White Sentiments About the Outdoors Have Spawned Out of Racism, Revisionism, and Capitalistic-Patriarchal Gains
Image provided by contributor/co-facilitator of "Interrupting Oppression" Larissa Nez
Last month was Native American Heritage Month. On November 16th 210,000 gallons, or 5,000 barrels, of oil spilled near Amherst, South Dakota thanks to the Keystone Pipeline, which pumps oil from Canada’s Alberta province to Illinois and the U.S. Gulf. Unnervingly, this is the year anniversary of the Standing Rock protests, in which Indigenous tribes and accomplices were met with militarized police and armed soldiers for standing in solidarity against the Dakota Access Pipeline. In November, we also saw Nicki Minaj post a sexualized image of Pocahontas on her Instagram with the caption, “Hoecahontas.” To add to the Anti-Native pile of trash we were served, we watched as Not-My-President made a beyond offensive reference to Pocahontas (for the millionth time) during an honorary event at the White House for Navajo Code Talkers. On top of this, just yesterday, Trump motioned to slash the size of two sacred national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. To conclude Native American Heritage Month, we were once again faced with the annually celebrated day of Indigenous genocide and erasure known as Thanksgiving. Despite the groundbreaking contributions of Indigenous activists, artists, organizers, and leaders to bring positive representation to Native American Heritage Month, Native American voices are still being blotted out from mainstream media by settler fuckery.
Trump’s “Pocahontas” slur is inexcusable, and ideally news outlets would invite Indigenous people to speak on the issue, but that didn’t even happen. CNN aired a conversation between men of multiple ethnic groups, but not one was Native. Let it be known: The woman whose story Disney co-opted and made into a whitewashed rendering of a patriarchal fantasy called, “Pocahontas,” in truth, was Amonute. In her essay, “Rotten Pocahotties: How a Costume Contributes to Genocide,” Kima Nieves explains that Amonute was a young Powhatan girl kidnapped by settlers, raped repeatedly and held as a political prisoner. Despite requests from Virginia tribes for her remains to be repatriated, they still lay in Gravesend, England. She was also not at all romantically interested in John Smith. This erasure is the foundation of America and it unfolds into a climate where derogatory comments are normalized as we saw with Trump’s slur. In the cartoonish nightmare of kleptocracy in which we live, there is a heightened tolerance for racist messaging and rhetoric that matches this country’s tolerance for misogyny and sexual violence. The only way to counter this is for non-natives to join the collective actions that fight for adequate national visibility of Indigenous peoples.
For those who follow Terra Incognita’s Instagram, we publicized the anti-Native post, “What NOT to do on Navajo Land” authored by “Bulgarian Mermaid,” a white woman who runs a “travel blog” website (aka appropriative/Eurocentric/colonizer/settler/white supremacist word vomit). This country was built on the rape, imprisonment, kidnapping, forced assimilation, and genocide of Indigenous peoples, all of which continues to this day. “Bulgarian Mermaid’s” racist post is not an isolated event. It reflects a larger, pervasive consciousness in this country that believes whiteness to be superior. This article reflected a deep-seated hate and distrust of Indigenous peoples.
“Bulgarian Mermaid” is a settler residing on Indigenous land, as all white people are, and it is content like this that contributes to the ongoing genocide of Indigenous peoples. White colonizers are responsible for forcing Indigenous communities, like the Diné Nation, onto reservations, thereby being subjected to the most difficult living conditions and circumstances often without running water or resources like sufficient health facilities. Despite cultural and physical genocide, Indigenous communities thrive. Indigenous organization and resistance leads the way for many environmental movements, like defending their right to clean water at Standing Rock and against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) in Payahüünadü (Owens Valley), as well as in women’s liberation. It would suit any dedicated accomplice to look further into the work of Wilma Mankiller (Cherokee), Winona LaDuke (White Earth Ojibwe), Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg), Audra Simpson (Mohawk), Sarah Deer (Muscogee [Creek]), Sydney Freeland (Navajo), Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo), to name only a few.
