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The People’s Trail

In 2018, Jolie Varela, founder of Indigenous Women Hike, organized a 200 mile hike on the Nüümü Poyo in an effort of Native Resistance and connection to her homeland. Now, she fosters a community of Indigenous women in discovering healing through their relationship with the land.

Jolie Varela, a citizen of the Tule River Yokuts and Nüümü (Paiute) Nations, began our conversation with an introduction in Nüümü Yadoha—the Paiute language.
“Manahuu, I come from the place of flowing water (the Owens Valley) and from Tule River.”
Varela is the founder of Indigenous Women Hike (IWH), an organization working to regenerate the relationship between the land and its original stewards, while also decolonizing the history of these Indigenous territories.
In 2018, she walked the Nüümü Poyo—the “People’s Trail” in Pamidu Toiyabe (Sierra Nevada), also known as the John Muir Trail. Inspired by the work of her relatives at Standing Rock, Varela took that sacred fire home to her community to hike, and heal, on this trail, which later paved the way for the growing community that is Indigenous Women Hike.
It is important to note that the Nüümü Poyo follows ancestral trade routes and homelands of other tribes, including the Yokuts, Miwok, Kutzadika, Mono, and many more. Each tribe has their own names in their languages for these areas.

Tell us about walking the Nüümü Poyo without a permit to decolonize this land and the challenges you faced during this journey.
After speaking with a Nüümü elder, I was encouraged to hike without permits on the Nüümü Poyo under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. This is our ancestral trail used for trade routes long before it was the John Muir Trail. This is our homeland, and the hike is ceremony. The process made me realize how inaccessible even our homelands are.
Every national park holds the creation stories, burial grounds, ceremonies, and medicines of Native people. These beloved spaces were created through removal and attempted genocide. I got to a lake (formerly named after a derogatory term for Native women). We decided symbolically we would rename this space Nüümü Hu Huupi Lake, which means Paiute Women Lake. We had no idea later down the road that it would truly be renamed. There were many instances where we could see the impacts of colonization on the trail.
Climate disaster also impacts us trying to continue our cultural ways and ceremonies. In 2018, we came up against smoke from wildfires that required us to travel another path. In 2023, we were forced off of the trail to avoid Hurricane Hilary. Climate change continues to be a barrier as we continue our cultural traditions.

How has the creation of Indigenous Women Hike transformed you and your community?
We [Indigenous Women Hike] have made it a point to serve women from our communities first—women, femmes, and nonbinary relatives. It began with the first hike in 2018, and now we do one every year. I have so much love for my community, for the land, and for what we’ve created.
There was a moment where I caught a song, and took part of it back to our camp. The next day, as we were traveling over Forester Pass, our group was able to complete the song and sing it atop that pass we had also renamed that day. It was a moment where I realized we are doing this. We are Native women taking up space, having these life-changing moments together, and creating a song that’s still sung, and hopefully will continue to be sung by our future generations.

How can non-Indigenous folks be respectful of the Native lands on which they recreate?
Know whose homelands you’re traveling through, familiarize yourself with the Native history and the Native names. Ask yourself, are you perpetuating violence on Native people by referring to places by their Colonial names? Small words can change the way we think, so consider the erasure language typically used.
These acts of resistance and connection are happening everywhere. Acquaint yourself with these movements and support them. Be willing to learn for yourself, and be okay with being uncomfortable. Rethink your old conservation heroes. Learn about their history, and how they contributed to the attempted genocide and removal of Native people.
People have to do the research for themselves; it’s not our job as Native people to teach because that’s another extension of colonialism and an expectation we are not being paid for.

In what ways has this journey on the Nüümü Poyo and through Indigenous Women Hike been healing for you?
I think of myself as a cycle breaker. Being a fat, queer Native woman and knowing my body can travel this trail and take me to these places…to encourage other women, that’s changed me. My community knows our hikes and events are drug- and alcohol-free spaces. We’re there to connect and heal. Indigenous Women Hike is a force of change.

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