Photograph by Marissa Saints
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Jaylyn Gough looks out over Horseshoe Bend, a Colorado River canyon that rests inside the Navajo Nation reservation.

Photograph by Marissa Saints

Tracing the Native American Roots of Natural Icons in the U.S.

This naturalist is working to ensure the history of America's most revered outdoor spaces is not forgotten.

Colorado resident Jaylyn Gough was tired of seeing the Native American roots of the outdoor spaces she loved being ignored. She knew each of these natural icons had a history—one that didn’t start with the person they were now named after. To trace these spots back to their ancestral foundations, she launched the “Whose Land Are We Exploring On” campaign and set out to learn more about America’s most famous outdoor destinations.

She started with Mount Evans—she’d already climbed the 14,271-foot peak and knew some of its history. “I knew it was the closest 14er to Denver and that it was named for an important man in Colorado’s history,” Gough says. “It seemed like a good place to start.” The information she discovered shocked and saddened her.

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Jaylyn Gough stands among the Flatirons in Boulder, Colorado.

The mountain is named for John Evans, the state’s second governor. He also had a primary role in the Sand Creek Massacre, one of the worst atrocities ever inflicted on Native Americans. On November 24, 1864, a regiment of 675 volunteer soldiers, recruited by Evans to “kill and destroy” hostile natives, attacked a knowingly peaceful encampment of about 750 Cheyenne and Arapaho living in teepees along Sand Creek. More than 200 natives—mostly women, children, and elders unable to flee to safety—lost their lives that morning. Evans’ cavalry mutilated its victims, scalping the dead and cutting off ears and genitals, which the soldiers brought back to Denver as trophies.

The story brought Gough to tears. The pain almost made her stop her research. Almost.

Gough grew up on the Navajo Reservation near Gallup, New Mexico. There, she never wondered whose land she was exploring. Her ancestors had been in the Four Corners region for thousands of years. As a child, she spent her free time climbing, hiking, and mountain biking in the nearby red-rock formations known as the hogbacks. She sometimes found pottery shards and arrowheads, tangible reminders of history.

After graduating in 2006 from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Gough took a job as a social worker back home in Gallup. Nine years later, she moved to Boulder, Colorado. During that time, her relationship to the wilderness shifted from a place of play to a place of sanctuary after a hard work day. “I realized then how much I needed the outdoors in my life,” she says.

In 2017, Gough created the Native Women’s Wilderness Instagram account. She wanted to increase the visibility of people like her—Native Americans who deeply value exploring wild spaces. Her timing couldn’t have been better. Thanks to social movements like Black Lives Matter and Native American campaigns to protect Standing Rock and Bears Ears National Monument, the outdoor industry was starting to recognize that a diverse group of people care about exploring and maintaining natural spaces.

Later that year, Gough was invited to speak on a first-ever diversity panel at Outdoor Retailer, the industry’s biggest and most influential trade show. She addressed the lack of representation of women and Native Americans in outdoor media.

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Gough woke up at 5 a.m. to capture a shot of the Tetons from the exact spot Ansel Adams once photographed the mountains. "To know he once stood where I was was so inspiring and beautiful. I definitely had goosebumps the whole time."

She has now broadened the scope of Native Women’s Wilderness, establishing a team of ambassadors, creating a website, registering as a nonprofit, and setting the “Whose Land Are We Exploring On” initiative in motion. In addition to Mount Evans, the group has begun to share the ancestral names and histories of natural icons like Arizona’s Antelope Canyon, Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park, and Wyoming’s Snake River Canyon. Gough envisions a day when a central online repository holds such information and the knowledge is part of popular outdoor vernacular.

Her latest project is another step toward that goal. On August 1, 2018, Gough will join Jolie Varela, founder of Indigenous Women Hike, and nine other Native American women in Yosemite National Park to hike the 210-mile John Muir Trail through the High Sierra backcountry. Varela and most of the other women are Paiute, a designation encompassing three indigenous groups who reside in the Great Basin area. Before the Sierra Club took responsibility for the trail in 1915, it was largely an ancestral Paiute trade route known as Nüümo Poyo, meaning “the people’s road.” (Read more about U.S. mountains Native Americans are hoping to rename.)

The hike is a symbolic act to reclaim the route’s forgotten ancestral history, to raise public awareness about who first explored the areas we now know as Yosemite National Park, Ansel Adams Wilderness, Sequoia National Park, and Mount Whitney. It’s also a small act of rebellion. None of the women have permits for the trail; they are planning to hike it under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, a Federal law passed in 1978 that preserves the cultural practices and traditional religious rights of American Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts, and Native Hawaiians. Gough is interested in how fellow through-hikers will respond to her group. She’s had both positive and negative reactions to her work through Native Women’s Wilderness. “My hope is that it transforms their perspective of the John Muir Trail,” Gough says.

She’s also hoping to educate people about the trail’s modern-day namesake, John Muir. As much as the man is admired for his reverence for the land and commitment to wilderness preservation, Gough’s research shows Muir was no friend to the land’s indigenous inhabitants, who were eventually displaced. “Basically, he thought they ruined the view,” she says.

Sometimes the truth is hard to hear. Gough herself had held Muir on a pedestal from the time she was a kid, voraciously reading his adventurous letters and essays. But like her discovery about Mount Evans, she feels it is important to know the whole story—even when it hurts.

“Replacing Native American names of the land with European American names is a form of colonialism,” she says. “And we’ll never move past that without first acknowledging that the former names existed.”

Five Indigenous Communities Fight for their Land This short from Perspective Film Production highlights the work of five of the recipients fighting to secure land rights for their communities. The Short Film Showcase spotlights exceptional short videos created by filmmakers from around the web and selected by National Geographic editors. The filmmakers created the content presented, and the opinions expressed are their own, not those of the National Geographic Society.