“Be safe. Be Present. Speak your Truth.”

By: Alexandra Osetek, CEO of Human Nature Expeditions

Overview of the canyon during an educational hike in Bandelier National Monument

Over a year ago, Human Nature Expeditions was introduced to Trees, Water & People, a non-profit organization based in Fort Collins, CO.  Rayna and I instantly connected with Daniela from TWP, and we were energized by the common mission and values that our two organizations shared.  While we stayed in touch, looking for ways to support each other and deepening the relationship between Human Nature and TWP, Covid hit and our opportunities for collaboration in the field diminished.  

That changed in December of 2020 when a former client of ours, a high school in CO, reached out to Human Nature and asked us to plan and facilitate a month-long camping trip through the American Southwest.  In the past, Human Nature has only operated international trips where we have strong connections to local communities.  All of the trips we operate have a strong cultural immersion and service-learning component, and we collaborate with our community partners in-country to facilitate those elements.  Since we had never run a domestic trip and had few connections in the Southwest, we immediately reached out to TWP for support. 

We knew that TWP had worked with Native American tribes in the Dakotas and that they were in the process of building a program in New Mexico with the Santa Clara Pueblo community.  We were hoping that TWP could help us develop a program that included cultural interaction and meaningful service work, but we knew it was a long shot.  First, they had not yet developed an itinerary for that region.  Second, we were aware of and respected any reluctance for the tribe to invite us onto their reservation and host our group of high schoolers.  Third, we were in the thick of a pandemic and all of the reservations were in lockdown.  For our part, we certainly did not want to be responsible for introducing any covid infection to their population, and also had to keep our kids safe from contagion as well.

When I called Daniela and James at TWP, I did so with clenched teeth and a bit of a grimace, knowing that it was unlikely they would be able to offer much during the pandemic.  To my great relief, they were both excited by the prospect of attempting to run a “pilot program” to New Mexico with our group.  Once they were on board, it was time to build an itinerary and, most importantly, reach out to their community contacts to see if it would be possible for us to visit during the lockdown.  This was spearheaded by James, the National Program Manager, at TWP.  He worked relentlessly to communicate with TWP’s tribal partners and was ultimately able to get both the Santa Clara Pueblo tribe and the National Indian Youth Leadership Project to open their doors to us. 

Epic view of the Valles Caldera National Preserve

Even once we had a community to host us and facilitate our service learning/cultural exchange, we couldn’t really be confident in any plans that were made because of the constantly evolving covid situation.  James and Dani met with us, again and again, to modify dates, plan our volunteer work, and update us with the latest covid restrictions and requirements.  Meanwhile, they were doing the same with both the Santa Clara Pueblo and the NIYLP.  Despite knowing that they were putting so much time and work into planning the trip, I still had my reservations.  I am accustomed to having personal relationships with the communities we visit and deep knowledge of the place itself, and I was about to take a dozen 14-year-olds to a place I didn’t know to work with and learn from people I didn’t know based on reservations and confirmations that I myself did not make (this is very challenging for a type A human whose profession basically comes down to logistics).  I trusted Dani and James, but I was still more than a little apprehensive. 

I had no reason to be.  Daniela Bueso and James Calabaza absolutely 110% came through for us and delivered an incredible, meaningful, transformative experience for our group–adults and students alike.  On the very first day–a day of driving from Colorado to New Mexico, James and Dani drove down ahead of us and reserved us a first-come campsite.  TWP had customized journals to facilitate our time with them and gave us an important and informative orientation on cultural humility.  They were both eager to interact with the group as much as possible, answering questions and getting to know the group.  I was immediately reassured that our group was not just in good hands, but the best hands.

The next day, we visited the Santa Clara Pueblo where we spent a day with one of the tribe’s leading foresters learning about the reservations conservation and reforestation efforts.  The reservation has been ravaged by wildfires several times over, the most recent of which was particularly devastating.  Chad, our host, spent the entire day teaching us about the reservation and their efforts to protect and restore their forests.  We travelled deep up a canyon, making stops to observe different parts of their forestry projects.  Our kids had an unending amount of questions for Chad and were completely engaged in the learning experience.  It was eye-opening for all of the students, as none of them had any real experience or knowledge regarding Native Americans.  Most of them had the expectation that Native Americans all lived in teepees, and were shocked to see, what they called, “normal houses”.  This lack of knowledge was startling and, quite frankly, alarming.  I was shocked and appalled that, after 10 years of formal education, these kids had never been taught about the origins of the land we live on and the people who have been here all along.  I finished my day overwhelmed with gratitude for Chad, the Santa Clara Pueblo, and Dani and James for providing us with such an informative and transformative experience; as well as pride for my students for their engagement, respectfulness, and curiosity.

Chad Brown from Santa Clara Pueblo Forestry teaching the students about forest conservation, fire mitigation and management.

The original plan in the TWP itinerary was to have a day working with the tribal forestry department on an active reforestation project.  We were all looking forward to the activity, but, unfortunately, we had to pivot our plans at the last minute.  The reservation closed completely for religious and ceremonial purposes, so we were left without our planned service project.  While this could have been a disaster falling to rest on my shoulders, James and Dani came to the rescue. They were able to fill the day with a tour of Valles Caldera with National Park Service rangers and set us up with a service project with them as well.  While our group enjoyed learning about the Valles Caldera natural and human history, Daniela spent the day in search of a new campsite for the group.  We had reservations at a campground at Bandelier National Monument, but they were cancelled at the last minute due to covid closures.  

