Top athletes in the world, including Billy Mills, promote health at running expo

By Krista Allen
Special to the Times

MOENKOPI, Ariz., January 10, 2013

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(Special to the Times – Krista Allen)

TOP: 1964 Summer Olympic gold medalist and American Indian activist Billy Mills was the keynote speaker last week at the first Itaa Hongvi' Iymat Expo at the Moenkopi Legacy Inn in Moenkopi, Ariz. where he spoke to an audience about the lessons he's learned from his life. Among other speakers included Diné athletes, Alvina Begay and Craig Curley.

SECOND FROM TOP: A multitude of runners that attended the Itaa Hongvi' Iymat Expo gathered behind the Moenkopi Legacy Inn in Moenkopi, Ariz. last week for a 5K Lunar Run.

B illy Mills sat at a table welcoming visitors to Itaa Hongvi' Iymat. Down the corridors, several organizations that promote running presented their booths including Wings of America from Santa Fe, N.M.

"We want to do anything we can to help young runners succeed and feel like that they have the support they need to be elite athletes," said the Wings of American Program Director Dustin Martin.

And that's just what Itaa Hongvi' Iymat highlighted during its three-day expo.

The Moenkopi Developers Corporation, a nonprofit community development operation, hosted the first Itaa Hongvi' Iymat – meaning our strongest ones in Hopi – Runners Forum last week at the Moenkopi Legacy Inn.

Numerous people from the area attended the expo including two well-known Diné athletes, Nike N7 Ambassador Alvina Begay and Nídeiltihí Native Elite Runner Craig Curley.

Before life history, American Indians ran out of spiritual desire to honor everything sacred including the earth and sky. And they ran for practical means of communication and trade between communities and tribes.

Begay says she started running at a young age, growing up in an imperfect household in Ganado, Ariz. where her father had a problem with alcohol.

"I hated—just hated seeing my dad drunk," Begay said. "My mom worked a lot and I was always home with my brothers and sisters."

"I was just miserable," she continued. "I just hated living in an alcoholic home. And at a young age, I knew I had a running talent."

Looking back on her early years, she'd aspire to get out of the house and to use running to get an education.

"I'd think to myself, 'I'm going to be better than this. I'm never going to live like this again,'" Begay said.

Today Begay is a registered dietician and a long-distance runner living in Flagstaff, Ariz. where she trains with Team USA Arizona running group, concentrating on her marathon time.

"Just last year I qualified for two Olympic trials," she said. "I was trying to follow in Billy (Mills') footsteps by trying to make the team in the 10,000-meter, but I didn't quite make it."

She is Ta'neeszahnii (Badlands People Clan), born for Tséníjíkiní (Cliff Dwelling Clan). Her maternal grandfather is Táb??há (Water's Edge Clan) and her paternal grandfather is Honághááhnii (One Who Walks Around Clan).

Just like Begay, the Kiis'áanii, or Hopis are notable for running great distances at record speed.

In Hopi culture, running has ceremonial and reasonable purposes. Long ago, the Hopis didn't have livestock, so they had to rely on foot, which cultivated running to gather food, hunt, and cover long distances.

The running tradition carried over into the 20th century when Jim Thorpe, a Sac and Fox, won gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden while Louis Tewanima, a Hopi, won a silver medal in the 10,000-meter run. And almost 50 years ago, William "Billy" Mills, an Oglala Lakota, won a gold medal in the 10,000-meter run at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

But in recent decades, that tradition has lost its momentum. Nevertheless, the Itaa Hongvi' Iymat Runners Expo made known that running is important to American Indians not only for physical well-being but culturally and spiritually.

On the first day of the expo, the 1983 film Running Brave – based on a true story of a remarkable Oglala Lakota athlete, Mills, destined against all odds to become the best distance runner in the world – was shown to an afternoon crowd.

"Growing up, watching this movie, I saw someone like myself, someone I can relate to," Craig Curley said. "This movie taught me that there's going to be struggles and challenges in life."

He says it was tough finding a role model to venerate in Kinlichee, Ariz. where he grew up working with his hard-working father who had rough, callused hands that he equals to his running occupation.

"He never took a day off," Curley said about his father. "He would go to work, and sometimes he'd get called out in the middle of the night. Even on the weekends, he'd work and I'd be so tired."

Nowadays, Curley thinks of his feet as his father's diligent hands. He lives in Tucson, Ariz. where he trains, promoting life benefits of running to American Indian youth.

"I want it to be callused," he said. "Not meaning I want to run barefoot, but I'm going to work hard. We all have struggles."

Curley recently defeated James Boitt, a runner from Kenya, in the Nationwide Children's Hospital Columbus Marathon in 2:19:01 in Columbus, Ohio.

He is Kin?ichii'nii (Red House People Clan), born for Kinyaa'áanii (Towering House People Clan).

Mills, who was raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, taught the crowd that battles could be fought with the mind.

"We are all intellect and we all must prepare for those battles," he said.

Mills says one of the most elementary ways we could prepare is by taking care of our own health.

At 74 years old and a Type 2 diabetic, Mills works for his charity, Running Strong for American Indian Youth, speaking at events throughout the world about the lessons he's learned from his vigorous life.

"The most powerful thing I've ever done in my life is read – far more powerful than winning a gold medal and far more powerful than setting a world record," Mills said.

Meanwhile a multitude of people gathered behind the hotel in the frigid evening for the 5K Lunar Run that honored Caroline Sekaquaptewa, the first Hopi tri-athlete known as "Kadoo," who successfully completed the Ford Ironman Arizona triathlon – a strenuous course consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run – last November.

A couple of Tarahumara men from Barranca del Cobre, Mexico stood at the starting line in their traditional white cloth shirts with colorful prints. They wore red headbands and sandals they referred to as "huaraches" in Spanish.

For the Tarahumara natives, running is their way of life. They are part of the Uto-Aztecan lineage and are closely related to the Apaches.

At 5:30 p.m. Kadoo's run began. That evening Shawn Tsinnijinnie from Tuba City won the race.

The next two days were filled with inspirational talks and presentations given by Begay, Curley, extreme-distance runner Jay Danek from Scottsdale, Ariz., marathon runner Jany Deng from Jokau, Sudan, Africa, and other speakers including the group from Mexico that sold their handmade crafts during the expo.

"Your gift and your talent as a runner goes so far beyond you," Dustin Martin said. "And only you can empower yourself to do that. But when you empower yourself to do that, you also empower so many other people around you and inspire so many people around you also."

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