Climbing and Respect for Indigenous Lands

Categories: Perspectives , Community

On the approach trail to the world-famous Happy Boulders in Bishop, CA, you might notice a shallow, perfectly circular depression indented into the volcanic tuff of the pathway. Every season tens of thousands of climbers walk right past this piece of history without realizing what it is, or that it exists at all.

The depression is a mata, or grindstone, carved into the rock by the indigenous people of the Owens Valley, which in the Nüümü (or Paiute) language is called Payahuunadü, meaning the place of flowing water. For over ten thousand years the ancestors of the present-day Paiute tribe thrived in the valley, using grindstones like the one at the Happies for food preparation. The Nüümü/Paiute people are still there today, and it was a Nüümü woman who shared the history of the mata with me.

The Catacombs, Sherwin Plateau, Bishop, CA. Paiute (Nüümü) and Shoshone (Newe) Territories | Photo courtesy of © Kyle Queener

Every climbing area in America was at one time within the territory of indigenous people, and in many cases modern tribes still hold a connection to the same crags that are so important to climbers today. Areas like Bear Lodge (Devils Tower) in Wyoming, Bears Ears in Utah, Rumney in New Hampshire, and the Red River Gorge in Kentucky were and still are vital cultural and sacred sites for many tribes.

Every time we go out to the crag, we are on indigenous land, and sometimes sacred land. But what does it mean to acknowledge the indigenous history of the land, and why should it matter to climbers?

Tribal Land Acknowledgement

A land acknowledgement is a publicly stated recognition of the current and historic presence of an indigenous tribe or tribes on a landscape. Through land acknowledgements, climbers and others can respect and reflect upon the deep connection of tribes to their ancestral, and in some cases contemporary homes. Land acknowledgments also work to reverse the slow erasure of the indigenous link to the land, a trend that is perpetuated by both intentional policies (like forced removals) and by the process of resettlement, where the passage of time and the presence of new communities have given the false impression that the land was unoccupied in the past.

Land acknowledgement is not a new concept. Several nations, including Canada and New Zealand, have official policies at various levels of government for the recognition of indigenous lands. The US has been slower to adopt this practice, but it has been gaining momentum in recent years.

Land acknowledgements are intended to be a gesture of respect and recognition, a statement by an organization or individual that they understand the history of the land and the people who have been traditionally connected to it. They demonstrate an allyship with indigenous peoples and a desire to meaningfully engage with tribal communities.

Why Land Acknowledgement Matters to Climbers

Nearly every climbing area in America is still connected to an indigenous community today— whether as a homeland, a sacred site, or both—and it is important for climbers to think about how we interact with these lands. Though plenty of indigenous people are also climbers, the climbing community has had a mixed relationship with tribes over the years. Climbing on certain formations has been, and continues to be, in opposition to the wishes of some tribal governments (climbing is banned within the Navajo Nation in the four corners region, for example).

Petroglyphs, Newspaper Rock, Indian Creek, UT. Ute (Nuu-agha-tuvu-pu) and Pueblo Territories. | Photo courtesy of © Andrew Burr

But in recent years, the climbing and tribal communities have worked together to find common ground, especially around such issues as Bears Ears. In Utah, climbers and members of the Inter-Tribal coalition have become partners, with both recognizing the importance of the land to the other. Considering the extensive overlap of places that are treasured by both climbers and indigenous communities, and the history of violence, removal, and disconnection that has given climbers (and many other non-native parties) access to these lands in the first place, it seems both right and crucial to engage with tribes and the land with a high level of respect and recognition. Land acknowledgement is a basic first step in doing this.

Besides the obvious moral case for land acknowledgment, there is also a simple pragmatic one to be made from the perspective of defending climbing areas. When climbers take the time to work with tribes as partners in fair and equitable ways, our work at Access Fund tends to be far more successful. Partnership requires respect and understanding, and a land acknowledgement signals both.

What is Access Fund Doing?

Access Fund is actively working to develop internal policies to guide our work with tribes into the future. We are thinking about how to incorporate land acknowledgement into our operations, and we are seeking guidance from our partners in the indigenous community on engaging with tribes. Most importantly, whenever issues of access and conservation intersect with tribal communities and land, we are committed to finding solutions that respect both the history and needs of the tribes in question and the needs of the climbing community.

The climbing experience is an amazingly rich one. It is not only the physical act of climbing itself, but also the pleasure of spending time with partners and immersing ourselves in the land. That experience can only be enriched by understanding the human history of the places we love. The next time you’re on the approach to your local crag, take a moment to imagine and acknowledge what this place has meant to the hundreds of generations of people who came before us, and what it continues to mean to those who are still there.

This piece was developed in collaboration with Dr. Len Necefer of NativesOutdoors and Jolie Varela of Indigenous Women Hike.

Taimur Ahmad
Taimur is the Access Fund’s diversity, equity, and inclusion fellow, and also works on eastern Sierra and southern California policy issues. Taimur is from New York City (part of the region originally known as Lenapehoking) and got his start in climbing bouldering on Rat Rock in New York’s Central Park, on Lenape and Wappinger lands.

Credit Photo Courtesy of:
Joe Sambataro | The Homestead, AZ

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