The hate crime that is “Bulgarian Mermaid’s” article ignores the fact that 90 percent of violent crimes against native women are perpetrated by non-native men, due to “man camps,” which are created by extractive industries near reservations. This article is only one manifestation of a country blighted by historical amnesia and steeped for centuries in ignorance. It reflects how white supremacy functions: that a privileged white settler can move about freely wherever they please, take what they want, offer nothing in return, no questions asked, and then profit off of the exploitation and subjugation of the communities in which they “travel” through. White travel literature is colonization. White people consistently engage in behaviors and actions that erase the fact that Indigenous sovereignty was stripped away due to U.S. federal policies that are still in effect today.
Too often when confronted white people wave their hands and say, “That wasn’t my intention. I’m not racist.” White people are all conditioned to be racist. Let’s reflect on the events surrounding the American Alpine Club’s (AAC) Craggin’ Classic, a climbing festival which takes place in various climbing destinations around the country. Jolie Varela, Tule Yokut, founder of Indigenous Women Hike, lives in Bishop, California, a hotspot for various disciplines of climbing. Upon reading a promotional flyer for the event, Varela discovered that the AAC was receiving sponsorship from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). The vast majority of climbers are completely unaware of the century long water war that has been ongoing in Payahüünadü. The LADWP has been funneling water from the Payahüünadü to L.A., which has resulted in the decimation of the landscape, the drying up of Owens Lake, and health problems for the Indigenous peoples living in the area, all the while L.A. has plenty of paya (water) for their lawns.
Varela took to social media to make this issue known and wrote a formal email to AAC organizers. The response was defensiveness, hesitation, and mistrust, when Varela asked to have a panel discussion comprised of Indigenous leaders, Kathy Bancroft and Kris Hohag, to spread awareness about the history of the land, as well as discuss current issues. With the help of Len Necefer from Natives Outdoors, in the end, the AAC made time for this panel to happen and hosted a climbing day for Native people of all ages. But why the hemming and hawing, and who is paying the debt of Varela’s time, energy, and emotional labor?
The AAC should have invited Indigenous community members to be present in the first place. Their expressed nervousness towards the idea of a panel discussion stems from white fragility – a resistance to deeply question their white-centered mode of operations. All too often Indigenous voices are subjected to the social narratives (Pocahontas) and stereotypes (“angry Indian”) that exclude accuracy and understanding. If the AAC and other non-tribal organizations want to be partners and allies alongside Indigenous communities, then they need to address the deeply rooted historical, political, social and cultural contexts that result in societal and institutional racism and discrimination.
Particularly in the outdoor industry, we see consumers applauding companies and brands launching campaigns that tout diversity, yet they fail to build awareness of social and cultural contexts that acknowledge historical trauma and tribal perspectives. Patagonia is all about the Bears Ears, but their language and messaging fails to acknowledge the ongoing genocide in which they directly contribute. Corporations who utilize “moral licensing” to make a profit must be put into question. This doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the money they dish for the causes that matter, but this also doesn’t mean that we ignore that they are making billions off of products made by slave labor. Of course they want to protect wilderness areas. This means more wealthy and healthy people buying more outdoor gear. This increases their subsidy. And let’s not forget about REI, our phony co-op that publishes essays like Morgan Sjogren’s “Run to the Sunrise,” which completely appropriates Navajo culture. Yes, these companies are involved in protecting sacred lands, but their actions are rooted in a settler-colonial relationship with the land. If actions are not taken to center Indigenous voices, these movements serve no purpose except to center the privilege and entitlement of settlers.
We need to value integrity over popularity contests. We need to speak up around our friends and family because it is time to get history straight. We need to be willing to sacrifice our social standing, our money, our time, and any privileges we have, to protest ahistorical narratives. Capitalism, a profit-driven model, manifests in the desecration of scared lands, rape culture, and our society’s obsession with consumption. The way in which mainstream society continues to consume the identity of Pocahontas and the myth of Thanksgiving runs parallel to the way sacred land is consumed by the outdoor industry as a “travel destination,” or “escape” from the “real world.” White sentiments about the outdoors have spawned out of racist environmentalists like John Muir, and the narratives are rooted in a revised history inspired by capitalistic and patriarchal gain. Nicki Minaj’s post, Bulgarian Mermaid’s “travel writing,” Trump’s rhetoric, Patagonia’s moral licensing, and the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (that violated treaty rights) are symptoms of American settler society, and non-natives need to be steadfast in fighting against the discrepancies, hypocrisy, and complicity that results from white erasure.