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Indigenous Awareness

We must go beyond land acknowledgments.


Sisnaajiní rises above the San Luis Valley. Photo by Doug Schnitzspahn

Blanca Peak is one of my favorite mountains. It’s a stunning beauty—especially blanketed with snow in the early spring—rising 14,351 feet far above the San Luis Valley and Great Sand Dunes. It stands out even from the other peaks of the lovely Sangre de Cristo range around it, both because it sits somewhat separate from them and because it’s simply massive (the fourth highest peak in the Rockies with 5,326 of prominence from the valley below). When I drive back from skiing in Taos, New Mexico, or seeking sandhill cranes in the San Luis Valley, I find myself transfixed by its grace and presence. I have spent a lot of time in mountains around the planet—but this one is one that brings me back.

Blanca, white in Spanish, is an apt name for this giant, but it’s a relatively new name. For the Diné (Navajo) people the peak is called Sisnaajiní and, as one of their sacred mountains, it marks the eastern boundary of their traditional homeland. It has other names, too, from other tribes and times long before European settlers began to name the features of the West as if they could claim them for their own. I want to call Blanca Sisnaajiní, since it adds something to the peak and it is a sign of respect to the people who have lived on this land for countless generations. It makes it more than a spot on the map, a hike, a tick on a fourteener list; it gives this mountain context in the ancient history of this place. And I want to know other Indigenous names of these mountains that surround me, especially the ones—Mount Evans, the Gore Range—Europeans named after people, who committed crimes against the original inhabitants of these lands.

Though it seems important to me to know and use the Diné name of this mountain and others, it’s not simply a way for me to feel better. It’s a reminder to me that the still-persistent traumas of colonialism and the genocide of Indigenous Americans are not comfortable topics for most of us and that how we go about reckoning with those deep-seated wrongs has to go beyond using Indigenous names or making land acknowledgments without deeper thought and action. In fact, I first learned the name Sisnaajiní from a piece by Dr. Len Necefer, the founder of Native Outdoors, who has a lot to say about the silly misuse of land acknowledgements.

Last fall, I attended the Outdoor Industry Summit in Salida, Colorado, and heard Ernest House Jr., senior policy director and director of the center for tribal and Indigenous engagement at the Keystone Policy Center, speak about land acknowledgements and how they can be used effectively. He stressed that, “If you’re doing it to check a box, then you’re probably doing it wrong. But if you’re using it as a true commitment to establish a better relationship with these tribal nations that were removed, then you are on the right track.” I also learned about the history of the Ute tribe, pushed off its lands here in Colorado to a sliver of a reservation, as well as 46 other Indigenous nations forcibly removed from Colorado.

So yes, renaming mountains and land acknowledgements are important. But more so, we should be aware of the real challenges Indigenous people face and issues affecting their day-to-day lives on reservations and simply living as citizens in this nation. And when it comes to their ancestral lands, it’s time to be sure they are involved in the management of them and that they are assured tradtional access to them. This would be true acknowledgement.

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