Earth Notes - Native Guides

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: Native American Guides Rafting a river in the desert Southwest provides more than just thrills. Floating between million-year-old canyon walls is a rich experience, steeped in chances to learn about wildlife, history and culture.

The National Park Service recognized this in 2006. That year it began requiring river guides who take passengers through the Grand Canyon to be able to describe cultural perspectives of the Native American tribes who have long called the canyon region home.

One group at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff is going a step further. The Native American River Guide and Cultural Interpretation Program, run out of NAU's Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Program, aims to recruit and specifically train Native Americans in river guiding and Native American culture.

On a weeklong river trip in June, the students learn boat handling from seasoned river guides, and they learn cultural and environmental perspectives from Navajo and Hopi elders.

The program, now in its second year, has trained mostly Navajo and Hopi guides, though program organizers have been recruiting far and wide and would welcome even non-Native students in the class.

Nikki Cooley, a Native American river guide herself and the program's leader, says all 20 program alumni have ended up hooked on Native culture, on each other, and on the water. Nearly all of them have gone on to guide river trips in the Four Corners region.

She says the program connects new guides with local culture - and reveals Canyon Country's deep cultural treasures to curious passengers.

- Anne Minard