Beyond Acknowledgment: Listening to the Land

By Danielle Stickman

Photo by Emily Sullivan (@emelex) in Murphy Dome, Alaska (Unceded Lower Tanana Dene lands)

This write-up was originally featured in our Fall 2022 Trail Break issue.

After a two-year hiatus from sessions with my wellness coach—two years of navigating an ongoing pandemic, moving, and changing jobs—I was struck when she offered the exact words I needed: “I would like to first acknowledge everything you’ve been through in the last two years.”

This simple statement moved me. Tears filled my eyes, and I let myself cry hard.

My passions range from yoga teaching, hiking, running, beading, snowboarding and fat tire biking to the occasional rock-climbing adventure. Alongside these activities, my Dena’ina and Koyukon Athabascan roots call me home to the land to my life-sustaining cultural practices of fishing, gathering, harvesting and protecting. Perhaps it’s my nomadic heritage that keeps me moving and busy, in search of that familiar feeling of moving and living in tune with the seasons, as my Ancestors lived.

Last winter I went snowboarding. Though it had been a while, my limbs moved, turned, and danced down the mountain, steady and at ease. I also traveled by dog sled along the Yukon River, and after a minor fall and a swim through mounds of snow, the dogs and I found our rhythm. That rhythm felt like coming home, an honoring of the animals and the land; an acknowledgement and reminder that we are interdependent with nature—not independent of nature.

After the dog sledding trip, we started a long drive south. We sat in silence for some time. Thoughts of starting my own dog sled team percolated, along with reflections of what it means to exist in 2022. I wanted to hold onto that feeling of connection with the dogs and the land, the feeling of coexistence with all things. I struggled with two questions when I returned to the city: How do I hold onto this deep land connection in a fast-paced place, and how do I share this with others? My mind turned to the practice of land acknowledgements.

To acknowledge the land is to acknowledge the life-sustaining energy the land provides. When my wellness coach acknowledged everything I’d been through since 2020, I didn’t just hear her words, I felt her genuine care and was reminded that care starts with ourselves first. I must care for and listen to my body and its connection to the land.

“Qet’ni’yi” is a Dena’ina Athabascan phrase that means “it is saying something.” “It” refers to the earth, animals, and weather—they are all saying something. Many of us have forgotten how to listen to the land, waters, and animals. I have forgotten to listen from time to time. We often escape to the land to avoid hearing the rest of the world. However, that is the best time to listen. Offering the land an acknowledgement is more than words. It is a shift in mindset, an active practice in listening, and a reflection and appreciation of the original stewards of the land. To acknowledge millennia’s-old reciprocity with all beings, plants, and the earth. To acknowledge this relationship also means to listen in, and to learn what it means in practice for myself. How will you practice listening?

In our photo captions throughout Trail Break, we acknowledge the ancestral and ongoing stewardship of Indigenous lands. We recognize that this acknowledgement is only a first, insignificant step toward addressing the many historical and ongoing injustices that underlie and undermine our current public lands system. Winter Wildlands Alliance is committed to improving our allyship with the Indigenous communities on whose lands we have the fleeting privilege to work and play, and to taking impactful action toward equitable access, environmental justice, and the restoration of Indigenous leadership in the stewardship of the Earth we all love and depend on.

DANIELLE STICKMAN is an artist, educator, outdoorswoman, and auntie. She enjoys time spent harvesting with her family on her Dena’ina homelands, creating art for her small beading business, and works to enhance equity in conservation.