not romantic—it’s colonialism. Same with using sacred symbols and patterns of our culture without sharing the profits. Consider using Native artists to do the work or seeking permission from the Native nation that “owns” the symbol. If you’re not sure, ask. We’re out there, I promise.