All Land is SacredJolie Varela on the Healing Power of Hiking

Artwork by Marylu E. Herrera (Photos courtesy of Indigenous Women Hike)

For far too long, the outdoors have been unsafe for people from underrepresented communities, a space where women face harassment while hiking, where people of color encounter racism while road-tripping, where disabled people are gawked at as they merely try to enjoy the pleasures of nature. But we all have the right to immerse ourselves in the outdoors, and the industry is shifting to accommodate people who want to enjoy the vast, open spaces from which they’ve long been tacitly excluded.

“The New Outdoors” is a weeklong series about adventurers from underrepresented communities who are grabbing their compasses, ice axes, dog sleds, and Instagram-ready vans and staking a rightful claim to the freedom of the outdoors.

One in 10 adults or an estimated 17.3 million people in the United States are living with depression. It’s so commonly diagnosed, in fact, that one in six Americans have been prescribed an antidepressant. While a good medication regimen is essential to combating depression, some researchers, including those at Harvard Medical School, have found that exercise can also help people with mental illnesses cope. “In people who are depressed, neuroscientists have noticed that the hippocampus in the brain—the region that helps regulate mood—is smaller,” Dr. Michael Craig Miller, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, said in 2018. “Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression.”

Jolie Varela, a citizen of the Nüümü and Yokut Nations, discovered the benefits of exercise when she began hitting trails in her late 20s to cope with severe depression. As she embarked on a lifelong healing journey, Varela discovered that hiking gave her a reason to get out of bed each morning, and that she could pass along her discoveries to other Indigenous people in her area. In 2017, she founded the Indigenous Women Hike to embark on a three-week adventure along the John Muir Trail alongside fellow hikers—both new and experienced. Together, they sought the same healing she’d found. Indigenous Women Hike became “her sacred fire” and a way for her to invoke community healing.

We talked about cultivating a land practice, treating all land as if it’s sacred, and the small steps we can all take to become more involved with the outdoors.

What was your relationship to the outdoors growing up? Were you active, and did you have a land practice?

I was not active in the outdoors until my late 20s [due to] a lot of trauma from my younger life. My parents were just trying to live and put food on the table, and we were not able to go camping and do [other outdoor activities]. We live in Payahǖǖnadǖ also known as the Owens Valley, the rock-climbing mecca of the world. The Nuumu Poyo, also known as the John Muir Trail, and the so-called Pacific Crest Trail travels right through it. This is where we live, where we come from, and we still weren’t participating in camping and hiking.

I went fishing with my dad, and we would cook up the fish for dinner, but we didn’t go camping or hiking until I was in my late 20s. I remember when my brother started rock climbing in high school. It was a big deal, and my parents said they were going to get the money to [buy rock-climbing] shoes. They’re really expensive, so they had to put money aside from their paychecks to get him those shoes.

When I was 25, I became an avid hiker. For me, a large part of it was being able to escape my everyday life, commune with nature, and clear my mind. What was the initial catalyst for your relationship with hiking?

I’ve suffered from bipolar disorder and severe depression for a long time, and I was going through a really heavy period in my life. At the time, getting up and [going] to the mountains was the only thing that could get me out of bed. I worked a night job [as] a waitress, [so] I would get up in the morning and hike. Then, I would come down and get ready for work; that was my pattern for a while. Hiking literally saved my life.

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What are some of the barriers to entry to the outdoors for Indigenous people, specifically, and people of color, in general?

Sometimes people are so busy trying to live. They know that there’s value in connecting to the land, but they’re just trying to survive. I don’t speak for all Native people, but specifically for Indigenous people in my area, it is removal. We’re dealing with these cycles of trauma that repeat in our communities, and that stems from removal. This removal was recent, especially in California or Payahǖǖnadǖ, where I’m from. It didn’t happen hundreds of years ago. There’s the 1939 Land Exchange [for example], and people don’t realize that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is responsible for the creation of three of the reservations in Payahǖǖnadǖ.

It’s also the cost of gear. A sleeping bag [costs] $100! [The price for] a Patagonia jacket is ridiculous! I’ve taken women out hiking [who’ve said] they “don’t look like a hiker” because they don’t have the right shoes. I try to remind them that [having the “right” gear] doesn’t matter. We belong here. Our people have been on these trails for forever, and it doesn’t matter what you look like to the land. When our people traveled these trails, they didn’t have North Face tents or Patagonia jackets. [Still], people of color and our Indigenous communities deserve to have gear that makes them feel confident and safe when they’re out in the mountains. That’s one of the reasons I created the outdoor gear library, which provides access to tents, hats, trekking poles, jet boils, and climbing shoes to the whole community with preference [given to] Indigenous people.

How did the Indigenous Women Hike come to be? What were the overall goals of the hike?

