the Regeneration of travel

A NAVAJO PHOTOGRAPHER RECONNECTS WITH HER ROOTS IN NEW MEXICO

A SEARCH FOR
IDENTITY

Jaylyn Gough spent her early life on Tohatchi, a sand- and rust-colored expanse of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. Yet it wasn’t until adulthood that she began exploring her Native heritage. Adopted by a white woman at age 2, they remained on the reservation for six years, before moving to the nearby city of Gallup.

Then, in 2016, Jaylyn had an epiphany. Joining hundreds of Tribes at the Standing Rock protests, she noticed that, unlike many fellow Native protesters, she didn’t own a single item of traditional clothing. Jaylyn realized: she’d grown up entirely inside of white culture. “It really opened my eyes,” she says.

Since that day, Jaylyn has been on a journey of discovery: studying Diné Bizaad—Navajo language—and learning traditional weaving. (Diné, which means “The People,” is how the Navajo describe themselves.) But perhaps the most powerful connection to her ancestry is exploring sacred lands.

“If I’m in crisis or going through something difficult, it’s returning to the land of my ancestors that gives me strength,” says Jaylyn, who speaks softly but always with conviction. “Knowing that they at one point in time traversed hard journeys but made it out.”

JAYLYN GOUGH

Since that day, Jaylyn has been on a journey of discovery: studying Diné Bizaad—Navajo language—and learning traditional weaving. (Diné, which means “The People,” is how the Navajo describe themselves.) But perhaps the most powerful connection to her ancestry is exploring sacred lands.

“If I’m in crisis or going through something difficult, it’s returning to the land of my ancestors that gives me strength,” says Jaylyn, who speaks softly but always with conviction. “Knowing that they at one point in time traversed hard journeys but made it out.”

If I’m in crisis or going through something difficult, it’s returning to the land of my ancestors that gives me strength.

Jaylyn Gough

Today, Jaylyn captures her connection to the land through her work as an outdoor photographer. She also founded Native Women’s Wilderness, an online community with close to 70,000 followers. Jaylyn hopes to inspire more “Native women, girls, two-spirits and queers” to reclaim and draw strength from the outdoors, while posing a question for non-Native people: “Whose land are you exploring?”

That question is particularly pertinent right now. During the pandemic, Americans sought refuge in the wild landscapes of the National Park Service (NPS). Yet, a quarter of the total visitors—about 61 million people—tramped into just six parks. (The NPS manages 423 areas, including national monuments and national historic sites.)

For Jaylyn, who explains Indigenous people are traditionally known as “land and water protectors,” this concentrated influx to a small number of public lands, many of which are sacred in Native cultures, is cause for trepidation.

“When a place becomes overwhelmingly trafficked, there’s a lot of trash and pollution,” Jaylyn says. “More people getting outside is great—but there are consequences.”

Jaylyn advocates seeking out less-visited landscapes, while making sure you don’t inflict that same damage on somewhere previously “untouched.” “Tread with humbleness,” she says.

Covid-19, which decimated many Native reservations, kept Jaylyn, now based in Colorado, away from her Gallup community. “So many elders passed away, and so much of our culture and language goes with them. That was really terrifying for a lot of us.” Now, returning to the region for the first time in nearly two years, Jaylyn hopes to reconnect with loved ones and the Native lands surrounding the city.

NATIVE WOMEN’S WILDERNESS EXPEDITIONS

Back to the land

On her first day in Gallup, Jaylyn is excited to reconnect with Ted Charles. Ted is an elder who adopted Jaylyn into his Navajo clan—Tó’aheedlíinii, or “water flows together”—several years ago. Today, Jaylyn refers to Charles and his wife, Evelyn, as grandpa and grandma.

“The Navajo grandpa, or Cheii, is like the ‘wise elder,’ the one who takes care of the family,” says Jaylyn. “I've never had a Navajo grandpa or a father figure in my life, so when Ted came and stood in that place, something clicked.”

The pair plan to hike to the sacred site of Tsoodzil, also known as the Turquoise Mountain or Mount Taylor, an imposing peak a couple of hours’ drive beyond Gallup. This site is significant to the Diné, as it marks the southernmost boundary of what they consider original Dinétah, or “Navajo land.” (The Navajo Nation occupies portions of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.)

Ted Charles
JAYLYN ON her grandpa
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And every time I look at this mountain, I can see him coming here to pray, and probably to give thanks that he survived.

Ted Charles
LEFT AND BELOW: JAYLYN AND TED CHARLES HIKE TURQUOISE MOUNTAIN

However, as they walk and talk, Jaylyn learns the mountain doesn’t only hold spiritual significance: it’s also part of Ted’s family history. He explains how his grandfather was forced to do “The Long Walk” in 1864: the enforced deportation, by foot, of the Diné from their own land to “assigned territory” hundreds of miles away. Scores of Navajo died of exhaustion and malnutrition along the route. Ted’s grandfather was released after a six-year period of incarceration and allowed to return to live in the Navajo Nation as a teenager.

