Connecting with the Past

When George (“Wolf”) Gumerman took the role of principal investigator of the Footprints of the Ancestors project, his goal was to help connect Hopi youth to the traditions, language, and culture of their tribe, in order to preserve customs and allow the tribe to thrive. What he didn't fully realize was that the project might also help many of the teenagers with 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 culturally-significant places in the American Southwest. These places, which are usually archaeological sites, include Homolovi State Park, Navajo National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, Chaco Canyon National Park, and the San Juan River. While there, the Hopi youth interact with tribal elders to almost literally 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 the university to produce DVDs, websites, and museum exhibits that communicate their own perspectives on what they've discovered during their experiences. In this collaborative learning environment, 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."

Making a positive impact

Gumerman knows those goals are being realized. After a recent 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 continues into the future. He is working to raise funds to expand the project so that Hopi youth and elders connect with indigenous groups around the globe, helping more Hopi youth connect and learn from other cultures while documenting what they experience.

"What they produce is in their voice," Gumerman says. "We're just facilitating it."