Originally Published at https://medium.com/@Wildwayfarer/reverence-for-the-land-4676c753611d Dec 7, 2016.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of sources
I was sunburnt, hot and thirsty.
My climbing partner had just finished coiling the rope when we scrambled up the last sandstone blocks to the final pinnacle.
We had climbed a route called “Cowboy Ridge,” a semi-technical ridge traverse on Mount Kinesava, just outside of Zion, Utah. We were in what we thought was rock climber’s territory — accessing places only attainable by those who excel in the vertical realm.
Upon surmounting a final boulder, we were amazed to discover a wall on the far end of the desert meadow that was covered with… petroglyphs? What we thought to be no-man’s land, had at some point, been used by the Paiute — the native people of the area.
Mount Kinesava is named after a mischievous Paiute “Coyote God of the Canyon,” who was allegedly blamed for misdeeds such as sending smoke signals to their enemies, the Navajo, telling them of their location.
However, we had no idea what this mountain really meant to the indigenous people who had once called Mukuntuweap — renamed “Zion” after the Mormon settlement — home.
It seemed to me, that perhaps in pursuit of our own connections to nature, we have become less mindful of the very places we go to recreate.
Grand Canyon Escalade development proposal, near the confluence of the Little Colorado and the Colorado River. NBC News.Certain areas and formations have more spiritual significance than others. The Confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado river, for instance, is a spiritually significant area in the Grand Canyon to the Hopi and Zuni tribes as part of their creation story. Yet, this area is at risk for being developed and stripped of it’s religious viability for these tribes.
Many incredible rock formations — the most tempting of their kind, for rock climbers — are also spiritually significant to indigenous tribes. The nature of rock climbing is that people are interacting with rock formations, yet some of these formations hold a spiritual significance that can be disrespected by these interactions.
“Devils Tower” in Wyoming — known as “Matȟó Thípila or Ptehé Ǧí” by the local Lakota tribe — is a spiritually significant location to over 20 tribes, and is a place for their ceremonies, funerals, Sun Dance and Vision Quest. Devils tower is also a prime climbing destination because of its numerous aesthetic climbing routes and high quality rock. For years, there has been much discourse about the conflict in religious freedoms between climbers and the local tribes.
Cathedral Rock, a prominent spire in Sedona, hosts one of the most classic rock climbing routes in northern Arizona — few know, however, that Sedona was once held sacred to the Yavapai, who were forced from the land in 1875, many perishing along the March of Tears. The Yavapai story tells that the goddess Kamalapukwia, “grandmother of the supernatural,” stands back to back with her grandson, the first man on earth, as the dual spires that make up “The Mace,” a frequented rock climb today.
Navajo Nation — for cultural, environmental, and liability reasons — has banned rock climbing on the entirety of their land.
“Ship Rock is this maniacal looking thing,” says Steve,* a northern Arizona rock climber. “It is the center of an extinct volcano. On top, you are the tallest thing around for a long ways, and the desert is barren in the way that only the Navajo desert can be. And you have these black tentacles emanating out from this giant monolith. It’s crazy. In a beautiful, scary way.”
Ship Rock. Alex Maclean Photography.Steve explains what it is like to be on top of Tsé Bitʼaʼí, or Ship Rock, a formation on Navajo Nation. We sit together in his home-away-from-home — a nearly fully furnished van — as he tells of his many adventures climbing on the “rez.”
“The thing about rez climbing,” Steve continues, “is that the excitement isn’t necessarily in the quality of the climbing itself. The climbing is secondary to the adventure.”
He clarifies, “My style is adventure climbing. What I think is most important is having an adventure, using a diverse skill set, and exploring. The rez magnifies that opportunity for adventure.”
Climbers (lower left corner) on the last pitches of Ship Rock in 1969. Mountain Project.It is illegal to climb on the Navajo reservation, but this was not always so. The first ascent of Ship Rock was in 1939, and many have climbed it since, until a climbing-related death in 1970 triggered a ban on the sport throughout the reservation.
That does not mean that climbers have stopped ascending the many towers that cast a shadow on Navajo Land. In fact, to some, it is even more appealing than if it were allowed.
