This New Map Highlights How Hiking Trails Intersect With Indigenous Lands
For time immemorial, trails have been an integral part of Indigenous life and wellbeing, serving as routes for migration, trade, everyday travel, connection, and communication with neighboring communities—and today, many of these ancient footpaths are part of the National Trails System, whose tracks stretch more than 89,000 miles across ancestral lands in the US. Yet many trail names honor European settlers and explorers who traveled through those areas, and historical events following their arrival; and most cartography, including trail maps used by hikers, excludes Indigenous ancestral territories.
A diverse group of people and organizations are working to change that. Native Lands, National Trails (NLNT), an Indigenous mapping and research project launched this month by the Partnership for the National Trails System (PNTS), aims to provide a more inclusive perspective on how the trails we hike intersect with Indigenous heritage. NLNT, initiated by Carin L. Farley, the National Scenic and Historic Trails Lead at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is a collaboration between the BLM, who provides funding; the PNTS, the nonprofit overseeing the project; Native Land Digital, an Indigenous-led nonprofit that specializes in mapping Indigenous territories; and Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps (ALCC), a Conservation Legacy program that partners with tribal communities and engages Indigenous youth to cultivate a new generation of land stewards.
Farley brought on Kiana Etsate-Gashytewa, a graduate of Northern Arizona University’s Applied Indigenous Studies and Political Science programs and an ALCC member of Zuni and Hopi heritage, to lead the mapping project, and Autry Lomahongva (Hopi/Diné) to design its logo.
“It was very clear that the national trails and federal agencies needed more knowledge of Indigenous communities, landscapes, and resources,” says Etsate-Gashytewa. “You would think that they would’ve had it already, as they have federal guidelines for tribal consultation with Indigenous nations. The new Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, an Indigenous woman from Laguna, has implemented policy for the federal agencies within DOI to move forward on collaboration and engagement with Indigenous communities, especially within the BLM. With that, Carin [Farley] said, ‘The one basic thing that we could use is a map to understand the ancestral territories that people live on, recreate on, and visit every time that they go out or connect with nature.’”
The just-launched suite of resources, including an interactive map, will be accessible to the public, partner trail organizations, and federal agencies, with the goal of promoting meaningful dialogue and collaboration among those communities.
A few trails are already demonstrating what this may look like: In 2020, the Arizona Trail Association consulted 13 tribes on new signage projects along the Arizona National Scenic Trail to include their perspective, stories, and language for culturally significant places—an example in the resource guide that other trails are encouraged to follow.
“My hope is that any agency or nonprofit organization, on the trails or in general, is able to have solid connections with their Indigenous communities, where they can just pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, we need your thoughts and ideas on this,’ and where consultation is not big and scary,” says Etsate-Gashytewa. “It's just the communicating of people on how to better take care of the land or any other projects or efforts that they have in mind.”
It’s long overdue. For centuries, maps have been used as a tool for colonization and erasure, to the detriment of native communities whose knowledge is essential for effective land stewardship and conservation. Putting cartography in their hands provides an opportunity for self representation and the dismantling of colonial worldviews and narratives.
“We’re being put on the map,” says Etsate-Gashytewa, who’s eager to share Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) with scientists and trail organizations. “And it means so much more than just our name on a piece of paper. It means us being involved in different conversations we haven't been a part of in a very long time.”
Rudo Kemper, a cartographer for Native Land Digital who specializes in community mapping and using emerging mapping technology to support Indigenous land rights, mentored Etsate-Gashytewa and provided access to mapping tools. Esri, the GIS mapping software that hosts the Native Lands, National Trails map, pulls its data live from the NLD database, which is updated once a week based on feedback received from the community and information learned by NLD researchers.
From Uganda to Montana, the creation of national parks has led to the displacement of Indigenous communities who, today, invite travelers to learn their stories.
“The Native Land Digital data is very unique and a lot more inclusive and encompassing as it's being crowdsourced, which is more relevant and applicable as it’s so Indigenous in the way we hold and care for our knowledge,” says Etsate-Gashytewa. “Our elders, who have years of knowledge, understanding and experience, don't need PhDs to have their voices validated when suggesting an edit on the site."
Ancestral lands, after all, often have no definitive borders, and overlap and extend far beyond the political and federal boundaries of reservations, which today represent a tiny fraction of the land that a community has stewarded for centuries and are, in some cases, located far from a community’s traditional terrain. “The map is not an end all be all map,” says Etsate-Gashytewa. “It's always going to be improved as more information is developed within our own nations.”
So, how can travelers use the resource? Either enter a US hiking trail or location into the search box, or simply zoom into the map and click on a location. Information will pop up detailing the tribal nations and communities in that particular area, and the NLNT map links will route users to each community’s Native Land Digital territory page, which provides information on the tribal government and more. While all trails are on ancestral land, certain footways, such as the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, the Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail, and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail have a deeper Indigenous history readers can delve into.
The map is a just a start to what those involved hope to accomplish. “Acknowledging the land is the very first step, but we have to make progress towards the second and third step of giving back to the land and making sure Indigenous people are at the tables and being properly consulted,” says Etsate-Gashytewa. “That's my hope—and that we fight climate change in a way that we're able to help the land, ecosystems, and wildlife into their natural states.”
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler