Reclaiming the Nüümü Poyo: Indigenous Women Hike Journeys to Decolonize Ancestral Homelands
“Why are so many White men trying to save the planet without the rest of us?” asks Suzanne Goldenberg in May 2014 in her essay for The Guardian where she details the predominantly White male presence at the top of many major environmental organizations from The Sierra Club to the National Audubon Society. True inclusion and equity means centering the voices and presence of those who have lived on this land, Turtle Island, the longest. Supporting Indigenous leadership in a Westernized world is crucial to dismantling White supremacy.
Now, four years later, in 2018, we are seeing a representational shift in the outdoor industry. While European history has tried to systematically blot out the truth by naming trails after John Muir and Ansel Adams, or Wilderness areas after Theodore Roosevelt, Jolie Varela of Indigenous Women Hike, is following in the footsteps of her ancestors, literally, and reclaiming the trails that have belonged to Indigenous peoples’ for time immemorial. She's also not staying quiet about the reality that the outdoor industry, the American economy overall, as well as people like me (White European settlers), actively benefit from the ongoing process of colonization. Having recently returned from the Nüümü Poyo, what is known to settlers as the John Muir Trail, Jolie graciously chatted with us about her experience. We are so honored and grateful to have the opportunity to hear her thoughts and reflections.
Jolie, as the founder of Indigenous Women Hike (IWH), you just got back from a monumental journey of reclaiming the Nüümü Poyo, what is commercially known as the “John Muir Trail.” Congratulations! This is truly amazing. Can you tell our readers a little background about yourself?
Manahüü! My name is Jolie and I am a citizen of the Tule River Yokut and Paiute Nations. During a deep depression in my life about four years ago I began to reconnect with my homelands for healing. After returning home from Standing Rock after three months I asked myself how I would keep the sacred fire burning in Payahüünadü (Bishop, CA), Indigenous Women Hike is my sacred fire.
It was spiritually, mentally and physically the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. There were days when I wanted to give up, I prayed a lot on those days. I thought of my great grandfather. He went to Indian Boarding School. When I began traveling to other countries my grandfather would ask me, “Why don’t you just stay home, there’s plenty to see here?” He used to tell me about when he would go off into the mountains with such a smile on his face. When we stopped at passes or witnessed amazing sunsets I felt like he was there with me. There were also a lot of very curious people, most were supportive and in awe of our journey. People would ask if we were from Indigenous Women Hike and that would amaze me. They even wanted to take pictures with us.
Can you talk about the logistics of the hike? Where did you start and who was with you?
We were supposed to start our journey on August 1st in Awahnee (Yosemite), but the fires shut down the park. I want to remind people that Indigenous folks did controlled burns of their territories. The US government put a stop to that and now we are living with the most damaging fires we’ve ever seen. Two of our women were not able to join because the smoke was so bad, but they were able to join at a later date. We began at Red’s Meadow, myself and Autumn Harry, who is Diné and Pyramid Lake Paiute. We arrived at Le Conte where four more women joined us. Then, at our last resupply at Kearsarge, our last hiker joined us. We finished our journey after we ascended Tumanguya (Mt. Whitney)then we met our families at Whitney Portal. We traveled 190 miles.
What were you feeling before hiking the Nüümü Poyo and how are you feeling now?
There was a lot of organizing that went into planning the hike. I am grateful for the opportunities that IWH has gifted me, but right before the hike I was looking forward to finally just being on the land. The feeling I have now is that it was over so fast and I wish I would have been more present. Being out on the trail was pretty difficult at times. Sometimes I found myself wishing for certain comforts instead of living more closely to the land in those moments.
What does "Nüümü Poyo" mean?
Paiute is our government given name. We’ve always called ourselves "Nüümü," which means people. "Poyo" means road, trail, or path. The "Nüümü Poyo" is “The People’s Road”.
