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Rematriating Our Lives: Indigeneity and What it Means to Climb

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 77, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 77 for more.–Ed.]

Rosie Fish, Cowlitz, on Muckleshoot and Coast Salish territories, wearing a red handprint in remembrance of her missing and murdered relatives. Fish runs with this handprint in her races at the University of Washington. [Photo] Micheli Oliver

Rosie Fish, Cowlitz, on Muckleshoot and Coast Salish territories, wearing a red handprint in remembrance of her missing and murdered relatives. Fish runs with this handprint in her races at the University of Washington. [Photo] Micheli Oliver

CLIMBING HAS ALWAYS BEEN a metaphor for me. A glorious act of raising my bones up, of holding my own body, of celebrating my humanness in a dance of strength and breath. When I’m on a wall, it’s the only time my brain quiets, as I become completely focused on the ripples and patterns of the rock before my eyes. The first time I led, I took a few falls, and while the wind rushed through my thick brown hair, I felt free from thoughts of the world around me, from gravity, from it all. I became so alive, so utterly raw. When I hung at the end of the rope, I felt completely in my body, grateful to exist, listening to my own quick exhalations and studying the route, deciding whether to go up again or to ground myself back to the soil.

It’s almost comical that I seek out such experiences–that I make the choice to push aside basic human instincts, to keep climbing because it feels important to do so, because I find joy in the act. I’m aware of the irony of putting myself, voluntarily, in some degree of danger, however mitigated by ropes and gear. As a woman and a person of Piikani Blackfeet heritage (as well as Irish and Italian), I think constantly about risk. Ever since I was young, my parents were protective of me. They taught me to be continually aware that there are those who don’t see me as the human I am but as an object, exocticized for my looks. They taught me not to trust men, and they rarely let me do anything alone. Many Native women, femmes and Two-Spirit people are taught to live in a state of conscious fighting for survival. And in a world in which I can’t always control the hazards I face, when I climb, I am choosing to survive. I am taking my own life into my hands, learning to lift myself up, literally and figuratively. There is such power in that: climbing gives me a moment to be in control of my fears.

ALTHOUGH I GREW UP in Berthoud, a rural town in Colorado, I’d long thought of climbing as a faraway pursuit, meant for people who looked very different from me. Novices generally depend on mentors, and if you don’t have friends, family or community members who already climb, it can be hard to start on your own. Relatively few people from Indigenous communities have access to such activities. Approximately 70 percent of Native Americans and Alaska Native people now live in cities–partly a result of the US government’s 1950s policies of ending federal recognition of numerous Tribes and relocating their members to urban areas and partly because of the difficulty of finding jobs on reservations. There are elements of economic and social privilege that often determine who can participate in climbing: you need enough leisure time to devote to a recreational pursuit and enough money to buy gas to get to climbing areas and to purchase specialized gear.

My own ability to become a climber arose from a particular mixture of family history, chance events and relative privilege. My paternal grandfather had run away from a Colorado orphanage and lived on the streets. After a period of wandering, he returned to the state and met my grandmother, a seamstress. And thus my father was born in Boulder, Colorado, with opportunities for skiing, hunting and fishing. Thanks to loans and long hours of work, he went on to graduate from Colorado State University and get a job in tech. My mother, who came from a similar background, also attended CSU and then became an adjunct professor, picking up any class she could get.

I’d loved hiking in the mountains as a child, and when I went to college myself, I found I had access to the Alpine Club at the University of Colorado Boulder, which opened new possibilities for me. I thought about risk analysis as I learned to back up an anchor, to manage ropes and to be on a cliff for an extended period of time. When I hiked into nearby Eldorado Canyon, I felt overwhelmed by color: rusts, greens, black. Ponderosa pines, Rocky Mountain junipers, box elder trees, sand lilies and other plants grew alongside the jade hues of the rushing creek. Angular walls of ruddy sandstone, grey quartzite and yellow lichen soared around me. Each time I placed a piece of gear, I felt a sense of intimacy with individual forms of cracks, corners, edges and nooks that make these reddish cliffs unique.

Author Micheli Oliver ice climbing for the first time, with an organization called Inclusive Outdoors, in the shared territories of Blackfeet, Apsaalooke, Confederated Salish and Kootenai, Cheyenne (Tsitsistas and Suhtaio) and Ochethi Sakowin, Hyalite Canyon, Montana. Oliver is wearing the red handprint on her helmet to begin conversations and to raise awareness of MMIWG2S. [Photo] Chris Donovan

Author Micheli Oliver ice climbing for the first time, with an organization called Inclusive Outdoors, in the shared territories of Blackfeet, Apsaalooke, Confederated Salish and Kootenai, Cheyenne (Tsitsistas and Suhtaio) and Ochethi Sakowin, Hyalite Canyon, Montana. Oliver is wearing the red handprint on her helmet to begin conversations and to raise awareness of MMIWG2S. [Photo] Chris Donovan

THE ABILITY TO CONNECT with the land is something I share with many Indigenous people. Yet even in nature, as in any setting, we are not safe. In 2016 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) listed homicide as the third leading cause of death for Indigenous women ages one to nineteen, and the sixth leading cause for ages twenty to forty-four. According to a 2016 National Institute of Justice report, more than four out of five Indigenous women had experienced violence, and they were about twice as likely to have been raped as white women were. The vast majority of Indigenous women who were survivors of sexual assault or other forms of violence had been attacked by a non-Native perpetrator.

Numerous researchers have connected the history of colonialist assaults on Indigenous lands with those on Indigenous bodies. Today, notes Elizabeth Ann Archuleta, a University of Utah professor, Tribes are still striving to get the federal government to respect “their inherent Tribal territorial sovereignty” and to expand their jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-Native people against Indigenous people on reservations. On the federal level, a provision in the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act stated that Tribes may prosecute non-Native perpetrators “who assault Indian spouses or dating partners or violate a protection order in Indian country,” but gaps in the law still consign other violent crimes to federal prosecutors who have, all too often, decided not to take the cases. A United States Government Accountability Office study reported that from 2005 to 2009, US attorneys had “declined to prosecute 46 percent of assault matters and 67 percent of sexual abuse and related matters” that took place on reservation lands. An updated 2022 version of the act, if it passes the Senate, would at least enable Tribes to prosecute all sexual assaults committed by non-Native people against Indigenous people on reservations, not just those related to domestic violence.

[Update: This article went to press on February 23. On March 15, with bipartisan support, President Joe Biden signed the 2022 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), as part of a bill passed by Congress, with provisions that include, “Expanding special criminal jurisdiction of Tribal courts to cover non-Native perpetrators of sexual assault, child abuse, stalking, sex trafficking, and assaults on tribal law enforcement officers on tribal lands; and supporting the development of a pilot project to enhance access to safety for survivors in Alaska Native villages, as stated on”–Ed.]

Many Indigenous organizations–such as the Sovereign Bodies Institute, the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women and Native Womens Wilderness–continue to raise awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit people (MMIWG2S), to collect data, to confront systemic causes, to aid survivors, to seek means of prevention and healing, and to demand justice. More members of the outdoor industry, especially as it grows in size, should support this movement–just as they devote resources to other safety issues and to misfortunes that befall adventurers. The public lands that climbers, hikers and skiers enjoy are all the traditional lands of Native people. When white people disappear in the mountains, news articles and regular updates might proliferate across national media. Crowd-sourced fundraising campaigns have sometimes generated tens of thousands of dollars for search or recovery missions. When Native people vanish, however, their fates have frequently generated little response outside of Indigenous communities.

In September 2021, a young white woman named Gabby Petito was reported missing near Grand Teton National Park, the region of jagged mountains where I had lived and climbed for a while. I saw her face in countless news reports. Meanwhile, according to a January 2021 study by the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force in the same state of Wyoming, at least 710 Indigenous people had gone missing in the state from 2011 to September 2020–without that same level of national attention. Because of the gaps and errors in police and government databases for crimes against Indigenous people, the real numbers in Wyoming (and elsewhere) may be even higher. Twenty-one percent of those listed as missing still weren’t found after thirty days, as opposed to only 11 percent of missing white people. Spreading awareness of particular cases can contribute to successful searches. Yet after analyzing news reports, the authors observed, “the media was less likely to cover missing Indigenous people while still missing, with Indigenous missing women having the least amount of coverage…. Indigenous people were also less likely to have their photograph published in an article or to receive a positive character portrayal than Whites.”

Marina Anderson (Haida and Tlingt) in a traditional woven cedar hat and formline button blanket. Image taken with a self-timer on Tlingit and Haida shared lands. [Photo] Marina Anderson

Marina Anderson (Haida and Tlingt) in a traditional woven cedar hat and formline button blanket. Image taken with a self-timer on Tlingit and Haida shared lands. [Photo] Marina Anderson

I intend in no way to take away from the pain of losing any brother, sister, parent or friend, but merely to point out the disparities. As Lynnette Grey Bull, founder of Not Our Native Daughters, told Wyoming Public Radio, missing Indigenous people deserve “equal efforts.” In early January 2020, Jade Wagon, an enrolled Northern Arapaho woman and a descendent of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, went missing. She was found dead in the Wind River Reservation near the end of that month, a little more than a year after her sister Jocelyn Watt was killed. According to her obituary, Wagon was an MMIWG2S advocate who had spent much of her life near the mountains: “Being outdoors and enjoying nature gave her that feeling of empowerment of being free.” After more reporters finally started covering Indigenous cases, a surviving sister, Tianna Wagon, told NBC News that she asked herself if authorities “had tried a little harder or cared a little harder, would my sister [Jade] have been found alive?”

