Native American Climber Works to Restore Indigenous Names to Peaks
By Ryan Dunfee
The 14,351-foot summit of Colorado's Blanca Peak erupts 7,000 vertical feet from the pancake-flat San Luis Valley to its west and gains its incredible altitude in just six miles. From any vantage point north, west or south, the peak and the surrounding Sierra Blanca Massif groan improbably upward from the sagebrush plains. The contrast is striking. You can watch the seasons change just by following Blanca's ridges skyward until you see the high alpine blanketed with snow, which comes early in fall and stays late into summer.
For those looking to tackle all of Colorado's 53 "fourteeners," the site of Blanca is invigorating. Its relief speaks to the challenges ahead. The climb starts with a knee-wobbling trek five miles up a viscous fire road to the shores of Lake Como, where climbers camp for the night.
The next day, the remaining five miles to the summit are made up of a quick gain to the treeless alpine, a traverse through a glacial cirque underneath Blanca Peak, and then a final mile up to the saddle between Blanca and Ellingwood Point and the steep, exposed north ridge to the peak. Once atop, the prominence of Blanca's summit affords outstanding views in every direction.
Those who make the climb up Blanca Peak know that it's an incredible mountain. But for Len Necefer, CEO of Natives Outdoors and an obsessed Navajo climber who has summited Blanca six times, there is more to tell beyond the visceral physical experience. In the Diné language, the peak is called Sisnaajini, and it marks the eastern boundary of the traditional Navajo Nation—the place where the sun rises to begin the day. Sisnaajini features in several Navajo songs that tell the chapters of the nation's history, and when Necefer climbs it, he is thinking not only about its incredible granite.
He also reveres it for the sacred place that it is, and wonders what the standard route to the summit was for his ancestors 10,000 years ago. A swath of private land on the peak's south side no doubt altered the prehistoric approach. Necefer also sometimes thinks about the 1874 Wheeler Survey, which claimed a first "recorded" ascent of Blanca despite finding a manmade rock structure on the peak—plain evidence of earlier climbers, likely Ute or Navajo.
But since the American education system does a terrible job of covering the pre-Colombian history of the United States, this added perspective on Sisnaajini—even the idea that it has another name to begin with—is lost for most non–Native American adventurers. To try to remediate this ignorance, Necefer started playing around with a very simple, nonintrusive tool to pique interest about the indigenous history of the outdoor places many of us love: geotags on Instagram and Facebook.
By providing outdoor enthusiasts the opportunity to rename places with their Native American words—Mukuntuweap for Zion Canyon, or Babad Do'ag for Arizona's Mount Lemmon, for example—Necefer hopes to encourage those who already have a deep connection to a natural place to investigate that peak or landscape's indigenous significance and history. Along with partners like Joseph Whitson and his Indigenous Geotags, Necefer is trying to promote a deeper connection to landscapes and the passion to protect those places.
While Necefer doesn't expect that the European names of cherished outdoor places will be swapped out for their indigenous ones, he does hope that a greater understanding of the Native American histories of these places—places they have cherished, recreated on, and managed sustainably for hundreds or thousands of years—will increase public appreciation for them. And maybe even spur some people to respect those places more.
"It's not respectful to go climb a church," Necefer says. "That's a mainstream cultural norm. But the idea of respecting native sacred spaces in the same way is a pretty new discussion, at least on a national level." Necefer believes, for instance, that the campers at Lake Como who left the pile of trash that he stumbled across during his first visit to Blanca would have paused before doing so if there was any information to let them know it was a sacred Navajo site.
As Necefer has sought to increase awareness of Native American history, he has had to reconcile his own passion for outdoor recreation with what he initially perceived as restrictions surrounding how indigenous sacred sites "should" be respected.
"The first time I went to climb Blanca, I was pretty nervous," Necefer says. "I was worried about how I would be perceived in my community and in my family. But after chatting it over with them, it wasn't a problem—they just told me to be reverent of the place, and to behave myself."
Ultimately, he has come to the conclusion that outdoor recreation in sacred places is appropriate as long as a spirit of reverence accompanies it. "Some, but not all, native peoples think [these peaks] are too sacred to go to the top," he says. "But I think it's really important [to go to the top] because a lot of Navajo folks don't have the means to come and access these mountains and experiences, and it's great to share what it looks like up top, and get to know it, and impart that knowledge on others and share how fantastically beautiful [these places] are, to inspire others—and not just natives—to protect these places."
For Necefer, a visceral, intimate appreciation for place is the common ground on which all other appreciations are built.
Necefer points to the fraught history of Wyoming's Devils Tower National Monument as an example of how adventure can coexist with reverence. The monolith of stone is a sacred site for Northern Plains Indians, including the Lakota, Dakota and Cheyenne, who call the place "Bear's Lodge."
In the 1990s, a coalition of native nations asked for a voluntary ban on climbing the tower's renowned cracks in June, out of respect for the tribal ceremonies that take place at its base in mid-summer. Afterward, the number of climbers attempting the tower's routes fell from a monthly average of 1,200 to less than 200. "Provided the information, the majority of people will make appropriate decisions," Necefer says. (There is currently an effort under way to formally rename the tower Bear's Lodge, though it has met resistance from state and local politicians worried about the impact on tourism.)
The years-long campaign to establish Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah offers another example of how western ideas about conservation can combine with Native American traditions about sacred sites and land management. The effort to establish Bears Ears brought together five Native American nations that didn't always see eye-to-eye, and at the same time created new alliances between those nations and the outdoor recreation industry and conservation groups like the Sierra Club.
These sometimes insular communities teamed up to advocate for the national monument's establishment for both its cultural and outdoor recreational values. That alliance succeeded in avoiding the flawed conservation view of the area as a pristine "wilderness" free of people—an idea that can do great harm to indigenous communities by negating their history and connection to the land, along with their generations-long sustainable management of landscapes.
For Necefer, the Bears Ears campaign was an important milestone, even though the monument is now under attack by the Trump administration. The cooperation between indigenous tribes, outdoor recreation companies and conservation groups is exactly the kind of bridge building he is trying to promote with Natives Outdoors.
"Public lands is a gateway of talking about these other issues facing native peoples in the U.S.," Necefer said. "And there's more of a willingness in the outdoor community to go there because of that shared outdoor experience."
But ultimately, Necefer isn't hoping for the history of one culture or the other to get prioritized, but that our experience outdoors is further enriched with the knowledge of how our favorite places are cherished in a variety of ways. "It's a cultural shift in how we need to talk about mountains or places, but it doesn't need to be a confrontational conversation. How do we make these places inclusive of the history we all share every time we go?"
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.