On Stands Now
July 2024

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Empowering Youth With Nature

Courtesy Photo Vidal Gonzales and youth fishing at Canjilon Lakes

Vidal Gonzales is passionate when it comes to teaching kids about the outdoors. He believes they flourish best when walking through a forest and listening to its music and, on the darker side, that they suffer despondency and aimlessness when abandoned to their cellphones or when they don’t get enough fresh air. That’s why he founded the Uncivilized Outdoorsman, an outdoor adventure company emphasizing the empowerment of Indigenous and Hispanic youth by reintroducing them to their natural surroundings and traditions through fly fishing.

“As early as possible, young people from these communities must become familiar with their cultural landscape,” Gonzales says. “It’s a relationship in a real sense, where kids learn what reciprocity means. The land is the teacher. The land teaches kids how to care for and accept one another, as it does for them.”
This relationship sows confidence that children of these communities badly need in order to tackle the world’s challenges. According to Gonzales, by isolating youth from numerous culturally sacred sites, events like the Las Conchas fire of 2011 and the recent COVID lockdowns affected traditional communities all around the Jemez Mountains in ways that will be felt for years to come. Gonzales believes that when these youth are unable to connect to their cultural landscape, learn about their heritage, and participate in their traditions, they may be vulnerable to depression and other negative coping mechanisms.

Vidal Gonzales is a child of the Santa Clara Pueblo, which was in the eye of the Las Conchas storm. “There’s no doubt about it. Young people from Indigenous and Hispanic communities were put at risk.”
He seeks to offset this risk by taking kids fishing at places that have held profound spiritual value to traditional communities since time immemorial. Wading in a lake or stream is an ideal backdrop for the teaching of ethnobotany and ecology, and for reinforcing kids’ historic connections to the land and its creatures. Canjilon Mountain, rising above the first of this summer’s fishing sites (Canjilon Lakes), is a sacred site to the Tewa people, according to Gonzales.

Since launching Uncivilized Outdoorsman in 2022, Gonzales has hosted outings on a purely volunteer basis; transportation, meals and fishing equipment were either donated or borrowed, and fishing guides who worked for him did so for free. This year—when youth participants and their families will enjoy fishing days at Canjilon, the Valles Caldera, and Hopewell Lake—the company will be compensated.

Teaming up with Trout Unlimited and its Santa Fe Chapter, Gonzales leveraged an Outdoor Equity Grant from the State Outdoor Recreation Division. The grant covers expenses like staff pay (Gonzales employs several of his fishing guide friends who are well versed in cultural traditions and local natural history), fishing equipment, and lunches. Many of the other supporting amenities are covered by generous donations from companies and individuals. Wading boots, for example, were donated by Patagonia. Chevron generously covered fuel expenses of parents driving their kids to the fishing outings. A sizable cash donation came from an HVAC company and a dentist.

Each outing begins with words of wisdom from an elder from one of the participating pueblos. Then there’s a prayer exhorting participants to be kind to each other and express gratitude for the abundant blessings from the plants and birds and sky, the mountains in the distance and the butterflies up close. And, of course, the fish, gifts from the water. At Canjilon, every one of the children caught something. Judging from the laughter echoing around the lake, a few of the young anglers may have caught a lot. Or maybe they were just having that much fun.