The shifting consciousness behind the renaming of peaks is spreading into marketing and other aspects of the outdoor culture.
“It’s interesting, when we hear people talk about the stories of the land they never are telling the original story of the land,” said Renee Hutchens, a Denver mountain biker of Navajo descent who recently started a petition asking Golden’s Yeti Cycles to abandon its use of the word “tribe” to describe its family of Yeti owners and fans. “There is an untold story out there. So when people say, ‘Do we have to rewrite our history books?’ I say, yes. In some sense it’s time to do just that.”
Hutchens’ “Not Your Tribe” petition reflects many years of work by Indigenous people to take back the word “tribe.”
“The term ‘tribe’ is inherently linked to the genocide committed by the United States against the indigenous communities who predate the existence of this country,” reads the petition on change.org. “Therefore, when non-Indigenous people use the term ‘tribe’ to describe a group of people with a common interest, it belittles the history, experience and unique status of the Tribal Nations in the United States.”
Yeti for many years has called its annual rallies of owners the “Yeti Tribe Gathering.” Hutchens studied Native American culture at Dartmouth College and her well-researched petition traces the history of colonization of Indigenous people and the ongoing, 225-year battle for sovereignty by nearly 600 tribal nations across North America.
Reclaiming the word “tribe” is a step in that fight, Hutchens said. Last week, Native Americans won perhaps their most decisive victory in 200 years when the Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling that affirmed the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s sovereignty for law enforcement over roughly half of Oklahoma. The ruling held the U.S. government to promises of “a permanent home” made to the Creek Nation in the 1800s and it comes as Native Americans see a groundswell of support for decades-long battles by tribal nations over discrimination and dismissed treaties.
“This is not unique to mountain biking and … we should not need to continue justifying why this is hurtful,” she said. “We are not asking Yeti to dissolve. We are not asking them to stop their event. Just call it something else. I think if they simply remove that word, they will get a more diverse and inclusive gathering.”
Chris Conroy, a co-owner of Yeti Cycles, said he is ready to work with Hutchens and Indigenous groups hurt by the company’s use of the word “tribe.” Yeti has used the word to describe its gatherings and its fanbase for more than 30 years. (Fans of the brand not connected with the company have started a counter-petition calling the claim on “tribe” an “over-correction of political correctness.”)
“Change is inevitable and we are learning things that we didn’t know,” Conroy said. “Certainly we don’t want to be associated with genocide or the appropriation of a term that is offensive to Native American people.”
Melissa Utomo, a Boulder web developer and climber, created a plan that could prevent racist, sexist, homophobic names from being assigned to climbing routes across the country. In January this year she approached Mountain Project, a crowd-sourced online repository of more than 220,000 climbing routes, with a feature that would allow the website’s users to flag inappropriate and offensive names.
Mountain Project, which was founded in Colorado by climbers Nick Wilder and Andy Laakmann in 2005 but was owned by REI from 2015 until May, when REI returned it to Wilder, did not immediately embrace Utomo’s plan. So route names like “Black Chicks in Heat” in the Owens River Gorge in California, “Slant Eyes” near Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, “Happiness in Slavery” and “Case of the Fags” in Boulder Canyon and dozens if not hundreds of other offensively named routes remained unchanged.
“They reinforce how discrimination against marginalized people will continue to be the norm,” Utomo wrote in the introduction to her December 2019 proposal to Mountain Project, which included notes of support from 10 BIPOC climbing groups, including Brown Girls Climb, Stonewall Climbing and BelayALL.
Earlier this month, as Wilder retook the reins of Mountain Project, the website deployed a flagging feature for route names much like the proposal Utomo presented and crafted.
Wilder on Thursday issued a statement saying that when he took over Mountain Project in May, he elevated diversity issues as a priority, including ways to reduce toxicity in the website’s forum and contacting climbers about renaming routes.
“I am drafting a policy that includes guidelines for defining what is discriminatory, and then describes how we will address discriminatory names. I know it will be far from complete, and as we continue this work, I hope to include expertise from BIPOC people and groups,” Wilder wrote on his wildly popular forum. “Please accept my apology for the mistakes I’ve made; I’m focused on the goal we share, and I know we’ll get there better and faster by working together.”
More than 250 climbers from across the country gathered Thursday for an online panel with Utomo and three other climbers working to grow diversity in their sport and targeting offensive names as a step toward inclusivity. The panel included two Indigenous archeologists and anthropologists — Erynne Gilpin and Ashleigh Thompson — and Bethany Lebewitz, who founded Brown Girls Climb in 2016 to champion women of color in climbing. The four spoke for more than two hours about shifting the culture of male- and white-dominated rock climbing, and changing “damaging and violent route names.”
The climbers who tuned into the meeting on Thursday night spoke and posted about the ease with which offensive names flowed from the men who named them. A father noted his discomfort climbing with his son on a route that had an objectionable name he couldn’t share with him.
Utomo said for years women and people of color have felt unable to talk about route naming as they remained on the periphery of the climbing culture. Now is the time for their voices to be heard, she said.
“I really do want to create a space where we can escape the weight of white dominance in the dialogue and re-create a space where we can all work together,” she said.