by Caroline Guzman
A friend from India took me to Snow Lake last year. At Snow Lake, there are certain birds so accustomed to humans they will land on your hand or arms for bird seed. Having that connection with the birds made me realize I should stop being anxious about a future I cannot control and start living in the present as wild animals do to enjoy such unprecedented moments. On our way back, my friend and I noticed there were not many People of Color on the trail and we discussed how lovely it would’ve been for our families to experience what we did.
Being surrounded by the Puget Sound, breathtaking landscapes, mountains, and of course, our iconic active volcano Mount Rainier have led Seattle to be named one of “The World’s Greatest Places of 2021” by TIME Magazine. The Washington Office of Financial Management reported that Washington State added 109,800 people throughout 2019 — a 1.5% increase. But many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) residents have not gotten the opportunity to see and enjoy the beautiful wilderness that Washington State offers.
Connecting with nature has mental, emotional, and physical benefits. Organizations such as Team Naturaleza, Braided Seeds, Urban Wilderness Project, and Indigenous Women Hike have emerged to educate about the importance of BIPOC inclusion in our environment and about taking BIPOC into the wilderness.
Jourdan Keith from the Urban Wilderness Project often uses poetry to teach and reconnect with nature. “For me, having people slow down and not actually think that they have to go somewhere else is critical,” she said.“You’re yourself, you’re part of the natural world, so poetry is a tool to slow down and recognize how much we interact with the rest of the natural world instead of seeing it as an adversary.”
However, it is burdensome that BIPOC must seek and find this intrinsic value first and then struggle to have access to the same outdoor activities as predominantly white Washingtonians. Also, it is essential to note that each race experiences different challenges in accessing and connecting to the outdoors.
For instance, Team Naturaleza’s Elisa Lopez explains the Latino community already has to navigate a complex transition between cultures. Most Latino families do not know that there are permits required to access state parks. Elisa said, “It’s confusing when you start. [There is] the Northwest Forest Pass if it’s the Forest Service. But if it’s a State park, you need the Discover Pass, but if you happen to have the Discover Pass, you can also access all the Department of Natural Resources Land and Bureau of Land Management. All those things you won’t know unless you have someone to guide you there or really just do your extensive research.” Consequently, Latino families often end up violating these rules.
Lopez pointed out, “The last thing we want is to get in trouble, especially [Latino] people who have some time-varying migrant statuses. We don’t want ‘trespassing’ on our record.” At the same time, there is the language barrier that can make trails inaccessible to the Latino community. Lopez said having signs and bulletin boards in different languages is more inclusive of people who don’t speak English as a first language. Additionally, tackling transportation costs and recognizing that not everyone has the right car to drive long distances or bumpy roads. Vehicles capable of pulling heavy equipment, SUVs, or vehicles that have taller tires cost “$40,000 and above, geared towards more of higher-income families.” Asking the State to upgrade roads is another method to a more inclusive outdoors.
Team Naturaleza also does extensive community outreach through after-school programs and tabling events that concern BIPOC. During their hikes, you can expect to learn about informal science, food foraging, and outdoor sports.
Braided Seeds is an organization that did a giveaway of 400 Discovery Passes to BIPOC this past June via Instagram. During the giveaway, one of the comments read, “What’s a Discovery Pass?” Ashleigh Shoecraft has worked for Braided Seeds over the years and recently decided to quit her teaching job to fully commit to the organization. “Washington is one of the most beautiful places in the world — for us not to be able to experience it feels like this is a problem that I can get behind. Also, recognizing a lot of the systemic barriers that make not all of the community not access it. [Braided Seeds] is trying to make sure that we can remove some of those barriers from a community-based organization.”
The Black community faces different systemic barriers from the Latino community in accessing the outdoors. “A lot of [Black] people grow up with the narrative that ‘that space is not yours, that space is unsafe, is not for you,’” said Shoecraft. “I think that narrative is rooted in the history of lynching in the outdoors, like the history of slavery.”
Shoecraft also pointed out that the cost and time needed to go hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking create another barrier. For low-income and working-class families, going outdoors means taking time off, which means not working. “We don’t have time off. The communal perception of ‘rest’ needs transformation. There’s a glorification of work, where if you want to take time off, that can be seen as laziness,” said Shoecraft. Additionally, there is a safety concern. “It’d be gaslighting the Black community to say the outdoors in Washington is safe because we know that it is not, and there is a perception of fear but also a reality that there are a number of microaggressions that you experience out on the trail.”
Shoecraft keeps working on teaching and encouraging the Black community to get outside and connect with the land. But she also calls out companies such as REI, Dick’s, Big 5, and more to step up, subsidize gear, and put their financial resources behind the BIPOC community.
Jolie Varela created Indigenous Women Hike (IWH), which welcomes women from different Indigenous tribes. For Native people, “Some of the barriers accessing the outdoors is because colonization isn’t ancient history; it happened recently,” said Varela. The murders and removal of Indigenous people from outdoor spaces to relocate them to reservations made them feel unsafe to practice their ceremonies and live traditionally. Varela explained, “It’s a chain effect. Because of the genocide. It’s almost like we [Indigenous people] are playing catch-up. We’re trying to learn how to live in this colonial-occupied world. And so a lot of us are still feeling the effects of the removal.”
Varela said IWH has an outdoor gear “library” from which members can borrow for the day for free and the organization also teaches them how to use it — though Varela said that accessibility to gear isn’t as big of a barrier for Indigenous people because “our people have always existed on the land. We haven’t needed a Patagonia jacket and North Face shoes to do it. Traditionally, we just go out and connect with our land. We are Native — we belong here no matter what.” IWH offers gas money and money for food to mitigate other barriers the community is facing.
Meanwhile, although agencies are taking Native ecological knowledge into national parks, they bend many rules from the traditional way, leading to failure. Varela said climate change, extinction of animal species, and wildfires could have been avoided if the ecological knowledge of Native people had not been suppressed. For instance, Indigeous practices of traditional burning and fostering biodiversity are good for the land. “It’s like, no, if you want this to work, you have to let us be in charge of it and do it, how we’ve always done it — there’s no putting your own spin on it because we’ve seen that how you do just does not work.”
It is a continuous battle for Native people to visit what once was their home, said Varela, experiencing “the extraction of Indigenous knowledge, and then [others] being like, ‘Okay, we’re done with you.’ That’s ongoing colonization.”
Thankfully, more organizations are on the rise to help and support BIPOC communities in accessing the outdoors. As a human being it is your birthright to be able to experience nature and all its benefits. If you don’t know where to start, please refer to the organizations mentioned above to help you explore the wilderness of Washington State.
“I don’t think that we’re the ones who are responsible for creating solutions,” said Shoecraft. “But I also think if we don’t, I don’t know that solutions will ever come. The question that I want to posit is how long are we going to keep allowing that history to take things from us?”
Caroline Guzman is an animal and wildlife photojournalist based in Seattle, WA. She covers stories involving animal abuse, animal law, wildlife conservation, and more. Follow her on Instagram @imcarolineguzman and on Twitter @carolineguzman, or contact her via email at email@example.com.
📸 Featured Image: Team Naturaleza took several Latino families to Quincy Lakes Wildlife Reserve on May 22, 2021. (photo courtesy of Team Naturaleza)
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