One of the ways we are decolonizing our ancestral trade routes is by renaming places that we don’t know the names for. So, for instance there was Glenn Pass, who is Glenn anyways? We renamed Glenn Pass, “Mia-tiisu” which means “to keep on going,” because Glenn Pass was a really hard pass. We renamed it once we got to the top. One of the women, Amara Keller, is a Paiute language teacher. It was almost like an immersion hike when she got on the trail. Squaw Lake became “Nüümü Hu Hupi,” which means “Paiute Women Lake.” Muir Pass, which of course we definitely felt like we had to rename, became “First Peoples’ Pass.”
The idea of renaming these places is like decolonization of our ancestral homelands because who were these people? We heard that Joseph Le Conte is a White supremacist, and that Whitney never even summitted. The Shoshone name for Mt. Whitney is “Tumanguya,” which means “very old man.” Whitney never even got to the top of that mountain. So, renaming these spaces, if we can’t find the old names, is a way to decolonize our ancestral homeland, and it helps people realize the truth.
Because a lot of people on the trail had no idea. They thought that John Muir just created these trails and that’s just how they got here. But there is evidence along these trails. There are obsidian chips, and grinding stones, we even found abalone shells, these are evidence that our people have been traveling those trails for thousands of years. Hopefully we will be able to create a map which we can work on with the language program to rename these places.
How did it feel to see physical evidence of your ancestors on the trail?
One day that I will remember most, and that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about, is when we were invited into the Le Conte Ranger Station. The ranger, Nessa, was so welcoming and kind. She explained how the old ranger station was built on a site and they had artifacts that were found there. She brought them out and we were able to hold them. I felt like we were visiting family members. I wonder how long it has been since our people were able to hold those? I know they recognized us and missed us.
It was a beautiful moment and also really sad because we saw these artifacts just sitting in ziplock bags. It makes me think how do we work with the park service, and think about these items in these spaces. The park service was really receptive to us. The places that we stopped in knew we were coming. They were told in May that we would be traveling through without permits and they welcomed us. That’s how the woman from the Le Conte ranger station knew it was us. She said that they had heard that we would be there.
That sounds painful and I'm glad that they were supportive.
Yeah, even the person that worked at Tumangaya supported what we were doing. We ran into him on the mountain and told him the real name, and he said he would start using that name from now on.
That must be really hard to navigate too. Coming across people who don’t know anything about you and Indigenous people, being met with support and encouragement, but then also having to take on the burden of educating.
To me, it seems like a struggle to be in the midst of both places. Having to get people to recognize that you belong and that we’ve always been here. There was a 70-something year old man who asked us what we are doing, and we said we are hiking the Nüümü Poyo, and he said he that the way we sounded was like we had a chip on our shoulders. And he asked us, “how many books have you read?” And I said, “I don’t know maybe the last one I read was back in college.” And he said, “Well, I’ve read four recently.” And then Amara asked him, “Have you ever read any native history books?” And he said no. We told him, “Your history books are all written by White men.” I apologized to him for coming across in an offensive way and I’m pissed at myself for apologizing. He said, “The White man never came through there. We corrected him and said they definitely did because there are five reservations in Payahuunadu to prove it. He said, “The last Native American is Ishii, and I think he was in the cascades anyway,” We were like, “Sir, we are right here. You have Native Americans standing right in front of you. We’re still here.”
The beautiful thing after that was that this couple that was sitting by the water heard the conversation and came up to us and they said that they heard what happened and asked if we spoke at colleges or anything, and we just told them what we were doing, and they responded with “This is amazing!” And “Sorry you have to deal with that.” Right after that these women came up to us on the trail and they were so happy to meet us. They had heard about us. They asked us if they could ask a question before we left. We said sure, and she asked, “What can I do as a White woman for Indigenous communities. And this happened right after the old White man, in the same spot.
And this really helped our spirit that day because that was a pretty rough encounter. Having these conversations with those people was a beautiful way to counteract that moment with that older man from Texas. While we were traveling people would ask, “Are you doing the JMT and we’d say, “Yeah, we are doing the Nüümü Poyo.” They would say, “Woah, what’s that?” They would respond with shock and like a realization that yeah, these trails have always been here. Bringing awareness to the real history of these trails was tiring at times. There were times when you would just know that you would have to have the conversation, and you had been hiking for ten miles. It was rough. But we knew that this is what were there for. It was tough, but it was necessary to move forward with the trail no matter how tired we were, no matter how repetitive it got. That’s why we were there - just one of the important reasons why.
