Running has a
special place in Hopi culture, and the Hopi High School boys' cross-country
team is building on that heritage, with a chance at a 26th straight
Arizona state title Saturday.
Hopi High School cross-country runners, from left, Ryan Honyumptewa,
a sophomore; Andre Lucus, a junior; and Diome Talaswaima and
Latrell Lee, who are sophomores.
ORAIBI, AZ Above the creased high-desert landscape of
northeastern Arizona, the Hopi village Oraibi, continuously inhabited
for nearly 1,000 years, sits atop a blond mesa crumbling at the
Each fall, during one of the Hopi calendar's dozen or so ceremonial
races, a hundred or more Hopi men gather in a pack on the scrubby
plain below, all muted tones of mustard yellows and sage greens.
A woman in Hopi dress holds a woven basket in the distance. Onlookers
shout, "Nahongvita" loosely, "stay strong" or "dig deep"
in Hopi. A signal is given.
To the Hopi, to run is to pray. And the men run, several miles,
past the bean field, beyond the barely marked graves of ancestors,
around the decayed facade of a Spanish church and up the precariously
steep passages to the top of the mesa, where they are received by
a chorus of thanks "asqwali" from the women, "kwakwai" from
Nuvayokva with baskets he has won in ceremonial races. The
races are meant to bring rain and prosperity to the Hopi and
the rest of the world.
Juwan Nuvayokva, a former all-American cross-country runner
at Northern Arizona, has been the first to the top in dozens of
Hopi races. And he would probably win the one scheduled for Saturday
in Oraibi, where he was raised, if it did not fall on the day of
Arizona's high school cross-country championships, in suburban Phoenix.
Nuvayokva is an assistant coach for the boys' team at Hopi High,
vying for its 26th Arizona state championship in a row. Its streak
is the longest in the country for cross-country and the fourth-longest
active run for any high school sport, boys' or girls', according
to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
"Hopi have that running blood in them," Nuvayokva said. "It's
up to us to find it and use it."
Hopi High assistant coach Juwan Nuvayokva near his childhood
home in the Hopi village Oraibi.
Starting a Tradition
Hopi High, as modern as any suburban school, has about 400 students
in Grades 9 to 12. Before it opened in 1986, many Hopi teenagers,
like those from other tribes, went to Indian boarding schools in
Among them, more than a century ago, was Lewis Tewanima. Sent
to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania where
he was a classmate and track teammate of Jim Thorpe of the Sac and
Fox Nation Tewanima became a two-time Olympian. He finished
ninth in the marathon at the 1908 London Games and won the silver
medal in the 10,000 meters in Stockholm in 1912. He remains a Hopi
hero, and an annual race is held on the reservation each year in
Rick Baker, 56, grew up in the Hopi village Tewa and ran cross-country
80 miles away at Winslow High and then in college in Oklahoma. He
was hired in 1987 as a Hopi High physical education teacher and
coach and was asked to start a cross-country program.
"A lot of schools with Hopi kids had won state championships,"
Baker said. "And I thought if we could get all the Hopis here, we
should have a pretty good team."
Rick Baker, overseeing stretching exercises, started the Hopi
High boys' cross-country program and has led it to 25 consecutive
Arizona state titles.
His first three boys' teams finished in the top 10 in one of
Arizona's small-school divisions. His fourth, in 1990, won the state
title. The team has won every one since.
The championships are a point of pride, but Hopi modesty inhibits
boasting. The 25 state championship trophies are scattered in a
small storage room, five of them on the floor, two on a plastic
bin next to a bike tire, one of them broken.
But the pressure to keep the streak intact is palpable. Boys
on this year's team admitted to nerves, and Baker uses the streak
as motivation do not be the team that breaks the streak.
"I don't want to be part of the team that doesn't win the 26th
in a row," the freshman Jihad Nodman said.
Darion Fredericks, a senior, said he knew that the team was
watched, both by opponents around the state and by Hopi on the reservation.
"They know what we're capable of," he said. "I definitely feel
the eyes on me, even in the community. They say, 'Hey, you're the
one that runs.'"
A Test of Depth
Success is built on endurance, not speed. While Hopi High has
had its share of individual state champions (Nuvayokva did it twice),
winning a team title requires depth. Courses are generally 5,000
meters, or 3.1 miles. Time is less important than order.
