When Andy Martinez came down from Sky City after the four-day summer rain ceremonies, he was lucky to have a weekend off to catch his breath. The ceremonies had been held at ancient Acoma Pueblo, called Sky City first by tourists and now by the Acoma Indians, too, because of its location atop a sheer rock molar that juts 357 feet above the desert floor in north central New Mexico. It was mid-July and the rains had not yet come. Dressed in jeans and an old red T shirt, Martinez lay about his parents' house. In one sense he was getting acclimatized, for on Monday his descent would continue even further, when he returned to work 900 feet below ground in the uranium mines.
But in another senses Martinez had already hit bottom. Once among the most promising young long-distance runners in the United States, he had not entered a race since his graduation in 1977 from Grants (N. Mex.) High School. When he first burst onto the running scene, it was almost unbelievable how good he was; he broke the state two-mile record and ran a 4:17.9 mile while still a high school freshman. As a junior he was a national AAU age-group cross-country champion. With the right college coaching, he might have become one of America's top distance men. But instead of going to college, Martinez went to work in one of the local mines that employ most of his people.
Former high school hotshots who never made the big time are legion, and the botched running career of Andy Martinez would arouse little more than passing interest but for a remarkable fact: running is a gift he inherited from his Pueblo ancestors and one he shares with a whole wave of Pueblo Indians his age. It would be hard to find any region in the U.S. that spawns more natural-born long-distance runners than the Pueblo reservations of the Southwest.
There has not been a running boom among the Pueblos. There never had to be. The Indians have always run. One of the few outsiders who understand this is Jerry Tuckwin, the running coach at Haskell Junior College, the all-Indian institution in Lawrence, Kansas. Tuckwin, a Potawatomi Indian (as was Jim Thorpe), swings through the pueblos each spring to scout talent, and each spring he sees what he's looking for. "It's amazing," he says. "I find 14- and 15-year-old kids who could be on practically any college team in the country. They're so tuned in to running they aren't even aware of how good they are."
One man who is aware is Emmett Hunt, a native of Laguna Pueblo and now the cross-country and track coach at Laguna-Acoma High School in New Mexico, which draws its students from the Laguna and Acoma tribes. Hunt claims the competitive appetite of his runners is piqued in direct proportion to the increasing length of a race. "In Albuquerque schools they get 10 kids out for the 100 and 220, but here everybody wants to be a miler, everybody wants to be a two-miler. There's not a kid in this school who can't do the distance. Even the heaviest, chunkiest one can do three miles without hesitation."
Hunt has the record to prove it. Since 1969 his Hawks have won 11 consecutive state cross-country titles, more than any other U.S. high school. And the talent isn't just at Laguna-Acoma; it is spread like Stardust all over the Pueblo Indian world, which today includes the 19 discrete pueblos of northern New Mexico, from Taos in the east to Zuni in the west, as well as the Hopi reservation in Arizona. With both Hopi and Navajo runners, Tuba City (Ariz.) High has won nine state cross-country championships in the last 11 years. Just since 1975, Martinez, Gary Louis and Meldon Sanchez from Acoma Pueblo, James Waquie from Jemez Pueblo, and Herman Sahneyah from Tuba City have been high school All-Americas. Another Indian, Kenny Bobelu, now a senior at Zuni High, ran a 4:12 mile shortly after finishing his sophomore year.
And then there is Al Waquie, a two-time All-America at Haskell before he returned home to Jemez to work as a forest-fire fighter. Waquie (no direct relation to James) is something of a legend in the Southwest because he still trains fanatically, yet shows little gusto for a race that doesn't feature a mountain in it. He is thus in the tradition of another Jemez hill climber, Steve Gachupin, who won the 28-mile Pikes Peak road race six times in the 1960s. Waquie has had three back-to-back wins in Albuquerque's La Luz Trail Run, a punishing race that grinds nine miles up a 12% grade to the 10,600-foot summit of Sandia Crest.
Al Waquie is an exception among Pueblo runners because he completed two years of college track—a formidable accomplishment compared to the dashed careers of most Indian runners. Of the five high school All-Americas mentioned above, three dropped out of college during their first year, while one, Martinez, never went at all. (Only Sahneyah, now a sophomore at Illinois State, has stayed in school.) Other promising runners who received less notice in high school shared the same fate after graduation. That so many have forfeited their futures is a "tragedy," says Tuckwin. "There's no other word for it." Not all have stopped as abruptly as Martinez, but each in his own way has made a similar descent from Sky City into the mines.
The Pueblo Indians are heirs to the oldest settled civilization in North America, unwarlike and agricultural by tradition, the cradle of a dauntingly complex religion that often involved long-distance running. In the "world around" race, nearly naked Taos braves used to run 15 or 20 miles through the snowy Sangre de Cristo Mountains shortly after the winter solstice. In modern times that ritual has been supplanted by semiannual relay races, which are also held at the Picuris and Isleta Pueblos. Like the sun's path, relay tracks run east-west through the pueblo plaza. Young men wear tufts of eagle down to lighten their steps, but it is not uncommon to see an Indian in his 70s outrace his grandson.
Among many Pueblo traditions that have given way before the onslaught of the 20th century are the hellish long-distance kicking races once held at all western pueblos and Hopi towns. Long ago, barefoot runners used their toes to flick a short stick, a rock or a clay ball dozens of yards ahead of them as they raced across the desert. In the late 19th century the first white anthropologists saw kick-stick and kick-ball races as long as 40 miles. By the 1930s the distances had decreased to eight or 10 miles, and today only vestiges of the rites remain.