The Indigenous Women Hike was inspired by the three months I spent at Standing Rock. There are a lot of issues that plague my community, including the theft of water for more than 100 years and drug and alcohol abuse. I wanted to create something in my community. Initially, I wanted to start an outdoor program [where I could] take kids hiking, but I didn’t have the resources to do that. So I decided to start by hiking the so-called John Muir Trail [as an] act of healing because I know that once we heal ourselves, we can take that healing into our communities. I will be healing for the rest of my life, but [hiking the John Muir Trail] was a place where I could start. I then decided to hike the Nuumu Poyo on my own, and I started sharing videos [about my] journey to health.

I would record myself after I got to the top of a pass or [once I] finished a hike, and I would tell people how I felt, things that I noticed on the trail, or about the people that I [encountered]. Women started watching [those videos] and asked if they could join me on the Nuumu Poyo. I couldn’t say no; that’s how the Indigenous Women Hike [came to be]. Because of the Indigenous Women Hike, I’ve also been able to hike and climb with kids. It created access to what I originally wanted to do—work with kids and get them connected to the land.

Some people are afraid to get out into the outdoors for the first time. What are some initial steps newcomers can take?

It’s certainly not as easy as saying, “Just find a trail and go,” because there’s money, gas, all these barriers that people face that I’m not even aware of sometimes. I realize that some people live in urban areas, and they don’t have access to trails as easily as I do in Payahǖǖnadǖ. I know that that could be a barrier. In my own community, I would say start small. We did a low-impact hike in Northern California with Hupa, Yurok, and Cahto women. We didn’t want to start on a five- or seven-mile hike with a huge elevation gain and have these women hate it and not feel good about themselves or feel as if they’re not strong. [It was rewarding] to see these women who have never hiked feel good afterwards and know they can do this.

So start with a low-impact hike and have conversations. Before we start, we say a prayer, we ask permission to be in that space, and then we always give something back. It’s important to give something back to the land. It can be a song, your good thoughts, or your prayers. Start gradually. Get out there when you can; go for a little walk, look around, notice the plants and the trees, breathe, be on that land, and remember to give something back. Debs Park is a beautiful area in Los Angeles that I don’t know if people are aware of. It’s a bird sanctuary right in the middle of the city that also has hiking trails. I think of places like that in urban areas where people can go and connect to that land. I wish there were more places like that for people to go to and get their healing.

We need to instill in our minds that all land is sacred.

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What was the most memorable aspect of the Indigenous Women Hike?

This has been a huge journey for me. I can’t even explain what the Indigenous Women Hike has done for my life. We did this trip to [the land now called] Peru, and we asked the [question]: How can we be a good relative as we travel? How can we not inflict colonialism on the communities that we travel through? As we reached the Sun Gate going into Machu Picchu, the sun was setting and I was standing there with Paiute women and a Quechua woman. Just being there together made it real for me. [That helped me] realize how far I’d come. When I think about the Indigenous Women Hike, I think a lot about that moment and [coming] to the realization that I can make things happen. I can do good things and I can be with these amazing women. We are changing things in our communities.

You mentioned not inflicting colonialism on the places that we carry through. How can we more conscious of the land that we traverse and the communities we travel through on a day to day basis?

We need to realize that all land is sacred. It’s not just national parks and the public park; there should be no difference. We need to instill in our minds that all land is sacred. I used to go to Tongva territory in Los Angeles, and I hated it. I don’t enjoy being in the city, and I really have disdain for these places. [Then] it hit me that I was Ohlone territory, and the Ohlone people loved this land. This is where they come from. Everywhere you go is somebody’s homeland, and that changed the way that I move on the land and the things that I say. They love this place, so I love it too.

Go to cultural centers. You should be going there before you climb [or] hike. There’s a cultural center in Lone Pine, California, and there’s another cultural center in Bishop, California. Go there and you’ll see that this is Payahǖǖnadǖ, the place of flowing water. You’ll see that these are the first people who lived here. These are their houses. You’ll be able to see grinding stones there and recognize them, so when you go out onto the land, you’ll [know not to] mess with them. Visiting cultural centers shouldn’t be an afterthought.

Recently, a pro-rock climber who’s a white woman messaged me and said, “We went to this place called the Citadel, and we placed these new routes. I was wondering if you knew the names of them so I could write about them in a climbing magazine.” You desecrated our mountains by drilling new holes in them, and you’re probably going to get paid to write this article after you desecrated the mountains? I would like people to do their research before they even go to these places: Know who the first people of those lands are and gather some history that predates colonialism on the lands that you’re traveling through. You can Google. There’s the Native Land app. And there are cultural centers. When you travel through these places, buy your gas at a tribal gas station. Support the local tribal communities in that way. Just know that all land is sacred and you should come with that attitude when you visit the land.

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Evette Dionne is Bitch Media’s editor-in-chief. She’s all about Beyoncé, Black women, and dope TV shows and books. You can follow her on Twitter.