Bishop local Jolie Varela and 11 other women will hike Paiute ancestral trade routes in summer 2018
In summer of 2018, a group of 12 Indigenous Women will hike 218 miles from Cottonwood Pass to Yosemite Valley along the network of historic trade routes that is now called The John Muir Trail. The group is called Indigenous Women Hike, and was founded by Bishop local Jolie Varela.
Varela started hiking about four years ago. She grew up in Bishop, but said she had never spent much time “out on the land” until that time. “I started hiking every day,” said Varela. “It made me feel good and cleared my head.”
Varela is Paiute and Tule River Yokut. She was raised in Bishop, and when she took to the trails, sometimes for 14 mile hikes, she noticed that she was often the only Native person using them. “When I’m out on the trail, I don’t see Native people… and if I do, it’s because I am taking them with me,” said Varela.
“When I would take my girlfriends who are indigenous out hiking, and saw how happy it would make them, what a difference one hike would make. I started organizing.” Soon, people, especially women, were calling her, asking about beginner hikes in the area. In May 2017, she decided to formalize the movement, and founded Indigenous Women Hike.
Last year, Varela traveled to Standing Rock, North Dakota. She stood in solidarity with other Native people, namely the Standing Rock Sioux, to protest construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. “It was there that I realized that we have our own water war here in our valley.”
“I came home and started working in my community, and I saw disparities, saw the state the reservation is in,” said Varela. Varela said that many of the families she grew up with had parents who worked hard to put food on the table. Leisure time was scarce, as were the resources to purchase outdoor gear. Camping and hiking were not a part of the culture in which she grew up. She sees hiking as a gateway to better physical and mental health, and a way of reclaiming Native people’s access to their ancestral homes.
“There is unresolved collective and intergenerational historical trauma,” states the organization’s website. “Reconnecting to our land is one method of healing for the mental and physical health in Paiute communities. All Paiute people should have access to celebrating their land by practicing outdoor sports that are considered privileged such as, but not limited to; climbing, hiking, etc.”
Varela also sees hiking as a means of cultural revitalization. “Our community needs healing,” said Varela. “I want to have indigenous women get involved, reconnect with the earth and with our traditional ways, and get out on the land that we were not supposed to be on for a long time.”
Varela said that the summer of 2018 hike will be an act of Tribal Sovereignty under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which requires the Federal Government demonstrate a compelling state interest to restrict a person’s free exercise of religion. “I’ve been advised by elders not to get permits,” said Varela, who has given the Inyo National Forest advance warning of the trip. “When we hike, we are asserting sovereignty. We will be in prayer, and it will be a cultural revitalization for us.”
Varela has never done an overnight backpacking trip, and is learning along with the women she leads. Although the hike is limited to Native women, she plans to host a series of community dinners and hikes leading up to the trip, to which all are welcome. Additionally, she is seeking collaboration with locals, particularly women, who can offer skills or used gear to the participants, most of whom have never done an overnight backpacking trip before. She said a group of women from the local environmental advocacy group Inyo 350 have offered to dehydrate food for them. Another woman, Kate Rutherford, a Patagonia Ambassador, has offered to teach them to pack. Varela is also an Ambassador of the organization Natives Outdoors. She is seeking gear donations.
Varela has already started organizing. Earlier this month, she collaborated with The American Alpine Club and Sierra Mountain Guides to facilitate a Native Youth Rock Climbing Workshop for local kids and their parents.
“It’s not just Native women hiking,” said Varela, who has recruited local nutritional health coach Antonio Caligiuri, to support the women who will be hiking before and during their through-hike. “This is a cultural revitalization movement. We are going to repair the health of indigenous people.”