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Sun, June 26

Taking the plunge: Native American youth encouraged to apply for Grand Canyon river trip

Grand Canyon Regional Intertribal Intergenerational Stewardship Expedition (RIISE) is seeking Native youth between 16-20 years old to participate in a trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon July 11-19.  (Photo/Grand Canyon Trust)

Grand Canyon Regional Intertribal Intergenerational Stewardship Expedition (RIISE) is seeking Native youth between 16-20 years old to participate in a trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon July 11-19. (Photo/Grand Canyon Trust)

Grand Canyon RIISE is looking for Native youth, 16-20 years old and a member of one of the associated tribes of the Grand Canyon, to take a free, once-in-a-lifetime trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon July11-19.

Grand Canyon Regional Intertribal Intergenerational Stewardship Expedition (RIISE) has been focusing on Native youth for the last two to three years and this will be its first trip down the Colorado with Native youth, taking over the program from partner Grand Canyon Youth.

Amber Benally, Rising Leaders manager for Grand Canyon Trust, said it was a great partnership for them to bring youth and elders into a space that some youth have felt disconnected from.


Grand Canyon RIISE participants view the Grand Canyon from the rim during a past trip. (Photo courtesy of Jak Kearsley)

“We really want to bring Native youth and four elders from different communities to share space, tell each other’s stories, to learn cultural teachings, to talk about the past and really talk about our goals for the future around the Grand Canyon National Park and really connect with the sacred space,” Benally said.

She said even though the Grand Canyon is right in the back yard of many Native youth, some feel disconnected, partially because of the different processes of exclusion that exist.

“It’s really expensive to go down the river,” she said. “This used to be a sacred space where there was a rite of passage for youth from different tribes to go to the Grand Canyon and offer their sacred prayers or their sacred things in this area, to make those offerings in this space.”

Benally, who grew up in Tuba City, said she didn’t realize how rare it was for people from Native communities to go the Grand Canyon until she got older.

“I realized none of my friends had ever been to the Grand Canyon,” she said. “It’s in our backyard. It’s right there, so close. It’s always been a sacred space for Native people, but there’s this disconnect from it.”

Benally said is one of the reasons they are offering the free, motorized trip down the river is important.

“I think it’s going to be such a big blessing to get young people to raft through it and see it from the bottom,” she said.

The program is hoping that they will get 16 participants who are ready to camp out for nine days in the outdoors. Elders from Hopi, Hualapai and Navajo are joining the trip to share cultural or spiritual teachings they have learned throughout their lives.

“Also, they will introduce young people to proper cultural etiquette about how to act in the Grand Canyon, to connect with this very spiritual place and will really serve in a mentorship role [for the youth],” Benally said.

One of those people is Colleen Cooley, a Diné river guide, who is one of the few women who works as a river guide. Her story, Benally said, fits right in with what the program tries to emphasize, which is showing young people that everyone has a different path.

“Young people usually come into our program thinking that you go to college, you graduate, you get a job. That there’s only one way to be successful,” she said. “We want to share with them that there are many ways of doing that and I think Colleen will be a great example of that.”

How to apply

The deadline to apply is March 18 and the application can be found at

Benally said any youth interested in the trip should be very thoughtful and thorough in their essay answers, because those answers are how they will select the 16 youth.

“They should be comfortable camping for nine days. They should be comfortable hiking and being in an outdoor environment for over one week,” she said.

Hosted by the Grand Canyon Trust and Grand Canyon Youth, the trip is also supported by Arizona Raft Adventures and Grand Canyon Expeditions.

While the trip will be fun, Benally said, one goal of the trip is to provide an opportunity for Native youth to determine the ways in which they can most effectively shape the future of their ancestral lands, according to a case statement about the program, because the Grand Canyon is a place of origin for so many and, for some, the place they will return to after they pass.

While Native people have been excluded from stewardship, management and economic opportunities, involving Native youth now will help shape the future, with their voices centered in ways they haven’t been before.

“We really want to discuss our history, our sacred connection with the space,” Benally said. “But we really want young people to talk about the future of the park and what they want to see with that, discuss how they can best inform the Grand Canyon Trust or related organizations or the Grand Canyon National Park Service themselves.”

More information is available at

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