The finishing place of each team's top five finishers (out of
seven starters) are added together for a team score 1 point
for the overall first-place runner, 2 points for the second, 10
points for the 10th, 100 for the 100th, and so on. The team with
the lowest score wins. A perfect score is 15, if a team sweeps the
first five places. The Hopi did that at state one year.
team eating a meal the night before a race last month. On
Saturday, Hopi High will be going for its 26th straight state
"A lot of our kids don't have a lot of speed," Baker said. "If
you timed them in the 400 meters, they probably wouldn't break 70
seconds. But they have endurance. They can run and run and run."
In early October, a Hopi High bus, painted in the school colors,
blue and white, drove five hours to a night meet in Casa Grande, between
Phoenix and Tucson. Members of the boys' cross-country team sat in
the back half of the bus. The girls' team, the winner of 22 state
championships in 28 seasons a seven-year string was broken
last year sat in the front.
The teams sometimes travel together, but they have different
coaches and do not practice together. At the Casa Grande meet, they
got off the bus and headed different directions into the cool night.
They were quickly absorbed into an athletic carnival, acres
of uniformed teams wandering to and from the course and huddled
around team tents. The course crossed soccer fields, a stretch of
dirt and a golf course and then snaked back along several fairways
to the finish. The air was filled with dust and the sound of generators
powering temporary lights.
Baker was nervous. A quiet and poised man, with glasses and spiky
black hair lightly freckled with gray, he felt that this year's team
was vulnerable. The team was young. It had melted in the heat of a
meet in Phoenix the week before.
More broadly, Baker had found it increasingly difficult to find
Hopi boys dedicated to running. Fewer committed to the summer running
program. There were too many distractions these days. This could
be the year that the streak ended.
"People stop me and say, 'How's the team doing?'" Baker said.
"They know we didn't start too well. But they say, 'You'll be ready
Hopi High ran in the meet's final race, with many of the state's
biggest schools. At the start, Baker crowded in with his seven boys,
including his son Steven, a sophomore.
"Come on, guys," he shouted. "Be strong! Be a fighter!"
"Nahongvita!" they shouted together.
of the Hopi High boys' junior varsity team before a race last
month. "Hopi have that running blood in them," an assistant
The starting gun sounded. Baker and Nuvayokva watched a colorful
blur of 100 runners fade into the dark of the golf course. Because
of the serpentine route, they could jog to a spot on the course
to watch and then move to the next switchback to watch the runners
pass again, repeating the pattern several times toward the finish.
"Where are they, where are they, where are they?" Baker said
to himself, scanning a string of passing runners. "They should be
He and Nuvayokva share an ability both to count runners ("You're
in 70th! Move up!" Baker shouted to one of his athletes) and to
tally rivals ("That's their fourth! Their fifth!" Nuvayokva shouted
as boys from Sedona Red Rock High blurred past).
With each Hopi runner, Baker's calm deportment gave way to full-throated
screams and hand gestures. He sometimes ran alongside the runners
for a few strides and shouted instructions into their serious faces.
"Two minutes hard! Two minutes hard!" he shouted to one. "Get that
guy in the white! Beat him!"
yelling as his son Steven ran by. "A lot of our kids don't
have a lot of speed," Baker said, adding: "But they have
endurance. They can run and run and run."
Another Hopi was told in the final mile that his score was going
"You're No. 5," Baker called, imploring him to sprint and pass
as many opposing runners as he could. "Ten guys! You can catch 10
Individual Hopi runners finished nowhere near the top, and because
of a registration glitch, their efforts were not recorded. Still,
Baker boarded the bus relaxed and relieved. He saw progress. The
bus stopped at Little Caesars to pick up 16 pizzas and then unloaded
the boys and girls at a nearby Holiday Inn Express at about 11 p.m.
"Be glad; be happy you finished," Baker told the boys in the
lobby. "But don't be satisfied. Because there's more in you somewhere."
He scheduled a five-mile run for 7 a.m. When the Hopi stayed
at the same hotel last year, their morning run took them past a
cotton field, and Baker grabbed some to use for a couple of Hopi
ceremonies. The field was gone this year, plowed over for a strip
Hopi High freshman Dylan Morningstar recovering after a race.
The boys huddled before heading off to bed.
"1-2-3 Hopi!" they shouted.
A Morning Run
On the reservation, the low and distant edges of the sky are
pierced by spires and plateaus. The 12 villages of the Hopi reservation,
surrounded by Navajo land, are connected by the two-lane thread
of Highway 264, which winds over and among three large mesas
helpfully named First Mesa, Second Mesa and Third Mesa about
6,000 feet above sea level.
