For Indigenous Athletes, Inclusivity Means Safety

Trail TalkDarrah Blackwater
Darrah Blackwater Colorado Trail - Indigenous Athletes Thru-Hikers Female Safety JEDI Outdoor Inclusivity


As an Indigenous woman, I walk through life knowing that I am 10 times more likely to be murdered than the average American. As we consider how to make the outdoor industry more inclusive of women, LGBTQ2S people, and BIPOC, we must consider missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit relatives (MMIWG2S).

I dreamed of hiking the Colorado Trail for over a decade, ever since I attended Fort Lewis College in the trail’s terminus city, Durango. After three grueling years of law school studying Indigenous rights, I was eager to reconnect with the land I’d been learning how to fight for. But before I started hiking the Colorado Trail on July 1st, I thought a lot about the MMIWG2S epidemic. I knew it was dangerous to attempt a thru-hike alone, but I refused to allow my fear of men and mountain lions stop me from accomplishing my dream goal. 

Darrah Blackwater Colorado Trail - Indigenous Athletes Thru-Hikers Female Safety JEDI Outdoor Inclusivity


Three weeks into my hike I approached Creede, Colorado with a man I’d met on trail, Over-the-Top. Sweaty, stinky, and exhausted from a solid week in the wilderness, we were excited to get off-trail for an evening and enjoy the luxuries of town. After stuffing ourselves with tacos and beer, Over-the-Top and I turned our attention to us not having anywhere to stay for the night.

After an extensive Google search, we learned that every single room in the small mountain town was booked. We asked our server for advice on where else to look. She told us that the sheriff allows hikers to stay on the baseball field south of downtown.

My disappointment skyrocketed: I would not be getting the shower and soft bed that I had so desperately been looking forward to.

As we left the restaurant, a group of young local men on a porch immediately intercepted us. They promptly handed us beers and whiskey in exchange for stories from the trail. After an hour of friendly conversation, one of the men, Chris, confronted us with a question that caught us off-guard.

“So. Do you want to see my gun?”

He carried the energy of a second grader, excited for show and tell. 

Now, as a New Mexican, I know better than to ever to be near someone handling a firearm while intoxicated. As an Indigenous woman, I know better than to drink in a group of strange men.

But as a curious and buzzed hiker, I agreed. Traveling with Over-the-Top gave me more freedom to take risks. I wore his white male privilege like a puffy jacket, enjoying the warmth of vicarious safety and relaxation. With him, I didn’t look over my shoulder every two minutes while I was hiking, or wonder about every little sound outside of my tent at night. I wasn’t even afraid of a drunk stranger with a gun. His presence made me feel safe. Invincible, even. 

Chris brought out a black Colt single action revolver. 

I inspected the gun, checking that it wasn’t loaded, being careful to keep it pointed at the ground the entire time it was in my hands. I asked the men questions about gun laws, purchasing procedures, and their opinions on them. Everything they had to say fascinated me because their perspective was so different from mine. Every so often I glanced up to see where Over-the-Top was: first deep in conversation, then sitting next to Chris, listening, then lying on the sidewalk next to the porch.

Okay, I thought. He’s tired. It’s about time to wrap this party up and head to the baseball field to set up camp.

Turning back to Chris, I realized he had hit a new level of drunk. Gun in hand, he was ranting about how D.C. politicians sexually abuse children and cover for each other. I stifled a laugh, born from shock. I looked around the porch to see a few of the men nodding in agreement. I was so glad I hadn’t told them that I spent two semesters of law school as an intern, working under government officials in Washington D.C. Or had I told them? The black hole of my stomach told me to leave immediately. 

My eyes darted out to the sidewalk to let Over-the-Top know that we’d overstayed our welcome. 

When I saw an empty sidewalk, it felt like a punch to the chest.

Over-the-Top was gone and he took his male privilege safety cocoon with him. Fear rippled through my nervous system as I processed the fact that I was an Indigenous woman alone with three drunk strangers.

Chris’s aggression grew as he continued his escalating rant, gun still in hand.

Whatever you do, don’t say anything to make him direct his aggression at you, I thought. I casually began gathering my things. When there was finally a pause, I interjected, as calmly as I could. 

“Yeah, man. The world is crazy. We’re the only good ones left.” Chris nodded, staring into the void. “Well, I better go find Over-the-Top. He’s expecting me, so I need to go meet him.” I said.

