A Return Home with River Newe
By Nushin Huq
Between 2 Pines Magazine
The Middle Fork of the Salmon River, located in Central Idaho, is considered a bucket list rafting destination. Its rapids are difficult, the scenery is beautiful, and the trout fishing is great. It lies within a wilderness area that is the largest roadless tract in the lower forty-eight.
The Middle Fork is also part of the ancestral lands of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, known as Tukadeka or Sheepeater Shoshones. The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes not only lived near the Middle Fork, but across southern Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Montana and Wyoming until they were forcibly removed and put together in one reservation in Southeastern Idaho - far from the river.
Popular depictions of nature, such as the photographs by Ansel Adams, show a wild but humanless landscape, especially in the National Parks. That sets up an inaccurate history- pristine wilderness until settlers come and clear cut forests, overfish rivers, mine minerals, create polluting industry. The narrative takes out indigenous people and their history.
Jessica Matsaw, who is Shoshone-Bannock, wants people to be aware of this history when they enjoy the outdoors.
“For people who enjoy public land, for people who enjoy being outside, I think they should ask themselves, whose land are they on,” she said. “Whose tribal community is around them. Is there a way they can be respectful. At least acknowledge what has happened on that landscape.”
Jessica Matsaw is a mom and teacher. She has an undergraduate in sociology and a masters in education. She is also a survivor of domestic abuse and an advocate- dedicating her work to helping tribal youth.
Her husband, Sammy Matsaw, is Shoshone-Bannock and Oglala Lakota. He has a bachelors in ecology, a masters in conservation genetics and is currently working on his PhD in water resources. He also has ten years of military experience and over a decade of science and management involved Indigenous sovereignty and treaties.
Together, Jessica and Sammy started the non-profit, River Newe. Newe is Shoshone for peoples. Since 2017, they have been organizing rafting trips for their community on the Middle Fork.
The first time Jessica went on the river was as an adult.
“There was an instant connection,” Jessica said, describing her first time on the Middle Fork. “Seeing where your ancestors had been, seeing where they used to be. It was just really powerful. It started a fire inside of me. Like, this something we need to focus on.”
River Newe is featured in a new film called Return of River. The film follows one of their river trips.
River Newe trips include tribal families, elders and youth, as well as guides. The Matsaw also take their four kids on all the trips. The intergenerational component plays an important role in the experience and reclaiming their culture. But specifically, Jessica said, it’s about the youth, who deserve an opportunity to experience their homelands.
“They had no say or control over what happened to our ancestors, and they are experiencing the effects of those things,” Jessica said.
Reconnecting with the ancestral lands while going down a river with Class IV rapids is a healthy way for them to help their community deal with trauma, Sammy said.
Like Indigenous communities all over the country, the Shoshone-Bannocks were forcibly removed from their land. Later generations, like Jessica’s grandfather, would suffer more trauma from forcibly being placed in boarding schools, which were used as a tool to strip children of their culture or where there was abuse. Jessica also spoke of her personal trauma with domestic abuse.
The trips are a way of helping their community work through their trauma.
“Going down a river trip with Class IV rapids, what we’re doing with that is that we’re retraumatizing ourselves in a healthy way,” Sammy said.
There’s an idea that the best way to deal with trauma is to retraumatize yourself- like going on top of a high building to deal with a fear of heights, Sammy said.
“I think what we’re trying to do is, no you shouldn’t retraumatize yourself,” Sammy said. “You should find healthy trauma to be experiencing, and a white water rafting trip is just that.”
The fun factor keeps the kids from even realizing they are going through a traumatic event, Sammy explained. They come out on the other side of the river and realize that they’re with people that are taking care of them and are going through the experience together.
In the morning, before getting on the river, the musician wakes them up with a song, they gather for a prayer. They do everything safely. The trip becomes an example and gives them tools so that they will start to see their life from this experience differently.
In the future, they would like to focus on middle school students. There is data that shows that’s where Native students fall off in their education, Sammy said. It would also give them an opportunity to reclaim rights of passages around puberty.
Far From Home.
The point where they access the river is a five-hour drive up into the mountains, Sammy said. Once on the river, participants are committed for all seven days. It’s the largest wilderness tract in the lower 48, there are no roads.
During those seven days, the group rafts and camps along the river. They reconnect with their ancestral lands and reclaim their culture.
“When you go on the Middle Fork, you can see these house depressions, you can see our camps, you can see how people were thinking about where they were camping on the land and what they were thinking,” Sammy said. “Our old trails, all that’s still out there. It’s preserved landscape of what our ancestors were doing a long time ago.”
While the Matsaws do a lot of the prep work like logistics of the river trip such as transportation and meal planning, the trips also have participants that have more cultural expertise. This includes musicians that sing traditional songs and teach them. Elders share traditional knowledge. For example, there is an elder, who has spent summers on the river as a tribal interpreter for the U.S. Forest Service, who supports their work and shares her knowledge.
The trips and the reconnection to the land adds a level of richness when they hear their elders; something they may have missed if they hadn’t been back on their old landscapes and put that back together, Sammy said. It gives context to why they do certain things.
“I talk about it like visiting relatives,” Jessica said. “You didn’t know that was always your grandma or your auntie. These people that are so important to you. Once you see them, once you meet them, and they give you so much love and that connection. It’s always been there.”
Even after the trip, the Matsaws keep connected with the families. The program is year round, Jessica said. For example, in a few weeks, Sammy plans to take a group hunting. They do everything as a family. Because the Matsaws are from the reservation and part of the community they have a 100 percent retention rate; unlike a lot of programs run by non-Natives, Jessica said.
The couple hoped that the film would help raise funds for the non-profit, but unfortunately, COVID-19 pandemic has stopped a lot of the plans. The disease has also impacted the reservation; a number of their friends and family have passed away.
Their goal for the future is to make River Newe a self sustaining program.
“I believe this is something that people should be investing in,” Jessica said. “It helps Indigenous people and non-Native people to have this holistic understanding of how to take care of themselves and Mother Earth.”
Most importantly, River Newe is about the youth.
“I ask that people check out the website and take an interest in our community because there are some really beautiful youth here,” Jessica said. “They are wonderful, powerful and deserving of love and respect. They need our support and someone to advocate for them. We will go into those uncomfortable places for them.”
You can learn more about the program and watch River of Return at https://rivernewe.org.
Headwaters of the Middle Fork Salmon River, Image by Shutterstock.