When I began to climb, I placed a painted red handprint on my helmet–a symbol of MMIWG2S that Jordan Marie Daniel, a citizen of the Kul Wicasa Oyate, brought to mainstream attention when she wore it in the 2019 Boston Marathon, though the image was already circulating in Indigenous communities. This stark symbol expresses our spirit and our solidarity. It reminds people of our existence and of the values we stand for. As a storyteller and athlete, I hope to share the kinds of ideas and narratives that can contribute to ripples of change in the outdoor world and beyond.

OUR STORIES may be wrapped into cycles of survival, but that reality doesn’t encompass all of who we are. As women, girls and Two-Spirits, we come from lineages of strength and perseverance, of the passing on of generational knowledge. Marina Anderson of the Haida and Tlingit peoples–a water protector and outdoor athlete–reminds us of this truth. “I come from a matrilineal society, a society where we carry the same clan as our mother and are regarded highly. When I am seeking strength, I use the advice from a sister of mine–I remember that I am each one of my grandmothers,” she tells me.

Indigenous peoples do not represent a single, homogeneous culture, but we share some worldviews, knowledge and understandings. Community is imperative, and when I speak of Indigenous Country, I do not, ever, speak alone or stand alone. We are woven together, as Tribal peoples, into an intricate basket made from the grasses of our ancestors, grown from the soil of generational knowledge, tinged by generational trauma, by genocide and by colonialism, but also strengthened by our current communities and our collective resistance. This story I am telling now, the campaign for MMIWG2S, is born from a communal outcry for change.

A common phrase in Indigenous Country is “future ancestor,” and I often think of this idea. When I fight for water, for the protection of sacred sites, for the joy of Native people, I do so as a future ancestor paving a way, as best I can, for those to come. As Marina puts it so beautifully, our bodies hold no time because we are in the process of becoming future ancestors and because we are already full of past ones. “So many of my ancestors [have] been packed into one body,” she says, “and because of that I am precious and strong. My strength has pulled me on top of mountains and across seas, my strength has carried me through the healing journeys when my grandmother and father were taken in the canoe.”

With each step toward healing in nature, we are adding more beauty and complexity to the woven basket. The ways in which we find our power come in different forms. We come from reservations and urban spaces, from birth families and adopted families, from growing up within our cultures to reclaiming them. Each of our families has found varied ways to survive. Jamie Goetz of the Lakota Nation, a rock climber and land protector, reminds me of the power of joy as rebellion: “To recognize my existence as a queer, Indigenous, femme as revolutionary and rebellious act. When I harness the power of an entire revolution, I can pull myself through anything.”

Revolution and rebellion are born of disillusionment with a dominant status quo, and of realizations that there can and must be different ways–beyond ones that center legacies of colonialism. Within the climbing world, non-Native adventurers have sometimes ignored the requests of local Tribes to honor the sacred status of certain cliffs and mountains for Indigenous people, such as Bear Lodge (Devils Tower). Even I was drawn into climbing Bear Lodge when I was nineteen, believing that it was OK to do so as long as it wasn’t June, a month of many important Tribal ceremonies. But as I struggled up my first trad offwidth, my shoulder popped out of place, and I realized my mistake: the fear and pain I felt were like physical reminders not to disrespect my elders and ancestors and those of other Tribes, but to learn from my mistakes and to listen.

Mountaineering narratives written in a settler-colonial mentality have often focused on protagonists’ struggles with the elements, on epics of heroic suffering, triumphs of personal achievements and against-the-odds conquests of routes and summits. In contrast, many Indigenous stories, in ways that vary with each Tribe, depict a respect for ancestral traditions and harmonious interactions with the land. Quoting Onondaga chief Oren Lyons, Joe Whittle–an enrolled member of the Caddo Nation and a descendant of the Delaware Nation–describes aspects of nature as “relatives” not “resources.” In an article for Alpinist 62, he explained his own approach to climbing: “There is no more goal attached to my efforts on cliffs or mountains than there is on a trip home for a holiday. The purpose is simply to be with your relatives and to be present.”

Non-Native climbers can also learn to develop a less antagonistic relationship with nature; decolonized mentalities are for everyone. As esteemed author and scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, put it in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, “Being naturalized to place means to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit…. Here you will give your gifts and meet your responsibilities. To become naturalized is to live as if your children’s future matters, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it. Because they do.”

