Toward the Rising Sun - Page 2
Shaun runs these and other unmarked trails around his home in Chinle nearly every day as preparation for one of the trail ultramarathons he enters—and likely wins—each year. But his passion and commitment to running goes beyond competing in trail races, beyond the numerous state titles the high-school cross-country team he coaches has won in the past few years. It goes beyond a successful Division I college running career. It goes deep into Navajo culture, into ancient tradition. For Navajos, running is a teacher, a form of prayer and a celebration of life.
In an age where indigenous cultures are diminishing into a homogeneous mix of modern society, Shaun works tirelessly to keep Navajo running traditions alive. He is the program director for Wings of America, a Native American youth-development program that uses running to help better the lives of American Indian and Alaskan Native youth.
"Everything I have in this world, I got from running," says Shaun. "By coaching Chinle kids to be distance runners, I am can help them realize their dreams, their potential, give them opportunities they may have never had."
Chinle High School Principle, Doug Claschee says, "We have 1200 kids in this school and I sometimes see a lack of respect for our culture, but Shaun not only coaches his team, he transforms them into exceptional people," he says. "Shaun is a role model and that has brought our school together."
Here on the rez, life is hard. Evidence of poverty and hardship is everywhere. Driving though Chinle, we pass starving stray dogs, livestock dead on the side of the road, homes that are little more than four crumbling walls with a wind-tattered tarp for a roof. Few teens have a chance for success, inhibited by gangs, suicide, drug abuse, teen pregnancy and high unemployment rates.
Even eating healthy meals here is a challenge and many Navajo youth are obese. "Everything on the rez is pre-packaged and processed," says Shaun. After being trucked around the state, produce on the grocery store shelves is usually rotting within a couple of days. "We drive two to three hours every other week to Flagstaff just so we can buy healthy food."
With few paved streets—aside from the main artery of Interstate 191, which slices through Navajo Nation—most running here is off road along historic Navajo trails. In fact, even during track season, says Shaun, "We do most of our runs on the trails. We hardly ever step foot on the track, because traditionally, we didn't run around an oval."