Katherine Donnelly | 06.28.2018

As part of Outdoor Project's Women In the Wild series this summer, I have had the honor of working with outdoor women from all over the industry to dig a bit deeper into who they are, how they got to where they are now, how they approach the outdoors, and more. These women are all rad in their own right, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, or how "badass" they might be. Whether they're mothers, daughters, sisters, professional athletes, beginners, weekend warriors, "instafamous," or anywhere in-between, their unique stories, journeys, opinions, and perspectives are incredibly valuable and insightful as Outdoor Project - and the industry as a whole - progresses and evolves to become more inclusive to every type of outdoors person. 

Through in-depth and often thought-provoking interviews, I hope to highlight these women's stories, their work, their adventures, and so much more with an eye toward giving them their well-deserved share of the spotlight while inspiring and empowering even more women to get outside!

In this feature we talk to Jolie Varela.

Hiker, barrier-breaker, and founder of Indigenous Women Hike, this Woman In The Wild provides inspiration to those around her while relentlessly advocating for the lands she loves so much. Get the full scoop below.

Photo by Sasha Karapetrova.

OP: Give us the skinny on who Jolie Varela is.

Jolie Varela: I am a citizen of the Tule River Yokut and Paiute Nations. I come from Payahuunadü (the Owens Valley), the place of flowing water. I am an Indigenous activist. I care very deeply for my people and the land we belong to.

OP: What does it mean to you to be a woman in the outdoor industry? 

Jolie Varela: Being an Indigenous woman in the outdoor industry to me means reminding people, no matter how exhausting it can be, that the outdoor industry has profited from the genocide and displacement of Indigenous people from our ancestral spaces. It also means reminding the industry and all who recreate that if they want to protect "public" lands, their strongest allies are Native Americans, who have been caring for and protecting the land from time immemorial.

OP: Can you give us more information on the work you are doing with Indigenous Women Hike?

Jolie Varela: Indigenous Women Hike works with other activists in Payahuunadü to help get Indigenous youth out on the land. We take them hiking, climbing, and provide them with a healthy and nutritious meal. We teach them respect for the land, and they get to challenge themselves and enjoy sports they don't regularly participate in.

OP: What has the outdoors done for you, and how do you pay it back?

Jolie Varela: My healing journey began with the land. Each footstep and each hike strengthens my connection to the Earth and continues to heal me in ways I may never know. I don't believe I can every repay her back, but when I go out I pray, I give an offering of tobacco or song, and I know the land remembers me.

OP: Who has inspired you along the way?

Jolie Varela: I am inspired by Kathy Bancroft, who is Lone Pine Paiute. She is my hero and elder, and she has taught me how to love and stand up for our land. I'm also inspired by the countless powerful women in my life, including my mother and grandmother, who teach me strength every day.

OP: We are seeing a shift in what the term woman or female might bring to mind (size, shape, sexuality, gender identification, etc.), both in the outdoor community and throughout the world. What does being a woman mean to you? Femininity?

Jolie Varela: I believe that the healing of a community begins with women, we are the life givers. That is why I am excited to hike the Nüümü Poyo with my sisters. We live with traumas specific to Indigenous women. We will be on this journey together in prayer to honor our ancestors who came before us and to bring awareness to issues we face in our communities. I am looking forward to learning from these powerful women, healing together, and bringing that healing home to Payahuunadü.

OP: What’s next for you in the coming months and years?

Jolie Varela: I hope that Indigenous Women Hike will inspire Native women to assert their Indigenous rights to their own ancestral homelands. We are also hoping to start traveling the PCT and stop in the Indigenous communities to have conversations about what their barriers are to accessing the outdoors. 

Learn more about Jolie and Indigenous Women Hike both online and by following along on their adventures through Instagram


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