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Life

Renee Hutchens

The Importance of Land Acknowledgment

Yá’át’ééh shí éí Renee Hutchens yinishyé. Tódich’ii’nii nishłį́, Bilagáana báshishchíín, Tabaaha dashicheii, Bilagáana dashinálí.

My name is Renee Hutchens, I am of the Bitterwater clan and a member of the Diné (Navajo) Nation. This introduction is very meaningful because it establishes an immediate relatedness to all other Diné. It tells those who are of the same clan that we are family. Those in our clan are not considered distant relatives, they are my brother or sister, uncle or aunt, grandmother or grandfather.

Kinship, or K’é reflects a deep relationship with each other spanning generations upon generations. This is the seed of our resilience. The fact that I am here today speaks to this — it means my family, like every Indigenous family, did whatever they could to survive hundreds of years of violence, forced removal, forced assimilation, genocide, destruction of our cultures, identities, our land, and natural resources. Despite all of this they ensured my existence today. But the violence of colonial thinking never ended. We live in a country that continues to render us invisible. Indigenous erasure is our modern form of racism that continues to inflict trauma on top of historical trauma. Therefore, I’m drawn to go to a place where I am seen and heard, where I can heal, re(connect) with my identity, culture, and traditions.

This place is on the land.

We must change how we see and relate to the land we live, work, and ride on. The how changes us. It shapes our thinking, beliefs, and actions. Creating a cycling industry and community that is anti-racist and inclusive towards Indigenous people requires disrupting the invisibility and ongoing erasure of Indigenous people.

Practicing land acknowledgment is a simple, powerful step in this direction. A land acknowledgment is a formal statement that recognizes and respects Indigenous Peoples as traditional stewards of this land and the enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous Peoples and their traditional territories. In order to enact the true meaning behind land acknowledgment, it needs to be coupled with authentic relationships, informed ongoing awareness and action with Indigenous peoples, their communities, and land. Oftentimes, I dream of going back in time wishing I could have stopped the tremendous amount of loss to prevent the pain of historical trauma I hold in my body and mind like so many other Indigenous people.

Then, I remember who I am.

The land reminds me every time I ride. Like my ancestors, I see how the land has endured many hardships. The mountain peaks, beaten and worn smooth on some faces, cut into and scarred with jagged edges, and lines showing a character of strength, courage, and resilience. Despite the seasons of change, life always comes forth showing that healing is possible. I am reminded that I hold this same spirit that gets recalled again and again by every pedal stroke. My heart beats in rhythm with the land. My movement is my connection.

This is the power of place.

The feeling of riding across Mother Earth brings every sense to life in my physical body, my mind, and my spirit because it’s not just me alone. I ride within a web of connections, with my ancestors, the plant and animal nations, the birds, rivers, canyons, and the mountains. These connections are about a relationship of reciprocity and respect. I do not conquer mountains when I ride. Instead, I honor the life inside of them and the life that is on them.

Singletrack to me is a line or path with intentional connection, one that intersects, interacts, and joins with the mountains and the many places I ride. I am living and the land is living. Thus, life is the beautiful connection point that binds our journey together.

Every time I’m amongst the mountains, I am reminded of our four sacred mountains that encompass our Navajo homeland. These mountains are Sisnaajiní (Blanca Peak) to the east in Colorado, Tsoodził (Mt. Taylor) to the south in New Mexico, Dook’o’oosłiid (San Francisco Peaks) to the west in Arizona, and Dibé Nitsaa (Mt Hesperus) to the north near Durango, Colorado.

Our Diné origin story shares how our sacred mountains were placed here to give us understanding, strength and courage. Honoring and acknowledging this relationship are done using corn pollen when we pray or sing near or on any of the sacred mountains. Their spirit recognizes me by the turquoise stones I wear. To honor is to invite connection. By acknowledging something’s place or story, we give it a way to change who we are and to impact our own life journey. This requires stopping and listening to hear the stories held in the land.

This is why I honor the entirety of every bike journey— the preparation, the climb, the little things along the way that make me pause, my arrival at the top, and the descent. If it was only about the peak, I could overlook the perseverance it took to press upwards because even battles can heal. There’s a powerful exchange in a space where the mountain peaks meet the sky. I feel not only my own strength, but also the strength and support from Mother Earth, my ancestors, and all those around me.

There’s a powerful exchange in a space where the mountain peaks meet the sky. I feel not only my own strength, but also the strength and support from Mother Earth, my ancestors, and all those around me.

At the top of my drop-in, the drumbeat drops, an honor song begins by my movement as I descend the mountain. My ride is my dance to this song, it feels powerful at high-speed— playful and creative as I drift corners. I take flight off rocks and ledges, while the plants along the trail reach out to give me high fives. It’s a beautiful celebration together to honor all those who have contributed to my journey. This deep way of relating to our sacred mountains has taught me to connect with all land in a humble, respectful way that includes the stories of the original stewards of this land, the Indigenous people who still call this land home.

Biking inherently involves the land. We’re drawn to places for a reason. This is why races and events are held in specific locations. Why we travel hundreds of miles to ride certain trails. Why we climb for views. Why trail building thrives. Why companies and mountain bikers take pride in their backyard trails. Loving the places we ride shows we connect with the land. But if the land is only acknowledged and thought of as “local trails” or “backyard trails,” Indigenous people’s stories, history, and culture will continue to be erased. 

There’s nothing better than being a part of disrupting this to take a step toward inviting and honoring the full history and truths of not only the land but the Indigenous people whose heartbeat still beats in the land.

Practicing land acknowledgment is a learning process, and I believe it can be the beginning of healing years of colonial displacement, genocide, and environmental devastation.

Renee Hutchens is an advocate for Native lands, public health and environmental issues, land conservation, and social justice for Indigenous peoples. She advocates for these issues by combining her culture’s rich oral tradition of storytelling with photography, film, writing, social media, and mixed media artwork. You can follow her @renay.hPhotos by Eric Arcetaken on the traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of the Diné, Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute), and Pueblos.