It was incredible to have James and Dani guiding our time with TWP, troubleshooting, and going the extra many miles to make sure everything went smoothly.  It turned out that the park rangers at Valles Caldera were awesome, the service project was both fun for the kids and actually helpful to the park, and it ended up being some of the kids’ favorite part of the whole trip.  By the end of the day, Daniela had found us a camping site and even set up some of our tents to keep it reserved for our group.  Then, even after the long day of manual labor and learning, James and Daniela offered to take anyone interested on a hike.  The kids were pretty worn out from the day, but a couple chose to join us on the hike.  We hiked to a beautiful lookout spot, and the intimate, small group conversations that the kids had with James and Daniela made my heart sing.  I walked alongside them listening, grateful to be supported by these two kind, generous, and like-minded people.  That night, James and Daniela facilitated a fireside debrief, helping us to organize and consolidate our memories from the day and the new knowledge we had absorbed.  The kids loved talking to them, and James and Dani did an incredible job connecting with the students and really getting to know them. 

Students working hard on building a pass-through at a trailhead entrance with the help and guidance from the Valles Caldera park rangers

Our final day with TWP was absolutely amazing and truly a transformative experience.  We met Heather, Tristan, and Thomas from the National Indian Youth Leadership Project at Bandelier National Monument.  Again, James and Daniela helped facilitate the day and our connection with the NIYLP.  We split into two groups and each group was able to spend part of the day climbing ancient ladders up a series of cliffs to reach the ruin of an ancient Puebloan kiva.  Several of the students were afraid of heights, so just getting them up the ladders pushed them outside of their comfort zones and gave them the opportunity to prove their own strength and mental resilience to themselves.  Once we reached the kiva, James gave an incredibly powerful interpretive session about the ruins and the ancient Puebloans.  James himself is the descendant of the inhabitants of those dwellings that were built so many hundreds of years ago, so to have him standing before the kiva telling us not about just the history of the place we were visiting but about his place, his history and ancestral home was truly moving.  Tristan and Thomas from NIYLP quietly conversed with us as we walked through the forest down below, patiently answering all of our questions and telling stories about their culture, history, and the present-day realities facing Native Americans today. 

James Calabaza, our National Program Manager speaking about the ancient ruins.

They led our games and activities to help facilitate teamwork and leadership “through an indigenous perspective”, and taught us even more about Leave No Trace.  The other part of the day we spent hiking with Heather.  She was an endless fountain of information–not just facts and figures, but the intimate knowledge and wisdom of hundreds of generations of her people.  We talked about how covid has impacted tribal communities in particular and about how the education and healthcare systems work on the reservations.  She led different activities reinforcing community, communication, and stewardship.  The students were fascinated by our hosts speaking in their native languages and were hungry to learn more about modern Native Americans and the balance between their ancestral culture and traditions and the modern “American” world around them. 

Students and NIYLP Staff gather in a circle to do introductions, ice breakers and a breakdown of the activities at Bandelier National Monument.
Students climbing up ladders to get to the top of the hill and see the ancient ruins/homes.

Tristan, Thomas, and Heather started by teaching us their 3 values and reinforced them throughout the day.  I then carried those values with us, weaving them into the rest of our experiences traveling together.  I think of them still and plan to use them as a guide for the rest of my life.  The three values are: 

Be safe. 

Be Present. 

Speak your truth.  

I could write on and on about the magic of that day at Bandelier, as it truly was a transformative and meaningful experience for all of us.  For me, it was the best part of our entire month-long trip. 

Students walking through the forest and learning about reforestation efforts by Santa Clara Pueblo

We were all sad to say goodbye to Dani and James when the time came for us to part ways and continue on with the rest of our trip.  The kids would often bring up how “cool” the two of them were, and continued to reflect on their time with TWP throughout the trip.  During a conversation with one of the teachers on the trip, she commented that her experience with TWP was as immersive and meaningful as any cultural experience she has had while taking students on international trips–something she has done more than 15 times in as many countries around the world.  My business and career are based on similar international cultural exchanges, and I had to agree with her.  It was all the more impactful because we weren’t in another country.  We were here in the US having this profound and at times unexpected experience.  I still feel ashamed even myself for the gaps in my own knowledge and understanding of Native American history and culture, and believe now more than ever in the importance of cultural humility and in learning about the history and culture of indigenous people–especially those that are the foundation and original stewards of the land that is now our country.  My time traveling with TWP taught me so much, but also left me hungry for more knowledge and more interaction with indigenous peoples–I couldn’t ask for a better experience or outcome. 

My gratitude and respect for TWP has no end.  Trees, Water & People has such a vital mission, one which compliments our mission at Human Nature Expeditions.  I encourage all people interested in conservation, stewardship, cultural immersion, and learning to travel with TWP and/or support the organization in whatever way that they can.  For my part, I look forward to the next time I will have the opportunity to work with TWP and will be working with the Human Nature team to support them in whatever way we can.  Thank you James and Dani and the rest of the TWP team for providing such a wonderful experience and for all the good work you do in the world! 

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