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Before Powell: Did Indigenous people run the Grand Canyon?

Tule reed raft stands the test of one of the West’s epic journeys
Peter Brown takes the tule raft into Hance Rapid, one of the largest rapids on the Grand Canyon. The raft was built by Tom Martin to see if a watercraft made out of native plants could survive the epic journey through the canyon.

Throughout the history of the West, it’s commonly accepted that the grizzled, one-armed Civil War major and geologist John Wesley Powell was the first to journey by river into the treacherous and unknown depths of the Grand Canyon.

But is it possible, or even likely, Native Americans had long preceded Powell in floating down the big ditch?

This winter, renowned river runner Tom Martin challenged the notion that Powell’s expedition was indeed the first descent, deciding to build a watercraft out of traditional materials and have a friend ride it through the canyon.

“The history of boating is really well-documented from Powell forward,” Martin said. “(But) this is something we need to give a lot more credit to the Indigenous people of the Colorado River.”

As the Colorado River cuts through the deep and storied walls of the Grand Canyon, it forms some of the biggest, most unpredictable and often dangerous whitewater on the continent.

At the time Powell set off in the late 1800s, the risks and brutality of the Colorado River would have been even more intense, as in the years since, the construction of Glen Canyon Dam has effectively regulated flows and buried rapids.

But given the fact Indigenous people have lived within the canyon walls for nearly 12,000 years, Martin started to question whether it was fair to assume Native people had floated down the river long before Europeans arrived.

With the convincing combination of oral histories that talk about epic river journeys, and proving native materials at hand could have produced a craft that could have survived the unforgiving voyage, Martin came closer to his answer.

Powell’s 1869 run

Powell first set out for the unknown depths of the Grand Canyon in May 1869 from Green River, Wyoming, with 10 men and four Whitehall wooden boats, designed for travel on harbors and lakes, not the complicated and technical rapids that lay ahead.

A few weeks in, one of the boats was destroyed in a rapid in Lodore Canyon, known as Disaster Falls. For most of the trip thereafter, the crew of Civil War veterans, trappers and frontiersmen would portage the major rapids.

“The boats are entirely unmanageable,” Powell wrote in his journal on Aug. 15, now in the Grand Canyon. “No order in their running can be preserved.”

In August 1869, Powell and his badly beaten crew emerged from the walls of the Grand Canyon, down to six men. (Fed up, three had left the party at Separation Canyon and were never heard from again. One left early on in the trip.)

Just two boats survived the nearly 14-week, 1,000-mile journey. In his seminal book, The Emerald Mile, author Kevin Fedarko estimated the crew ran 414 rapids and portaged or lined the boats through another hundred or so.

“I am convinced that no man has ever run such rapids on a raft,” one of the crew members, George Young Bradley, wrote in his journal in 1869.

As news spread, the expedition was hailed across the country as a wild success, and Powell became a national hero as the first person to chart what was considered the last unexplored region by Western settlers in the United States. (There are unconfirmed rumors, it should be noted, a man named James White rode a log through the canyon in 1867.)

Indigenous river runners

Martin, however, said he started to question whether Powell’s journey was in fact the first descent, and it didn’t take long to connect the dots that Native American tribes in the region could have very well run the river long before.

Peter Brown takes the tule raft out at the put-in for the Grand Canyon at Lee’s Ferry to test if it floated. Not only did the raft float, it was able to survive the entire 200-plus-mile journey down the Grand Canyon.

“The more I looked into the history, the more I discovered there were mariners in the Colorado River long before John Wesley Powell,” he said.

Although perhaps not given as much credit as is due, Native American tribes were skilled boaters with a rich history of building elaborate and sturdy watercraft, especially at the lower end of the Colorado River basin.

“The Indigenous people of the Americas were doing amazing things ... and not even getting their feet wet,” Martin said. “We all talk about stand-up paddleboards? Well guess what, SUPs have been around thousands of years.”

While much is known about tribes along coastal areas, little existed, at least in written records, of any accounts of Indigenous peoples floating through the Grand Canyon, despite clear evidence of thriving settlements in the canyon for thousands of years.

Martin did, however, stumble across hints here and there, finding an account from the 1950s that referenced an ancient reed boat stored and hidden in a Native American ruin near the Nankoweap granaries, in the upper part of the Grand Canyon.

Peter Brown said the tule raft was just about as buoyant and intact on his last day on the river as it was on the first. Here, Brown is pictured near the end of the Grand Canyon.

“It was supposed to contain a boat made of some kind of rushes,” Martin said. “No one ever found it ... and that’s all we have that puts any type of watercraft in the Grand Canyon that long ago.”

Building a tule reed raft

Fast forward to the year 2020.

Martin, who has written just about every river guide book out there, won a permit to run the Grand Canyon. With these stories of the past running through his mind, he decided to build a watercraft out of traditional materials, and put it to the test.

Martin planned to use tule, a tall reed that grows in dense stands along shorelines and wetlands. Native to the Colorado River basin, tule has been used for years to make baskets, cords, sandals and, yes, watercraft.

After receiving permission from the Bureau of Land Management, Martin harvested tule from an area along the Colorado River in Arizona, throwing it on top of his pickup truck and driving back to his home in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he dried it out.

Hazel Clark holds the tule strands and a completed bundle. River runner Tom Martin harvested the tule in Arizona and built a raft for a Grand Canyon trip this winter.