Jordan,* another Arizona-based rock climber, says, “It is just so exciting to climb there, no one ever goes out there. It’s a shame that it’s illegal, but it makes it a little more exciting too. You have to sneak around, and it is more like a mission. And because nobody climbs there, everything is really dirty and any gear there is really old. Its pretty wild climbing, which I like.”
The ban on rock climbing was not solely rooted in a climbing accident from the 70s. There is a deeper component to the legality of rock climbing: traditional Diné (Navajo) lifeway and culture.
Delsey Benally, who grew up on the Navajo reservation, elaborates on the significance of certain rock formations throughout the reservation.
“Some land formations have stories associated with them that orient Diné toward a particular way of being,” she says. “The formations of Monument Valley, for example, are beings who are always in motion, dancing to carry out ritual ceremony so as to hold up the universe. To honor this ongoing ritual in this particular place, Diné are informed that certain ceremonies cannot be held near Monument Valley as the prayer and songs would interfere with the holding up the universe. However, we are encouraged to go there to speak with those who are dancing. With this in mind, one can begin to realize how Diné would be oriented in a way where they’d dare not climb the dancing beings.”
Delsey goes on to explain the significance of Ship Rock specifically, as well as Agathla (also known as El Capitan), another peak that attracts climbers to Navajo land.
El Capitan/Agathla Peak. Mike Reyfman Photography.“Agathla Peak and Ship Rock are of the five significant rock pinnacles that provide nesting places for birds. These birds are descendants of the flying monsters that once terrorized Diné,” she says.
According to Delsey, it is at these pinnacles that the Hero Twins of the Diné creation story slayed the flying monsters. At each peak, one of the hero twins threw the eggs of the flying monster off the pinnacles, each time causing the baby to hatch and become a bird that lives in its Hózhó (Diné word for a state of balance) way today.
Delsey’s partner, John Lynch, is a professor at Northern Arizona University whose interests lie in ecopsychology, epistemology and nature-based cultures.
Lynch elaborates on his interests.
“These sites are sacred because they are sacred beings that are woven into their worldview and traditional mythology,” he said. “As westerners we hear it as metaphor, when the rain is coming down and you see the streaks in the sky, that is like Spider Woman (a prominent deity in Diné creation story) letting down her hair. But to the Diné, no, that is spider woman letting down her hair. It is not a metaphor, it is.”
To the traditionalist Diné, this indicates how one may interact with these characters. According to Lynch, some areas are so sacred that they don’t need to be seen, approached or meddled with by human beings. “You don’t gawk at things that are that sacred,” John says.
Delsey’s sister, Michellsey Benally, is an avid rock climber who also grew up traditionally on the reservation. Michellsey explains how these stories have shaped her culture, and her own way of living.
“Diné lifeway is the foundation by which we go about respectfully living our lives in this world,” Michellsey says. “This foundation can be seen as an entity of core beliefs by which Diné peoples have a relationship to the natural world. The ‘practicing’ of our relationship is expressed through varying mediums like farming, art, song and dance. Deeming natural formations as sacred is another medium by which we practice our lifeway with storytelling. Through storytelling, we are able to have a sacred relationship to place. Storytelling allows for a deep ecological relationship — an intimate familiarity with location, the environment, the land, and our home.”
Delsey adds, “Just as the myths and stories of non-Diné human societies exist, Diné myths provide and support our orientation to the natural word and guide Diné beliefs of human role and responsibility to the perpetual unfolding of ourselves and our world.”
The implications of the traditional Diné worldview are manifested in relationships — specifically, the relationship between humans and the environment. Delsey stresses the importance of the human dependence on the natural world: “We are truly pitiful and even destructive without (nature),” she says. “Knowing and living a reciprocal relationship becomes significant. Further, and importantly, myth guides way of living into our dependence upon the natural world.”
In light of this, some — like John Lynch — believe that accessing these places, in a way, compromises the people’s relationship with the land.
Near Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Navajo Nation. Photo by Jacky Thompson.These stories deem a place sacred; when rock climbing in these places becomes a factor, there are varying degrees — and sometimes a foggy understanding — of what is considered respectful to Diné culture and the natural world.