That sounds incredibly challenging. Did you have any realizations about yourself out there?
For me, personally, I just had to realize how grateful I am for this body that I live in and that no matter at what size, she carries me through the mountains and over passes. I’m really proud of my body. The trail taught me that even though this body may be flawed, and it isn’t the standard of what Western “civilization” deems a beautiful body, to me I have this pride now in this body because she carried me all of that way. It really taught me to be grateful and be proud of my body even through all of her flaws.
Wow, those are some difficult and beautiful realizations. You were traveling with some really amazing women too. Can you tell me about the women you were alongside?
Anna Hohag is a lawyer! She just passed the bar. There were a lot of strong women in one freaking area and sometimes that is hard because personalities kind of clash because everybody there is just a natural leader. At times it was rough, but I think that we were able to come together in the ways that we needed to to be able to walk the trail together, and we really worked to realize what sisterhood means, and what it means to walk together on the trail and support each other at our slowest, at our fastest, and at our weakest. I think that were able to figure it out and walk on the trail in a good way together.
You shared a moment on IWH Instagram where you encountered your last resupply group in Kearsarge Pass. It seems like you had a ton of support throughout the hike. How were these resupply groups organized and who are these incredible people?
We didn’t have to leave the trail at all. Our health Coach Antonio Caligiuri organized the resupplies along with Sophia Borgias and David Chambers. The last resupply was a complete surprise. We had 8 people come in and 7 of them were Native. It felt so amazing to see people I grew up with supporting us by hiking all that way. There were definitely tears.
What were most challenging moments/events/situations about being on the Nüümü Poyo?
I have battled with depression and anxiety my whole life. For some reason I thought I could escape it on the Nuumu Poyo. Now I know that was a ridiculous thought. We were going over Pinchot Pass and all my fears and frustrations boiled over. We made it to the pass and I asked the women to go on without me and I would catch up. I stood at the top of that pass and I cried. I looked in front of me, then behind me, and I prayed for the strength to keep on going. I prayed to make my ancestors proud. I feel like I could have stayed up there forever, but I took a deep breath and started walking.
That takes a ton of mental, emotional, and physical stamina on top of having to educate people along the way.
But we did it! And now we are working on getting a gear library going, not just for our people, but for everyone in the community. We are going to tell kids at the high school, and gather climbing shoes, camping gear, and I’m hoping to have it done by next spring but we’ will see. I’m going to San Francisco for the people’s climate march this weekend. Soul to Soul is doing it, and a whole bunch of Indigenous activists will be there. I was asked to speak about water on arid land at the tribal summit for water. There are a lot of cool speaking opportunities happening.
What do you think your younger self would say about the work you’re doing now, and what you’ve accomplished so far?
A year ago I had no idea Indigenous Women Hike would have the following it does. So many people have been praying for us, people we don’t even know have asked Creator to watch over us on our journey. I just knew that no matter what I would be walking the trail, even if I had to do it on my own. I think my younger self would be relieved and so proud. She’d probably say “thank Creator, I was worried for a second.”
This is a huge deal! Your work is really resonating with so many people.
There were so many people on the hike who recognized us. There was one woman who said “You are all from Indigenous women hike.” And this woman grabbed Autumn’s medicine bag and asked what was in it. It was such a cringe moment. It’s like touching somebody’s hair you just don’t do that. Non Indian people don’t know that.
Yikes. That’s intense. Those speaking opportunities sound incredible. and there was a water workshop in Payahuunadu recently. That sounds really cool. What was that like?
Yeah, Anna Hohag and Sophia Borgias organized it. I learned that the government purposely put reservations close to the road, so we would be part of the attraction of coming to Payahuunadu. Camp High Sierra is what they were calling it and they were just trying to draw tourists. Everybody is a tourist. They are just trying to draw everybody in and using us. It’s like they decided it was okay to let us be here now because we are going to be an attraction. It was interesting to learn the history. The government was just trying to please LADWP. And we decided that we would rather die here. This is our home. It got me thinking about Indigenous activism and what we are going to do.
