When George Gumerman took the role of principal investigator of the Footprints of the Ancestors project three years ago, his goal was to help connect Hopi youth to the traditions, language, and culture of their tribe, in order to help preserve the customs and allow the tribe to thrive. What he didn't fully realize was that the project might also rescue many of the teenagers from the difficult circumstances they face in everyday life.
The Footprints project brings together Hopi high-school students and elders, cultural specialists, archaeologists, and anthropologists for trips to places of cultural significance, usually archaeological sites in the American Southwest, including Homolovi State Park, Navajo Nation Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, Chaco Canyon National Park, and the San Juan River. While there, the youth interact with the elders to trace the footprints of their ancestors, focusing on themes such as health, food, community, language, and sustainability. They volunteer to harvest crops, maintain orchards, restore gardens, or plan races in honor of the running tradition of the Hopi.
The students document their experiences along the way, working with Gumerman and others at NAU to produce DVDs, websites, podcasts, and museum exhibits that communicate their own perspective on what they've discovered during their experience. Through the collaborative learning, Gumerman often finds that the youth have life-changing moments.
"To see what some of these kids go through and how they survive in the face of problems like alcoholism, you realize that it's a hard life that they deal with," he says. "The purpose is to get youth connected with their past and build relationships, but our secondary goals are to get them to stay in school and help them apply to college."
And Gumerman knows those goals are being realized. After a trip to Mesa Verde, he waited with one girl for her mother to pick her up. When she finally arrived—after being delayed with a flat tire—Gumerman took the opportunity to tell her what a wonderful addition her daughter was to the program. The mother broke into tears, confessing that prior to joining the Footprints project, the girl was ready to run away from home.
"She told me what a difference it has made in her daughter's life," he says. "I could see that getting the youth out with the elders starts to give them a sense of purpose."
Gumerman hopes that kind of positive impact doesn't stop with the Hopi. He is working to raise the funds to continue the project and expand it to six other tribes, helping more Native American youth connect to their cultures and document what they experience.
"What they produce is in their voice," Gumerman says. "We're just facilitating it."