The outdoor industry is a space heavily dominated by two words: outdoor recreation. Despite the land it needs for its existence, somewhere amidst the frenzy of talks about the latest gear and technology, scheming up new adventures, organizing the next big event, and marketing products, the land is forgotten. We are the land. Indigenous narratives have been erased for so long it’s no wonder why I have had looks of surprise when I tell others I am Diné (Navajo), and they respond saying that they thought we were extinct. Some may read this in disbelief and think how someone could say such a thing. Yet, it feels as though Indigenous peoples are completely left out in the minds of people and narratives about the land, and no one seems to think twice of this being abnormal, harmful or unjust.
Capitalism, one of the cornerstones in the foundation of this country, was made possible by the colonial dispossession of Indigenous homelands. Over time, the traditional territories of Indigenous peoples became designated as public lands through violence and forced removal. The focus of public lands was founded on the idea of creating the American identity by way of making National Parks, monuments, and natural spaces for white Americans to explore the “wilderness.” Meanwhile, Indigenous nations, our sovereignty and identity were under threat. We had no choice given the aspirations of colonizers: total elimination or survival. We are still here.
As an economic powerhouse in the United States, the outdoor industry each year generates $887 billion in consumer spending and 7.6 million jobs. Economics isn’t a bad thing; it is the system that infiltrates it that needs to be looked at with a critical lens. It’s essential that everyone in the outdoor industry, regardless of their role, needs to acknowledge that there are diverse ways of valuing and interacting with the land. Indigenous peoples have been building societies for at least twelve thousand years in a way of mutuality with Mother Earth. We have never regarded her as a commodity. Colonization disrupted this stewardship, balance, and reciprocity. Despite learning to adapt and live under an imposed capitalist system, the value and meaning of the land for Indigenous peoples has never changed. Our cultural identities and traditional knowledge are held in the land. Therefore, being on the land will always hold a much deeper meaning for me beyond outdoor recreation. Today, our voices give life to stories as old as the land. These ancient stories carry our traditional knowledge and have been interwoven into our resistance for centuries. This is why it matters what voices are included in the discourse of the outdoor industry because they have the ability to connect, restore, repair, and shape relationships and advocate for new ways of thinking about the land.
My hope is that the legacy of the outdoor industry will not just be summed up in products and outdoor adventures. Eventually, these will reach a limitation without the land. The legacy should be centered on people and the land together because this is the fabric of outdoor recreation. Capitalism and the continuing legacy of colonialism continue to drive the narratives in the outdoor industry. As a result, discussions around conservation, public lands, and climate change continue to exclude Indigenous peoples. One of the ways for the industry to be more inclusive of Indigenous people is through land acknowledgments.
Land acknowledgments are about acknowledging the original and current Indigenous peoples as the stewards of the land while also acknowledging the legacy of colonialism. When a person hears or reads a land acknowledgment, it should raise more questions and lead to further education and research into the complex history of this land. It then becomes a meaningful way to address Indigenous erasure head-on. It creates a starting point from which to move forward and build on-going relationships and coalitions with Indigenous peoples today. When land acknowledgments are seen in this manner as a progression of steps, then we avoid them being merely performative. The power of land acknowledgments lies in the action it motivates. They are about changing the discourse of the outdoor industry to give space to honor the histories, cultures, contributions, and resilience of contemporary Indigenous peoples.
The land is everything. Every human being experiences the land in some way whether it’s the places we live, work, or play. No matter how I experience the land—whether through mountain biking, climbing, fly fishing, skiing, hiking, or trail running—my relationship is first and foremost with the land because it is the land that draws me to experience and find a connection to so many places. Sometimes these experiences are with community and other times with just Mother Earth herself and the bird, plant, and animal nations. All are special and powerful because the land is what binds these human experiences together. Let’s not forget her.
With every story, there is a storyteller. This one is from the land, our precious Mother Earth. What we both have in common is we both are storytellers. The goal or purpose of land acknowledgments can be summed up in two words: land back. This means that we must let our Mother Earth speak and reclaim her voice. To Indigenous peoples, “land back” means honoring her voice along with our voices that have always been a part of her, still are, and always will be in the future. It’s about freeing the land from being viewed as property and restoring our sacred relationship with the land that is about mutuality, balance, and stewardship. Next time you’re experiencing the land, listen to her stories, share her stories, and advocate for her voices. We need all her voices to express her endless dimensions, beauty, breadth, life, strength, resilience, wisdom, and diversity. Because of her, I can proudly say, T'ahdii kǫ́ǫ́ honiidlǫ́ (we are still here).
Renee Hutchens is an advocate for Native lands, public health and environmental issues, land conservation, and social justice for Indigenous peoples. She advocates for these issues by combining her culture's rich oral tradition of storytelling with photography, film, writing, social media, and mixed media artwork.