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Native youth invited to apply for free Grand Canyon river trip

Yellow rubber rafts drift on river beneath red cliffs
Grand Canyon Trust
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Sixteen Indigenous youth will have a chance to raft the Colorado River through Grand Canyon this summer on a free nine-day expedition. The participants will learn from Hopi, Zuni, Navajo, and Hualapai elders and explore their spiritual and cultural connections to the canyon. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Amber Benally, who manages the Rising Leaders program at the Grand Canyon Trust in Flagstaff.

What was the motivation for putting together this trip?

Young people, I think—I grew in a community in Tuba City, and…. I recognized a little later in my life that young Native people didn’t have a lot of opportunities to recreate out on their public lands. Growing up in Tuba City, the Grand Canyon is pretty close, but a lot of my friends who I grew up with, or grew up in the same area, had never even been to the Grand Canyon. There’s a lot of barriers, definitely financial barriers… I think, with all these barriers, I wanted to make sure that young Native people feel they had the opportunity to connect to this sacred space, because historically, and since time immemorial, the Grand Canyon has been a revered sacred spot for so many tribes… And so that was really the goal, was to get young Native people from the 11 associated tribe of the Grand Canyon, get them out there, on the river, and get them to experience this place, not just from a recreation point of view, but also from a spiritual, cultural place that they have and they were born with inherently. Their grandparents, their ancestors have been doing this for a long time, and I want to make sure the financial barriers are not what’s keeping them from this space.

Why do you think it’s important to get young Indigenous people on the river, to experience the Grand Canyon from the perspective of a river trip?

In society today, the way we think of sacred spaces or holy places, we think of a cathedral or church. But the Grand Canyon itself serves as a cathedral. It’s a place for Native people to connect on that spiritual level, and to be at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is an experience that I don’t think enough people have the opportunity to take part in…. I think with the Grand Canyon National Park celebrating its 100 years [anniversary], a few years ago, there’s been more conversation about how our Native people informing the policies or the strategies, or even just the stories being told about the Grand Canyon, and I think young people have the opportunity to share what they think the next 100 years of the Grand Canyon should look like.

What are you personally most looking forward to about the trip?

There’s something really special when you see a young person come out of the shell they have on the first two days, and grow, and understand that this is a space where they can also be the teachers. I always want to empower young people to understand that they themselves are also teachers, they don’t always need to be in a student role, because they have things to share. I look forward to a lot of peer-to-peer sharing out on the river trip. I’m looking forward to seeing how young people blossom, and seeing how elders can understand that—historically they’ve always been our teachers, in Indigenous communities, elders have always been those who taught us how to be in relationship with the land, how to be in kinship with our relatives, and how to be a really good steward of the earth, so I’m looking forward to seeing that component as well.

The river trip will be hosted by the Grand Canyon Trust and Grand Canyon Youth on July 11-19. Applications are open until March 18 for anyone between the ages of 16 and 20 who is a member of one of the Grand Canyon’s 11 associated tribes.
For information on how to apply, visit: https://www.grandcanyontrust.org/grand-canyon-river-trip-native-youth-and-elders

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Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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