Nurturing the Roots

Nurturing the Roots ®

The Tracking Project’s Community Mentor Program

Background & History


Founded as a non-profit organization in 1986 by John Stokes, The Tracking Project ® (TTP) in Corrales, New Mexico, has worked with community educators and Native elders from around the world to design a series of teachings which connect individuals directly to the natural world. Our programs of natural and cultural awareness include a wide range of skills—from traditional tracking and survival skills to music, storytelling, dance, peacemaking and martial arts training. The name Arts of Life® was chosen to describe these programs, which emphasize indigenous knowledge, the lessons of Nature and the power of art.

Since 1986 a team of artist/educators and traditional Native elders from TTP have shared this unique awareness program with more than 100,000 people of all ages. We provide: Arts of Life® programs for schools and communities; wilderness camps for youth; tracking/awareness classes for adults; Tracking the Roots of Peace ® gatherings. Through Nurturing the Roots (NTR), a community mentor program, our work with the international community now includes partners/programs in Hawai‘i, Brazil, the Philippines, Colombia, Sweden, Spain, Japan and Australia.

Children, the preservation of wildlife, biodiversity and the integrity/vitality of Native cultures in the global indigenous network have been the focus of our work. Our programs actively support cultural survival and community revival.

Karl Tefler dancing for the Mentor Program
Karl Tefler dancing for the Mentor Program

Evolution and Description of the Project

Originating from the vision of Parley Kanaka’ole, a traditional Hawaiian elder, NTR began in 1993 as an effort to bring together artists/educators, activists and indigenous leaders from around the globe to share with one another their cultures, stories, arts, and successful teaching strategies, with the goal of creating a global network that would train trainers in indigenous knowledge and community revival. Parley envisioned a circle of “caring people who would join hands and catch the world when it fell, to stand it up again in a good way.” He provided a timeline for the gatherings and noted certain obstacles that would present themselves along the way. From the book Olelo No’eau (a collection of traditional Hawaiian sayings), he chose a saying for the program to use as a motto:

Hahai no ka ua i ka ulula’au.

Rains always follow the forest.

(The rains are attracted to forest trees.  Knowing this,
Hawaiians hewed only the trees that were needed.)

The name Nurturing the Roots was chosen for the program to convey the idea that the roots of any community are its elders, culture, language, art and history. The ability to transmit this information to a community’s youth is paramount. By energizing these roots, we hope to stimulate the growth of ever more beautiful “flowers,” helping communities regenerate themselves while giving the roots well-deserved support and reinforcement. Programs which bring youth and elders together are key components of helping a community to harmonize itself culturally and ecologically. 

During the three-year program (one week per year for three years),
NTR participants are immersed in the key areas of our curriculum: Thanksgiving, Traditional Tracking & Survival Skills, Nature Awareness, Peacemaking, Cultural Awareness, The Arts of Life, Personal Development, Community Education, Ceremony, Leadership, International Community and Renewal. Each day follows a traditional learning model offered to us by our mentors from the Iroquois Confederacy.

Nurturing the Roots: Mentor Training 1998
Nurturing the Roots: Mentor Training 1998
Nurturing the Roots: Mentor Training 2013
Nurturing the Roots: Mentor Training 2013
Nurturing the Roots: Mentor Training
Nurturing the Roots: Mentor Training
Nurturing the Roots: Mentor Training
Nurturing the Roots: Mentor Training
Nurturing the Roots: Mentor Training
Nurturing the Roots: Mentor Training

Funding for the program was provided by many groups and individuals over the years, but certain groups were notably present from start to finish: the Aurora Fund, the Frances V.R. Seebe Charitable Trust, the California Community Foundation, the Attias Family Foundation, the Macricostas Family Foundation, the Ward and Eis Gallery, the John Densmore Family Foundation.

There have now been ten NTR programs, including: the original mentor training (1996, 1997, 1998); NTR Reunion (2000) which brought new participants from Sweden to join with the original group; Panday Buhat in the Philippines, hosted by Initiatives for International Dialogue (2000); the Alaka‘i Project in Hawai‘i (2002–2004); Nutrindo as Raizes in Brazil (2003–2005); Cottonwood Montessori NTR in New Mexico (2005–2007); and TTPHI/NTR (The Tracking Project / Hawaiian Inside) in Hawai‘i (2008–2010); Nurturing the Roots / New Mexico (2012–2014); Nutrindo as Raízes II in Brazil (2014–2016) and Nurturing the Roots / New Mexico II (2015–2017).

