Faces of Rivers: Colleen Cooley, Navajo Nation

Faces of Rivers is an ongoing profile series from American Rivers

Colleen Cooley on the San Juan River, UT | Photo by Spruce Tone Films/Taylor Graham

Colleen, thanks so much for taking the time to talk today. Can you introduce yourself to our audience?

When I introduce myself in my language, that’s who I am. I represent myself, my family, and my four clans. That’s where I come from. And, truly, that is all that matters. My name is Colleen Cooley. I am Diné. We all have our own different perspectives and upbringings and I can only speak from my experiences and teachings that have been passed down to me from my elders, from my parents, and from our ancestors.

Can you tell us a little bit about your connection to the landscape you live in and the water that runs through it?

Four is a sacred number for us. There are four major rivers that run through our landscape and we have four clans that identify who we are as Diné. I have a deep connection to those four rivers, to the four sacred mountains that surround us, and my four clans. That is how we represent ourselves and where we come from.

Humans are made up of at least 60 percent water. For the Diné water is how we identify who we are through our clans, through our stories, through our communities. We are born in water, in our mother’s womb. The Water That Flows Together clan, that’s my maternal grandfather’s clan. I have an innate connection to the water and the lands that surround my people. My upbringing taught me to appreciate water, the landscape and my surroundings. These teachings and learnings that were instilled in me when I was young have been present my whole life, and I carry them forward with me.

Why is it important for people to know where their water comes from? And protect it?

So many people in America take access to fresh water for granted, just turning on the tap when they want it. People need to take the time to educate themselves, learn how vital water is for everybody, and understand where their water comes from. Most people do not know where their drinking water comes from, especially those that live in cities. I think if more people knew the origin of their water, maybe, they would start to appreciate it more. And maybe, if they can see the negative impact it’s having on certain communities, and realize water is not accessible for all people — they will start to pay more attention.

Water has and continues to be threatened and contaminated on the Navajo Nation and surrounding communities due to energy extraction such as uranium mining, which has been known to contaminate their well and groundwater. And this is not just a problem for Navajo Nation, but is an issue for rural areas and other countries that may not have access to fresh, clean drinking water. I would like to raise awareness around these issues, and the first step is education. I think it’s really important to make sure everyone has equal access to clean fresh water because it’s vital for us to survive. We all deserve clean air and clean water.

When I was younger, not having the ability just to turn on the water really helped my siblings and I gain a better appreciation for water and where it comes from. We learned at a young age how to conserve and respect our water sources. We learned to use and reuse it sparingly. For dishes, we only used a gallon of water for all our dishes, per day. In a traditional household people are using up to five gallons per day (for dishes only) because they’re just constantly running the water. So, it’s just a different mindset, one that can change, and I believe people can implement these changes in their daily lives with ease.

“I think it’s really important to make sure everyone has equal access to clean fresh water because it’s vital for us to survive. All people deserve clean air and clean water.”

As a river guide, how have your passed on knowledge to your guests?

As a native river guide and facilitator, I help reach a vast group of people who pass through our lands via the river. My goal is to influence them in a positive way by sharing my stories, teachings, learnings and personal sentiments. I would like to advocate for more native guides (to be trained) on the river who know the river and surrounding landscape as intimately as I do. It’s important on rivers to have conversations about what’s happening in the world and what the surrounding issues are. When I am able to educate those visiting, rafting and coming through these lands, it is very rewarding. I would like for people to return and learn more about these lands via books and/or doing research on their own.

San Juan River, UT | Photo by Spruce Tone Films/Taylor Graham

Why is it important to you to advocate for BIPOC voices? And how would you like to see our community change to elevate and create more space for those voices?

It’s important to advocate for Indigenous voices and perspectives in various spaces because historically, our voices have either been ignored or overseen. This really needs to change and can be done in a number of ways. First, hire local and Indigenous people from the region and areas that you work in. They may not meet all the qualifications and expectations of your company, but they have the experience of living on that landscape and may help advocate for the regions they know and care about.

Second, include people of color on your board or on your committee, and not just as an afterthought. Invite us to sit at the table, not just around the table. Do more than just inviting us to this panel or inviting us to this seminar and checking it off your list of being diverse and inclusive. And most importantly, maintain a long-term relationship. So how can you do that? Maybe it’s diversifying your board, advisory committee, staff with people of color. Maybe it’s creating a program or having a person of color lead the program on diversity, equity, and inclusion within your organization. Having local people from a specific region that have the experience and knowledge to truly advocate for issues you’re working on is crucial.

There are so many changes that need to be made. My hope is to facilitate and encourage these changes, help broaden awareness around water, native lands and communities, educate and inspire, and ultimately make a difference.

Stories about protecting and restoring our nation’s rivers and streams. How will you get involved?