You’re planning on starting a gear library in Payahüünadü. How did you come to decide on this new project? What does the work look like to get this going?
One of the biggest barriers to accessing the outdoors in my community is lack of gear, or lack of money to purchase that gear. Families are putting food on the table and paying essential bills. It’s hard to justify buying expensive gear to go hiking, camping, climbing etc. Not to mention that our forced removal from these spaces has created this idea that we don’t belong in them. I wanted to make sure that the amazing women hiking the Nuumu Poyo had all of the gear they needed to succeed in the journey. We’ve been receiving donations for our hike and climb days for months now and with gear being left over from the hike we’ve decided to just go for it and start a gear library where all people of Payahuunadu would have access to checking out the gear for free, Native people having first priority. We are needing to write for grants to rent the space to house all of our equipment, we need to do inventory, and we need more equipment. We’re asking for these companies that profit from the removal of Indigenous people from their homelands to contribute to our efforts and start making the necessary steps toward reconciliation.
You’ve said in the past, and recently posted on Instagram, about how the outdoor industry profits off of the ongoing process of colonization. Do you think the outdoor industry needs to be held accountable? And if so, how?
The outdoor industry absolutely needs to be held accountable. They make their profit in our homelands, land that our people were removed and murdered for. Our Indigenous communities still feel the affects of that removal. Free gear is not enough, it’s a tiny step in the right direction. The OI needs to consult with tribes when it comes to protection of the land. We are armed with ancient knowledge and love for the land that will begin the healing of the earth. The OI must hire Indigenous folk at more than just a retail level. They need to be giving at a much larger capacity to the communities that still deal with the oppression brought on from removal from our homelands.
Has anything come out of Indigenous Women Hike that you weren’t expecting? Has anything surprised you?
I guess it shouldn’t be surprising but people experience so much discomfort when they’re being told that John Muir didn’t create the trail. Even more discomfort when they hear that a group of Indigenous women are traveling the Nuumu Poyo without permits. There has been some hate directed at IWH, at me, because people don’t want to see the truth. But for every one of those people there are 20 supporters who believe in this movement.
What else do you have coming up? How do you view the role of Indigenous communities, groups, and leaders in the continuing struggle against the forces of colonization?
Besides the gear library and our hike and climb days with Indigenous youth, we are planning to go on a trek next year to Machu Picchu with Marinel DeJesus from Brown Gal Trekker. What’s going to be special about this trek is that we will be led by the Indigenous women of that area. So, we will be led by the Quechua women there. What’s special to me about that is that there is nobody better to show us that land than these women who have an ancient connection and love for the land to show us how to respect and travel on it. We’re planning on that for spring of next year. Instead of us hiring a White guiding service who has no connection to the land, we are supporting Indigenous ecotourism and Indigenous communities. It’s important to think about protocol when moving through other people’s homelands. It’s what I would want people to know when they are traveling through my homelands.
Making this a priority sets a precedence for how we travel on other people’s territories. When we travel to other countries we need to be supporting those Indigenous people, not the the people who have colonized it and who are making money off of colonization. That’s not who we need to be supporting. We also have a tribal summit on water coming up. I’ll be attending that.
We grow stronger every day. Every Native baby born, every Indigenous person relearning their language, every ceremony is an act of defiance against colonization. I think Indigenous women are the future and healing of this world. I hope Indigenous Women Hike inspires other Natives who aren’t already practicing their rights to our lands to do so. I hope this opens people’s eyes and they begin to understand our rights as Indigenous people to practice ceremony on our lands without permission.
I am grateful for my strong sense of belonging to Payahuunadu. I know where I come from and I know that has saved my life a few times. Myself, my family we belong to this Earth. We have a lot of beautiful plans for the future. I am grateful for my friends and my family who support IWH. We could not have completed the Nuumu Poyo without them.