Spirituality is a conditional, subjective, and personal way that people relate to the world around them. There are variations of every religion, worldview and culture; it is the beautiful, diversifying reality of our existence. That being said, the Diné are a diverse group of people, even spiritually.
Delsey and Michellsey live in accordance to the traditional Diné worldview surrounding nature. Yet, they both experience the natural world recreationally. For them, there is a certain way, an intention, in which they go adventuring.
“I conduct proper prayer and make offerings before engaging directly with rock formations through climbing, running or hiking; the water through paddling swimming; and during specific times or seasons of the year,” Delsey says. “No doubt I am Diné, but there is no doubt I enjoy climbing, paddling, hiking, and backpacking.”
Delsey maintains proper relations with the land on which she recreates by asking the land’s permission and offering explanation. “Lend me your back,” she asks, “I am a pitiful five-fingered, two-legged Diné.”
“It’s simple,” John adds. “You treat it as if it were a being. You go out with intention: I respect you, I am asking permission. Rock climbing is not bad, you just have to do it in non sacred sites and with respect. With the right intention.”
Steve and his partner, Nick,* also ask for permission — but from those whose land they climb. To them, part of the adventure of climbing on the reservation is connecting to the locals that live next to these formations by asking for permission to climb them. They have found that despite the rules and traditions, many Diné are not bothered by rock climbing.
“In my experience, some Navajo are pissed, but some are happy to have people come visit them,” says Steve. “There are a lot that don’t find an issue with this. There is a hierarchy of sanctity, but on a person to person basis; Not a tribal affiliation basis.”
Nick has had similar experiences, finding that access is dependent on the area. “I’ve never gotten any sort of permit or talked to any legal official,” he says, “rather, tried to connect with the small community of Navajo climbers to get their advice on how to go about things.”
These interactions — between climbers and the local people — seem to be touchy at times, but largely positive. The situation is not riddled with conflict, but rather as an opportunity for friendship and community. Nick reflects, “After so many trips I’ve come to enjoy the adventure in itself of knocking on random doors of isolated houses to ask the inhabitants and talking to people who I would have otherwise never met. I’ve now made friends with a few Navajo climbers and it’s really cool to get them out having adventures on their own lands.”
The Totem Pole in Monument Valley, Navajo Nation. Photo by Bernard Gagnon.When these places are approached with respectful intention and understanding, both parties seem to benefit. However, the ban serves to protect more than the spiritual integrity of the reservation. Jordan notes that in his experience, he has seen what rock climbing can do to a special place.
“A part of me wants the ban to not be there,” he says. “But at the same time, whenever I have seen anything cool open up to other people knowing about it, it always gets destroyed in some way. People start leaving trash, graffiti, and disrespecting it somehow. With the ban, people can’t go and experience (the formations) as much as they can… but I am also wary of the larger masses coming and destroying it. You want to make these places available to more people, but once you do that, you lose a lot of the ethics along the way. The more people there are, the less they can be held accountable.”
The environment undoubtedly suffers from human traffic. Michellsey explains, from her perspective, why the ban is in place on her homeland.
“The climbing ban is for the protection of land,” she says. “just as the National Park Service has banned foot traffic in various areas of Yellowstone National Park. Just as the seven principles of Leave No Trace have been created, it helps to preserve the natural world. I see it as allowing for the natural environment to continue it’s life.”
Indian Creek, Utah. Photo by Jason Halladay, Mountain Project.As noted by Jordan, when areas are more accessible, impact increases, and ethics seem to falter. This theme can be seen in climbing areas throughout the country such as Indian Creek, a climbing mecca where thousands of climbers make the pilgrimage each year to climb exquisite crack systems — all the while saturating a fragile desert environment. Amanda Carmain, a student at Northern Arizona University who studies the impacts of recreational activities, explains the environmental degradation seen at popular rock climbing areas.
“Many rock climbers would consider themselves environmentalists,” she says. “However, by leaving highly impacted areas — like cities — and flocking to pristine areas, rock climbers are causing negative impacts in those areas. Maybe we aren’t dumping garbage, but simply by going out and rock climbing, we are disturbing the natural world. We are creating more trails, changing animals’ habits around the areas we frequent, putting actual metal into the rock, increasing the speed of erosion of the rock and base of crags, and accidentally leaving behind traces of our presence.”
