Run for your life

  • Jon Kelly
  • 18 Sep 08, 01:30 PM GMT

I was gasping for air as I jogged beside Kaitlin Yepa through the humid New Mexico night. "How long does it take before you start to lose your breath?" I wheezed. "I don't know," came the cheerful reply. "Maybe an hour?"

We'd been on the road for, at most, five minutes. But then Kaitlin, 15, is a Native American - a people for whom running has become a form of communal survival.

Near Pueblo of Jemez, New MexicoI'd read all the statistics before I came here. How Native Americans suffered from the some of the highest rates in the country of teen suicide, alcoholism and poverty.

And earlier, as I was driven through Pueblo of Jemez, I'd seen the reality of these figures before me.

Underneath spectacular, bright red mountains were the reservation's peeling, ramshackle adobe cottages. Ancient pick-up trucks heaved their way up dusty side roads. At the request of my hosts, and out of deference to their traditions, I didn't take any photographs there. What I saw was beautiful, yet utterly bleak.

No-one there I visited was keen to talk about the hardships they faced, however. These were proud people. They wanted to tell me how much they loved running.

The sport has deep roots in their culture, something elders have tried to harness to keep their young people away from addiction and unemployment. The Wings of America cross-country team, based in nearby Santa Fe and composed of young Native American athletes, has won a boys' or girls' national title every year since it began competing in national contests in 1988.

Kaitlin YepaKaitlin belongs to the Jemez Eagles Running Club and trains for one to two hours a day, seven days a week. She told me that she loves the feeling of freedom it gives her, as well as the sense of achievement she gets from winning races.

"But I also hope that it can win me a scholarship to go study somewhere," she added.

"I'd like to go out of state. My mom always tells me that Jemez isn't going to go away anyplace."

This was exactly what Benjamin Mora, 40, hoped for when he set up the Eagles in 1995. After he became a state athletics champion while at high school, universities across America clambered over themselves to offer him a scholarship. His education degree had given him a good career as a teacher, and he was determined to show successive generations how to copy him.

"My grandfather told me that he used to run everywhere," he told me. "If we had to get somewhere, he'd say: 'Why don't you go run?' That's how we always did things."

The tragic, bitter history of the Native Americans was clearly extremely raw with Benjamin. He told me about the cruelty of the Conquistadors and the betrayals of Theodore Roosevelt.

It still angered him, he added, how his parents and grandparents had been taken away from their homes as children, separated from their culture, punished for speaking their own language, Towa.

I asked about the election. He couldn't see either McCain or Obama offering much to his community. "Even though I'm a Democrat, I haven't decided yet."

What struck me, though, was his that his anger appeared to be directed at the denial of Native American culture rather than the poverty and hardship that his people faced. Was he not enraged at the gap between their quality of life and that of middle America?

He gave me a look of pity. "I've got all my family here. I'll never be hungry. I'll never be homeless. How many rich men can say that?"

He was right. Still, it was obvious to me what his people were running from. What nobody can predict is where they will end up.


  • Comment number 1.

    Typical display of white guilt from an admitted complete amateur.
    The language is "Tiwa" not "Towa".

  • Comment number 2.

    Nice Maiden reference(?) and an important part of American History that is sadly overlooked. Some people forget that things that happened in the not so distant past still have a huge impact on the lives of Americans today.

  • Comment number 3.

    No bayleyco, they are Towa speakers. You might consider looking into the different Pueblo cultures here in New Mexico, the Tewa, Towa, Tiwa, Keres, Zuni, and whoever I'm forgetting now. Maybe also the later Navajo and Apache cultures. As far as I can tell (I'm anglo, but live and work with some of these folks) they quit fighting the white "tribe" long ago.
    I'd recommend to you "Kiva, Cross, and Crown", if you can find it. Otherwise, there's certainly lots on the web (try for another Towa-speaking pueblo).

  • Comment number 4.

    I am of Cree Indian descent of the Turtle Mountain Rez in North Dakota and I am just so tired of this lingering of, " Woe to the Indians for what was done to them, woe to the US government for their oppressive ways. I, like many Natives of the modern age, see and take advantage of the opportunity that is afforded all Americans including Natives. We are free to practice our ways in America and we are also free to be success' like everyone else.

