The power of running, culture

By Candace Begody
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, April 28, 2011

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(Courtesy photo)

"Run To The East" is an 87-minute Moxie Pictures documentary by director Henry Lu and editor Stephen Jess of New York. Both hope the film will help show the world the contemporary life of a Native American.

Even before New Yorkers Henry Lu and Stephen Jess journeyed to live two years in the sticks of Navajo, N.M., their goal was clear.

"We wanted to make a contemporary, honest documentary about life on the reservation," said film editor Jess, a native of Ireland. "We wanted to tell the story about the opportunity that running gave these kids, how they used their resources and where it took them."

"Run to the East," an 87-minute Moxie Pictures documentary, is the film Lu and Jess hoped would show the world the contemporary life of a Native American but also how "a pocket of hope lies in the sport of running."

The film features three Native runners, products of poverty-stricken communities, and how they were able to break through a glass ceiling in the sport of running to earn scholarships to attend college.

Like many "outsiders," Lu, Canadian/Chinese, said the two filmmakers had an inaccurate picture of the contemporary Native American.

"I didn't even know that Native Americans were still living without running water," Lu admitted. "They aren't even treated as well as federal inmates."

Project takes shape

After reading a February 2008 New York Times article "Running from Despair," Lu and Jess decided they'd try to capture an authentic portrayal of Native American youth living on the reservation.

Like the film, the article features Native American runners and chronicles how long-distance running and their work with the Wings of America running program allowed them to leave the boundaries of their reservations and race at the national level.

"I was surprised by my own lack of knowledge about Native Americans," said Lu. "I realized there was such a shortage in stories about contemporary Native Americans and I was amazed in how the kids were living the way they did but were still achieving great results."

After settling on the reservation, the real work began and the first step was finding the runners who would eventually star in the film.

After much consideration, Lu and Jess found compelling stories in the personalities and lives of Dillon Shije, Thomas Martinez and Chantel "Tails" Hunt.

Shije, Zia, from the reservation northwest of Albuquerque, was "more Native American than Tails and Thomas," according to Lu, and offered a more culturally rooted perspective.

"He was much more rooted in his beliefs and tribal activities," Lu said.

Shije participates in tribal ceremonies, such as honoring his family by dancing in the Buffalo Dance.

"It's a pretty big deal," Lu learned of the dance. "It's for the more gifted kids because it's a long dance, it takes you all off Christmas day and it's outside in the cold. His spirituality is very strong and he really understands his upbringing and culture."

Not only does he take part in his traditional festivities, "he is clearly an exceptional athlete," Jess said, "a super confident kid, a very talented runner, and you can see how much effort he puts into his training."

Shije was the District 4-3A champion his senior year and placed third at the state meet.

A troubled path

Martinez, from Navajo, N.M., and currently a sophomore at Diné College, "had much more to overcome and was on a little bit more of a troubled path," Lu said.

Though the high rate of alcohol abuse on the reservation was not the focus of the film, that was Martinez' story as he talks about his struggles dealing with his father's use of alcohol and drugs.

"He was coming from a broken home, bounced around from many high schools, and you just didn't know where he would be - at his aunties', friends' or parent's house," Lu said.

When Martinez wasn't staying with his father, he was with an aunt or his grandparents. Martinez later lost his grandparents after a drunk driver collided with their vehicle.

Despite the struggle, Martinez helped the Navajo Pine cross-country team as the 6th man for the school's first-ever Class 2A state championship during his freshman year.

For the rest of his high school career, Martinez improved his time and place at the state meet and helped defend the title all four years he was in high school. He placed fourth at the New Mexico 1A-2A state meet his senior year.

"The film isn't to show the bad side of the reservation," Martinez said. "It's more about us trying to succeed in something where our chances are very low. It also touches on the Navajo community and the Navajo culture and shows how we are trying to live in two different worlds - on and off the reservation."

A new view of the rez

Martinez was one of the first to view the film.

"Like most kids, I wanted to get off the rez and leave because I thought it was the worst place for me to be," recalled Martinez, who attended Eastern New Mexico University for a year before transferring to Diné College. "But after watching the film and leaving for a year and a half, I realized that everything isn't bad here and it's actually the lifestyle that I like. It's familiar and comfortable.

"I also realized how important my family is to me and it is the support that I need," he added.

Fellow Navajo Pine Warrior Hunt was the "perfect kid," according to Lu.

As a freshman, Hunt and the Navajo Pine Lady Warriors took runner-up honors at state and took the state title her sophomore, junior and senior years. She placed third at the New Mexico 1A-2A state meet her senior year.

"She's the most mature kid you'll ever meet," Lu said of Hunt. "She is very family-oriented and very positive about everything."

Hunt impressed the filmmakers as they watched her haul water to her house in Crystal, N.M., Lu said.

"She had to haul wood for heat and she just had this indomitable spirit," he said. "For her to become valedictorian, become captain of the cross-country team, and then work at Wings to teach kids about being healthy is pretty amazing."

Jess saw a more competitive side to Hunt.

"She's very driven," he said. "She sets expectations and tries hard to meet them and pushes herself."

Importance of family

Though all offered different perspectives, the importance of family was the dominant theme in their lives.

Throughout high school, Shije's mother drove daily to and from their home in Zia Pueblo to Sandia Preparatory School in hopes that he would pursue college.

In the film, his mother Marie speaks of how her parents encouraged her to attend college despite becoming pregnant with Dillon at age 18.

"It was the strength of family that helped them through it," Lu said. "Now, the family's making another great sacrifice so that Dillon can go to Sandia Prep."

Marie has since earned her master's degree.

"Wealth in old days was not if you had a fancy car or big house, it was whether or not you had a family," Lu said of what he learned. "Counting on your family will get you through the rough times."

Though Martinez came from a broken family, he used it to "get ahead," Lu said.

"Tails needed her family to decide where to go to school and it was a decision they made together," he said. "It was also inspiring to see such young kids who have that sense of responsibility to give back to their family, culture and tribe by getting an education."

Traditional teachings

In the two years that Lu and Jess spent on the reservation, teachings were plentiful.

The film's title reflects the teachings of the Native American people," said Jess of the film's title.

"For the Navajos, the teaching is that you wake up in the morning, pray, then run to the east into the dawn," he said. "That was the sentiment that we wanted to reflect in the title."

What Jess heard from mainstream media was unlike what he found when he visited the Zia and Navajo reservations.

"It was heartwarming to see how the family stood behind each other and helped each other," said Jess. "Rather than dwelling on the negative stereotypes, you saw an honest reality of life like Tails hauling water to her house and chopping wood.

"It was just really very revealing to see behind the initial stereotypes of what you hear about living on reservation," Jess added.

Before getting those lessons however, the two had to earn the trust of the communities and families.

"Forever, they've been misled by outsiders and there's a reason why they don't trust their own American culture and people." Lu said. "They feel like they're always going to be taken advantage of.

"So, we had to establish a relationship with the kids and their families, we had to gain their trust and could not be intrusive," Jess said. "A lot of weekends, we didn't feel like we shot anything."

"Run to the East" premiered at the International Film Festival in Phoenix and was shown more recently at the Colorado Springs Indie Spirit Film Festival, where it won best sports and adventure film.

"It validates the point that sports can be used to achieve something much greater than what you would take a face value," Jess said. "Running in particular can be so powerful and teach so many lessons to about overcoming pain and struggle."

Because the film has not yet been released to the public, Lu said he hopes to show the film on the reservations later this year.

More information on the film can be found at

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