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Reclaiming Indigenous Identity By Connecting To The Land

A conceptual illustration of Jolie Varela hiking in the mountains.
Emily Whang
NPR Next Generation Radio

This story is part of a series by NPR’s Next Generation Radio program, which explored the theme: What Does It Mean To Be An American?

Jolie Varela is the founder of Indigenous Women Hike, which promotes healing through the inherent connection Indigenous peoples have to the land. She is a hiker, water protector and land defender based out of Payahuunadü, the place of flowing water, also known as Owens Valley, California.

Varela started hiking as an act of cultural reclamation and for her self-care and healing. In 2018, she and a group of Indigenous women set out to hike the more than 200-mile Nüümü Poyo (John Muir Trail), without permits under the American Indigenous Religious Freedom Act, to advocate for the history of her people and to acknowledge that Indigenous people traveled these trade routes before America was even “America.”

Based on federal law, the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act protects the rights of Native Americans to exercise their traditional ceremonies, like ensuring access to sacred sites such as the Nüümü Poyo. Before that law, many aspects of Native American religions and sacred ceremonies were outlawed.

Jolie Varela is looking at the camera and smiling.
Credit Jarrette Werk / NPR Next Generation Radio
NPR Next Generation Radio
“The American dream is not my Indigenous dream. It’s so different than that,” Jolie Varela said. “As an Indigenous woman, I would like to see our ceremonies restored, our traditions restored, our homelands restored and our land back.”

As an act of resistance, Varela has rejected the colonial construct of what it means to be an “American.” Indigenous people, like herself, use the terms Indigenous, Native American or American Indian interchangeably when identifying themselves; however, many choose to identify with their specific tribal nation(s).

“I’m not American. I’m Nüümü; I’m Yokuts. Our existence predates America, so I define myself as a citizen of my Nations. I think it’s very important to just reclaim who we are in that sense,” Varela said. “For me, it’s like calling myself Nüümü or Yokuts, a Nüümü Hupi, which is a Paiute woman.”

A person’s identity can be influenced by a variety of factors like ethnicity, culture, family, sexuality, lived experiences and even the media. Varela has spent years navigating these intersections of her life.

“And to add being a proud Indigenous, queer and fat woman puts me on the fringes even more. It’s a part of my identity that I’m reclaiming for myself and really trying to be confident and comfortable in that and realize that we don’t need to conform to Eurocentric body standards anymore,” she said.

Indigenous Women Hike

In addition, Varela’s organization, Indigenous Women Hike, also works to counteract violence to the land. She was inspired by the time she spent protecting the water in Standing Rock, which was threatened by the Dakota Access Pipeline. Indigenous peoples were concerned that the nearly 1,200-mile-long pipeline would contaminate the water of the Missouri River, which is just north of the Standing Rock Reservation along the North Dakota and South Dakota border.

Through her travels across the world, Varela is reminded of how erased Indigenous peoples are from society. For example, she commonly experiences the challenge of explaining her Indigenous roots to others outside of the United States.

“It's tricky because [I] have to say that [I’m] from the so-called United States, or that I’m from America,” Varela said. “But while trying to explain myself, like, ‘I'm the First People,’ I found myself so many times having to say, ‘You know, cowboys and Indians,’ and then it clicks and they’re like, ‘Oh, yes.’ And then I tell them I’m the ‘Indian,’ and they understand that.”

‘The American Dream Is Not My Indigenous Dream’

To most, the “American dream” encompasses the ideals of freedom and the opportunity for prosperity and success. Varela said the American dream is not her Indigenous dream and that the pursuit of the American dream comes at a price because it infringes on Indigenous people. The history of colonization and genocide further perpetuates the erasure of Indigenous peoples even today.

Jolie Varela is leaning on a rock formation, looking into the distance.
Credit Jarrette Werk / NPR Next Generation Radio
NPR Next Generation Radio
Jolie Varela, 34, is a citizen of the Tule River Yokut and Paiute Nations. She is a hiker, water protector, land defender and change maker based out of Payahuunadü, the place of flowing water, also known as Owens Valley.

The First Peoples of the lands were the last to gain citizenship. It wasn’t until 1924 that Congress finally granted citizenship to any Native Americans born within the United States, but afterward, many continued to be denied voting rights by state and local jurisdictions.

As a result of the treatment of Indigenous peoples in the United States, Varela explained that she views being considered an American citizen as something that is forced upon Indigenous peoples.

“We’re not American. We’re older than America, and calling myself an American feels like an injustice to myself, like, I’m doing myself an injustice by saying that I am an American because I’m Nüümü; I’m Yokuts. That’s who I am. That’s who we’ve always been, and that’s who we will continue to be,” Varela said. “Being an American or being considered an American feels just like another form of erasure of our history that’s been here and been a part of these lands for time immemorial, for millennia.”


That story was produced by Jarrette Werk, a student at the Reynolds School of Journalism and a member of the A’aniiih and Nakoda Nations. Jarrette participated in NPR’s Next Generation Radio program, which held a weeklong radio bootcamp this spring. Each reporter explored the theme: What Does It Mean To Be An American?

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