An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
December 15, 2001 - Issue 51
Running For Their Lives
by Jessica McBride of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - December 9, 2001
Black River Falls - Seventeen-year-old Ashley Blackcoon's loping run has turned into a painful shuffle. His head tilted to the side, he nudges his nearly 350-pound body onward.
Four miles becomes six, six miles becomes eight. The barren highway rises in the distance, endless. Ashley bends over, clutches his legs, dizzy.
Always, he has been an outsider. A tenderhearted youth in a dysfunctional family. A Ho-Chunk in a mostly white school. A hulking boy in a society that prizes slender athleticism.
As much as he wants to leave the course, he pushes forward.
Ashley is one of 11 Ho-Chunk Nation youths being molded into marathon runners by Erwin Begay, a dynamic coach who envisions young American Indians translating the discipline needed for a marathon into daily life. Almost all the youths are considered at risk of following in the footsteps of relatives whose lives have been decimated by alcohol abuse, joblessness, poverty. Begay instead wants them to be the leaders of tomorrow's tribe.
The teenagers are of varying athletic ability; as of late August, most had never run so much as a mile. Now they run up to 260 miles a month, six days a week. The 17-mile run is just one step leading to their ultimate goal: lining up today in Hawaii for the 26.2-mile Honolulu Marathon.
Some are fairly swift. Others probably will take some 10 hours to finish, if they make it at all. But each step forward is considered a victory.
In a sense, Ashley and the other teenagers have been running their own marathons since they were toddlers. Most have at least one parent who abandoned the course a long time ago.
They describe drunken adults taking them to taverns, beer bashes after powwows where thousands of dollars are shelled out, relatives sucking on bleach-soaked cotton swabs to clean out their systems. Some have little to eat at home before running; one boy's family is about to be evicted, his father having taken to wandering the streets.
The runners raised the money for the Hawaii trip themselves, selling raffle tickets and cooking traditional meals for people attending conferences at the Majestic Pines Casino & Bingo nearby. They need about $1,000 apiece to make the trip.
The tribe operates three casinos in Wisconsin, but money from the gambling halls, which have been open about a decade, has only just begun to lift some Ho-Chunk families out of poverty, and has done little to cure the tribe's rampant social ills.
About a half-hour after Ashley and Myra took off, Begay readied the other runners outside the local Wal-Mart. They planted the Ho-Chunk flag on a hill alongside the American flag and the running team's banner.
"No more excuses," Begay told the runners, who formed a line, linking hands. "Stand tall. You are running 17 miles today. Don't deal from the bottom of the deck. There are some people who live that way. I don't want you to be that way. Rely on each other."
A Navajo silversmith and former Army infantry instructor/sergeant, the ponytailed Begay combines an aura of Indian spirituality with hard-driving military discipline.
His runners wear stiff cotton shirts and shorts; some have bulky basketball shoes. They train without the sophisticated gear of veteran athletes - no special socks, no Lycra clothing, no gel packs to ward off dehydration.
"They are my ill-equipped Army," Begay says.
His Spartan approach toward running is in sync with traditional Indian ways, such as the sweat lodge, that emphasize finding inner strength through taxing conditions.
"I want them to get tough and hard," Begay says.
The 47-year-old Begay understands the teenagers' struggles, having been raised by a stepmother and spending part of his childhood in an Indian boarding school, where teachers referred to him by a number.
As a young adult, he eked out a living making Navajo jewelry. When silver prices took a dive, he entered the Army. During an assignment in Hawaii seven years ago, he was coaxed into running his first marathon to cope with a back problem. As he completed the race, physically depleted but emotionally on fire, he had a vision: Indian youths, carrying tribal flags, running across the finish line.
Then they vanished.
inspiration, a loss
One day, driving a group of kids home, he saw a lone Indian girl running.
If there is one, he wondered, could there be more?
The girl was Louella Blackdeer, a 14-year-old Ho-Chunk who was a sometime runner and a chronic runaway.
The memory of Begay's vision rushed back to him. He pulled over and told Louella he wanted to start a Ho-Chunk youth marathon team and take it to Hawaii. Louella ran home, excited.
A short time later, Begay put a notice in the tribal newspaper to gauge interest.
A few dozen youths turned out. After four months, six remained, including Louella. All of them finished the Honolulu Marathon.
Begay realized that for every youth he helped, he would lose three others - some to tragic problems at home, some to just plain tragedy.
On May 7, 2000, five months after the Hawaii race, Louella was coming home from the Neillsville High School prom with three friends. A twice-convicted drunken driver from Marshfield smashed into their car - just miles from where Begay had first seen Louella run. The 34-year-old man, a non-Indian, was driving drunk again.
No one survived.
In the Ho-Chunk way, family members give away the dead person's belongings, keeping just one item. Lani Blackdeer kept her daughter's marathon finishing medal. She became the team's assistant coach.
