Fresh Tracks Home: Myia Antone on Founding Indigenous Women Outdoors

Myia Antone always knew she was Indigenous, but it’s something she used to hide.

Despite being raised in Squamish—a glacier-carved outdoor mecca north of Vancouver on the unceded territory of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) of her dad’s side—Antone grew up with the Ukrainian traditions of her mom, and viewed her surrounding culture and mountains mostly from a distance.

“It’s almost like looking through a window. You see it and you know it’s there, but you can’t really grab it or learn about it,” Antone says of her Indigenous identity as a kid. “It’s a big piece of yourself that’s missing.”

But in early adulthood, that piece was found and put into place. Now 25 years old, Antone is one of about 40 speakers of the Squamish language and the founder of Indigenous Women Outdoors, a nonprofit that’s helping Indigenous women heal, connect, and pursue careers in the backcountry. Through her language and outdoor work, she’s building community along with new paths to Indigenous knowledge and reoccupation.

Photo by Sandy Ward

The teachings within

Antone’s journey back to her culture was sparked by a class project at the University of British Columbia. The assignment was to design a sustainability plan for the city of Vancouver guided by a central question: Who do you want to be in this world? Antone took the question to heart, and struggled to come up with an answer. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, I have no idea. I don’t know who I want to be. I don’t even know who I am,’” she recalls.

The experience prompted her to reach out to her Squamish uncle and cousins, enroll in a Squamish language program, and get more involved in her community. The more she learned about Squamish people, the more she identified with them.

“I was always told that our people worked really, really hard. Anything you do, you give it 100 percent,” Antone says. “And that’s something my dad has always taught us, even just by watching him.”

Photo by Jakob Gjerluff Ager

Another pivotal experience came talking to a respected community member at a ceremony. He asked Antone whether she grew up “culturally,” to which she replied, “Not really.” He looked at her knowingly and said something she’ll never forget: “You have a lot of teachings within you.”

“That was definitely a lightbulb moment. I might not have identified as being a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh woman, but I have that inside me,” Antone says. “So there have been a lot of puzzle pieces that have just fit. They’ve been reminders that I’m on the right path.”

‘We need to reoccupy these spaces’

In 2017, that path led her to a weekend summit put on by Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) aimed at developing and funding projects to connect the next generation with the outdoors. By this point, Antone was getting into skiing, hiking, rock climbing, and mountain biking, but struggled to afford the gear and transportation. But the bigger barrier, which she discovered during a backcountry ski mentorship program, was the lack of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) representation in the industry and out on the slopes.

“I realized that if I wanted to be skiing with more BIPOC and especially other Indigenous women, I was gonna have to create those opportunities.”

Luckily, Antone won a summit grant to start a hiking group for Indigenous women (as well as people who identify as trans, non-binary, queer, and Two Spirit) to reoccupy their traditional territories. Antone called it Tá7elnexwtway, which translates to “teaching each other.”

Photo by Mirae Campbell

“We’ve been on these territories—in the rivers, in the forests, and in the mountains—for over 10,000 years. Within our stories, and within our language, we hold so much knowledge of these places,” she says. “It’s just so important to be out there and to show people that we’re here. We need to reoccupy these spaces that were taken away from us, because they’re our spaces.”

While she may not be hunting or trapping around Nch’Kay (Mount Garibaldi) the way her ancestors did, skiing and biking help her reconnect with these sacred sites. Antone wants all Indigenous people to have the same opportunity.

By January 2020, Tá7elnexwtway had become Indigenous Women Outdoors, which was launched as a nonprofit. A year later, Antone was co-leading her first backcountry mentorship program with her friend Sandy Ward from neighboring Lil’wat Nation. The program currently has six participants, each from a different Indigenous culture—Cree, Métis, Anishinaabe, and Wet’suwet’en in addition to Squamish and Lil’wat. On top of organizing rental gear for skiing and snowboarding, Indigenous Women Outdoors offers avalanche safety certification and a variety of workshops from backcountry cooking to snow science.

Photo by Sandy Ward

A culture of reciprocity

Antone says it’s been rewarding to bring her Squamish language and culture into the program and see others reciprocate. One day, she shared 10 Squamish words for snow and a woman in the mentorship went back to her home community and returned with 20 snow words in Cree-Michif.

“The more that we each share with each other, the more we want to learn and come back and share,” Antone says.

Photo by Mirae Campbell

She hopes this kind of exchange will extend to the non-Indigenous people who come to ski or explore her territory, as British Columbia is all unceded lands that have never been given up by First Nations. Antone would like to see deeper relationships between travelers and the people who have always been there. “If you’re on our territories, you should be learning about our cultures, our languages, and our knowledge and supporting our communities,” she says.

“Respect is just written into our language,” she adds. “The way that we look at the land and the water is the same way that we look at our bodies as human beings. We use the same words to talk about mountains as we do humans. It reminds me to always be really humble.”

Antone’s goal is to continue bridging her language and outdoor work through camping trips and workshops this summer, and to help Indigenous people become guides to create additional benefits for their communities.

Her impact has not gone unnoticed. In February, Antone became the youngest recipient of the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival’s Tim Jones Community Achievement Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to the North Shore outdoor sports community.

Like the hard work of her Squamish ancestors, giving back is in Antone’s blood. It seems that who she wanted to be in this world is exactly who she’s become.

“When I set up, I just wanted to learn more about who I am, and I’ve surpassed that 1,000 percent,” she says. “Now I get to help other people who want to learn more about where they come from, and to be outside with them, and have fun. It’s a dream.”

Serena Renner is a Vancouver-based journalist with an eye on culture, social justice, and the environment as well as creative change-makers and their big ideas. She aims to produce stories that promote empathy, seek solutions, and empower people to live better. She’s contributed to dozens of print and online publications including AFAR, Hakai, National Geographic Traveler, Outside, Sierra, and The Guardian and works as an occasional producer for What on Earth, an award-winning radio show and podcast about climate solutions by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

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