New Mexico

Talking K’e: Cultural Connections in the Sangre De Cristo Mountains

Forrest Shearer and I first met in 2017 while engaged in environmental advocacy for Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument. We soon began spending time together in the mountains to better understand how we begin to address a broader idea of climate change and to reconcile the history of indigenous dispossession that created our public lands. The mountains have been our teachers, and our quest to find answers has resided in short “cultural” adventures in my ancestral homelands in the Southwest. 

I only learned to ski recently, but it has provided a pivotally important part of my identity as a Navajo person. It gave me a language to communicate and connect with mountains that I could have never imagined. It has allowed me to explore how our mountain landscapes, and consequently our cultural relationships to them, are changing with climate change. In many ways Forrest has served as a mentor and knowledge holder of safe snow travel and generalized mountain stoke for me. In other ways, I have served as a mentor and guide for indigenous knowledge for Forrest. The common language with which we have exchanged this knowledge has been movement through mountains in the snow. It began with a 2019 trip to Arizona’s highest point, 11 miles north of Flagstaff: Dook’o’oosłííd in Navajo, and Humphrey’s Peak in English.

Our preparation to summit this peak began by visiting a Navajo medicine man in order to receive the appropriate permissions. It was also an opportunity for Forrest and me to better understand this mountain through the Navajo perspective. A sacred mountain to the Navajo and many other local tribes, Dook’o’oosłííd and its adjacent heights of the San Francisco peaks were made on an abalone blanket and decorated with abalone shell to create understanding of social unity and life. Home to a handful of Holy People, they were anchored by sunbeams and covered in yellow cloud. As the sun sets, it reflects off the peaks, creating a certain kind of light that represents carrying out your plans. These carried-out plans represent your life. The mountains represent life. For me it provided an opportunity to learn Navajo songs about the mountains, which have framed my adventures since. These songs have become part of my preparation and visit for any backcountry adventure. When I check my beacon is also when I sing these songs—both are forms of protection…

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