    Any Native that harbors resentment to this day belongs in one of the many museums that tax dollars have built

    Like the band "The Eagles" said; "Get over it."

  • Comment number 5.

    Congratulations on tying in the Native community! I've spent quite a bit of time on reservations in the NW and in Canada (reserves, there) and I think that you did a good job of pointing out the issues. What you may not realize is how difficult it is for someone to walk with a foot in both cultures. Yes, the poverty is bleak, the alcoholism is a tremendous burden, the physical and sexual abuse has been tremendous, but the ones who rise out of it are often the ones who also have deep roots in the culture. One elder I know made sure her son went to ceremonies, that was her first priority, then she supported him in becoming successful by the terms of our culture. He's now a university graduate and world class martial arts expert. She would tell you that the spiritual and cultural roots of her people give them the strength to do anything. They just have to put them first.

  • Comment number 6.

    A tragic situation, but some of these problems are also their responsibility like alcoholism. I am sure there are also other Native American communities that are better off than this. Don't forget the history that the British also have in oppressing and abusing Native Americans, if their current condition is the fault of US culture, I'd say the British must also be partly responsible for it.

  • Comment number 7.

    Ta2008-in what way are the british responsible?its you governments heinous policies of institutionalised racism and oppression that have led to the lack of opportunities and decent living conditions for the indigenous american indians,similar to the barbarism meted out to the aboriginal population in australia.Yes,the usa and australia were british colonies 200+years ago but the sole responsibility for the subsequent ill treatment of these minorities lies with contemporary american society,who have stolen and pillaged native american indian land and enslaved these people into a life of poverty and desperation.

  • Comment number 8.

    Native Americans have every right to be angry and resentful at the US government. And while they do bear the responsibility of uplifting themselves, the problems that plague their communities cannot be compartmentalised and seperated from their history.

  • Comment number 9.

    In response to the comment about the language in Jemez, it is indeed Towa. Jemez is the only pueblo that uses Towa, while all other pueblos use Tiwa. They are related but distinct languages. Look it up.

  • Comment number 10.

    rainlawrence, what I meant about the British sharing in responsiblity for the current conditions are that it was the British that were originally taking their lands with their colonial policies and their own institutionalized racism in those days. The US government did continue to oppress the natives later on, but the land it inherited after the revolution was first stolen from the natives by the British, the French, the Dutch and so on. It was the British government that originally instituted the policy of scalping Natives and bringing the scalps for a monetary reward. I'm saying that the US government is responsible for its own past actions against the natives, but if you go further back you can see that this was only part of the legacy of British colonization and oppression of the natives whom they thought to be inferior to whites at the time.

  • Comment number 11.

    rainlawrence, I agree that Brits haven’t had much to do with this particular history. My house isn’t very far from the Jemez, on land that was part Spain for twice as long as it’s been part of the US (never was any part of England). Our first Thanksgiving was on April 30, 1598, when Onate led Spanish colonists across the Rio Grande at El Paso. I think the folks in Florida claim a 1565 “Thanksgiving”. But the anglocentric “Plymouth Colony” version didn’t happen until 1620. If those Pilgrims had somehow gotten lost, sailed into the Gulf of Mexico and up the Rio Grande, and then up the Santa Fe River, they could’ve just walked into a church that the Spanish had built over a decade earlier. You Brits actually were quite insignificant to my local history until the opening of the Santa Fe Trail about 200 years ago, and then only rather indirectly.
    Of course, one doesn’t have to search very hard to find evidence of Brit violence, such as the notious Brit pirates of the age. But that’s another story.
    The benefit of blogs like this is the opportunity to look past our own “tribe” for a fresh perspective. I see from other posts that you expect this blog to be about “the disenfranchised sections of american society”. “White guilt” (Brit or otherwise) is one form of not listening, and “noble savage” is another.
    In Kaitlin, I recognized a beauty and grace that that is common in Pueblo folks. I’m sorry if that’s not the story you want to hear, and that you find this blog so “unenlightening”. As one of those “ordinary american people” you claim are being missed, I submit that this story and blog offer plenty of “great insight”.
    For my part, I’m happy to have met Kaitlin. Maybe I’ll see her running, next time I drive up from San Ysidro.