She decides that for these reasons, there needs to be regulation. “As a climber, I don’t much like some of these strict rules,” she says. “But as an environmentalist, I am glad for them and the protection they give to what we truly love the most: Nature.”
Connecting to the natural world is essential to developing respect for the land — an ethic, as Aldo Leopold would say. By spending time in the outdoors, as rock climbers do, these individuals develop a relationship with nature. This step is essential to combating Nature Deficit Disorder (the negative effects of a life removed from nature) and shifting away from destructive, anthropocentric actions such as deforestation and mining. Though every climber has a unique takeaway, playing outside provides a means of learning about ourselves, the world, and our individual place within it.
To Steve, a climber’s connection with the natural world should be honored as might be with Diné lifeways. “Our reverence for these places is just as powerful,” he says. “It’s not like we purely see these as a place of play, but a place of communion with the wilderness.”
Amanda Carmain, climbs to feel alive in Sedona, Arizona. Photo by Edward Kemper.Many climbers, in fact, have special experiences with climbing in the outdoors. Michellsey experiences the feeling of “flow” — a state of being coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that is characterized by focus, presence, and bliss — To her, climbing allows her mind, body, and spirit to move throughout her simultaneously — creating presence, immersion and focus.
Steve finds similar serenity with this activity. “I am a very analytical person. Always thinking and thinking and thinking and thinking,” he admits. “Sometimes these thoughts can bring me away from the present. But when you are runout on a gnarly route, or hanging on your ice tools, things are real. Those thoughts aren’t allowed to wander. They stay with me. I feel whole when I’m out doing those things.”
Many climbers are drawn to the adventure, exposure, challenge — and in some cases, the Navajo Nation — for reasons rooted in inner peace and discovery. The differences in intention between rock climbers and Navajo are subtle. Though both serve the land and the soul to varying degrees, the difference poses a new dynamic to climbing on Navajo land.
Lynch proposes that the ban itself, while also having environmental reasons, gives the Diné people a sense of integrity and adherence to traditions on their land.
In the context of a clash in values — between the rock climber and the traditional Diné — one cannot simply be deemed a higher accord than the other. However, it is possible that the issue of innate cultural values may come into play. According to Lynch, the way that westerners view the land is inherently different than the traditional Diné way.
This year, one of the most significant Native American protests has unfolded. The Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,172 mile long underground oil pipeline project, was approved for construction in January of 2016. The pipeline, connecting oil extraction areas in North Dakota to refineries in Illinois, was to be constructed near the Sioux reservation and their sacred burial grounds. The pipeline poses great environmental threat to the Sioux people, the surrounding communities, their culture, and all that they hold sacred.
Protestors against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Indian Country Today.Though the construction has been halted, this situation is but a single extension of western thought. According to Lynch, this holds true with even the most benign activities. In regard to any activity, he says, “it is the mentality of it. It is the small scale of a bigger mentality that is causing so many issues in our world.”
To Lynch, it is not so much what they are doing, but what drives it. According to him, it is utility thinking that is causing issues like the Dakota Access Pipeline. It is the idea that we can use the land for ourselves, which distinguishes western thought from traditional indigenous thought. It is not rooted in the reciprocal, relational way of being that Delsey and Michellsey live by. In some ways, this can extend to rock climbing.
“[Rock climbing] is symbolic of the way that westerners relate to the land,” says Lynch.
Although climbers are in a position of connection with the natural world, the way that climbers relate to the activity itself: conquering summits, proving oneself and personal gain — even with good intention— can be seen as way of relating to the land that is inherently different than many indigenous people.
This subtlety is significant because a dissonance in perspective between people who share land — legally or not — can create conflict, when not fully understood or respected. To resolve such a conflict, the mentality behind it must also be changed— regardless of the activity.
Rock climbing brings people to new, exciting, and even sacred places. From Mount Kinesava to Navajo Nation, climbers are privileged to commune with the land, the rock, the surrounding community and themselves. Though opinions and values vary — from climber to climber, Diné to Diné — mindfulness must be the common denominator.