UPDATE: In March 2021, First Nations highlighted the commitment and generosity of Justin Way in this profile piece. Since then, Justin has completed his month-long hike and provided us an update on his experience. He shares:
“Traversing some of Colorado’s most incredible scenery and landscapes provided me with a deeper appreciation for not only the land and its inhabitants, but also the people who have tended to it across the centuries. After hiking over 500 miles, summiting six 14ers, and visiting mountain communities large and small, I can truly say that Colorado is home. I am proud to have raised $1,000 in support of First Nations Development Institute and bring awareness to the issues that it works so hard to confront.”
Thank you Justin, and congratulations on your accomplishment!
From Personal Journey to Purpose: Justin Way to Hike 486 Miles in Support of Native Communities
Justin Way knows about the connection between people and land, and he has dedicated his life to being in and teaching others about the natural world. Now he’s exploring that knowledge through a month-long hike of the Colorado Trail, a 486-mile stretch that winds through some of the most beautiful and majestic areas from Denver to Durango, while raising funds to support First Nations in its mission to strengthen Native economies and communities.
Outdoors, At Heart
Originally from Western New York, Justin moved to Colorado in 2017 and since then has been thoroughly immersing himself in all things Colorado and an outdoor way of life. He is a naturalist and ecologist, and married to his wife of four years, who is an herbalist and nutritionist.
He is also a kindergarten/1st grade teacher at Worldmind Preparatory School in Denver, an inclusive, outdoor-based school for early childhood through 6th Grade. “The school is whole-child focused, and one of the only programs for elementary education centered on an outdoor-curriculum,” he says. “We do the whole school on field trips or in the park — math and science, exploring nature, chasing squirrels away, laughing and playing.”
A Hike for Healing
Justin’s personal time is also dedicated to finding ways to connect with nature in and around Colorado. A large part of that involves hiking, he says. “I’ve gone from car camping and sitting around the fire, to carrying a backpack and taking night trips. And now I have enough know-how and stamina to do something ambitious.”
Ambitious it is. From roughly July 2 to August 8, 2021, Justin will make his way along the Colorado Trail, with pledges of supporters who will donate a specified amount per mile to meet or exceed Justin’s goal of raising $1,000.
Justin explains that the idea started as a personal journey, but at the same time, he was also becoming cognizant of the forces around us that shape us. Growing up in New York, he says he learned about the Iroquois, but it took moving to Colorado to actually meet a Native American. Here, he began to hear of land acknowledgements and local efforts to bring in Indigenous voices and culture. From there, he also connected with a Lakota elder and was taught about cultural touchstones.
“It was eye opening, and I became more and more immersed in the conversation around elevating voices that have been shut out and made to disappear,” he says. “I learned how much people who look like me have contributed to silencing cultures. At the same time, it was kind of a relief to know that there are still people who we can listen to, and there’s an opportunity to learn from them and incorporate their beliefs into my life.”
Both personally and professionally, Justin has become more committed to the things he is learning: Ideals of putting people first, living in harmony with nature, and tearing down capitalist strongholds. He strives toward mind/body connection and incorporating knowledge of cultures and nature to become a better person.
When he learned about First Nations, he felt that raising funds through the hike would be an appropriate and respectful way to give back to the people from whom white colonialism has taken so much.
“With this trip, I saw that there’s more that I can do. I wanted to take this experience with the land, and take it out of just myself, and give something back to the people who stewarded that land for so long. Even though we’ve done terrible things to it,” he says.
Honored to Invest
Justin hopes his journey this summer will not only be a fundraiser for Native communities, but also make his connection to the land even deeper, noting that every mile he hikes will be on land that is part of a “long, objectifying, and complicated history” of colonialism and Indigenous land rights.
“As a white person, I feel as though I need to acknowledge this fact, work to shed light on it, and give back to those that have been marginalized and exploited,” he says.
We at First Nations appreciate Justin’s support and awareness-raising. We wish him the best of luck on his adventure, and we’re pleased to share his story.
Follow Justin’s hike this summer with regular updates on First Nations social media accounts. Plus, learn more about his journey directly through his online donate platform here.