I heaved my backpack over my shoulder and left the porch. As I walked away, I continued looking over my shoulder all the way to the baseball field. I spent a restless night alone in left field, mace in one hand, my knife in the other. I wrapped myself in my tent like a bivy in an attempt to be invisible; my eyes searched the darkness for the source of every noise I thought I heard. Over-The-Top never showed up, and I’ll never understand why he didn’t ask me if I was OK before leaving that night. 

At 6AM I awoke to the hiss of sprinklers. The rude awakening prompted me to hobble back toward Main Street to find a coffee shop bathroom. As I approached downtown, I saw Chris standing next to his truck. I offered a tentative greeting. Chris lifted his hungover head in my direction, scratched it, and pointed at the windshield of his truck. My jaw dropped. 

In the top left corner of his windshield I saw a bullet hole surrounded by a spider web of glass.

Chris and his friends had decided to shoot the gun after I left, and someone had shot a hole in the passenger side of Chris’s windshield.

My hand instinctively covered my gaping mouth.

I finished my thru-hike on August 3rd, and I’ve thought of this night often. As a thru-hiker, you’re forced to trust strangers all the time — hitchhiking, trail angels, camping in groups, and meeting other hikers is part of the thrill.

Darrah Blackwater Colorado Trail - Indigenous Athletes Thru-Hikers Female Safety JEDI Outdoor Inclusivity


But for Indigenous women, girls, and 2-spirit relatives, trusting a stranger is one of the most dangerous things we can do. The thousands of “friendly” strangers who have stolen and murdered our sisters believe that Indigenous women, girls, and 2-spirit relatives are not worthy of respect, of life.

Our society often sends false messaging when it comes to Indigenous women — that we are one-dimensional sexual objects without big ideas, dreams, needs, goals, and feelings. We must change this belief. We must protect each other, and strive to make outdoor sports safe for everyone to enjoy. Then, and only then, will the outdoor industry be fully inclusive of everyone who deserves to experience the beauty of this land. 

Darrah Blackwater Colorado Trail - Indigenous Athletes Thru-Hikers Female Safety JEDI Outdoor Inclusivity


Continue Hiking & Advocating for Change with Darrah: 

Instagram: @blackwatersoul

Twitter: @blackwatersoul



Trail talk

5 comments

Kim Kremer

Kim Kremer

“I refused to allow my fear of men and mountain lions stop me” <— I cheered when I read this. I’m a middle-aged woman who almost always hikes solo. I’m aware of the dangers, but I long ago decided I wouldn’t let the wildcard dictate how I live my life.
My heart sank when I read on…
Even though I recognize part of your burden because I’m a woman, my whiteness offers a protection denied to BIPOC. You all deserve better.

Pearl

Pearl

Thanks for sharing your story. And I’m sorry that even in these comments, there are people who seem to think the most important thing to respond to in your story are the decisions you made, or could/should have made differently. I think most of us who have thru-hiked can relate to the trust you can feel in someone after spending some time on trail with them; of course you expected Over-the-Top to check in with you before disappearing. He should have. As you mentioned, hiking a long-distance trail requires that we trust strangers all the time. You should be able to feel safe in these places. I hope your story helps others to understand this and fight for genuine inclusivity.

EdR

EdR

Thanks for sharing your story Darrah. It had to be difficult to share your poor decisions but it was important and may help others avoid the same situation. I think even a close minded mysogynist can think a time he went to a bar or party with his huge buddy and had zero fear of a bar fight that night. He might even be a bit more cocky and mouthy than normal. So, I suppose he might be wearing his buddies strength “like a warm puffy”.
And while all women are in potential danger, the proof is in the death tallies. BIPOC women are FAR more likely to be seen as a target and assaulted / murdered. No matter what they are wearing.

Linda

Linda

Thank you for sharing this story. I don’t think most men understand how women constantly look out for our safety, have to read the men we meet for potential for harm. White folks can easily forget that this is amplified by 100 times for Indigenous women. Thank you for reminding us. I wish you safety in your travels.

Richard

Richard

Wow, Darrah, scary story. Great that you kept your head together and got out of there safely. It sounds, maybe just to me, like you had more reason to trust Over-the-Top than you reveal to us in your story, and so his disappearance was all the more surprising. I think even as a (solitary) man I would have left that group of young men outside the restaurant sooner than you did. With a companion I had only recently met on the trail, I’m not sure i would have felt all that much safer than being alone. The last photo suggests that maybe you now travel with a trusty companion?? Thanks for posting, and best safe travels!

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