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One-on-One with Dave Wiegand

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — David Wiegand didn’t really absorb the fact that he was Native American until he was living in Saudi Arabia as a child, where the local Saudis viewed him and his brother as interesting curiosities.

The boys were American, but they spoke some Arabic and they were darker than the other U.S. citizens who were there working for multinational oil and related companies. That confounded the locals, Wiegand said.

Once their neighbors understood the Wiegand boys were Indians from the U.S. and not from India, they had a lot of questions apparently gleaned from their knowledge of old American Westerns: “How did you get your horse through customs? How long have you been wearing clothes? Aren’t you supposed to have feathers in your hair?”

Wiegand, who runs The Sparrow Group construction company in Albuquerque, said while some might have taken offense, he knew “they weren’t asking these questions to be rude. It was just such a curiosity.”

It wasn’t until years later that Wiegand – who has traveled the world and has at least a rudimentary knowledge of six languages – moved to New Mexico and connected with the Navajo-Hopi heritage he inherited from his mother. It helped that he had spent a few partial summers with his grandparents in the Four Corners area.

Instead of attending a high school boarding school in Switzerland as many of his Saudi-based friends did, Wiegand’s mother sent him to Menaul School in Albuquerque because of his nearby relatives.

Wiegand said a deeper connection with his heritage came when he was 25, his brother having just died of the effects of alcoholism and “the outside family coming in from the reservation.”

“I spent years in disregard, not knowing who I was, and so now I had this reconnection with some of my family,” said Wiegand, 43.

With skills he had picked up while working as a carpenter and a builder, Wiegand began visiting the reservation and taking on projects such as building wind generators. From that work came a career in construction and project management for several Albuquerque companies, culminating in Wiegand’s decision to start his own firm. It carries the Hopi name of his 8-year-old son “who knows of his own heritage the way I never did.”

Because it’s a minority-owned business, The Sparrow Group is able to leverage greater access to government contracts and to tax breaks. Wiegand cites as his biggest project an $800,000 xeriscaping job at the Indian Health Services office in Crownpoint.

He recalls with pride attending a ceremony at the top of the Sandias where a Navajo friend told him that his expertise and his work on the reservation was “amazing.”

“We’ve been waiting for somebody like you.”

You have traveled widely. Did that start after your family moved to Saudi Arabia?

By the time we were teenagers, we were flying back and forth overseas for summer and Christmases. I’m doing international flights at 13 years old. People are looking at us going, “Your parents put you on an airplane in Saudia Arabia? You’ve been on and off flights for 36 hours?” It’s just accepted when you live in that kind of social structure. My mother went a little far. Probably a year before we went off to boarding school, (she taught us) this is how you wash your clothes, this is how you stitch up your leg, this is how you splint a broken bone. You’re going to have to take care of yourselves.

What did you do after you graduated from Menaul School?

I was a walk-on for UNM football. And then I got as far as clinicals at the nursing program at (Central New Mexico Community College) and then I veered off and got certified as an EMT. But maybe the years of freedom, partying, a little disregard, a little drinking – by this time a lot of my friends who had been in boarding schools in Europe were out and they had gotten jobs in various places and well, I … got on a plane, went to Europe with some of my friends and (became) a carpenter. A couple years of that and I was really lost – just very lost. I came back to the States tired.

How do you spend your free time?

I exercise quite a bit. I practice tae kwon do, but mainly at the gym. I did some competitions in my early 20s. I skateboarded quite a bit in several different countries. I didn’t touch it for a long time, but now my son, we go to the skateboard park. I got up on a handrail last week, these kids came running up and said, “Are you Cyrus’ dad? How old are you?” My son and I go rock climbing. We’re doing all these things. I tell him, “It’s not necessarily living through you, son. This is my expression of joy for the gift of living, and it’s just like a car. You take care of it, it’ll last longer.”

What’s the best compliment you have ever received?

I think the one that stands out – it dropped me – that I had a kind heart. To me, that overweighed any congratulations because you can’t teach that.

Who told you that?

It was when I was at the Humane Society. I was volunteering over there.

What’s your idea of the perfect day off?

The morning would have to be at least a few hours of just by myself, and then maybe pick up my girlfriend and my son and go down to the river and leave the phone at home. I’ve been doing more of that, and it feels so good.

What’s on your bucket list?

I certainly want to make an impact, not just for my people, but in Albuquerque and New Mexico. When I first got here, I found most people that were from here didn’t have a lot of good things to say. But when I came here, this was nirvana. This was beautiful – what are you talking about? I also want to get back to doing some travel of my own.

To where?

A lot of places – in Africa, Asia, Western Europe, I still have a lot of friends over there, but I want to give some perspective to my son. I think it’s what propelled a lot of my personal and professional goals having lived over there and experiencing different cultures.

What do you most wish for when it comes to your son?

To (meet) his potential. I don’t think there’s anything more valuable that you can hand down than an educated family. That’s not just a gift to him; collectively, that’s a gift to the world. That’s taking a very minute bite out of ignorance. And sooner or later, I think there will be a shift. If I can be a part of that, even just at a very, very minute level, then I will have lived a life.

What gives you hope for the future?

This last weekend, a gentleman was trying to get up from one of the benches (at the mall), and his cane slipped and he fell. I went to go over there, and by the time I was even halfway there, there were three people who ran (and) helped him. Another person was going for a security person. People, I think, will do the right thing given the opportunity. So I have a lot of hope.

What is it about your culture that you most connect with?

It was my grandfather telling me that he knew that I would come back and that the land would be here waiting for me, despite what other people believed. He said, “This is the land that will give back to you, and this is my religion and if nature is my religion then Earth is my church, and I’m able to go to church any time I step out the door.” And that stayed with me. It absolutely answered something that I felt through all of my travels – what was waiting for me, who I was, was back home. It was the first step to me finding that peace within myself.