Calgary·Q&A

Climbing an act of decolonization for Indigenous women

Erynne Gilpin, an activist for Indigenous wellness, says rock climbing can be a vehicle and metaphor for a lot more than movement and elevation.

Indigenous Womxn Climb is an invitation to rock climb into conversations about progress

Erynne Gilpin says rock climbing can be more inclusive than how it is represented, and it can start a conversation about decolonization. (Submitted by Erynne Gilpin/Kl.Peruzzo/przvida.com)

Erynne Gilpin is a Victoria-based researcher, PhD candidate and activist for Indigenous wellness, leadership and body governance.

She says rock climbing can be a vehicle and metaphor for a lot more than movement and elevation. Gilpin is of mixed Saulteaux-Cree Métis, Filipina, Irish & Scottish ancestry. 

Gilpin's recent co-presentation at the Banff Mountain Film Festival — called Climbing Through Barriers – and Films — is about inclusion and diversity in outdoor communities.

She also spoke with The Homestretch on her social media meeting space, Indigenous Womxn Climb, designed to inspire and start conversations.

This interview has been edited and paraphrased for clarity and length. You can listen to the complete interview here.

Gilpin was introduced to rock climbing by her partner. She now loves it and invites other Indigneous women to the experience. (Submitted by Erynne Gilpin/Kl.Peruzzo/przvida.com)

Q: What brought you to rock climbing, and what about it spoke to you?

A: My partner introduced me to rock climbing. I was able to engage with a relationship with the land. It brought me outdoors.

It created a space and time for me to spend hours upon hours outside on the land.

For my teachers and cultural context, that was an intentional process. It provided an opportunity for me to enact a relationship to land and water.

Q: Why do you think it's important to get Indigenous women more involved?

A: I didn't know it was a thing.

There aren't a lot of people who look like me or had similar experiences and were raised like me, represented in rock climbing and the outdoor world.

It wasn't something represented back at me.

The barriers are around the idea of representation.

I think it's really important for Indigenous women to see themselves in that world but to actually have the opportunity to reclaim and access those spaces, as rock climbing isn't new for Indigenous people, it's wrapped up in our traditional stories and governance.

I think there's a sense of reclamation of our bodies in relation to land, but also engaging with health and wellness models.

Q: Talk about the group you formed, Indigenous Womxn Climb.

A: We spell it with an "x" to identify non-binary, queer and two-spirit climbers as well.

We realized that social media has the capacity to promote and support our own representation, but also to educate non-Indigenous climbers and communities around relational governance, protocols, land permissions and cultural values, which inform our relationships to land.

We thought, let's make a social media space for that, and the response has been really wonderful.

It's something we didn't see out there in a Canadian context.

It's been really inspiring to share these images of Indigenous women climbing for the first time.

Gilpin would like to see a decolonial analysis within climbing. (Submitted by Erynne Gilpin/flashfoxy.com/wcf)

Q: What would you like to see, in terms of representation in rock climbing?

A: I'd like to see a decolonial analysis within climbing.

It's important to ask those questions around, "Why is representation usually white, male, 'macho' climbers? Who has had access to outdoor recreational sports in the past?"

Here is Canada, the last residential schools in 1996.

Decades before that, we have white males who were not facing structural barriers to their own well-being and political agency, which gave them the space and privilege to engage with these types of activities.

I would really like to engage with conversations around rock climbing, academia, health care, whatever it might be, from a decolonial approach, taking apart the historical pieces and the social pieces that really inform our current-day experiences and realities.

A presentation at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival this weekend is aimed at bringing diversity to climbing. One of the speakers is Victoria's Erynne Gilpin, who is Saulteaux-Cree Metis. She's the founder of Indigenous Womxn Climb. 8:28

With files from The Homestretch