What does it mean to be an American?
We are finding, coaching and training public media’s next generation. This #nprnextgenradio project is created in Reno, Nevada, where five talented reporters are participating in a week-long state-of-the-art training program.
In this project we are speaking to people from various walks of life—whether they are Indigenous; natural born; a naturalized citizen; a refugee or an immigrant without legal status—to ask what it means to be an American.
Jarrette Werk, A’aniiih and Nakoda, turns what it means to be American on its head. He shares the story of Jolie Varela, founder of Indigenous Women Hike, and highlights her perspective on reclaiming her Indigenous identity.
Illustration by Emily Whang
Reclaiming Indigenous Identity by Connecting to the Land
Jolie Varela is the founder of Indigenous Women Hike, which promotes healing through the inherent connection Indigenous peoples have to the land. She is a hiker, water protector, and land defender based out of Payahuunadü, the place of flowing water, also known as Owens Valley, California.
Varela started hiking as an act of cultural reclamation and for her self-care and healing. In 2018, she and a group of Indigenous women set out to hike the 200-mile Nüümü Poyo (John Muir Trail) without permits under the American Indigenous Religious Freedom Act. To advocate for the history of her people and to acknowledge that these trade routes have been traveled by Indigenous people since before America was even ‘America.’
Jolie Varela: Hiker, water protector, and land defender
Based on federal law, the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, protects the rights of Native Americans to exercise their traditional ceremonies, like ensuring access to sacred sites such as the Nüümü Poyo. Before that law, many aspects of Native American religions and sacred ceremonies were outlawed.
“The American dream is not my Indigenous dream. It’s so different than that,” Jolie Varela said. “As an Indigenous woman, I would like to see our ceremonies restored, our traditions restored, our homelands restored, and our land back. When people come from other places and they come in the name of this American dream or in pursuit of this American dream, I don’t think they realize how that American dream erases Indigenous people, and further infringes upon our rights as Native people.” (Photo by Jarrette Werk)
As an act of resistance, Varela has rejected the colonial construct of what it means to be an ‘American.’ Indigenous people, like herself, use the terms Indigenous, Native American, or American Indian interchangeably when identifying themselves. However, many choose to identify with their specific tribal nation(s).
“I’m not American. I’m Nüümü; I’m Yokuts. Our existence predates America. So, I define myself as a citizen of my Nations. I think it’s very important to just reclaim who we are in that sense,” Varela said. “For me, it’s like calling myself Nüümü, or Yokuts, a Nüümü Hupi, which is a Paiute woman.”
A person’s identity can be influenced by a variety of factors like ethnicity, culture, family, sexuality, lived experiences, and even the media. Varela has spent years navigating these intersections of her life.
“And to add being a proud Indigenous, queer, and fat woman puts me on the fringes even more. It’s a part of my identity that I’m reclaiming for myself and really trying to be confident and comfortable in that, and realize that we don’t need to conform to Eurocentric body standards anymore,” she said.
Indigenous Women Hike
In addition, Varela’s organization, Indigenous Women Hike, also works to counteract violence to the land. She was inspired by the time she spent protecting the water in Standing Rock, which was threatened by the Dakota Access Pipeline. Indigenous peoples were concerned that the nearly 1,200-mile long pipeline would contaminate the water of the Missouri River, which is just north of the Standing Rock Reservation along the North Dakota and South Dakota border.
Through her travels across the world, Varela is reminded of how erased Indingeous peoples are from society. For example, she commonly experiences the challenge of explaining her Indigenous roots to others outside of the United States.
“It’s tricky because [I] have to say that [I’m]from the so-called United States or that I’m from America,” Varela said. “But while trying to explain myself, like, ‘I’m the First People,’ I found myself so many times having to say, ‘you know, Cowboys and Indians,’ and then it clicks and they’re like, ‘Oh yes.’ And then I tell them I’m the “Indian.’ And they understand that.”
“The American dream is not my Indigenous dream”
To most, the ‘American dream’ encompasses the ideals of freedom and the opportunity for prosperity and success. Varela said the American dream is not her Indigenous dream and that the pursuit of the ‘American dream’ comes at a price because it infringes on Indigenous people. The history of colonization and genocide further perpetuates the erasure of Indigenous peoples even today.
The First Peoples of the lands were the last to gain citizenship. It wasn’t until 1924, that Congress finally granted citizenship to any Native Americans born within the United States, but afterward many continued to be denied voting rights by state and local jurisdictions.
As a result of the treatment of Indigenous peoples in the United States, Varela explained that she views being considered an American citizen as something that is forced upon Indigenous Peoples.
“We’re not American. We’re older than America and, and calling myself an American feels like an injustice to myself, like I’m doing myself an injustice by saying that I am an American because I’m Nüümü, I’m Yokut. That’s who I am. That’s who we’ve always been, and that’s who we will continue to be,” Varela said. “Being an American or being considered an American feels just like another form of erasure of our history, that’s been here and been a part of these lands for time immemorial, for millennia.”
Jolie Varela, 34, is a citizen of the Tule River Yokut and Paiute Nations. She is a hiker, water protector, land defender, and change maker based out of Payahuunadü, the place of flowing water, also known as Owens Valley. (Photo by Jarrette Werk)