Outdoor Recreation & Indigeneity: Where They Intersect & Where They Clash

Outdoor recreation is a form of physical activity condoned by many health experts. For example, in the United States, a Health & Human Services (HHS) report called The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity 2001 specifically identified recreation activity as an attractive way to engage in exercise. In many parts of the world, outdoor recreation often looks like walking trails and hiking, typically through parks or reserves. It can also include bouldering or rock climbing, mountaineering, camping, geocaching, fishing and hunting, horseback riding, or simply road-tripping to far flung destinations to capture nature and landscape photography. Besides providing an alternative to the gym or television, outdoor recreation is a wonderful opportunity to explore new places, relax, and “be one with nature”.

Indigeneity, on the other hand, is a place-based phenomenon. It is the idea of being Indigenous, of belonging intrinsically to a physical and spiritual space. Indigeneity is generally inseparable from culture, oral tradition, ancestral ties, and therefore entire identities. In fact, when we discuss clashes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, we are most likely discussing these deep-rooted value systems which are at odds with one another. For example, the Apache people in Arizona have long opposed a copper mine in their traditional lands (albeit off-reservation lands). The land in dispute may not be under their present ownership, but it is a sacred place to them much like Mt. Sinai or Mecca are to major world religions. To those without Indigenous ties, it is merely another mountain whose destruction is worth it for the materials contained within. It therefore is vital to understand the roles of epistemology and worldview when describing Indigeneity.

Now, to many people the connection between outdoor recreation and Indigeneity may likely seem obvious: Outdoor recreationists appreciate the land, have a desire to protect the environment, and want to see lands set aside for recreational purposes. An example of such solidarity between outdoor recreationists and Indigenous peoples can be seen in Utah where the Bears Ears Monument, sacred to many Native American tribes, also falls in the sprawling desert landscapes which have inspired coalitions to protect it under the phrase “Keep Utah Wild”. Similarly, at Standing Rock when tribes and environmentalists alike came together to protect the land from the Dakota Access Pipeline, “Water is Life” became a unifying cry. After all, doesn’t the stereotypical environmentalist – a hippie, right? – pair perfectly with the earth-worshipping Native American?

Ah, well that’s exactly where the problems start.

Outdoor recreation (and environmentalism, in general) can indeed align substantially with Indigenous perspectives by the very nature of what Indigeneity is: Relying directly on the local environment basically requires anyone to be a good steward of it, and so an Indigenous person traditionally understands this and practices methods of living with this understanding. That being said, just because a person is born Indigenous does not mean they are born with some DNA coding that forces them to think that way. If that were the case, there wouldn’t be so many empty dumps on reservations. In fact, perpetuating a tree-hugging stereotype of Native Americans means they are not seen as modern people, their identities are pushed through a modern sieve as being archaic and of no contemporary value, and the true root of issues plaguing Indigenous communities are overlooked. (If you were to assume stereotypes of Native Americans are true, would it even occur to you that a severe lack of recycling and appliance disposal programs are direct causes for the extent of dumping pollution in many tribal communities?)

These unintentional stereotypes often lead non-Indigenous peoples to making the wrong assumptions of how they can “help” or ally with Native communities. Returning to the example of Standing Rock, environmentalists rallied to offer support against the pipeline for the majority purpose of protecting the tribe’s water source. While the integrity of the water was absolutely vital, it was far more complicated than that. First of all, the Standing Rock Sioux have creation stories tied to the particular waterways of question, a spiritual component – the gravity of which is nearly impossible to comprehend from the outside looking in. Second, the most immediate threat to the tribe was less about the environment and more about their sovereignty as a nation the United States has repeatedly tried to swallow within its own jurisdictions for centuries. The tribal nation was taking a stand against the U.S. in an effort to protect unceded territories as defined by the Fort Laramie treaty; for even treaties that are broken, they are not abrogated by their breaking. When environmentalists have been confronted with this reality (through my personal experience) however, they dislike it. Not only does it not fit their tidy narratives and agendas, but it also poses another dangerous threat: If Americans actually allied with Native Americans, they would have to acknowledge the treaties still stand and that much of their personal wealth (in terms of land holdings) actually has clouded title under federal law. In other words, they might realize the land is not theirs and that they are part of the problem.

These examples might seem to fit an anti-capitalist, environmental agenda more than an outdoor recreationist’s theme, but there are few degrees of separation if you come at it from my perspective. Yes, it is hard to not discuss Indigeneity without mentioning capitalism; for the exploitation of land for profit rather than responsible stewardship and reciprocity, that is exactly the trending difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous realities. Environmentalists appreciate this difference, and so you would expect our typical outdoorsperson to also appreciate pristine nature and a non-exploitive use of the natural world.

But some of us also define exploitation differently.