"Louella's time on Earth was a blink of the eye, but for this marathon," says her father, Bennett Blackdeer, who now attends all the team's major training runs. "She did it and now these kids want to be a part of it."
The marathon team has become a surrogate family to some of the youths, a safe circle that has brought consistent adult involvement back into their lives. In addition to Begay, whom several of the runners regard as a father figure, every runner must have an adult sponsor. Many of the sponsors are single parents already balancing full-time jobs. When no parent is available to be a sponsor, another adult must step forward. It's an extension of the Ho-Chunk tradition of tribal kinship.
The sponsors have a host of duties. They staff water checkpoints and drive slowly behind the runners on weeknights, their lights providing a safe path. Just as the youths must follow rules, such as passing classes and showing up on time, sponsors must keep their commitment to the team. Three no-shows by a sponsor and a youth is dropped.
Rodney and Barbie Rave sponsor their own son and two other Ho-Chunk youths - a niece and another girl who lives with them while training. Judy Whitehorse, a single parent, is sponsoring her daughter and Ashley, whose elderly grandmother is raising him but not able to sponsor him.
"There's so much alcoholism in the tribe, so many parents have this disease," says Whitehorse, a fixture at almost every training run. "If we can save these kids . . ."
Begay himself is so wrapped up in the youths' lives that by midweek during training season, he can't sleep. Worried about how they will fare on Friday and Saturday nights, he occasionally throws up.
Some of the sponsors, recovering alcoholics themselves, say they found a new focus and sense of belonging through the team. And three times this fall, previously absent parents have abruptly shown up along training runs to encourage their children as they run.
Groups of Ho-Chunk stubbornly found their way back, slowly re-establishing settlements throughout Wisconsin. The tribe still does not have a reservation; its more tham 4,700 members own about 2,000 acres, according to the tribe's official Web site.
But some tribal members nurture the remnants of a traditional culture.
"I see the marathon helping the kids use their energy in a positive way," says Larry Garvin Sr., the tribe's heritage preservation director, whose son is the team's swiftest runner. "The runners face obstacles and their people faced obstacles. They are learning to be persistent, survivors. And the cultural aspect, it is missing in the kids' lives. We wanted to bring it into the team."
On a recent Saturday evening, the runners are at Majestic Pines with Begay and the sponsors, conducting a traditional Indian dancing demonstration for a fencing company having a conference. Some of the youths and their sponsors spent the day cooking a traditional feast of buffalo and wild rice for the businessmen; the demonstration and feast will earn some money for the Hawaii trip.
But few of the runners know how to dance and no one knows how to use the powwow drum recently given to the team.
Louella's three cousins agree to try. One of them, Donovan Cloud, is embarrassed to be without a decent feather bustle that male dancers always wear on their backs. He can't afford a bustle, so he showed up with a borrowed one, all tangled and wilted. Begay spends an hour trying unsuccessfully to help him put it on his back.
Donovan was born in a state prison. He doesn't know his father, and three years ago, at the age of 12, he wrestled a loaded gun out of his drunken stepfather's arms. Donovan's mother says he became a man that day. The stepfather went to prison; the mother gets by selling Indian artwork.
Without running, Donovan says, he would spend his time playing video games.
At the casino, a Ho-Chunk with knowledge of traditional ways finally arrives to drum for the group. It is a modest performance, but Donovan and Myra - his sister - seem to gather strength as the drumbeat pulsates through their bodies.
Afterward, Begay makes all of the youths walk to the drummer's home to give him a gift for his help. It's another lesson, teaching the team a traditional ritual of respect and thanks.
Then Begay sent them home. They had 17 miles to run the next morning.
'Get up as one'
When Myra appears, the group cheers her on. Eventually, the only person out is Ashley.
A standout football player at Black River Falls High School last year, Ashley was already attracting the notice of college scouts. But he gave up the sport this fall to run.
He had spotted the marathoners whipping through town, had seen how the elders treated them as future leaders.
"I kind of looked up to them," Ashley says.
When Ashley brought up the idea of joining, youths at his school laughed at him because of his size. One person who believed in him was his grandmother, Blanche Blackcoon. A woman who gets by making traditional baskets, she had taken Ashley in when his mother dropped him at her door, and she had become fiercely protective of him.
"Four years ago, he was dropped on my doorstep," she says. "I (had) just had a major heart attack. I thought, why am I here? Then he (Ashley) comes along. He doesn't have anybody either. Now, he's my goal."
Begay believed in Ashley, too.
"He is the next thing to being a dad," says Ashley, who doesn't know where his father lives.
At mile 13, Ashley stops. Begay offers encouragement. So does Ashley's sponsor, Whitehorse.
Ashley starts running again.
Whitehorse runs the final four miles with him, right to the end.
The team is waiting when they arrive; no one has been allowed to leave.
As the exhausted teens sit around him, Begay tells them to hold hands and rise together with their eyes closed.
"You've got to get up as one," he says.
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