“He lived in this area for the rest of his life,” Ted says. “And every time I look at this mountain, I can see him coming here to pray, and probably to give thanks that he survived.”

Jaylyn hadn’t heard this story until today. She sits quietly by Ted on the mountaintop, looking out over miles of Navajo land below.

That evening, the duo return to Charles’s hogan, a modern iteration of the traditional, eight-sided Navajo dwelling, convening a few friends and neighbors for mutton stew and frybread cooked over an open flame. When it’s time for the party to clear out, Charles gives his granddaughter a hug and a fatherly look that speaks volumes. “No goodbyes. Only see-you-laters,” he says.

As she leaves, Jaylyn reflects on the day. “It was incredible to be with my grandpa and hear that story. Just to sit with him on that mountain and learn from him… that’s something I’m going to hold for the rest of my life.”

LEFT AND BELOW: JAYLYN AND TED CHARLES HIKE TURQUOISE MOUNTAIN

However, as they walk and talk, Jaylyn learns the mountain doesn’t only hold spiritual significance: it’s also part of Ted’s family history. He explains how his grandfather was forced to do “The Long Walk” in 1864: the enforced deportation, by foot, of the Diné from their own land to “assigned territory” hundreds of miles away. Scores of Navajo died of exhaustion and malnutrition along the route. Ted’s grandfather was released after a six-year period of incarceration and allowed to return to live in the Navajo Nation as a teenager.

“He lived in this area for the rest of his life,” Ted says. “And every time I look at this mountain, I can see him coming here to pray, and probably to give thanks that he survived.”

Jaylyn hadn’t heard this story until today. She sits quietly by Ted on the mountaintop, looking out over miles of Navajo land below.

JAYLYN ON mindful travel
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That evening, the duo return to Charles’s hogan, a modern iteration of the traditional, eight-sided Navajo dwelling, convening a few friends and neighbors for mutton stew and frybread cooked over an open flame. When it’s time for the party to clear out, Charles gives his granddaughter a hug and a fatherly look that speaks volumes. “No goodbyes. Only see-you-laters,” he says.

As she leaves, Jaylyn reflects on the day. “It was incredible to be with my grandpa and hear that story. Just to sit with him on that mountain and learn from him… that’s something I’m going to hold for the rest of my life.”

A COMMUNITY CORNERSTONE

CLOCKWISE: AT GALLUP FLEA MARKET, JAYLYN VISITS A TURQUOISE JEWELRY STAND; RECONNECTS WITH OLD FRIENDS; AND EXPLORES AN ACOMA CERAMICS STALL

Talk with the vendors.
Hear their stories.

Jaylyn Gough

That Jaylyn grew up knowing so little about her heritage is not unique. She points to how, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many Native children were forced to attend assimilation-focused federal boarding schools that systematically erased their cultural identity.

That said, Jaylyn believes many Native people see themselves less as victims of a “vanishing culture” as the proud torchbearers of a contemporary one.

JAYLYN RECONNECTS WITH OLD FRIENDS

That Jaylyn grew up knowing so little about her heritage is not unique. She points to how, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many Native children were forced to attend assimilation-focused federal boarding schools that systematically erased their cultural identity.

That said, Jaylyn believes many Native people see themselves less as victims of a “vanishing culture” as the proud torchbearers of a contemporary one.

The Gallup Flea Market is a prime example. Every Saturday, artisan vendors set up hundreds of stalls. For many, this is their livelihood. But it’s also a social scene. “Coming to the flea market is a community event,” Jaylyn explains. “It’s where you gather with your Native friends, grab some food, talk about the week.”

The market reopened in June after a lengthy, Covid-related closure, and Jaylyn is thrilled to return, adding the market is a great place for visitors to connect with Native communities. “Talk with the vendors. Hear their stories.”

And Jaylyn does just that. She comes away from the market not just with three new favorite items—a ceramic vase, a turquoise ring and a silver bracelet—but the stories behind these pieces and the people who made them.

JAYLYN ON ETHICAL SOUVENIRS
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The Gallup Flea Market is a prime example. Every Saturday, artisan vendors set up hundreds of stalls. For many, this is their livelihood. But it’s also a social scene. “Coming to the flea market is a community event,” Jaylyn explains. “It’s where you gather with your Native friends, grab some food, talk about the week.”

The market reopened in June after a lengthy, Covid-related closure, and Jaylyn is thrilled to return, adding the market is a great place for visitors to connect with Native communities. “Talk with the vendors. Hear their stories.”