Central to our philosophy, symbolized by the 13 plates of the turtle’s shell, is the idea that no one cultural group “has it all,” that everyone was given a piece of the whole, and that we must bring the pieces back together to complete the picture of who we are as people on the Earth. This is reflected in the cultural composition of our global network, which now includes: Mohawks, Senecas, Miccosukees, Diné, Puyallups, Aztecs and other Native Americans; Anglos, Chicanos, Hawaiians, Filipinos, Burmese, Swedes, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Brazilians; and Aboriginal Australians from three southern language groups—the Kaurna, Narranga and Ngarrindjeri—as well as Brazilian Indians from the Kurá-Bakairí and Yawanawa tribes.

These programs, when completed, will have graduated more than 260 people, many of whom have already gone on to create their own mentorship circles, programs and/or curricula based on NTR teachings.

A sampling of projects from around the world which have sprung from the inspiration of our mentor graduates:

Back to Earth, Northern California. A wilderness immersion program and rites of passage for youth under the leadership of Jesse Sachs and Tracking Project mentor, Eli Marienthal.

Better Humans, Texas. An institute dedicated to creating health, abundance and self mastery. Founded by international wellness consultant and Tracking Project mentor, Erika Ramelli.

SHEA Tree Center (Sacred Healing Earth Arts), New York. Tracking Project mentor and staff member, Lisa Bennett Matkin, envisioned a non-profit to facilitate a healing relationship with the Earth through practices from ancient wisdom and sacred arts.

Wild Society, Washington. Launched by mentor circle member Forrest Nichols, a non-profit wilderness education program that reconnects humans (especially the youth) to the everyday wild through backpacking, year-round naturalist programs and events.

❖ Círculo dos Saberes, Brazil. A Native spiritual Youth and Elder gathering in the state of Mato Grosso, founded by Isabel Taukane, a member of our mentor circle from the Kurá-Bakairí tribe.

❖ Projeto Pegadas Brasil. A branch of The Tracking Project based in Brasília, Brazil, initiated by mentor Bento Viana, with assistance from Edison Luis Guedes Neves and others.

❖ Mebuyan Peace Project, Mindanao, the Philippines. A collective of Filipina artists, composers and performers in the southern Philippines dedicated to peace performances and peace activism, inspired by Geejay Arriola and other members of our mentor circle.

❖ Ndakinna Wilderness Project, New York. A Native tracking and wilderness awareness project founded by Jim Bruchac and his father, Abenaki author Joseph Bruchac, in Saratoga, New York. Joe Bruchac is a member of The Tracking Project’s Native American Advisory Council.

❖ Santa Fe Council for Environmental Excellence, New Mexico. A council which created a series of gatherings to provide nature awareness training for environmental lawyers, advocates and educators, initiated by mentor Michael Last.

❖ Wild Friends, New Mexico. A program of the Center for Wildlife Law at the University of New Mexico which advocates wildlife preservation through education, founded by mentor Ruth Musgrave.


Members of The Tracking Project’s Advisory Council, together with local mentors from the various program sites, have acted as mentors for the trainings. Our council of Native American / Hawaiian / Australian advisors includes:

Yuklin Aluli Attorney – Hawai‘i
Joseph Bruchac Poet / storyteller / editor – Abenaki
Andy Buster Tribal judge / health worker – Miccosukee Nation
Vickie Downey Educator / activist – Tesuque Pueblo
G. Peter Jemison Artist / Site manager, Ganondagan State Historic Site – Seneca
Kevin “Dookie” O’Loughlin Educator, storyteller and cultural consultant – Narangga & Kaurna people (South Australia)
Mililani Trask Hawaiian attorney / Hawaiian Sovereignty leader / Human & Indigenous Rights Advocate
PAZ (Mapitzmitl) & Rita (Yei Koatl) Zamora Aztec artists / dancers – Ehecatl Dancers

(Also long-time friend and member from 1987 until his passing in 2010)
Jake Tekaronianekon Swamp
Director, Tree of Peace Society – Wolf Clan sub-chief / Mohawk