The water was so clear it was hard to tell where
the sky ended and the river began. Every rock and pebble was visible
beneath the surface and sunlit mountains shrouded in darks forests
towered above the river. The roar of rapids echoed off the canyon
walls, as did the sound of laughter and the call of paddling commands.
A line of seven colorful rafts came into view, filled with paddlers
wearing broad smiles as they navigated the enchanting waters of the
Warrior Institute sponsored a rafting trip for local tribal
youth on the Smith River. (Photo by Thomas Dunklin)
The paddlers were youth and mentors from the
local Hupa, Yurok, Karuk, Tolowa, and Wiyot tribes who came together
to participate in the second Annual Warrior Institute Smith River
The Warrior Institute, based in Hoopa and affiliated
with the Seventh Generation Fund, works to provide holistic, innovative
solutions to organize and build indigenous leadership by empowering
a new generation of young leaders with healthy minds, bodies, and
spirits. The Warrior Institute accomplishes its mission through
a mentoring model with five core program areas: Fitness, Food, Culture,
Rivers, and Mountains. Through a variety of activities within these
program areas the program provides training, skills, and educational
enrichment needed to forge leadership to positively influence the
next seven generations and beyond. The founder and director of the
Warrior Institute is Joseph Marshall, a Hoopa tribal member and
a physical education and history teacher at Hoopa High School. Marshall
is a certified cross-fit instructor and has the look of someone
who walks his talk. People tend to gravitate toward his relaxed
and natural leadership style.
The Smith River trip is part of the river program
and blends lessons on rafting and river safety with river ecology
and conservation practices. The Smith River is the largest undammed
river in California and its ancient forests and pristine waters
provide one of the best long-term salmon refuges in the face of
climate change. But these pristine waters are not free of threats:
youth participants learned of plans by a foreign mining company
to strip mine heavy metals in its headwaters and what is being done
to stop it.
"We want the youth to see that there are so many
different ways that they can contribute, and careers they can pursue,
depending on what their interests are. We want to expose them to
these things and people who are doing it at high level so they can
see the skills that are required," said Marshall. "These are the
skills needed by a modern warrior."
The Smith River trip was hosted by the Smith
River Alliance (SRA) and members of the Tolowa (Dee-ni') Nation.
Participants stayed at the Rock Creek Ranch, a sustainable retreat
center run by the SRA on the south fork of the river. For Grant
Werschkull, Executive Director of the SRA, the Warrior Institute
trip is a pinnacle of his organization's efforts to host groups
at the Rock Creek Ranch.
"We see a lot of groups come through the ranch
and none of them have the energy of the Warrior Institute. It's
really special to see and be part of," said Werschkull.
Guylish Bommelyn, Warrior Institute mentor and
river guide from the Dee-ni', added, "It's really nice to see the
youth coming together from the different tribes, and the different
groups and people that come together to make it happen. I feel it's
really important to give our youth an opportunity to grow and transform
into the next phase of their lives. I'm looking forward to doing
it again next year."
In the evening after the rafting, a feast was
prepared featuring organic produce, and salmon and eel cooked traditional-style
on redwood stakes next to an open fire. With contented bellies,
everyone gathered around the fire to hear the soft words of wisdom
spoken by Guylish's father and respected elder Lauren Bommelyn.
He told many stories under the twinkling stars, stories woven with
double meanings and life lessons. He spoke of the need to know that
every word and deed does not go unnoticed, of the need to act as
true men and maintain balance in all aspects of our lives. Young
and old alike found deep meaning in the stories and wisdom he shared
and drifted off to sleep with his words still echoing in their minds.
The Warrior Institute started in large part due
to a conversation between Marshall and Bommelyn about the need for
rites of passage from youth into adulthood and the need of youth
to have positive role models to guide them through the process.
"We believe our ancestors were the healthiest
people on the planet, with practices that included daily training
of the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of life," said Marshall,
his face lit with the passion of his belief. "This lifestyle contributed
towards self-sufficiency and sustained a healthy environment, and
we can get there again. We need Warriors that can lead us into a
new dawn that reclaims our health and strength, as individuals and
as tribes. We must look to our past for answers; our ancient practices
mixed with modern science will help us navigate through upcoming
changes. The closer we can get to the old ways, the better it will
be for the new way that is on the horizon."
"As we train a new generation of youth, they
learn healthy lifestyles, they participate in their culture and
language, they take care of our people," Marshall continued. "They
learn how to gather, hunt, and grow their food. They will learn
how to train their bodies and test their minds and spirits. The
youth will have a community of peers living healthy lifestyles.
This will create a synergy effect that will spread in the valley
and up and down the river, and the circle will widen. We will unleash
the true full potential of our youth and our people and of all tribes.
These Warriors will grow to be pillars within our communities, leaders
who will have K'imaw (balance, medicine, wellness); they will be
K'iwinya'n-ya:n (acorn eater, Indian people) who are Xoji (real,
genuine, true, spiritual)."