  • Comment number 12.

    nails2, you're right - I asked Ben to spell it out for me in my notepad. Fact-checking comes with the territory of being a complete amateur.

    cambones, I was really struck by how all the Native Americans I spoke to didn't want to focus on their problems but talk instead about their achievements and potential. I hope I let them do that in this blog entry.

    Grandmothermara, an excellent point. And the tensions you talk about don't only apply to Native Americans.

  • Comment number 13.

    Oh dear, the typical "Oppressed natives" post by a European/British journalist. Could you BE any more stereotypical? Did you write this yourself or borrow it from the 800 stock articles just like it on file?

    Yes, the native americans got a raw deal, we know this - we actually know the people too - but they are coming out of it. You might have guessed as much when talking to them - they don't see the point of wallowing. Besides, enough with the tsk tsk-ing - I myself, a second generation American (Irish decent - my family fled British oppression in NI, where they were not allowed to speak their own language, were denied civil rights and could not practice their religion without harassment by the way...) have never oppressed anyone - my family was in Europe at the time. And in case you haven't noticed - many "white" Americans also have Indian/Native American roots as well. My husband is one of them. Are we oppressing ourselves I wonder?

    The Native peoples are not wallowing in their past, I am not wallowing in my family's bad breaks - why exactly are you?? Just need to post another hackneyed big bad America story? Do you have a quota? Open your eyes - you are missing the country and people you came to see. Wipe the cobwebs/cliches from your eyes. Please re-join this century.

  • Comment number 14.


    I read your post on 'Green ink' and left you a return message I hope your read it. Thanks and I hope we now have more understanding between us.

    In general, cultural differences have often been a problem that separates us here in the US. I think that we need to come together.
    #4Cambones, you made some very good points, bitterness and dwelling on the past will not help any of us deal with the present or with future challenges.

  • Comment number 15.

    I teach at a school in Albuquerque, and some of the things my students say about Native Americans are things that they have never said and would never say about black, hispanic, or asian students. They say it right in front of the Native students - saying Native students are lazy for not learning English when they weren't even able to get access to an English-speaking school off the res until they were teenagers. My Native students just sit there and take it, and when I ask them why, they say they're just used to taking it. It's not my culture, but they're all my students, and I hate that some of them are subjected to racism that's seen as "okay" by the rest of the class. That's not okay coming from any ethnicity talking about any ethnicity.

  • Comment number 16.

    You did not say what tribe Kaitlyn was.

    The Hopi, in particular, believe in not competing to have a larger, better house than one's neighbors. On the Hopi reservation near Santa Fe, everything was quite modest when I visited, though the mainstream media might call it poor. I'm glad that you are meeting those of us whose main goal in life is NOT a McMansion.

    Also glad you are highlighting Americans who are usually ignored, or worse.

  • Comment number 17.

    "You did not say what tribe Kaitlyn was."

    Aren't Tewa, Tiwa, and Towa speakers all Pueblo? Or did you want something more specific?

  • Comment number 18.


  • Comment number 19.

    "Don't forget the history that the British also have in oppressing and abusing Native Americans, if their current condition is the fault of US culture, I'd say the British must also be partly responsible for it."

    Also HAD a history. Our responsibility to the Indians in the USA ended in 1776. Its worth pointing out too that Sioux refugees from little big horn were allowed to cross the borders into Canada (British) unhindered. As a Brit born in 1977 I am no more responsible for the plight of the Indians than I am for slavery or anything else done by the UK before I was born.

  • Comment number 20.

    #13 I've never even heard Irish spoken in the Irish Republic. There is no law whatsoever against you speaking Irish in Ulster... its just that no-one else will understand a word you're saying. You might as well speak martian for all the sense it'll make.

  • Comment number 21.

    The USA will be out of existance and you'll still be complaining!!! Why not take advantage of the great. extra opportunities you have, like free educational and medical benefits and financial benefits? What fool told you white folks ever had it easy...lies all lies, you live on them. GROW UP.

  • Comment number 22.

