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What Feels Like Home

Being surrounded by a community that understands who you are and where you come from without any explanation.

2023 NTGIT participants on a boat

“This is probably the only time I have ever felt like my true self.” Tears trickled down my face as I shared this with Sam Carter, host of The River Radius podcast(Opens in a new window). It was a de-rigging day at the Canyonlands Field Institute warehouse in Moab, Utah and it was one day after the Native Teen Guide in Training trip ended. My fellow guides and I took turns sharing reflections with Sam about the trip, about the program, and about our experiences as the first all-Indigenous guide crew for this program. It only took 12 years for this to happen. More on this later. 

I was introduced to river guiding in a similar fashion, as one of 50+ individuals who participated in the Native American River Guide Training & Cultural Interpretation Program (NAGT), which was co-founded by my older sister Nikki Cooley and her colleague Karen English in hopes of training a new generation of guides. I was 22 years old and I had just completed my undergraduate studies at Northern Arizona University and I was figuring out my next step as an adult. And that’s how my river journey began. I signed up for the NAGT program in 2009 and was joined by relatives from near and far – including relatives from Diné, Hopi, Gwich’in and a couple from Michigan, who were both educators and were inspired to sign up for the program. Identifying as Indigenous was not required to sign up for this program, but a majority of the participants who went through this program were Indigenous. This program was somewhat of a turning point for me because it was probably the only other time that I felt truly myself, truly comfortable in expressing who I am and where I come from as a Diné woman. I remember there being a lot of laughter, cultural knowledge and language sharing, as well as learning numerous technical river skills – how to read the water, safety & rescue skills, knot tying, the difference between pulling & pushing while rowing, etc. As you can see, there is a lot of learning that goes into becoming a raft guide, but even more so as an Indigenous person. This brings me to my experience.

Four women standing around a camp cook setup making Navajo frybread
Frybread in the making. Image via Colleen Cooley

In 2010, I was given the opportunity to work a full season at Wild Rivers Expeditions (now known as Wild Expeditions), based in Bluff, Utah. At the time, I was one of a handful of Indigenous female guides working as a raft guide on the San Juan River. I realized quickly that I was on my own, as I had to navigate the nuances and challenges of becoming an Indigenous female guide in this male-dominated industry. Yes, there were other females who worked for this company, but I felt alone. The only person I could seek advice from and felt comfortable confiding in was my sister Nikki. She experienced her own set of challenges being one of the only Native American guides on the Colorado River in the early 2000s. But this story is not about dwelling on the past, it is about sharing the importance of how programs like the NAGT can be inspiring and empowering for Native youth, the importance of leadership & mentorship, and lastly, recognizing that change takes time.

A woman in a raft on the river, holding paddles in both hands to navigate the vessel
Image via Lauren Wood

More than a youth summer camp

2021, when I was first introduced to the Native Teen Guide in Training program (NTGIT)(Opens in a new window), an immersive river trip experience for Native teens between ages 13 and 17. NTGIT is a program of Canyonlands Field Institute based out of Moab, UT and is currently in its thirteenth year. I was one of four educators/guides to join the river trip in 2021. And let me just say, we are not only “guides'' on this trip, we are also mentors, educators, facilitators, and caretakers. This trip is more than a youth summer camp. It is a unique, diverse, cultural, learning experience. It is about making a new connection or a (re)connection to this landscape that numerous Tribal nations call home. It’s about identity and (re)learning the history and rights as Indigenous people. It’s about Indigenous representation and why it matters. It’s about the importance of water, land, culture, language, food, and family. And it’s also about making new friends, learning to row a boat, and finding your voice, as a leader.

