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Return Migrations

Indigenous guides traverse ancestral paths on journeys of remembrance, learning, healing and respect.

“Within the oral history of the Hopi Tribe exists a centuries-old story 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 places and people along his journey. He eventually discovers that the river meets the Pacific Ocean, far from his homeland. In doing so, he becomes the first to raft what are known today as the San Juan and Colorado Rivers.” 

A dry, hot wind sweeps across the water’s surface as I clip my PFD on, climb into a duckie, paddle in hand, and slide into the moving current. Gazing downstream, I wonder to myself, “where does this river go?”. And like Tiyo, I had the prayers of my family with me as I set off on my own journey down into unknown canyons and the waters that flowed within. 

The river is the Green, which forms Desolation and Gray Canyons, as it cuts through the Tavaputs Plateau located in eastern Utah. It is my first time on this stretch, and I am traveling with a small group of artists, story-tellers, and advocates. We are participants in a unique writing workshop offered through the Freeflow Institute (https://freeflowinstitute.com/), an organization that provides “opportunities for creative development, space, and access to wild places for writers, artists and leaders of all backgrounds”. My participation was also supported through the Southwest Emerging Artists Scholarship, provided by the watershed advocacy group, American Rivers(Opens in a new window). For 5 days we followed the rivers course, seeking inspiration from earth, water and sky, and I am thankful for the experience.

The workshop introduced me to the Green River landscape; however, I have worked as a commercial river and hiking guide across the southwest for 16 seasons. I am fortunate to have experienced the Colorado River and Grand Canyon, as well as the San Juan River, Bears Ears and many other regions. I also work as an archaeologist and consultant for projects involving Hopi culture, history, and land management issues.

Participants on the Native American Guide Training Program row down the San Juan River (2007).

My path to archaeology, and ultimately to guiding, was influenced by my upbringing out on the Hopi Mesas. As part of traditional Hopi culture, my family continues to dry-farm fields of corn, beans, and squash. Other lifestyles such as ranching and subsistence hunting are part of what we do, so maintaining a relationship with the elements of the earth is encouraged. My dad used to tell me, “always keep your hands in the dirt”, a metaphor about remaining grounded.

As I grew older, I also learned more about our own history, and I developed a greater understanding of the longevity of the Hopi presence within the southwest. My desire to know more about my ancestors led me to Northern Arizona University, where I completed Bachelors and Masters degrees in Cultural Anthropology. For over 2 decades, I have worked as an archaeologist advocating for the preservation and protection of ancestral sites and landscapes.

Visiting ancestral sites in the Bears Ears region with my dad (2018).

Archaeology and guiding share some similar goals, particularly in the need to understand the history of a place or places. They share another notable characteristic, a lack of Indigenous presence and participation. When I first started guiding, I rarely worked alongside another tribal member, and at times, it was an isolating environment. Fortunately, in recent years I have witnessed an increase in the number of Indigenous people employed as commercial guides (and archaeologists). However, we can still be few and far between. 

My own training began in 2007, through the Native American River Guide Training Program, initiated by Diné river guide, Nikki Cooley. The instruction included all aspects of commercial river guiding, culminating in a multi-day training trip down the San Juan River from Sand Island to Clay Hills. The program operated for a few years, with over 40 participants representing several tribes and backgrounds, including artists, scientists, educators, and musicians. A handful of us would return as instructors, with some continuing to work as guides for commercial and non-profit organizations. 

Nikki and I would later serve as Co-Directors, along with Joelle LeMer, for the Native Voices on the Colorado River Program. Through this endeavor we worked with commercial outfitters, educators, and tribal members to develop educational materials for the river guiding community. An important lesson we learned from these efforts was the necessity of including knowledgeable tribal elders to serve as cultural advisors for students and project staff. These individuals provided a much-needed, inter-generational learning experience, as well as spiritual mentorship, and guidance.

Members from the Havasupai, Hualapai, Yavapai-Apache, Hopi and Paiute tribes within the Grand Canyon. Native Voices on the Colorado River Program river trip (2011).

In addition to providing opportunities within commercial guiding, there continues to be a prioritization of our own tribal initiatives, such as developing our own outdoor programs. The goal being to train our own guides, who then lead our people back into ancestral lands, where we can share and maintain traditional knowledge for the purposes of community-based cultural preservation and education.

