Later that same year, in November 1975, the three Acomas were part of an all-star Indian team that entered the AAU cross-country nationals for boys 16 to 17 at Annapolis, Md., a rare chance to compare their skills with those of high school runners from across the country. Running with red war paint streaked on their cheeks, Martinez finished first, Louis second, Sanchez eighth and James Waquie ninth. The team finished first. A year later, when Martinez was too old to enter and Sanchez was hobbled by shin splints, Louis carried the Acoma banner alone into the AAU nationals in Raleigh, N.C. That time he surprised no one by leading the parade at the finish line.
Yet something went seriously awry when it came time for the youngsters to take the next logical step. In a sport whose stars don't peak until their 20s, four years of college running are all but a necessity. But Martinez never applied to college, Sanchez dropped out after a single semester at Eastern New Mexico State, and Louis lasted barely a month at Haskell. The state of New Mexico's most recent analysis of Pueblo Indians pursuing higher education is depressing: only 2% of all high school graduates matriculate at college and only 3% of those go on to earn degrees. That works out to one college diploma for every 1,666 Pueblo students completing high school. Because tribal funds and government grants are readily available to Indian students, lack of money does not explain the dismal figures. Nor, in the case of talented runners, have colleges been tight with scholarship offers.
The resistance to college is cultural, and the most often cited cultural barrier is the inviolability of the Pueblo family, which can make it impossible for even grown men and women to leave the reservation. "The traditional Indian family just doesn't stress the importance of education," says Hunt. "Kids today still feel obligated to help out their families. In the family if someone is sick, everybody is there. If you have to get off work, you get off work. If you lose your job, you lose it, but you're there. All the people I grew up with are still in Laguna."
There is a certain unsentimental logic to Louis' claim that he left Haskell in order to help care for the maiden aunt who raised him from the age of 13, after his father, a deputy county sheriff, died in an accidental shooting. "I owed my aunt a lot for taking care of me," he says. "Almost all Indians feel that way; half the money we make when we're out of school goes to our mothers."
Also, over the years, a self-enforced isolation from the non-Indian world has calcified into a Pueblo reflex. Sky City has not occupied the same mesa top for eight centuries by accommodating the mightier waves of Apache, Navajo, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo-American invaders. Acomas, who grew up with English as a second language, still face a profound culture shock away from home. For this reason, when Hunt guided Meldon Sanchez into college in 1978, he favored Eastern New Mexico State because it was blessed with a sympathetic coach. "Meldon had an offer from Villanova, but if he had gone there, he would have been back in a week," Hunt says. "I told the Eastern New Mexico coach that these kids aren't like other kids. You take them off the reservation and they're lost. Suddenly they have to do everything for themselves, instead of relying on their family and tribe. A lot of times people have to do things for them that would be common knowledge for any Anglo or black. An Indian who needs a pair of pants will go into a store and won't know how to explain to the salesperson exactly what he wants. He'd rather buy something and be dissatisfied with it later than ask for help. It's the same way with education. If he were flunking out, he wouldn't ask for help, simply because he'd be afraid or ashamed."
At Eastern New Mexico, Sanchez was the top man on the cross-country team for a few months, and then he came home, undone by everything Hunt had feared: the strangeness of an unknown world, the rival attraction of a $9-an-hour job in a Grants uranium mill, the responsibility of caring for a steady girl friend and a son born when he was 16. Sanchez didn't give up running. The trails he blazed long ago up Flower Mountain, behind his mother's home in the reservation town of Acomita, are being worn deeper every day. He thinks a lot about the 1984 Olympic 10,000 meters, but he also thinks about the payments on his 1979 LTD. He has no coach, no training plan and only the dimmest insight into what it takes to be a world-class runner.
As for Andy Martinez, around Acoma there is a popular story to explain why he quit running even before he finished high school. He had been undefeated until the spring of his junior year, when Louis, one year younger, blew by him in the stretch of a two-mile. "Right there, to me, is where Andy went down," says Louis. "He couldn't take the pressure of me beating him." The story cuts close to the bone. Martinez barely made it through his senior year, winning a fourth cross-country title almost by habit and then hanging up his track shoes midway through track season.
But the story also seems too pat. Something else was hammering away at Martinez' ambition, for which this one defeat was merely the coup de grace. After all, it had been two years earlier that he ran his best times. "The problem with all Indian runners," says Louis, "is that they hang around with the wrong kind of people. They want to be with their peers and it's hard to say no to the kind of things that take away your interest in running." The peer pressure not to succeed is the most debilitating of all the conflicting allegiances that inhibit the Pueblo runner who would make a name for himself. "Andy got holding hands with the wrong kind of people his last year here," says Grants High Track and Cross-Country Coach Jodie Wallace.
Gary Louis is most convincing on this score, because he has been through the mill himself. Recently he joined the Marines to escape a six-month tailspin he went into after dropping out of Haskell: a time of working in the mines, sporadic training, too much alcohol and more than one night in jail. His story reads like a testimonial to the power of the Marine Corps to save souls. Self-questioning and self-assured, Louis now says, "Some of our own people get kind of jealous of anybody who's really achieving something. They cut you down a lot. I don't blame them for the trouble I had; I blame nobody but myself. But everywhere I used to go people knew me and Andy, and they told me I was going to end up just like him. These were my own people and they made fun of Andy because he ended up in the mines."
Louis' turning point came at an all-Indian training camp in Colorado, where he heard a lecture by Billy Mills, the South Dakota Sioux who won America's first gold medal ever at 10,000 meters in the 1964 Tokyo Games. Mills spoke about the setbacks he too had had as a young Indian runner. Mills told how friends taunted him, arguing, "If you don't drink, then you're not an Indian."