A required class in the University of Maine’s Outdoor Leadership Program intends to create greater sensitivity to the fact the outdoors are used, in part, by people who have faced discrimination because of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation or because they have a disability.

This month, two seminars feature speakers offering first-hand accounts of social inequality in the outdoors.

“I definitely do understand how most people see outdoor leaders as mostly big, strong white males. As a female, I’ve felt that people wouldn’t see me as strong a leader because I’m not a male,” said sophomore Lacey Parker. “But people of color and different ethnicities and the LGBT community or people with disabilities – they feel that way even more than I do.”

UMaine instructor Lauren Jacobs helped create the Outdoor Leadership Program three years ago, and then launched the course on Ethics and Social Justice in Outdoors Leadership in 2019. Jacobs said the class was long overdue.

“In Maine because (the population) is not that diverse, I think sometimes we give ourselves a pass from talking about race, like there isn’t much to talk about. But that’s not true,” Jacobs said. “It’s true that we are not a diverse state. It’s not true that we shouldn’t be talking about it.”

Jacobs new class looks at how different racial or ethnic groups or those with different sexual orientations or disabilities are largely absent from outdoor leadership positions. She challenges her students to ask themselves what that must feel like to feel excluded, unwelcome or simply not represented in outdoor places and activities. This semester she has 17 traditional-aged college students in class, all of whom are white.

“I wouldn’t say it’s always comfortable. It can be uncomfortable. That’s OK. I think the students are OK with that,” Jacobs said.

Last week Darren Ranco, the chair of UMaine’s Native American Program and a member of the Penobscot Nation, and James Francis, the director of the Penobscot Nation’s Cultural and Historic Preservation Department, explained to the class in a virtual seminar why there needs to be an acknowledgement of Indigenous lands and how damaging geo-tagging of those lands can be.

Location tagging, or geo-tagging, is the identification of a place using latitude and longitude coordinates, or simply the address, so that others can find the exact location when viewing pictures or videos posted online.

The new sign above recently installed at the University of Maine is part of an effort to include Indigenous language signage around the campus. Photo courtesy of Darren Ranco

One issue in geo-tagging Indigenous lands, Ranco said, is when this infringes on privacy – such as showing ancient burial grounds, which is disrespectful, or the location of crops like sweet grass or ash used to make traditional Native American baskets or canoes.

“When geo-tagging draws people to places and impacts them negatively, it’s not such a great idea to show and create attention around where people live,” Ranco said. “For sacred sights and burials, the harm would be to our culture and our ability to practice our religion without disturbance.”

By contrast, geo-tagging of Indigenous land and omitting the history of that land is also harmful, Francis said. He suggested learning the original Penobscot word for a location to help explain why that word describes a particular stretch of river or a point of land. Such names paint a picture of the traditional use of the land – and the Penobscot Nation’s deep connection to it. The Penobscot people, historically, were on the coast in the summer and inland in the winter, moving to forage, hunt and fish.

“It meant a lot of travel – and a vast understanding of the water and river systems,” Francis said. “So a lot of them have place names. They are road signs – markers in the landscape that helped us to travel.”

The two scholars highlighted how Marsh Island – where the UMaine campus is located – is part of the Penobscot Nation’s ancestral lands. In an effort to rebuild the relationship between the people and their land, Ranco is working on project to replace signs on campus with signs in the Penobscot language.

Since 2018, nearly two dozen signs around campus have been replaced, including 10 in the past two weeks. The new signs name the location in English, but also include the Penobscot word and its translation. It’s similar to efforts that have taken place at universities in the U.S. and Canada.

“The intention is to be transformative,” Ranco said. “We see this as a way to connect people to a deep past, in the present – and also to create a place of inclusion, where traditional territories and Indigenous people are recognized.”

The new blue signs struck a chord with Parker.

“It’s interesting to hear how we have these lands now, and how we ended up getting them. It’s crazy to me that they were just taken – and then we built a college on them,” Parker said. “I definitely would never have thought we were recreating on someone else’s land.”

Senior Noah Grondin said the new sign at the UMaine outdoor recreation center, Maine Bound, caught his eye because the Penobscot word αttali‐milahəyαwələtimək  is translated “a place where you play a variety of games,” a joyful description.

The new sign above recently installed at the baseball diamond at the University of Maine includes the Penobscot word for “a place where you play ball.” Photo courtesy of Darren Rancosity of Maine

Junior Noah Robbins, who hopes to work as an outdoor guide one day, said the two scholars made him realize he should know the history of the land where he guides – and to learn it from the Wabanaki people.

The second Outdoor Leadership seminar on Monday will feature acclaimed photographer and rock climber Lanisha “L” Renee Blount, a Black woman who was featured in the cover story of Outside Magazine in August.

In the Outside article, Blount shared her experiences in the outdoors – and in breaking into the outdoor industry, saying: “There are very few professional Black climbers, but there are tons of Black climbers who climb so well, who should be seen.”

“My smile is very integral to who I am, and I want to share the things that make me smile in that way,” Blount told “Outside.” There is so much negative imagery of people who look like me, and it can get really tiring and overwhelming to see our bodies portrayed that way. People need to see Black people being joyous. More importantly, we need to see ourselves being happy and joyfully reclaiming spaces.”

Junior Mackenzie Connor, also a passionate climber, can’t wait to hear Blount tell her story. But Connor said because she is white, she knows Blount has faced greater challenges than she ever will.

“I love climbing and hiking; it’s where I feel the most sane,” Connor said. “It makes me sad that people who have different color skin or are from a different place aren’t able to feel that way outside.”


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