Ashleigh Thompson Works to Make Climbing More Inclusive

Ashleigh Thompson Works to Make Climbing More InclusiveEXPAND
Jessica Latzko

Ashleigh Thompson has experienced moments as a climber when she has felt that indigenous people and lands were not included or respected.

She is trying to change the way that climbers interact with Native American lands and communities through her activist work. Thompson take part in "Climbing: An Indigenous Perspective" at the Paradise Valley REI on Thursday, October 17. She will be joined by Sergio Avila, a conservation scientist with the Sierra Club. He will discuss the ways that conservation efforts have often excluded indigenous communities and the steps his organization has taken to bring them into the conversation.

Thompson, a member of the Red Lake Ojibwe, is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of Arizona. She is part of a larger movement to make the climbing scene more inclusive, especially for Native American people. She started climbing about four years ago after moving to Tucson. Before that, she had always been an outdoor recreationalist, pursuing activities such as running, snowboarding, camping, and hiking.

It was through climbing that her advocacy efforts began. As a Native American woman, she often hasn't felt welcome in the male-dominated, Anglo-centric climbing world. She has noticed numerous instances of cultural insensitivity in the language used in the climbing world. One example is route names such as “The Trail of Tears” or “Squaws in Heat.”

“In terms of just seeing the type of people who are the poster faces of climbing, traditionally it’s been very white and male. Things are changing, but I think in order to be more inclusive to a diverse audience, climbers should think about when they are naming things and saying things, how that appears to someone who is nonwhite,” Thompson says.

Thompson says that certain barriers, such as the costs of climbing or the lack of mentors in the community, also cause Native American people to shy away from the activity.

“I feel like a lot of Native kids don’t know many Native climbers because historically, we haven’t been as represented in the climbing community,” Thompson says.

One of the biggest issues she has been seen recently is climbers “poaching,” or climbing rock formations on sacred indigenous lands. The Navajo Nation had to issue a climbing ban as a result of such practices. She says that when climbing on indigenous lands, it is important to respect the protocols related to land access and use.

“There’s an example close to home in Tucson, where there is this peak called Baboquivari Peak. You can access it from the west side. If you access it from the west side, it is on the Tohono O'odham reservation. They ask that you sign a waiver, and you do things respectfully, in terms of cleaning up after yourself and maintaining the pristine nature of the trails and the mountains,” Thompson says.

Thompson has noticed some progress in advocacy groups seeking out indigenous points of view and showing support for sovereignty and land control, but she says more work still needs to be done. Along with discussing language use during her talks, she also tries to emphasize the importance of indigenous lands to Native American cultures.

Thompson says, “A lot of Native people’s ceremonies are connected to certain places. A lot of our oral histories are connected to certain mountains, where some of our traditional stories took place.”

She has started to build a community with other Native American and female climbers. She attends a regular meetup geared toward people of color, held at a local climbing gym in Tucson, and is part of a women’s climbing group. She often feels more comfortable around other women climbers.

“I feel more inspired by women when I’m climbing with them," Thompson says. "I see what my climbing friends that are women can do and believe more in myself."

"Climbing: An Indigenous Perspective" is scheduled at Paradise Valley REI on Thursday, October 17. RSVP for this free event here.

Editor's note: We clarified the definition of "poaching" as climbing rock formations on sacred indigenous lands.

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