Live, Climb, Respect Indigenous Land

Shiprock or Tsé Bitʼaʼí “Rock with Wings”  Photo courtesy of David Rozul

Shiprock or Tsé Bitʼaʼí “Rock with Wings” Photo courtesy of David Rozul

I saw it rise in the distance through a bug splattered windshield and a curtain of fog. The image was all jagged peaks and plummeting ridge lines—a fortress of rock that grew larger as I sped down the deserted stretch of highway. My eyes were fixed upon what lay ahead—not the beige grass flatlands and occasional barbed wire fences I’d been zooming past for dozens of miles.

I should’ve been somewhere in Northern Arizona by that point, heading home to Phoenix. Instead, I was on a not-so-quick, two hour detour towards New Mexico to catch a glimpse of Shiprock, or as the Diné (Navajo people) know it, Tsé Bitʼaʼí.

I learned that Tsé Bit’a’í is a sacred place. It is located within the official territory of the Navajo Nation, a self governed nation with over 17.5 million acres in the Four Corners region. With sharp dramatic walls that rise out of the barren desert to a height greater than that of the Empire State building, it once was a famed objective for climbers and has been a guidepost to travelers for hundreds of years.

I’ve always been fascinated by things that make me feel small. I am in awe of large, natural formations that play tricks on the mind—images that seem to blur the line between real and surreal and yet are part of the natural world. As I spend more time with these giants, I can’t help but wonder: how was this formed? What did people who came before me think? Did they feel the same emotions that I feel?

I feel privileged to be able to experience new (for me) environments and I feel a duty to educate myself on the history of place so I can make an informed decision on how I choose to interact with the various places I come across in my travels. At the same time, the beauty of natural landscapes also impart a sense of responsibility. How can I do my part to preserve the areas I visit and ensure future generations can enjoy it too? How do I show it respect?

To a geologist, Tsé Bitʼaʼí is a remnant volcano formed almost 30 million years ago. Composed of fractured breccia and black dikes of igneous rock, it is what remains of the throat of a volcano, the rest of the structure has eroded away. For the Diné, it tells a much different story.

If respecting the people who live on the land means forgoing my own selfish pursuits, so be it.

According to one legend, ancestral Diné living in the far cold northlands were picked up and carried on the back of a great bird. After flying for a single day and a single night, the bird landed at its location in northern New Mexico and promptly turned to stone. Legend also tells that the Diné once lived atop Tsé Bitʼaʼí, only coming down to get food and water. Then one day lightning struck; destroying the only path to the ground and stranding members of the tribe at its peak. It is said that the spirits of the stranded people still live on Shiprock and, one of the reasons climbing has been banned there is to avoid disturbing their ghosts.

Previously, in the 1960s and 70s when climbing Tsé Bitʼaʼí was still legal, a climber was killed and several seriously injured in separate accidents. This put more strain on the relationship between the local Diné and the general public. In the Navajo worldview, death can contaminate sacred spaces with evil spirits, rendering the area as a place to be avoided. Tsé Bitʼaʼí was officially closed to climbing in the Spring of 1970, a ban that is still in effect today.

As I learn stories like these, I am growing as a climber. Becoming a better climber means becoming better informed. It isn’t about climbing harder grades in the gym or seeing how fast I can speed up a wall, but rather, being able to recognize and think holistically about the impact I have on the environment and other people around me.

As any person who frequents the outdoors, I’ve become more familiar with how dramatically physical landscapes can change over time. I notice different chips and cracks in rock, the way lake levels have rescinded over previous years, and the presence of new social trails on the way to the crag. When you notice the details, when you take the time, you feel a closeness to the geography around you.

Imagine how close we could feel to the land if we knew its history. Imagine the relationship we would have if we knew the stories of those who came before us, what it was used for, and what the area used to look like.

I drove as close to Tsé Bitʼaʼí as I could. I eventually stopped a mile from the base at two weathered wood blocks joined by a rusted chain and white sign that read: “No Trespassing.”

As close as the author could get to the formation.  Photo courtesy of David Rozul.

As close as the author could get to the formation. Photo courtesy of David Rozul.

As much as I wanted to get out of my car and walk the rest of the way, being there from a distance in its presence was enough for me. If respecting the people who live on the land means foregoing my own selfish pursuits, so be it. It doesn’t matter that I just drove an extra 200 miles to see it from a distance. Respecting Tsé Bitʼaʼí and the laws of the Navajo Nation is more important to me. The experience was still amazing.

I am only in the beginning stages of my personal evolution. As a Filipino-American I admit that I am not as well versed on the specifics of indigenous lands or people, but I can confidently say that I’m making small steps and working towards it because you can’t separate people from land—because conserving the land means learning about the stories of its people and respecting their culture.

I want to inform myself, to acknowledge the past, and learn from history’s successes and failures so I can do my part to preserve the lands I love for generations beyond me. With as much time as I spend outdoors, it’s the least I can do.