Inter-Tribal Warriors Gather For Rafting Trip On Smith River

The Warrior Institute sponsored a rafting trip for local tribal youth on the Smith River./Photo by Thomas Dunklin.

The Warrior Institute sponsored a rafting trip for local tribal youth on the Smith River./Photo by Thomas Dunklin.

By DR. JOSHUA STRANGE, Two Rivers Tribune Contributing Writer

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 Smith River.

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 rafting trip.

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).”

 

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