As I was venturing up amixed route in Hyalite Canyon, Montana, part of my ancestral and shared homelands, I paused to rest my weary forearms, and for a moment, I looked behind me: the amber glow of the low-hung sun lit striated mountains that stretched up to the clouds. Snow shimmered gold across a blue, green and black sea of spruces, firs and pines. To my conscious mind, this was an unfamiliar vista, and yet my bones seemed to know the landscape intimately. I thought of how mountains, canyons and towers can be forged and shaped through a violent convergence of forces: from eruptions of magma, the collisions of tectonic plates or the carvings of glaciers and rivers. Mashed together, strata of soil and rocks hold up landforms that we see, today, as strong. When I look at peaks, now, I sometimes feel as if they testify to layers of brutality, but also of painstaking growth and struggle, of reaching for what can be and jutting to the sky.

I also know that, just like the mountains, we are not formed by one event, not held up by one layer. Ellen Bradley–a Tlingit defender of the sacred, a scientist and a skier–has solidified this concept for me: “As an Indigenous woman, grasping my own power and pulling myself up means leaning on my community. I truly believe I can show up for myself better by asking for help when I need it from my relations.” Likewise in climbing, no matter how much skill or experience you have, you have to trust your partners. Teresa “Kunnaniq” Aiken of the Inupiaq people observes, “Climbing, hiking, skiing, alpining and surfing are pretty difficult at first for anyone, no matter what or who you are.” Yet, there’s something about a collectivity with our kin that will always make a difference for us. “It feels different,” Teresa continues, “when I don’t have other Indigenous people to share those spaces with, and even more isolating being LGBTQ2S+…. Anytime I had a hard time out there, I always thought of my aapa (grandfather) and aaka (grandmother)…. Every time I fall, I think of what they would tell me. To get up, and get back at it…or just go eat some caribou soup and stay warm. I try to be as strong and respectful as my aapa, with a sense of direction and warmth like my aaka.”

A number of groups such as Natives Outdoors and Indigenous Women Hike are working to make outdoor recreation more accessible for Indigenous people by providing a sense of support and belonging. “Movement through landscape is a traditional ecological knowledge,” Len Necefer of Natives Outdoors says. Exercise and ascent are ancestral acts interlaced into human life for centuries. My own ancestors, the Piikani Blackfeet people, ran through the prairie to hunt iinnii (bison). We have stories of Napi (the Old Man) climbing peaks for both pragmatic and spiritual reasons. Mountain travel was never a pursuit of the useless to my people, but a means of maintaining relationships with the land, of providing for our families and of bringing joy to our own bodies and minds. Many summits across North America have traces and tales of Indigenous ascents and traditional significances long before any white settlers arrived.

With each movement, gliding, pulling, grasping, we can still connect with places as ancient as the presence of our people there. To remember those who have come before us–the Indigenous kin who did not make it, whose lives were taken–is to do more than honor them; it is to fight for a future that is different. We gather strength from where we come from and where we are headed, from the ability to envision a world that no longer needs campaigns for so many missing Indigenous people, a world that honors treaties, traditions and differences in cultures. For moments, when I am outside, I can imagine that world. The only way to create it is to figure out how to do it together. When I see instances of camaraderie form among climbers, outdoorspeople and humans of all backgrounds, I believe there is a way forward for human rights, for environmental justice and for our planet. While we can’t always understand each other’s cultures or experiences, we can understand a mutual love for the Earth and for the awe and delight we may find in its vertical places.

In parts of the outdoor industry, there’s a lingering idea that climbers are supposed to be “hardmen,” unattached, able to let go of our emotions. But I have always been attached and emotional because of the metaphors I see when I climb. I carry power in all these feelings that are tied to my longing to lift myself up. I reach out to place a half pad of a finger on an impossibly small-looking edge. I surprise myself when I hold on, when my training pays off and my body knows what to do. My mind stills again. I exhale into the cold air until I see my breath. I take a moment to remember how amazing it is to be alive before I dip my hand into chalk again and press my toe into a crystal knob, transfer my weight and reach up to seize a pocket so sharp it cuts into my calluses. I know that I’m strong enough for this route with my ancestors standing behind me even as I make one more move, become too exhausted and fall.

Something whispers in me to try again and again. Until my body gives up, and then I get lowered back down to my community and the world below. I remember that this temporary act of climbing is only one piece of the woven basket, part of larger strands that bring together a resilient community, one in which every facet of life can contribute toward a better future, even if that means something as simple as experiencing joy, as raising awareness, as creating representation. Climbing, for us, is not a way to conquer outdoor spaces; it’s a chance to evoke the same feelings our ancestors once experienced in the canyons and hills. To sweat, to breathe hard, to cry, to laugh, to find strength and closeness with relatives, and to move on the land as generations before us have done.

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 77, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 77 for more.–Ed.]