This Land Is Their Land: The Rise of Land Acknowledgments in the PNW
Pop quiz: You stand atop a mountain somewhere in the Cascades, sweaty after a long hike while posing for a summit photo. Do you know exactly where you are? Not the name of the trail or the national forest, but who originally lived on the land. Recreationalists are increasingly figuring out the names of the Native American tribes who first called the Northwest home—and then saying something about it.
Seattle computer programmer Bennett Rahn salutes Indigenous lands with every Instagram post. Her online followers know her as a prolific climber, posting photos of herself working her way up a knobby slab of basalt in Central Washington, or belaying a partner by headlamp just off Highway 2. Beneath each of her photo captions, the red map-pin emoji accompanies a note: “This beautiful land is the home of the Skykomish,” on one, or “Stolen homelands of the Moses Columbia, Wenatchi, and Yakama” on another.
They’re called land acknowledgments: proclamations about a place’s original inhabitants. Increasingly city governments, universities, and other organizations work such information into public statements. But in the world of travel, with newcomers engaging directly with Northwest forests, mountains, lakes, and rivers, the practice can feel more immediate.
“We need to make people more visible,” says Rahn. Indigenous people lived in present-day Washington for centuries, but white colonizers largely shuttled them onto reservations, or brought disease that decimated whole populations. Though her grandmother was Apache, Rahn learned little about local tribes while growing up in Spokane. “We need to be more in contact with history.”
Such statements come about “when settler, colonial societies realize this land was occupied,” says Andrew Grueter, ecotourism director for the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center in West Seattle. “It was taken violently, and they want to rectify that a little bit.” Acknowledgments can serve as white admission of a problematic past; even purportedly “legal” exchanges of land in the nineteenth century—treaties—were often one-sided or coerced.
Which is not to say that the practice only exists as white apology. Tribal travelers have long recognized and asked permission to pass from one territory to another, notes Grueter. On the Instagram account Indigenous Women Hike (@indigenouswomenhike) it’s an act of reclamation, the scenic photos tagged with Native names for the account’s nearly 80,000 followers.
With 29 federally recognized Native American tribes in Washington state, plus others like the Duwamish who lack such status, figuring out whom to acknowledge requires work. Enter Native Land, an app and website developed by a mapmaker in British Columbia in 2015. Each traces territories in overlapping shapes. For example, entering “Mount Si Trailhead” in the search bar spits back three names: Coast Salish, Snoqualmie, and Tulalip.
Outdoorsy folks practice forms of land acknowledgment far beyond the Northwest. Glossy magazine The Alpinist publishes literary accounts of climbs on famous peaks like Chomolungma—sometimes relegating its English name, Mount Everest, to parentheses. Hikers along California’s epic John Muir Trail increasingly hear it called the Nüümü Poyo, a Paiute name for a trade route that snaked through the Sierras centuries before John Muir was even born in Scotland. The chorus is still small but growing.
Of course, you can’t fix colonialism with an app. For one thing, the overlapping blobs of Native Land’s map can’t represent social complexities compounded over centuries. “Coast Salish,” one broad Puget Sound map designation, refers to many nations with related languages and cultural similarities. Even the concept of discrete boundaries and owned territory is largely a colonial mindset.
But most crucially, if America learned anything from 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, it is that words alone fall short. “What else are we doing to amplify Indigenous voices?” asks Mary Big Bull-Lewis, owner of a clothing line in Wenatchee. “And to work toward getting land back?”
Big Bull-Lewis, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribe, sees too few tribal members in Wenatchee, located on P’Squosa (Wenatchi) homelands. In hopes of acquiring space for an Indigenous community center, Big Bull-Lewis launched Wenatchi Land Back in 2020 and has raised more than $25,000 so far. The fund has echoes of the Real Rent Duwamish campaign, which invites Seattleites to fund that tribe in recognition of their original land stewardship.
“It’s not enough to simply acknowledge the land,” agrees Bennett Rahn, pointing out that a white person’s crash course in history, as edifying as it may be, doesn’t actually benefit the Native Americans who were wronged. She tries to pivot her location pins to a push for action, like writing to members of Congress to support tribes looking for federal recognition.
In a post this spring, Indigenous Women Hike identified a troubling tense in land acknowledgments—the past tense. “When we talk about how Indigenous people ‘were’ the first stewards of the land, or they once ‘inhabited’ the land, we enforce the idea that Native people no longer exist,” posted the account. “When you refer to us in the past tense, it erases our current and even future relationships to land.”
Big Bull-Lewis has been asked if the Wenatchi are extinct, even as her business, Wenatchi Wear, tries to popularize designs that tell the story of local tribes. Backward-looking language runs the risk of equating Native American culture solely with regretful, ancient history. “We still do practice traditions and protect the land and water,” says Big Bull-Lewis. “We’re still here.”
Awareness is spreading, if slowly. Washington Trails Association added a land acknowledgment to its compendium of hikes; the Mountaineers club is working on an organizational statement. On social media, the practice grows. Climber George Mallory famously said he wanted to climb Mount Everest—Chomolungma, remember—“because it’s there.” Today we take photos in the outdoors and share them, our impulse to say simply “I was here.” Increasingly, non-Native explorers also remember to add, “So are they.”