In the more recently colonized parts of the world, such as the United States, there are legal battles ongoing between the colonizers and the colonized. Although both populations might live in the same cities, study at the same schools, and work the same jobs, their value systems and histories might feel much differently represented in the greater picture of society. For example, the Pueblos of the southwest have mind-blowing architecture thousands of years old that still stand today. They invented the idea of a living city, demonstrating how thermally-efficient, interconnected communities can be built as one unit rather than the overshadowing, competing structures of today’s typical city. However, Spanish conquistadors committed genocide against them and to this day their descendants have little acknowledgment for their accomplishments. Instead, Columbus Day is still largely a national holiday, and statues of the Spanish colonial leaders still stand in plazas across states like New Mexico. Meanwhile, American textbooks glorify the continent’s history and inventions starting circa 1776.

And that brings me to my culminating point: The relationship between the land and the person.

In many Indigenous cultures, the land holds stories beyond just the oral traditions. There are true histories in these spaces, written and unwritten. There are land formations that are sacred, mountains for prayer, riversides for ceremony. There are taboos in some cultures for where you can or cannot go or where, and many Indigenous peoples practice putting down tobacco or other prayerful methods before embarking on a trail, sending a climb, or entering a particular space. It is not expected that all outdoor recreationists understand that or that they will try to do these same practices (because sometimes that can be inappropriate if not appropriative), but the real question is: Do most non-Indigenous peoples even consider the land they’re on in terms of its sacredness in the eyes of their Indigenous counterparts?

Exploitation of the land isn’t always in the form of a pipeline, mining endeavor, or other land transaction. Exploitation of the land can include using trails and outdoor spaces without any respect or consideration for the people who traditionally occupied it. A project out of Canada (native-land.ca) was one of the first resources to attempt to map traditional Indigenous land holdings as a way to provide information about whose land one is standing upon. The website is often used as at least a starting point for land acknowledgement, or basically starting a talk or a hike, etc., by identifying who traditional was a steward of the land and acknowledging who or where they are today. (In the United States, there are many tribes who live on their homelands and many who were forcibly removed far away from them.) Land acknowledgment has become a bit trendy and, while it is a start, it is, alone, still not enough.

The purpose of land acknowledgement is to create visibility. It is to unbury the truth about the spaces we occupy to validate the existence, experience, histories, traumas, celebrations, cultures, and beliefs of peoples who are typically under-rug-swept. Many outdoor recreationists may not realize this practice, and many others may not see why they should bother. It is true: There is no written rule book that such a thing should be done, or that any respects should be paid. But there is also no written rule book on how you have to act when you’re a guest in someone else’s house – it’s just common courtesy! That being said, there are also many outdoor recreationists who go off trail, pick wildflowers they should not pick, and blatantly disregard rules with no care whatsoever about Indigenous title. One of the most common problems on Navajo lands, for example, is the popularity of certain mountain formations and rock climbers who want to climb them. These formations are often sacred. In fact, the Navajo Nation explicitly states in its laws that mountains such as Shiprock shall not be climbed; yet there are posts online of climbers sharing tips on how to avoid tribal police and, effectively, desecrate the sacred mountain so they can “conquer” the climb. Yes, conquer – as if they are New Mexico’s contemporary conquistadors with a new way of exploiting Native cultures.

There truly are many ways in which outdoor recreation does – or at least should – align with Indigeneity. Unfortunately, some of our best allies in the environmental and outdoor recreationist worlds can also be some of our closest enemies. With the stereotypes of Indigenous peoples, often whitewashed histories of colonized lands, and ongoing silencing of minorities perspectives, reversing the trend in how we value and see Indigeneity – and then normalize it – will take some heavy labor. I’m just hoping that continuing to write on the topic will plant a seed in the heads of others so that maybe not all that labor has to be on the Indigenous peoples who have already endured so much.

6 thoughts on “Outdoor Recreation & Indigeneity: Where They Intersect & Where They Clash

  1. The plight of the Native Americans with some of their religious sites is rather appalling, Bee. My son has done a lot of research on this and often tells me new pieces of information. I recently read two books about the Spanish conquest of Mexico and they appalled me too. Such terrible genocide of a sophisticated society.


    1. Sorry for my late answer. Kayla is a contributor and WordPress does not show me comments on her posts. And I did a spring clean and wasn’t much online.

      It is appalling. I start to think that our so-called “developed” societies are all built on hypocrisy and violence. Not sure what to do about or with that. But knowing where we walk and respecting the values of other societies is a first step I guess.


  2. Thank you for this enlightening article. There is a state park here on the Carolina coast where I like to hike with a giant sand dune overlooking river. It feels like a sacred place. The nearby museum is dominated by stories of how the giant sand dune was used as a look out point during the “civil war” of the 1800s. Next time I go there (or before that), I will look for information on who lived in these lands and the land where my house sits, before the Europeans came. When I travel west, I will go with with respect and keep the points of this article in mind. I feel enriched by having read this.


    1. Hi JoAnna, sorry my late answer. As I explained to Robbie: Kayla is a contributor to “The Bee Writes…” and WordPress doesn’t show me the comments on her posts.
      I am glad you felt enriched and it encourages you to hike with more knowledge about the area. I feel so privileged to have Kayla introduce us to First People’s points of view. I believe we can learn so much.

      Liked by 1 person

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