Friday, February 15, 2008

Fifteen Percent

So most of you know that Mike and I grew up in New Mexico. Part of my growing up was running cross country in high school.

I was pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. I ran my thirty to forty miles a week hard (though I bitched whenever I had enough breath), and I usually beat way more people than beat me. Still, I knew that my chances of a college scholarship were pretty much nonexistent (I got lazily recruited by precisely one school, which was never going to give me a scholarship--not sure it gave anybody scholarships). And I knew my chances of competing at some level beyond college were slightly worse than those of becoming an astronaut. So I was fine with putting in my miles, drinking my lemon-lime saline water, and occasionally barfing after a really tough race. Good friends and relative success were all I needed from sports. I was going to prep school, after all. I was supposed to go to college to do things with books, and I did. Now I work at a desk and hit the treadmill and wonder how I gained thirty pounds overnight. (Oh, wait, over fifteen years. Crap.)

Anyway, I remember running against guys who took the sport way more seriously. A lot of those guys were from tribal schools. And those guys, the serious ones, man they ran hard. As far as I could tell as an outsider, for a lot of the Native American runners cross country was like football for poor kids in west Texas.

A varsity cross country team puts seven runners in the race, the first five of whose scores count. My senior year (after an injury to our best runner) I was usually the fastest on our team. But there were certain schools--mostly the big tribal schools--who were so good that I sincerely felt proud if I could beat their slowest scorer. During my time, Gallup was the school to beat. They weren't a tribal school, but I think all their runners were Navajo. (Gallup is right at the edge of the Navajo Nation.) I couldn't tell you what Gallup's top runners' faces looked like, but I remember the back of their jerseys. Those guys could run.

Our team had certain teams that we disliked or outright hated--Sandia, La Cueva, Manzano, St. Pius. Those were teams from bigger schools or teams whose dickhead coaches passed on their dickhead ethos. (Even more obnoxious than John Kreese telling all his little Cobra Kai students "No mercy" is some douche in with a stopwatch and a whistle doing the same thing beside a chalk line through a New Mexico mesa.) We never hated Gallup, though. It would have been like going to the beach and hating the tide. They ran hard. They won. The sun set, the sun rose. Besides, even then we all knew there was something deadly serious about how the guys from Gallup ran (about how the guys from Laguna Acoma ran, the guys from Shiprock, from Zuni). They trained seventy miles a week. They ran before the sun rose, after the sun set.

We had one kid on our team--a freshman when I was a senior--and he ran hard too. He had talent and, more to the point, he had something to prove, though I never quite figured out what. He left himself jelly-legged after every hard workout. (It paid off. He went on to be a Gatorade All-American I think, maybe regional All-American.) Running against a lot of the tribal schools was like running against squadrons of that kid. I'm not saying they were inhumanly great or glassy-eyed zealots, of course. But they did seem more intense than the guys I ran with.

I had some sense of why that might be, of course. Like I said, I grew up in New Mexico. If you actually read the history book they plunked in front of you in seventh grade, you could take a pretty good guess as to where least some of that urgency and intensity came from. ("And then the Spaniards returned to the rebellious village and cut the right foot off every man and child older than twelve." "And then the US broke another treaty with the Navajo or the Apache, you know, to keep in practice.") But I'm not sure if that ever really sank in for me, or even if it has now.

I bring this all up now because I just read a story in the New York Times about Wings of America, an elite cross country team that draws from reservations schools across the US. The team sounds like it offers an outlet and an opportunity for a lot of runners, and I'm glad it's there. But the story had this quotation in it:

In the Navajo Nation... many of the statistics concerning health problems are even higher than for the overall numbers for American Indians. A study in the American Journal of Public Health showed that nearly 15 percent of youths in the Navajo Nation in grades 6-12 had attempted suicide....

“There’s this element of historical post-traumatic stress that’s occurred in Indian communities,” said Dr. Chuck North, the chief medical officer for Indian Health Services. “The history of Native Americans in the United States is one of loss: losing land, losing language, losing culture and losing family members.”

As far as I can tell, North is pretty much right, although no surviving people's history is entirely a history of loss. Anyway, it made me remember those Gallup runners. More important, it seemed astonishing. 15%! The average rates of US suicide in other ethnicities in that age group run from 1.5-6% (girls rank nearer the high end, boys lower). That's horrifying enough, but 15% is triple or quadruple that rate. Why don't we talk about this more?

Lord knows I waste enough time posting about soccer jerseys, but wow. The shit we talk about and the shit we don't.

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At 5:35 PM , Anonymous Emily said...

Hey Jon --
Even if I hadn't recently converted to running, I would have thought that was a beautifully written post.


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