This concept is not new.

Within Hopi culture is a traditional form of pilgrimage that involves making physical journeys back to lands that were once occupied by our ancestors. Some of these lands are hundreds of miles away from the current Hopi reservation, yet they are still recalled within traditional stories, songs, and prayers. These “return migrations” are meant to not only commemorate and pay respects to our ancestral history, but also to maintain physical and spiritual connections with these lands. 

For Indigenous peoples, teaching and learning through first-person experience is how we’ve grown and developed for thousands of generations. Knowledge such as medicine, architecture, language, arts, agriculture, and celestial understandings to track the seasons, are all a result of our interaction with natural environments. There is also much cultural history directly associated with these landscapes that needs to be remembered and shared with our respective tribal communities. 

The significance of visiting these landscapes in person cannot be understated, as much of our Indigenous history is rooted in lands that now extend beyond current reservation boundaries. The truth is most tribal reservations only include portions of what once were much larger areas of traditional land use. Despite historical injustices, including government policies of assimilation, termination and forced relocation, Indigenous peoples maintain their respective connections with ancestral lands. We continue to practice traditional lifeways, conducting our prayers and leaving offerings among the sagebrush plains, juniper covered mesas and high elevation forests. 

Diné, Hopi, and Tewa river guide crew, with Indigenous-led outfitter, Ancient Wayves(Opens in a new window) (2022).

My efforts to increase the number of Indigenous guides (and archaeologists) continues, with some success, as I now work with individuals who are pursuing guide training and employment. I’ve also generated some outside support for these efforts with the non-profit organization, Crow Canyon Archaeological Center(Opens in a new window) and their Cultural Explorations Program. For almost a decade I have served as a guide and scholar on educational tours they offer, and as their name implies, archaeology is a major focus. Indigenous perspectives are provided by tribal members with cultural ties to the places visited including, Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, Bears Ears, and various tribal communities.

I was usually the lone Indigenous guide on these trips, and I often expressed my wish that others from my community could experience these landscapes as I did. The staff and leadership at Crow Canyon took my input to heart, and beginning in 2019, they have provided additional space on trips, that I am working on, for interested tribal members. Since then, we have successfully supported 3 individuals who continue to gain experience as guides. Each of them incorporates their respective tribal backgrounds, Diné, Hopi, and Tewa, as well as current academic studies in areas of Adventure Education, Wilderness Therapy and Archaeology. 

We have documented our experiences and discussed them via a webinar hosted by Crow Canyon on November 16, 2023. The webinar is now available to view on the Crow Canyon Youtube channel.(Opens in a new window)

Crow Canyon Indigenous guide crew (2023).

Over the past 2 seasons, there have been other opportunities for these individuals to gain experience working commercial river and backpacking trips, with a focus on the San Juan River and Bears Ears landscape. Through these endeavors we provide a much-needed Indigenous perspective about the lands we are visiting, including insights into Indigenous culture, history, and contemporary issues affecting our communities. Environmental Justice is a large focus of our messaging, and we use these opportunities to share our Indigenous stewardship values, and advocate for the protection and preservation of ancestral lands.  

Looking ahead, I hope to continue to create space for others and expand the available training and employment opportunities. Ultimately, I view these experiences as a means of maintaining traditional knowledge, strengthening cultural identity, and offering space to heal from historical trauma. As Indigenous guides, we drift along sacred waters, tread through storied landscapes, carried by the prayers of those past and present, eager, yet humbled to experience holy ground, where the spirits of ancestors dwell. 

Photo 1: Participants on the Native American Guide Training Program row down the San Juan River (2007).

Photo 2: Visiting ancestral sites in the Bears Ears region with my dad (2018).

Photo 3: Members from the Havasupai, Hualapai, Yavapai-Apache, Hopi and Paiute tribes within the Grand Canyon. Native Voices on the Colorado River Program river trip (2011).

Photo 4: Diné, Hopi, and Tewa river guide crew, with Indigenous-led outfitter, Ancient Wayves(Opens in a new window) (2022).

Photo 5: Crow Canyon Indigenous guide crew (2023).

Photo 6: Rowing wooden San Juan “Punts” with Tsekooh Outfitters(Opens in a new window) (Bluff, UT). Credit: Bryan Brown


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