fbpx
 

Rachel Heaton spent much of her adolescence in the shadow of Mount Rainier, a massive snow-capped peak jutting from the earth beside her home on the Muckleshoot Indian Reservation in Washington state.

Now 43, the Muckleshoot tribal citizen plans to summit the more than 14,410-foot mountain—the highest in Washington state and fifth-tallest in the continental United States— as a testament of strong will and Indigenous visibility.

Never miss Indian Country’s biggest stories and breaking news. Sign up to get our reporting sent straight to your inbox every weekday morning. 

“There are a lot of reasons I’m doing it,” Heaton, a former bodybuilder and current wellness and plant specialist at her tribe who described fitness as “her sanity” told Native News Online in the week leading up to her big climb. 

She’ll depart from Seattle in the early morning on June 9 and plans to return June 17.

“It's about, one, the visibility of our people; two, the visibility of women; (and) three, visibility of brown women. This is just another way to create that visibility of reclaiming the spaces,” Heaton said. “And when I say reclaim, (it’s) not going in there saying ‘I own Mount Rainier,’ even if our people have been here.”

“It's more like, ‘We’re here. You should be learning the importance of these spaces and learning like the stories of these spaces,’ but the only way that can happen is if we're in those spaces.”

Though the National Park Service's website acknowledges that “(t)he land administered as Mount Rainier National Park has been since time immemorial the ancestral homeland of the Cowlitz, Muckleshoot, Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island, Yakama, and Coast Salish people,” Heaton says access to the mountain is often a hurdle for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.

Specific climbing gear and technical training are hugely expensive, she said, totaling close to $10,000 for her own eight-day guided mountaineering course up Mount Rainier. 

“Mountaineering is a rich White man’s sport,” she said. “So we’re often left out.”

(Photo: Rachel Heaton) Muckleshoot tribal member Rachel Heaton climbs with a purpose. “This is just another way to create that visibility of reclaiming the spaces,” she said. “The only way that can happen is if we're in those spaces.”(Photo: Rachel Heaton) According to a 2019 survey by the American Alpine Club, climbers are mostly white and mostly men. The survey found that only one percent of all climbers in the U.S. are Black, and didn’t even track data on Indigenous climbers.

Though Washington state has seen an uptick in initiatives to diversify the outdoors, they are often limited to less technical recreation.

Indigenous Women Hike is a local Washington group that focuses on “healing through our inherent connection through the land,” their Instagram page reads. The organization offers gear for free rentals, gas money to access the mountains, and even food to mitigate barriers to the outdoors. Native News Online reached out to Indigenous Women Hike for a comment, but did not hear back by press time.

But fewer opportunities exist for those looking to break into mountaineering, where physical endurance meets mental grit. About half the climbers attempting to summit Mount Rainier each year make it, according to statistics published by the National Park Service.

Heaton is up for the task, training for the climb six days a week over the last year for her very first summit attempt.

Native News Online learned about Heaton when Managing Editor Valerie Vande Panne saw her jogging up 17 flights of stairs at a food conference the two were attending in Minneapolis in late May. Heaton trains with a 50-pound pack to strengthen her cardio and elevation endurance for the significant climb—the pack she’ll carry on the mountain will weigh 75 pounds.

Her advice for young Native women: “Just get in those spaces.”

“Make yourself visible because our knowledge is what's going to protect Mother Earth and the future generations, and our ability to have clean water and clean air and address climate issues. But our knowledge has to be in those spaces, so I just say, ‘Go be in them.’”



More Stories Like This

Native News Weekly (October 2, 2022): D.C. Briefs
Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Citizen, Justice Mark Montour,  Appointed State Appellate Court Justice
Hundreds Gather in St. Paul for Boarding School Survivors Candlelight Vigil
Walk to Freedom for Leonard Peltier Halfway to Washington
President Biden Welcomes a “Conversation” about Atlanta Braves’s Name and the Infamous Tomahawk Chop

Do you appreciate a Native perspective on the news? 

For the past decade-plus, we’ve covered the important Indigenous stories that are often overlooked by other media. From the protests at Standing Rock and the toppling of colonizer statues during the racial equity protests, to the ongoing epidemic of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) and the past-due reckoning related to assimilation, cultural genocide and Indian Boarding Schools, we have been there to provide a Native perspective and elevate Native voices.

Our news is free for everyone to read, but it is not free to produce. That’s why we’re asking you to make a donation this month to help support our efforts. Any contribution — big or small — helps us remain a force for change in Indian Country and continue telling the stories that are so often ignored, erased or overlooked.  Most often, our donors make a one-time gift of $20 or more, while many choose to make a recurring monthly donation of $5 or $10.  Whatever you can do, it helps fund our Indigenous-led newsroom and our ability to cover Native news. 

Donate to Native News Online today and support independent Indigenous journalism. Thank you. 

About The Author
Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna KunzeEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Staff Writer
Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter covering Indian health, the environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the publication's lead reporter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and repatriation. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Kunze is based in New York.