Nikki Cooley is quiet. But don't confuse that with being introverted. She isn't. In addition to being one of the first female Navajo river guides, she helped establish the Native American River Guide Training Program, which encourages Native people to follow in her footsteps.
By Kelly Vaughn Kramer
© John Burcham
Every time Nikki Cooley stands near the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers, she prays.
“I pray to the holy people to forgive me for playing there,” she says. “I ask them to forgive me for taking people there to educate them.”
As a Navajo of the Towering House Clan, born for the Reed People, the confluence is sacred to Cooley. As a river guide, it’s the gateway to her passion. And that’s a conflict she’s had to learn to reconcile.
Cooley, 33, first grew interested in rafting when she was a student at Northern Arizona University. During her first trip, she ran a portion of the Colorado River. In addition to giving her a taste of life on the water, the adventure hooked her.
“I started taking assistant spots on Arizona Raft Adventures trips through the Grand Canyon,” she says. “A few months later, I got a support boat, but my training took more than a year because I was in school.”
It was October, and water levels on the Colorado were low when Cooley launched by herself for the first time. She was in her own boat, without passengers or a seasoned river runner whispering guidance in her ear. When the time came to get in the water, she approached the opportunity with equal parts excitement and trepidation.
She was afraid of missing a lunch spot or, worse, camp. But she looked ahead, read the eddies and watched where everyone else was going. She didn’t miss a thing.
“That was an amazing time in my life,” she says. “I was single, I was finishing up my studies at NAU, and I felt like I was on my own, doing something I’d wanted to do for a long time.”
And she fell hard and fast in love with Hermit Rapids.
“The bigger the waves, the better,” she says. “It feels like you’re on an aquatic roller coaster.”
After she graduated from NAU, the river community embraced Cooley, and she began to run five to seven trips each summer — working as a swamper on motor trips and as a guide on oar, then working her way up the company roster.
She did her fair share of grunt work and had to climb the hard way. All of which was fine by her. She kept in shape by lifting gear and hiking — it’s no easy task to row other people for days on end — and, in her late 20s, she began strength training through CrossFit Flagstaff.
“I worked really hard,” Cooley says. “I had to prove to my company that I was capable. No one ever told me that I couldn’t do it, but at times, it was very lonely.”
What’s more, she was one of only a few Native American river guides, something she worked quickly to change.
In 2005, Cooley partnered with former Arizona congresswoman Karan English to create the Native American River Guide Training Program. Open to Native and indigenous people between the ages of 17 and 35, the program introduces young people to the water, encouraging them to pursue guiding as a summer job — and beyond.
“Native people don’t know how to get into the industry,” Cooley says. “They’re too afraid, and no one is showing them. They know that companies have established routes and established rosters, and they’re so inundated with family obligations and ceremonies during the summer that they just don’t follow through.”
More than half of the students who’ve completed the program have gone on to either full-time or part-time jobs on rivers. And they transcend tribal designations. Cooley has met Hopi, Navajo and Oneida students, as well as people who’ve traveled from Canada and Mexico.
These days, Cooley doesn’t spend as much time on the water as she used to — marriage to a fellow river guide and the birth of her now-3-year-old daughter, Ella, have slowed her down — but talk of the river brings a timbre of exhilaration to her voice
and a hint of telltale light to her eyes. The kind people get when they’re profoundly enamored of someone. Or something.
As she sits in front of Macy’s coffee shop in Flagstaff, she’s unaware that the couple next to her is hanging on her every word. That is, until they start asking questions about where she guides and recounting their own adventures on river. She answers them easily, encouragingly, hoping that they’ll remember Arizona Raft Adventures.
Cooley carries that sort of gentle charisma into her work on the boards of both the Grand Canyon Association and the Grand Canyon River Guides Association. And she believes that her voice as a Native American woman will help carry their missions forward.
“The Southwest, and the Grand Canyon area in particular, is very culturally significant to many Native American tribes,” she says. “Our voice and perspective needs to be at the forefront with other voices, including federal agencies, nonprofits and for-profit organizations.”
Cooley is on the record as being adamantly opposed to the Little Colorado Tramway, a proposed project that would include hotels, an RV park, an airport, restaurants and a tramway to the bottom of the Grand Canyon from its eastern rim. The majority of the project site lies within the Navajo Nation.
“There’s so much history there, so many prayer sites,” she says. “The project is disrespectful to holy people, to animals, to plants and to the geology of the Canyon. The whole environment will be disrupted.”
Her heart weighs heavy, she adds, with the possibility that the project will come to fruition. But as she begins to talk about her daughter, she brightens again. She hopes, she says, to pass her passion on to Ella, who’s already completed two lengthy river trips. And she's confident her daughter will become a steward of the environment.
“I hope that Ella will be someone who appreciates and respects the environment,” she says. “I hope she realizes that we need to be constantly taking care of it, looking out for it. The river is not a water park. It’s something we can enjoy, but it’s a resource.”
For more information about Arizona Raft Adventures,
call 800-786-7238 or visit www.azraft.com.
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