With only a few weeks to prepare, Martin and his fellow river runners had to make quick work. After the tule dried out, they tied it into three bundles, resembling the form of an inflatable kayak.

“It’s a whisk broom compared to what Indigenous people today make,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of time between the idea of inception and needing to get on the river.”

With the tule raft made, and Martin’s winter Grand Canyon trip fast approaching, all he needed was a guinea pig, which he found in his old high school friend and tree researcher Peter Brown.

Up for the task

Martin, for his part, didn’t have high hopes for the slapdash raft, given the name “Lotsaknots.”

“I thought we’d at least get a couple days down the river,” he said.

Once on the river, however, the opposite rang true.

Brown, too, had his doubts at first. At the put-in at Lee’s Ferry, Brown said no one knew whether the tule raft would even float. But once he took it out on the flat water, it moved well and, most importantly, it floated.

Most people, Brown included, thought that after a few miles down the river, and after some rapids, the tule raft would break apart and lose its buoyancy, and Brown would board another raft for the remainder of the trip.

But little by little, it became strikingly clear the tule raft was up for the task. Perhaps most shocking was the watercraft lost little of its buoyancy, with Brown taking it out of the river every day to let it dry out.

“We didn’t think we’d make it all that far, but it just kept going,” Brown said. “It was wonderful.”

Brown took the tule raft through some of the Grand Canyon’s most harrowing rapids – House Rock, Hance, Hermit, Granite and even the Lava Falls, considered the biggest and most venerated rapid on the entire trip.

He admittedly didn’t always have a clean run, sometimes falling off and flipping the raft amid the gauntlet of whitewater, but he was almost always able to recover and get back on.

Brown, it should be noted, is not a kayaker. But he quickly learned the nuances of the tule raft, choosing to straddle it with his legs for better balance instead of keeping his feet up and out of the water.

After 30 days and 278 miles down the river, the tule raft survived intact.

“It was as structurally sound, buoyant and easy to move through the water on the last day as it was on the first day,” Brown said.

Yes, Brown had the luxuries of modern river running, such as a personal flotation device and a dry suit. He also used a cheap paddle from Walmart (though the history of wooden paddle making by Indigenous tribes dates back centuries).

And yes, the dammed Colorado River is much different today than it would have been for Native American tribes. Pre-Glen Canyon Dam, the river would have been subject to more intense water fluctuations, though water temperatures would have been generally warmer.

But the experiment, Martin said, at least proves Indigenous people, who have occupied the region for an estimated 12,000 years, would have had the means to float the entirety of Grand Canyon.

“You start putting these pieces together and it’s pretty fun,” Martin said.

Reconstructing ancient technologies

Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, a professor and head of the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona, said it’s been well-documented how skilled and able Indigenous people were on the water.

A member of the Hopi tribe, Gilbert, however, said many of these technologies are underappreciated and even sometimes unrecognized, which make reconstruction experiments and putting them to the test all the more important.

“People look at a canoe that floats and doesn’t sink, and we’re surprised by that,” he said. “Yet we shouldn’t be surprised. Native people had come up with modes of transportation that actually worked, through trial and error.”

“This is Indian intelligence at work,” he said.

Tule, native to the Colorado River basin, is a tall reed that grows in wetlands and has been used for centuries to make baskets, cords and watercraft.

Indeed, reconstructing ancient technologies has had impacts across the world.

In Hawaii in the 1970s, for instance, Native residents reconstructed an ancient Polynesian canoe, sailing it with traditional navigation tools 5,500 miles from Tahiti to Hawaii and back, to prove their ancestors were capable of the voyage.

Native Hawaiian and lead navigator Nainoa Thompson said on Anthony Bourdain’s show “Parts Unknown” the trip sparked a rebirth in Hawaiian pride and identity for many people on the island.

“The success was monumental,” Thompson said. “That our ancestors were powerful. They were extraordinarily intelligent. They were courageous, and they were skilled. And so we come from them.”

Indigenous oral histories

In the American Southwest, couple capable technology with oral histories of river running and it becomes more convincing Indigenous people likely took trips down harrowing canyons long before Westerners arrived.

And there’s clear evidence tribes along the Colorado River have such stories, from both the nearby Hopi and Navajo.

The Hopi story of Tiyo, for instance, tells of a young man who traveled down the Colorado River in a hollowed out log to the Sea of Cortez and beyond, according to a report from the University of Arizona.

Attempts to contact the Havasupai tribe, who live within the Grand Canyon, were not successful for this story.

“These original accounts from Native American communities ... they give Indigenous people an understanding of their past, present and future,” Gilbert said. “These stories give meaning to life for Indigenous communities.”

Shawn Brigman, a canoe maker and member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, said he has reconstructed several ancient forms of watercraft over the years, and he’s continually impressed by their functionality.

“They’re watercraft designed specifically to get tasks done quickly,” he said. “It’s high technology.”

That someone rebuilt a boat out of tule reeds and successfully ran it through the onslaught of rapids in the Grand Canyon is no small feat, Brigman said.

“That’s going to draw a lot of attention to that technology,” he said.

Martin, for his part, said he hopes his spur-of-the-moment experiment at least kicks off the conversation and brings a renewed attention to ancient forms of river running, especially in the Grand Canyon.

“It’s just an amazing watercraft,” he said.


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