    Peter_Sym, I don't believe you personally or I personally are responsible for the actions of our governments when we weren't around. I'm just saying that the actions our governments took then, even though it was a long time ago still have effects all these years later.

    It should be noted though that the British government's oppression toward natives in North America didn't end when they lost control of the US colonies. Even in British controlled Canada they continued to push the natives out of their land and further north, and also instituted a policy where they were not allowed to speak their language at schools and schools tried to force them to assimilate into Anglo culture. All the same problems with natives in the US, such as higher substance abuse, higher suicide rate etc is also true in Canada's native communities.

  • Comment number 23.

    "He was right. Still, it was obvious to me what his people were running from."

    Amusing piece of condescension! Right after noting Benjamin's optimism and appreciativeness, you interject your own assumption that it was "obvious" he must be suffering.

    Wealth does not necessarily denote happiness. And if people are trying to make better for themselves, why must you persist in casting them as the hopeless victim?

  • Comment number 24.

    I´m 'Not Running For The Presidency' -
    the reasons can be found on the following link :

  • Comment number 25.

    Oi Nails2:
    I appreciate your insights.

    I'm reminded of a Navaho friend from Los Angeles who was a Physical Therapist who carried around her second child in a Papoose and tried to make sure they grew up bi-lingual so that they could speak with their grand parents.

    Also, an HR Director friend of mine in Massachusetts made sure to attend every Tribal Meeting and would bring her grandchildren whenever she could.

    Both are strong Native American women whom I admire, who are honoring their culture and are successful in this modern world.

    Now - about all this territorial/cultural ownership crap:

    Please remember, my bi-continental friends, that our Modern American Capitalism found its origins in expansionism born of a hard-core Protestant work ethic.

    As such, we are not only culturally keyed to Judeo-Christian ideologies but we are also fraught with
    -- Good Ole' Christian GUILT.

    As such, we tend to puff up our American Self-Righteousness (GOD BLESS AMERICA, Dammit!) and we tend to feel very sheepish and shameful about stoopid things our governments did before we were born.

    I love my country, but I think we can be really silly sometimes.

  • Comment number 26.


    Something wrong? Your rhetoric seems a little flaccid. Maybe you need to get another dog ma to wake you up?

    jus' wunnerin'...

  • Comment number 27.

    More power to the Native Americans you visited there!
    We have two Native American groups in Tucson, the Tohono O'odham and the Pascua Yaqui. The Apaches are to the Southeast.

    Good luck to Kaitlyn. No one questions the terrible things that were done to Native Americans. There are also problems with corrupt tribal governments that harm their own people.

  • Comment number 28.


    New Mexico got a mention! Jemez got a mention! (Nails2 even managed to squeeze in a plug for San Ysidro)

    When asked where I live in the USA, I usually say "the bit between Texas and Arizona". It's astonishing how little is known about NM, especially by the city dwellers.

    When on the east side of the Atlantic and asked in which part of Scotland I live, the answer, "sort of in the middle... near Stirling?" gets much the same glazed eye response.

  • Comment number 29.

    Hello People.
    i am kaitlyn
    the person who was interviewed. i would like to make things straight.
    When my coach said how many rich people can say that he didn't mean it in a wrong way what he was trying to say is us as native americans are very lucky to be rich within our families and our culture and that is what makes us rich. And i am from the Pueblo of JEMEZ, and our Pueblo is the only Towa speaking pueblo in the whole entire world. Just to let people know, personally I am still very upset with what us natives have to go through, its not easy, we have to find a balance between our culture and a regular daily life in America. I will not get over the fact that some people treat us in a disrespectful way, we were here first and if it weren't for us signing that treaty who knows how we would've ended up. We signed it so our people wouldn't suffer so much. when people make racial comments to us we know that it isn't right but whatever thats all i saw to it, not all people are as fortunate to get opportunites to go places. My Pueblo doesn't hinder on the past but we move forward, and try to see how we can strengthen our Future, our children, and see how we can keep our language alive in our kids. We aren't running away from anything, even though we don't own nice cars or nice houses we have each others and thats all that matters. We're moving towards a better future. that's all I have to Say for now.

  • Comment number 30.

    Kaitlyn, I am so impressed by you. I wish you well in whatever you decide to do in life.


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