A student learning to toss a throw bag into the river to another person
NTGIT participant learning to toss a throw bag during river rescue training on the San Juan River. Image via Colleen Cooley


I see myself in some of the Native teens who sign up for the NTGIT experience. I was the quiet and shy one who did not have many words to share, especially in unfamiliar group settings. As one previous Native teen participant expressed, “On the first day, I was kinda shy, I didn’t know what to do. Now I’m friends with everybody here.”  What is beautiful about the NTGIT trips is the transformation in the youth from the very first day when they arrive at Sand Island (just a few miles west of Bluff, Utah) with their families. You can sense the nerves, excitement, sadness, curiosity, and a bit of discomfort and fear. For some of the youth, this is their very first time camping, sleeping outside, or being away from home and family for an extended period of time. You get to see their artistic, athletic, and other unique abilities & characteristics emerge, you get to see them go through different emotions and comfort levels throughout the trip, and you get to see the alumni step into more of a leadership role as they help guide their peers down river. By the end of the trip, there is a sense of sadness because the youth do not want the trip to end and a sense of eagerness as they reunite with their parents, grandparents, siblings, and their electronic devices. What seven days together, connecting with our ancestral lands and waters can do for us, individually and collectively is an unforgettable experience.

A group of students on a rafting trip; on a raft in the river, all holding their paddles up in celebration
NTGIT participants paddling downstream. Image via Brandi Atene

Feeling at home

One thing that has stood out for me on these trips, aside from the transformation of the youth, is that I can be my true self. I get to be me, 100% me with no explanation. For the readers who do not understand what this means: I am referring to the feeling of being surrounded by a community that understands who you are and where you come from without having to explain why you offer corn pollen and a prayer before each river trip; why you are burning sage; or why you choose to provide interpretation of an ancestral dwelling/site from a distance. 

My hope for the youth is that they can express their true selves and feel comfortable and confident in who they are and where they come from. My hope is that they can also see themselves in us; that they can feel inspired and empowered by what we have to share with them as guides, educators, advocates, mothers, business owners, and leaders in our own communities. One leader that I am inspired by is Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, Ute Mountain Ute Tribal member, former co-chair for the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, and long-time advocate for Mother Earth. In 2023, she was invited as NTGIT’s guest speaker and there was one thing she shared that resonated with me, she encouraged the youth to find their voice and use it to make change. 

A woman speaking to a group of students in a pavilion
Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk sharing her knowledge and stories with the NTGIT participants. Image via Colleen Cooley

It took me a long time to find my voice and as I reflect back on my river-guiding experience, I did not have many Indigenous guides or mentors to look up to except for my sister. I rarely worked side by side with another Indigenous female guide, so for me, this program is imperative because it not only benefits the youth, it also benefits the Indigenous educators in a number of ways. It brings us inspiration, it brings us knowledge of each other’s traditional foods, lifeways, and perspectives, and it brings us connection to each other in a way that “feels like home” as Saige Purser (Yakama guide/educator) shared during her reflections on The River Radius podcast of her first experience with NTGIT. “It was an incredible experience. Being with what feels like home, with Indigenous guides that understand just everything about you, like when someone sees you for you and your identity.”

Change takes time

This year will mark the 40th anniversary of Canyonlands Field Institute, which was co-founded by Karla VanderZanden and Robin Wilson. This year will also mark the thirteenth year that the NTGIT program has been operating. 2023 was a turning point for NTGIT because it was the first time the program was led by an all-Indigenous guide crew, but it was also the first time that the program included two NTGIT alumni as part of this guide crew. A historic moment to say the least. It’s been a long time coming and goes to show that change takes time. A program like this also takes dedication, patience, and persistence and I am so thankful to Karla and others for creating an important program for Native youth and Native educators. In honor of Women’s History Month, I would also like to acknowledge Brandi Atene (Diné program manager, educator, and mother) for putting her heart into this program for the past two years and being a role model to the incredible, brave young women and girls that have participated in this program. These young women and girls, including the two NTGIT alumni, are setting a precedent for what will hopefully continue to inspire and empower more young women and girls to keep rowing downstream, to find their voices, and to make change in their communities. As Avery Old Coyote (Crow and Flathead educator, guide, and scholar) shared on The River Radius podcast, “When you build a relationship with these places and within these spaces, you don’t have to do it at the expense of your identity, you don’t have to do it at the expense of your culture, you can actually feature it.”

To learn more about the NTGIT program, visit their website(Opens in a new window). For any Native teens interested in signing up for this year’s NTGIT program, applications are now open to the first 35 applicants or through the end of April.

A group of students alongside a riverbank together
NTGIT participants taking one last photo atop Stairmaster before ending their journey at Mexican Hat. Image via Brandi Atene


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