And Jaylyn does just that. She comes away from the market not just with three new favorite items—a ceramic vase, a turquoise ring and a silver bracelet—but the stories behind these pieces and the people who made them.

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EXPLORE
THE MARKET

Visit the Gallup Flea Market to hear and read the stories behind the stalls.

A NEW LANDSCAPE

I encourage people to think about the stories these lands hold. Honor the history, and the trauma.

Jaylyn Gough

On day two of her trip, Jaylyn is heading to one of New Mexico’s most spectacular national monuments: El Malpais. Unlike some of the more heavily trafficked attractions in the area, this starkly beautiful expanse of rugged lava flows and sandstone bluffs is mercifully empty.

On the Zuni-Acoma trail, an ancient footpath connecting the Native A:shiwi (Zuni) and Acoma pueblos, the landscape is at once captivating and intimidating. Jaylyn explains that whenever she treads upon territories that belong to others, she takes care to introduce herself, and ask if she can come on the land. Sometimes, the site indicates no. When this happens, she finds another trail.

JAYLYN EXPLORES EL MALPAIS

On the Zuni-Acoma trail, an ancient footpath connecting the Native A:shiwi (Zuni) and Acoma pueblos, the landscape is at once captivating and intimidating. Jaylyn explains that whenever she treads upon territories that belong to others, she takes care to introduce herself, and ask if she can come on the land. Sometimes, the site indicates no. When this happens, she finds another trail.

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EXPLORE
THE BLUFFS

Immerse yourself in the El Malpais landscape.

As Jaylyn starts crossing the lava, she turns hesitant. “This doesn’t feel good,” she says. “I can’t keep going.” Returning to the start of the trail, she reads a sign explaining El Malpais means “the bad country.” Here, many Zuni and Acoma people lost their lives to invasions by Spanish conquistadors.

For Jaylyn, this is exactly what she means by exploring land humbly: taking the time to understand its history, good and bad. “I encourage people to think about the stories these lands hold. Honor the history, and the trauma. If we respect and acknowledge that trauma, that’s when healing starts.”

A LAVA FLOW AT EL MALPAIS

For Jaylyn, this is exactly what she means by exploring land humbly: taking the time to understand its history, good and bad. “I encourage people to think about the stories these lands hold. Honor the history, and the trauma. If we respect and acknowledge that trauma, that’s when healing starts.”

JOURNEY’S END

BEING A MARRIOTT BONVOY MEMBER, JAYLYN CHOOSES TO STAY AT SPRINGHILL SUITES GALLUP

Returning to Gallup after a long day in the sun, Jaylyn is ready for rest and reflection. She checks into the SpringHill Suites Gallup, a Marriott Bonvoy participating hotel, then heads straight to her room to go through the photos she took of her trip, selecting a couple to post on Native Women’s Wilderness social media accounts.

HOW TO VISIT SACRED LANDS
  • Research the original names of the land and its original people
  • Visit Native-run cultural centers and heritage sites
  • Buy directly from Native vendors
  • Book tours with Native-owned operators

Jaylyn encourages her fellow travelers to research the histories and symbolism of the places they visit. “Do the research, visit cultural centers and heritage sites, learn the original names of the land and its original people. Find a way to give back to those communities,” she says, suggesting travelers buy directly from Native vendors, and book with Native-run businesses.

As the sun sets on Jaylyn’s final night in Gallup, she reflects that reconnecting with the Navajo community after the traumas of the Covid crisis has been truly “restorative.”

“After the pain and sorrow my people have gone through during the pandemic, to see and be reminded of their resiliency, it’s a beautiful thing,” she says. “Even though we have suffered great trauma and loss, we are still here, and we will always be here.”

I love the flea market. It was something that my mom and I did, quite often growing up in Gallup. I had the opportunity of buying three items. One was a simple silver bracelet, which is really well known in our culture. We do a lot of stacking of these bracelets. The other was from a Navajo vendor, a woman and a husband who makes jewelry. And the final piece was a piece of pot from the Acoma tribe.

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Usually when I start a hike in these territories, I put my hand on the tree or a rock and I just introduced myself, Yá‘át’ééh shik’éí Jaylyn Yenabah Gough yinishyé. And I take time to let that settle, and I ask, "Can I explore? Can I wander your land today?" And if I feel that it's right, I go, and if I feel like it's not right, I don't go.

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Turquoise is a sign of protection in Navajo culture. It has been mined in the Navajo Nation for centuries.

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Navajo silversmithing began in the late 19th century. The hand stamping technique, a painstaking and meticulous craft, is used to create intricate designs that are unique to the artist. Historically, these stamps were handmade from iron or steel and passed down through generations.

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Jaylyn on the pottery
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