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Rebuilding Relationships In The Native Outdoor Community

Jaylyn Gough & Cali Wolf Of Native Women’s Wilderness

Jaylyn Gough and Cali Wolf are Backcountry Trailbreakers—advocates we sponsor to make the outdoors more inclusive. Jaylyn founded Native Women’s Wilderness in 2017, and she works with Coordinating Director Cali to give their people’s stories a platform and make the outdoors accessible to them. We sat down with them to talk about why safety is an issue for Native women, the way they support their community, and the power of spending time outside for their people.

What does a better backcountry look like to you?

Jaylyn: Inclusivity. To see other people of color experiencing and creating relationships with the land and water. To see our land and waters clean—so often when I’m on the trails I see bags of poop, litter, cigarette butts, gum, etc. I want us to take responsibility in caring for the land and waters.

Jaylyn, what experiences inspired you to create Native Women’s Wilderness? 

Jaylyn: The lack of women of color represented in the outdoor industry, let alone Native women. The lack of land acknowledgment or acknowledging the original land people.

What do you see your participants gain from experiences with Native Women’s Wilderness?

Cali: A sense of community, financial support for pursuing education and leadership opportunities such as National Outdoor Leadership School courses, and scholarships to outdoor programs such as backpacking/camping trips.

Jaylyn: Self-reflection. For our Indigenous family, seeing them being out on the land with other Natives brings joy and completion for many of us. We find comfort, love, and support with each other—a very soulful feeling. It shows our [non-Native family] our own way of how we do things and our laughter and humor.

Are your programs open to people who don’t identify as women? 

Cali: Yes, our programs are and have always been open to nonbinary and two-spirit relatives. At this time, we have one nonbinary ambassador on our team, Pinar Ates Sinopoulos-Lloyd (co-founder of Queer Nature), and will be expanding to be more inclusive.

What is the impact of Native Women’s Wilderness?  

Cali: It has opened people’s eyes to our cultures and histories and the fact that we are still here. We are still here and we enjoy hiking, backpacking, skiing, and rock climbing. We have educated others that they are recreating on Native land—places our ancestors called home for millennia. We provide opportunities for Native women and nonbinary relatives, whether that is a backpacking trip, mountain biking race, or Ironman. Several of us were adopted and/or raised in areas where we didn’t have that type of community so it feels like a chosen family. 

Jaylyn: It shows our women and two-spirits places within the outdoor industry and it shares our stories and brings laughter, sorrow, understanding, and love. It also impacts our non-Native communities in terms of learning of Indigenous cultures, languages and traditions.

Cali, how did you become involved with NWW? 

Cali: I became the coordinating director in 2019. My passion within NWW is having a platform to help our communities. I helped coordinate our first “NWW Gives Back” campaign, which provided direct relief to my home, Rosebud Sioux Reservation, during the government shutdown. We coordinated with several outdoor brands such as KEEN and Montem Life to provide winter gear (shoes, boots, blankets) for women and children.

We are still here and we enjoy hiking, backpacking, skiing, and rock climbing. —Cali

How do you help your participants feel safe outside or at an NWW outdoor activity?

Jaylyn: I try to get our ambassadors equipped with education in providing medical assistance—Wilderness First Responder (WFR) or Wilderness First Aid (WFA). I encourage them to go on trails or locations they know and have a list of numbers to call in the need of help, other than 911. We begin our activities with a check-in, asking people how they’re feeling, etc. The website to sign up provides great detail of the hike, its elevation gain, and we label it easy, medium, or strenuous. We also provide a link to All Trails to provide more information about the trail.

Tell us more about your No More Stolen Sisters program.

Cali: It’s putting an end to the epidemic of our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirits. As of 2016, there were 5,712 missing or murdered Indigenous relatives in the U.S. Most of us can name a family member of ours who was missing or murdered. It’s not just statistics you read about. And it’s gone unrecognized for too long. The non-Native public finally started paying attention when the movie Wind River came out. It opened peoples’ eyes to our reality. We have been organizing and raising awareness for decades. 

Jaylyn: This is a major subject for myself and for my organization. It affects everyone we know. I have sisters who are experiencing loss through this epidemic. This is something that is not talked about and we need to bring forth education regarding this horrible situation. So many lives are being stolen and lost by being murdered, kidnapped, and abused.

How does the violence Native women face affect their outdoor experience?  

Cali: We are always hyper-aware of our safety. Native women are 10 times more likely to be murdered than the national average. We are all passionate about advocating for this cause. 

Jaylyn: Whenever I go on a solo hike or camping trip, I’m always nervous and wondering “am I going to be next?” Being on the road by myself or with other women is always a safety concern for me. The more awareness and education we are able to provide brings safety to not only me, but my sisters and two-spirits allies.

What does taking Native women to the outdoors do for them? 

Jaylyn: When we bring people outside, you instantly see a shift in their body language, you see the body moving more fluidly and the weight they carry a little less. Their eyes shine, their heart pumps evenly. Many of our people and communities go to the land and water for healing. We have a spiritual connection with it; it runs deep in our veins. It’s also the place where our ancestors walked—we gain healing and strength from them. To bring someone [outdoors] who has experienced trauma not only physically helps the body, but also spiritually—it ties us back to where and who we come from.

Whenever I go on a solo hike or camping trip I’m always nervous and wondering “am I going to be next?” —Jaylyn

Have the events of 2020 changed anything for Native Women’s Wilderness?

Cali: We have always made community support a priority, but it became our sole focus in 2020 as we raised money for COVID-19 relief for the Navajo Nation. Through fundraising, we were able to fund food and hygiene boxes.

What other projects are on your radar? 

Jaylyn: We are hoping in the future to work on Native women-led retreats. And to try to change and challenge outdoor brands to bring in more Native models and photographers and their stories.

When we bring people outside, you instantly see a shift in their body language, you see the body moving more fluidly and the weight they carry a little less. —Jaylyn

Why does your organization choose to use the word “Native” vs “Indigenous”?

Cali: Indigenous is a global term, whereas Native is most often used in the so-called United States. I use both terms to describe myself. I do think it is important to capitalize both Native and Indigenous (and First Nations) as these are our ethnic identities.

Is it important to tag Indigenous lands?

Jaylyn: It’s important to honor the lands of our ancestors. The industry is gleaning billions of dollars on stolen land and broken treaties. We need to acknowledge what really happened, the truth and its brutal past.

Cali: It’s a starting point but it should by no means be the end. Awareness should always be followed by advocacy and action.

If you could tell the outdoor community anything, what would it be?

Cali: Please be respectful to these lands and the Native communities that have called them home since time immemorial.