They run in the pre-dawn darkness, in the snow, amid the rust-colored bluffs of the Navajo Nation.
They run in local, state and national meets, around a dilapidated high school oval and the University of New Mexico Track Stadium.
The trio of Native American teens at the center of the New Mexico-based documentary “Run to the East” are constantly training and racing.
Running is not just part of their culture; it holds the promise of a brighter future. It could be the ticket to a scholarship and a college education.
As Zia Pueblo’s Dillon Shije says in the film: “I hope (running) can take me to college and then to the Olympic Games.”
“Run to the East” – which will be screened in multiple New Mexico film festivals this week – follows the athletes both on the trails and off as they negotiate their senior year of high school and pursue college opportunities.
But while running is at the heart of the movie, it’s the teens’ everyday lives that give the story its legs.
“It’s a real depiction of kids and what it’s like to be on the reservation in this day and age,” director Henry Lu said.
That means the story of Chantel “Tails” Hunt is bigger than her performance at the 2008 state cross-country meet, one that led Navajo Pine High School to the team title. She’s also the girl who helps mom haul water back to their Crystal, N.M., home, a modest dwelling with no running water. She’s also the ace student left to navigate the college admission and scholarship application process mostly on her own.
In “Run to the East,” Thomas Martinez is more than Navajo Pine’s district-champion harrier with the potent late-race kick. He’s the athlete who excels despite an often unstable home life, the teen who talks openly about his father’s alcohol and drug use.
Shije, meanwhile, is a young man with feet in two worlds. He balances a private-school education and running career at Albuquerque’s Sandia Prep – an hour’s drive from home – while learning and embracing Zia’s cultural traditions.
“Running is basically the thread through which we tell the whole story, but really it’s about showing a year in the life of a high school senior on the reservation,” said Joe Spring, a Santa Fe-based writer whose New York Times piece about the Wings of America Native American running program inspired the film.
Spring’s story about how the nonprofit uses running to help kids overcome issues like poverty and avoid health problems such as diabetes caught the eye of the New York-based Lu.
“I thought there was a lack of contemporary stories on Native Americans. You don’t see a lot of current-day stories about kids growing up now (on the reservation),” Lu said.
As Wings of America athletes, both Hunt and Shije figured prominently into Spring’s initial story and were pursued for the documentary. The filmmakers also zeroed in on Martinez, Hunt’s close friend and a fellow Navajo whose raw honesty and bright pink mohawk added both figurative and literal color.
The movie doesn’t shy away from the often stark reality – the scourge of alcohol and drug abuse on reservations or the low graduation rate among Native Americans in New Mexico – but Lu said the goal was to present the whole picture. Hunt, Martinez and Shije, he said, can serve as role models, examples of what it takes to succeed.
The movie is “not trying to belittle where they are and their lot and what they’ve been given,” Lu said. “It’s to show how they’re doing it. At the end of the day, they’re inspiring stories.”
The movie has already been part of film festivals in New York, Colorado and Arizona. It was picked as the best sports/adventure feature at the Indie Spirit Film Festival in Colorado Springs.
But Lu said that kind of attention is of secondary importance. His goal is that the film reaches the reservations and gives younger kids a sense of life’s possibilities. So far, that’s happened.
The film has been screened in various Native American communities as part of Wings of America’s youth fitness camps, where Hunt, Martinez and Shije have worked as coaches.
“We hope it reaches kids to show how these kids have made it out (to college) and done well just for something as simple as running,” Lu said.
At screenings, Shije said he’s tried to impress upon the movie’s younger viewers that everyone is different. While his path to college included running, theirs may ultimately be different. They may excel instead in basketball, tennis or art. It may be another gift that gets them to college.
Many of the kids approach Shije after seeing the film and thank him for sharing his story.
“For them to come up to me makes me feel like I’m making a difference,” Shije said. — This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal