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Program trains Native river guides

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Each year, thousands of tourists from around the world visit the rivers of the Southwest to brave the rapids and see the ancestral Puebloan dwellings, petroglyphs and homelands. Deep in the canyons of the Colorado and San Juan rivers, the spirits of these peoples remain as evidenced by what they left behind. However, as of yet, few Native guides accompany these tourist groups to explain the significance of these sites or to educate visitors on the behaviors necessary in order to honor these ancestors.

To fulfill this crucial aspect of visiting the rivers, the Northern Arizona University Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Program joined with NAU Outdoors to develop a training course for Native river guides on the San Juan River.

Program director Karan English and program coordinator and river guide Nikki Cooley, Dine', explained how their ideas became realities.

''I met Karan English on the river and we started talking about creating a river program for Native Americans - and this was three years ago, and then last fall I made a connection with her again and we said, 'Let's do it: a Native American river guide training program,''' Cooley said. ''She is a really big advocate for Native American issues and rights, and the river was one of the issues she has been wanting to pursue. So we just combined our brainstorming and pretty much put the program together in seven, eight months - all the advertising, marketing and recruiting.''

Integral to the process was the 2005 gifting of a San Juan River permit to NAU by Rob Elliott, president of Arizona Raft Adventures, as well as the updates to the 2006 National Park Service River Management Plan.

In Eliott's gift, he required opportunities be made for American Indian students to be part of the San Juan River trips.

In 2006, NPS mandated that river running contracts include a ''selection factor calling for the interpretation of the Grand Canyon from the perspective of American Indian tribes that have historical ties to the canyon and are culturally affiliated with it.''

Although this inclusion dictates contracts on the Colorado River, Cooley, English and Janet Lynn, program lead for the San Juan River Basin program, took the mandate a step further and used it in combination with Eliott's prerequisite to fuel their drive to create the course.

''It made us think, 'You know, there are only three to four Native American guides, outside of the Walapai, that are working in the state. However, we have these rivers that are so incredibly rich in history,''' Lynn said.

''Seventeen of Arizona's 21 tribes have historical and cultural ties to the state's rivers and all 17 of these tribes consider these rivers and the thousands of cultural sites found along their shores to be sacred,'' Cooley explained. ''For many miles, the river runs along the reservations, and they all consider that a really sacred place. I never saw that interpretation on the river trips I've been on.''

The first pilot course was launched in May after soliciting the participation of Natives from across the country.

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The itinerary included a classroom session as well as a week on the river. While in Flagstaff on the NAU campus, Dine' elder James Peshlakai presented to the class. Cooley remembered Peshlakai's points.

''We asked him to talk about cultural taboos related to the river industry as well as archaeological sites. It was a great chance to get someone to talk about all these things we've been wondering about and he used to be a guide before the river industry got really, really popular,'' Cooley said. ''A lot of clients that go down these rivers are looking for an adventure. There is never interpretation from guides as to how important to the humans surrounding the river these places are. The tribes live every single day in harmony with the earth, the river, the environment. The people need to know how to act in a culturally right way, instead of treating the water and land as a toy, but as a living thing.''

Hopi elder Gilbert Naseyowma, who regularly accompanies river trips as a cultural interpreter, traveled with the group and discussed the sites from a Hopi perspective.

''They showed us that before we get on the river that we need to offer corn pollen to let us be strong. All the rivers are considered female, and we have to understand that she's not a toy. They also told us that we need to respect the other beings, the four-leggeds and the eight-leggeds, to make sure that we're not stomping on ant hills, and how to be in touch and in harmony with the river at all times,'' Cooley explained. ''They said that if we never forget that, that our clients won't forget. They said that before we go to these sights, we must offer corn pollen, to say that we are just visiting, we are learning, and that the people still live there; it is still their house.

''James stressed that we're here for learning and it is important to ask them for a blessing before we get on the water. He said that if you are open, it will come, you will learn. This is a learning environment and that you need to open yourself up to the river.''

In addition to the cultural interpretation, students learned Native ethnobotany from ethnobotanist Jonah Hill, Hopi/Quechan, basic river guiding and navigational skills, received an introduction to swift water rescue, experienced Native food preparation and earned Leave No Trace certification.

Leave No Trace principles require that everything taken into the river be taken out. Participants strain dishwater to ensure no particles are washed down the river, recycle all used materials and collect rubbish found along the way to dispose of it properly.

The coordinators explained that this course is breaking new ground for Native peoples to be the instructors, the keepers of knowledge. They hope that this course will be a model for other river guide companies and clubs, parks and universities.

''This is a great environment to break those barriers. You can see the life - it's in your face and you're having fun. The river has a profound effect on you,'' Cooley said.

The first official courses will be offered in May and June of 2008. The courses will include two days in the classroom and seven days on the river. The instructors featured in the pilot course will return and the pilot course participants guarantee the new enrollees will have the time of their life.

''This training trip gave me whole different perspectives on what my goals in life are and that there is potential and possibility for continuing the work that I do in my communities,'' Hill said.

For more information, call (928) 523-0715, e-mail or visit