River-Running Done Right at Grand Canyon

A story about white-water rafting and kayaking at the Grand Canyon.

It’s eight o’clock on a Saturday morning in March, and Drake Havatone is praying in his native Hualapai language. But as he stands in the middle of a huge Hatch Expeditions warehouse in Marble Canyon, Arizona, speaking into a microphone and surrounded by mostly white-river runners, he’s not in his normal setting.

Havatone is a cultural technician for his tribe. He traveled four hours from his home in Peach Springs, Arizona for the Guides Training Seminar, a long-standing annual weekend of camaraderie for river guides and in-service education on Grand Canyon geology, ecology, environmental and political issues, and more.

Havatone’s presence here—and the fact that he opened the proceedings in Native prayer—are indicative of a growing trend in the Grand Canyon river-running community. More than ever, tribal representatives are either becoming river-runners or serving as guides on river trips with non-Native boatmen. They’re sharing their culture, especially where it intersects with places along the river visited by tens of thousands of river passengers each year.

In addition to Havatone, members of three other tribes attended the training session this year. Nikki Cooley, a Navajo woman, orchestrated the proceedings as president of the Grand Canyon River Guides association, the organization that hosts the event each year. Cooley’s former co-worker at another of her jobs, Native Voices on the Colorado River, is a Hopi river guide named Lyle Balenquah, who also attended. Diana Sue Uqualla, a Havasupai elder, danced with several young women from her tribe during a traditional performance at lunchtime; Havatone and two other Hualapai musicians helped accompany them with singing and gourds.

“I can never say I’m different from you,” Uqualla told a couple hundred river-runners seated in a motley assortment of camp chairs before her. “We all have one heart, one mind.… That beats in us all.”

The emphasis on tribal participation at the Guides Training Seminar isn’t unprecedented—representatives from various Colorado Plateau tribes have given sporadic talks during past years about their respective cultural ties to the Grand Canyon. But it’s stronger than ever before. “It’s incredibly cool,” said Brad Dimock, a longtime, non-Native river-runner. “Yesterday was the first time I’ve heard Hualapai language spoken, and I’ve been doing trips across that land for 40 years.”

There are several programs encouraging tribal involvement in the river-running community. The Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center, a function of the U.S. Geological Survey, has been organizing trips for a variety of stakeholders on the river, including tribes, so their voices can be part of decisions about managing flows out of Glen Canyon Dam. And Native Voices on the Colorado River, led by Cooley, Balenquah and Northern Arizona University anthropologist Joelle Clark, has been gathering elders from Colorado Plateau tribes and taking them on some of their first river trips through the Grand Canyon, part of their ancestral homelands.

As part of the trips, the elders are getting to know both Native and non-Native boatmen. They’re sharing their culture in ways they were never willing to do before, in an effort to educate and preserve their culture and traditions. Native Voices has put out a first draft of a video out from their efforts, available here.

Clarence “Beans” John, a Southern Paiute tribal member, explains during his segment of the video the sacredness to his people of Deer Creek, a popular day hike for river trips: It’s basically their heaven. “We have songs about this area,” he says. “This is the final resting place, where the sun stops in the morning.… ”

Other participants in the video—including Uqualla and Hopi elder Merv Yoyetewa—explain the cultural significance to their respective tribes of Bass Camp, in the western reaches of Grand Canyon, and the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers, to the east.

Cooley got emotional as she explained to the warehouse full of guides why it’s so important to recognize and safeguard the cultural histories of the specific places in Grand Canyon that, to a nontribal, casual observer, might otherwise be seen as mere playgrounds. “Don’t just tell them these places are important to Native Americans,” she told the guides. “Tell them why.”


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