Jaylyn Gough ’06 grew up hiking trails, watching sunsets, and exploring the outdoors. With the Hogback Mountains for a backdrop, the reservation in Gallup, New Mexico, where she grew up, served as her home and backyard playground.
“I was outside all of the time,” said Gough. “When I was little all I wanted to do was climb those mountains in Gallup, but the only people I saw doing that were white women.”
A subscription to National Geographic only helped solidify that belief. “I loved National Geographic. I dreamed of being an explorer, but I thought only white people were allowed to go on journeys; I never saw anyone who looked like me.”
For Gough, who was adopted and raised by her mom, Jocelyn Gough ’77, her struggles continued at Calvin, where she grappled with who she was. “Being Navajo, I was in between worlds. I don’t act or think native, but I’ve never been accepted in the white world because I don’t look white.”
She was helped along the way at Calvin by mentors like Jacque Rhodes, Randal Jelks, and Denise Isom. “They believed in me,” she said. “And I learned so much from the religion department. I was provided such a firm foundation in theology and my faith was enriched so much; I am so grateful for that.”
Armed with a degree in social work, Gough returned to Gallup to work, first in the public schools and later in a homeless shelter. While there, she once again took up her outdoor adventures and was once again troubled by the lack of diversity she encountered.
Upon moving to Boulder, Colorado, the apex for outdoor lovers, Gough was inundated with advertising and retailers that featured only white women. “Every time I was on the trail in the Rocky Mountains, I never saw a woman of color, and it’s the land our ancestors walked. I kept thinking, ‘There has to be more people like me!’” she said.
So in 2017, Gough launched Native Women’s Wilderness (NWW). Its mission: to create a platform for native women to use their voices and native girls to have someone to look up to.
“It was Standing Rock [a reservation in North and South Dakota, where, in 2016, representatives from more than 300 native tribes came together to protest the building of an oil pipeline] that really gave me the courage and insight to do this,” said Gough. “I found what it meant to be a Navajo woman, and it showed me there was a need for this kind of social justice movement.”
Bolstered by the addition of 15 ambassadors around the country, who are bringing awareness to indigenous people and land rights, and the support of outdoor brands like REI, Keene, and Deuter, NWW is becoming a movement.
Gough speaks on behalf of Native Americans and has met with politicians, seeking the return of original names to native places and creating awareness on social media platforms with the tag “Whose land are you exploring?”
She is also creating opportunities for more native children to get outdoors to explore their ancestral land by supplying donated gear like backpacks, water bottles, and hiking shoes. “For so many who live in poverty, just having the opportunity to get out and explore with the right gear isn’t possible,” she said.
“And for me,” said Gough, “it always comes back to the love of Christ. Calvin’s icon of the hand holding the heart represents so much of what we should be doing.”
To learn more, visit www.nativewomenswilderness.org or follow @nativewomenswilderness on Instagram.