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Decolonizing the Rogue River

Rogue River (Photo credit: Jade Chavis)

Visitors come from all over the world to experience the beauty of the Rogue River by raft in Oregon, a state in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States.

Modern books and maps of the river and the surrounding lands document its history through the lens of what Dr. Kim TallBear, a professor at the University of Alberta, Canada and a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate — two combined bands of Indigenous Sioux people — calls “settler culture.”

ROGUE RIVER HISTORY

Ashley Drake on the Rogue River (Photo courtesy Ashley Drake)
Ashley Drake (Photo courtesy Ashley Drake)

Arrowhead River Adventures, a Rogue River outfitter, set out to help inform visitors of the complex history of the Rogue River and its surrounding land and peoples.

Arrowhead offers a four-day camping river trip down the Wild and Scenic Rogue River. The trip provides participants with a holistic, historical perspective of the Rogue River corridor and an experiential Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) workshop facilitated by Indigenous and Western educators like Erica Nelson, Sydney Clark Whittington, and Robert Kentta.

The “Decolonizing the Rogue River Workshop” is unique to the United States. It was developed by Arrowhead River Adventures co-owners Ashley Drake and Kyle Drake, along with Erica Nelson and her business partner Sydney Clark Whittington, owners of R.E.A.L Consulting.

“It seems that [U.S.] history always starts at 1800, and that gives zero nods to Indigenous cultures that have been stewarding our lands and waters since time immemorial,” says Nelson, AKA “Awkward Angler,” who is also an enrolled member of the Dine tribe, also called the Navajo.

Erica Nelson on the Rogue River (Photo credit: John Holdmeier)
Erica Nelson (Photo credit: John Holdmeier)

“I’ve always wanted to see these two histories [Western and Indigenous], connect,” she adds.

The Rogue has this incredibly rich history, and Arrowhead River Adventures’ goal is to give a holistic picture of the river because a lot of the storytelling and interpretation that people get when they come to this area is very “settler focused,” according to Ashley Drake.

I’ve always wanted to see these two histories [Western and Indigenous], connect.

“As an outfitter, we felt a duty to share more than the traditional story of this area,” she says. “We hope that we’re shining a light on the history that has been overlooked and giving more exposure to the local Indigenous populations that have been displaced.”

When Drake talks about herself as an outfitter, “I mean that [we are] a commercial river company. I take people down rivers, and they give me money. We have a relationship with local land managers and permits, and we have to follow strict guidelines to be able to guide on the river.”

Drake encourages any outfitter to try to create a similar program.

FOCUSING ON DIVERSITY

“I think spending more time focusing on diversity, equity, inclusion and leadership is wildly valuable in the commercial outfitting industry,” she says. “And we need to shine a light on the Indigenous history so often overlooked in the stories we tell our guests.”

Nelson, co-founder of R.E.A.L (Reconcile, Evolve, Advance, Lead) Consulting, says Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) as well as social justice are basic leadership skills.

“This course that we’ve all partnered on, developed and co-created is not specifically for the Rogue River,” she adds.

Workshop participants enjoy course content from a three-part program. The final aspect of the workshop is using self-identity and community-building skills to create actions. This final piece is when the decolonization work happens.

Rogue River Robert Kentta (Photo credit Erica Nelson)
Robert Kentta (Photo credit Erica Nelson)

Robert Kentta, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and Tribal Council Treasurer in Western Oregon, U.S.A., wanted to ensure the workshop’s lessons included historical content from reputable and knowledgeable sources.

“Much of my career working for my tribe (the Siletz Indians) over the past 30 years, I delved deep into historical and cultural research. I had grown up here in my tribal community,” he says.

Kentta knew a lot of those things from family stories and oral history within the community that had struggled to reconcile “the difference between the U.S. historical perspective about our people and what our own people knew.

“When you’re looking at U.S. histories about tribal people a lot of that is around treaty history,” he continues. “Our tribal histories can be really complex within even a reservation or a confederation of tribes on a single reservation.”

HISTORICAL COMPLEXITY

Kentta stresses the complexity of Indigenous and Western history and perspectives.

“There’s multiple tribal governments and sometimes unrecognized tribal communities that don’t have status as a federally recognized tribe or even a state recognition, so there’s a lot of homework to be done in making sure you’re talking to the right people and getting the right perspectives,” he says.

Our tribal histories can be really complex within even a reservation or a confederation of tribes on a single reservation.

While “tough pieces of our history … need to be shared in these spaces, it’s also about sharing culture and perspectives on place and connections that are made around those experiences,” according to Kentta: “Enriching people’s understanding of their surroundings, and the specialness of protected and hard-to-access places.”

Every former colony around the globe has a similar narrative of the country’s history and its wild and scenic spaces told from the colonizer’s perspective. This narrative often erases, invalidates and marginalizes the contribution and history of the Indigenous people who inhabited the lands and waterways long before colonial settlers arrived.

Creating an experiential workshop in a natural setting where everyone is welcome to participate is an ideal way to reintroduce those Indigenous perspectives while connecting or reconnecting participants to nature.

Rogue River (Photo credit: Jade Chavis)
Rogue River (Photo credit: Jade Chavis)
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