To the southwest is the snow-tipped summit of Humphreys Peak,
the highest point in Arizona, part of a mountain range sacred to
the Hopi, who believe it is home to spirits known as kachinas.
Three Fridays after the Casa Grande meet, as the morning sun
lit Oraibi, the smell of burning wood and coal came from some of
the houses. Like the perch itself, they are built of stone and sit
in various states of surrender to time and gravity. Some are patched
together with cinder blocks and clay.
The 150 or so residents of Oraibi choose to live with no electricity
or running water, and there are 13 underground kivas used for village
ceremonies. Each has a wood ladder poking through a hole in the top.
Nuvayokva, a 36-year-old who smiles his way through nearly everything,
wore running shoes and jogged down through the broken edges of the
mesa. Parts of the trail were sprinkled with pottery fragments.
"When we were kids, we were told to never pick them up," Nuvayokva
said. "Otherwise the people who owned them before will come back and
Fredericks, left, and Mikal Poleahla sleeping on the bus ride
home after a race last month. Fredericks, a senior, said he
knew that the team was watched, both by opponents around the
state and by Hopi on the reservation.
He ran onto the plain and shrunk into a speck, then looped up
a trail and returned full-size a few minutes later. As a boy, he
often ran to work in his clan's cornfields, one of them 16 miles
away. Last year, training for a marathon, he often ran from the
high school, 29 miles away.
Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation
Office, said that the tribe's tradition of running flowed from its
scouts, men who directed tribal migrations and searches for water.
(One of roughly three dozen remaining Hopi clans, the Lizard clan,
supposedly got its name from such scouts, who were able to survive
in the desert with little water, he said.)
Running was the method of sending messages between Hopi villages.
It became part of ceremonies, too, which can last days. Photographs
from the early 1900s show Hopi men lined up to run in ceremonial
races like the women's basket dance race, most wearing loincloths
and no shoes.
"They are for the blessings of the cloud people, for the rain,
for the harvest, so we have a good life, a long life," Kuwanwisiwma
said. "That's what these ceremonial runners do. They bring this
positiveness to the people."
In some variations, the first to the top receives a gourd of water,
which he then carries to his cornfield to bless the crops in all four
directions. In other races, winners bury sacred tokens in the ground
"It might sound a little funny, but running in cultural races
is a lot different than running in high school or college," said
Devan Lomayaoma, 33, who won two individual state cross-country
titles at Hopi High, ran at Northern Arizona, teaches at a Hopi
elementary school and has won many Hopi races. "In cultural races,
you never got recognition for it. They have a deeper meaning."
Nuvayokva said the same thing.
an assistant coach, a two-time individual state champion
for Hopi High and an all-American at Northern Arizona
went on a morning run near his childhood home in Oraibi.
"It's different than the Anglo culture, where you run and it's
every man for himself," Nuvayokva said. "When I competed in the
N.C.A.A., you're trying to beat others. Here, you do it for others."
He had to cut his morning run short because the team had a meet
in Holbrook, about 90 minutes south. On a room-temperature day under
blue skies and cotton ball clouds, the Hopi boys finished second among
Among more than 100 varsity competitors, the top five Hopi boys
finished 6th, 12th, 15th, 21st and 23rd.
'Pretty Much on Pace'
The meet was won by Tuba City, a rival school on Navajo land
that some Hopi on the western side of the reservation attend. Baker
mentioned how much Hopi High had gained on its rivals in the past
couple of meets. But Tuba City is a substantially bigger school,
in a different classification, so Hopi High will not compete against
it head-to-head at the state meet.
"I feel pretty good," Baker said. "Pretty good. We're pretty
much on pace for the state meet."
But he also knew that plenty of other schools, including a handful
with reasonable hopes of an upset, dreamed of ending the streak.
"We're banquet talk," Baker said. "That's what I tell the boys.
At the other teams' banquet, they'll say, 'We beat the Hopi,' or
'You outraced the Hopi kid.'"
Lomayestewa cheering on his Hopi High teammates on Oct. 23
in Holbrook, Ariz.
As the boys cooled down and put on their white warm-up suits
for the awards presentation, a 70-year-old Hopi man named Lee Grover
stood to the side.
He still jogs a few miles in the mornings, to greet and pray to
the sun, and hopes that his running motivates the younger generations.
The team has helped "put the Hopi back on the map," Grover said, but
he worries that even the strongest of traditions can fade.
"We're gifted with this talent of running," Grover said. "It's
something we should never let die."