WANTED: Native American River Guides

San Juan SunRise.
San Juan SunRise.

In the oral histories of the Hopi Tribe, there is a centuries-old story that originates from the Snake Clan about the first river runner in the Southwest. This story depicts the adventures of a curious boy, named Tiyo, who wonders “where does the river go?” Determined to answer that question, Tiyo sets out with the prayers of his family, in a boat carved from a cottonwood tree, encountering new adventures and people along his river journey. He eventually discovers that the river joins up with the Pacific Ocean far from his homeland, and in doing so, becomes the first to raft what are now known as the San Juan and Colorado Rivers.

One of the rivers that Tiyo journeyed upon was the San Juan River, which flows through the Four Corners states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, where it slowly disappears into the huge man-made reservoir better known as Lake Powell. The San Juan River directly borders the Navajo Nation to the south whose residents use the water for fishing, livestock and irrigation for crops. To the north, the shores are largely controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) with the exception of a few parcels of private lands.

The San Juan is a place of beauty, serenity and history. When you look to the shores you encounter Canada geese and great blue heron nestled among the tamarisk and coyote willows, and if you’re lucky, Bighorn Sheep. As you guide your boat over and through the river’s fast moving current, you float by huge petroglyph panels, prehistoric cliff dwellings and other features left by the Ancestral Puebloan people over 800 years ago.  The river and its shores have been witness to many events, from prehistoric farmers tending to their crops, to early Mormon pioneers settling the area, through countless modern-day river runners including Norm Nevill’s commercial expeditions beginning in 1936.

Ancestral Hopi Pueblo. San Juan River, UT.
Ancestral Hopi Pueblo.
San Juan River, UT.

Southwestern rivers are culturally significant to local Native American tribes, some of whose lands border these rivers. Seventeen of Arizona’s 21 Native American tribes have historical and cultural ties to the state’s rivers. They consider these waters, wildlife, plants and the thousands of cultural sites found along their shores to be sacred. In the Southwest, Native cultures such as the Hopi and Navajo (Diné) are often a large part of the interpretive stories that are told during commercial and private river trips.

However, this story is often told without benefit from actual interaction with Native people, who historically have not been a large or vocal group on the river (as opposed to along the river). Although numerous Native tribes inhabit lands along and near the San Juan and Colorado Rivers, their presence in the boating field has been minimal. Currently less than 3% of the 300-400 river guides leading passengers through these revered waters are Native American. Yet their ancestral lands and homes are literally found throughout river country.

This realization necessitated a way to address this issue and through that need, the creation of Fifth World Discoveries (FWD) was born. FWD is a Native non-profit organization whose purpose is:

To provide sustainable opportunities for Native and Indigenous people to foster stewardship and understanding of how the natural environment, Mother Earth, can be used as an educational platform for creating and maintaining traditional and contemporary tribal intellectual knowledge. These opportunities include activities that focus on mentoring and guiding Native youth and adults to be environmentally and socially responsible using traditional tribal knowledge.

A fundamental belief is that time spent outdoors learning and teaching with others can inspire, heal, forge strong bonds and provide opportunities for lasting experiences. All activities will be founded and based on the Native philosophies of respect and caring for the natural environment and maintaining cultural traditions and connections.

Future Native Guides, 2011.
Future Native Guides.

Additional goals of FWD (http://5thworlddiscoveries.org/) are to provide employment opportunities to an under-served population that are both rewarding and educational. The program encourages participants to continue their training and pursue future employment with river companies, non-profit organizations, and management agencies. In becoming licensed river guides, Native Americans enhance the river experience for commercial clients, fellow guides and outfitters by better educating them about the Native cultures found within the Southwest.

Perhaps of all the contributions that Native guides bring to the river industry, it is their ability to provide a perspective on their own cultures that is not only accurate, but up to date, that has the most value. Too often in this modern era, Native peoples are still viewed in historical terms, that is, as living relics of the past. The stereotypes of Native peoples often portrayed in popular media does very little to educate the average person about the current state of Native cultures.

While Native peoples still hold onto their traditional teachings and values, qualities that are rooted in their past, they also continue to evolve and find new ways of applying those qualities to the modern world.

Through careers as teachers, scientists, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs and now hopefully as river guides, Native peoples continue to contribute to not only their respective communities, but the outside world as well. What a guiding career provides is a new arena to apply those skills, as well as a new means of interpreting their relationship with southwestern rivers and associated ecology.

On The River.
On The River.

Program participant Katrina Claw (Dine’) states, “…contact (with the natural environment) is an essential part of being Native American. Without it, people tend to treat the earth like something to be used and abused. But if anyone has ever camped on the banks of a river at night, it is anything but inanimate. The Guide Training Program instilled a new kind of respect in me for nature and I was taught how to properly care for my own intrusions into it. I would recommend this experience for everyone, but most especially my fellow Native Americans. The economics, accurate representation, and protection of (southwestern rivers) depend on us.”

Thus the stories and insight offered by Native guides provides perspectives not only on their long and complex prehistory, but also their outlook on modern issues concerning the ecological management of river systems and natural landscapes. In doing so, Native guides offer first hand knowledge about their cultural heritage, while still proving that they are in fact, viable and continuing elements of the American Southwest.

The centuries old journey, first started by a young Hopi boy named Tiyo, continues on with Native guides finding their place within the modern boating industry.

  -Kwah-kway/Ahe’hee’ (Thank You!)

Ancestral Hand Prints.
Ancestral Hand Prints.

Portions of the article originally appeared in the Boatman’s Quarterly Review. Issue: 20(4)(Winter 2007-2008):8-10. Grand Canyon River Guides Association. Authors: Nikki Cooley (Diné) & Lyle Balenquah (Hopi).

For more information about Fifth World Discoveries and how you can be involved or help Sponsor our Program please contact Lyle Balenquah.

****This video is a bit out-dated, but gives a good overview of Program aspects.

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