POLACCA, Ariz. – The group of boys head out toward the mesa, setting their feet upon dirt trails that are lined with scrub brush and corn fields. It's the same earth that their Hopi ancestors would tread as they ran in prayer for rain, prosperity and all of mankind.
For these boys, the drive is as much about the competitive spirit as the enduring spirit of their culture.
Hopi High School, where they are students, has earned 23 state cross-country titles in a row, and according to its coach, is one of three schools in the country to earn a perfect score at a state meet.
No high school in the nation is as dominant when it comes to winning consecutive championships, and the team wants to make sure the streak continues.
"We have a lot of pressure at every race," said junior Kelan Poleahla. "Everyone wants to beat us. Our job is to not let that happen."
Running is deeply rooted in the northern Arizona tribe's tradition as a way to carry messages from village to village and bless the reservation that gets little moisture with rain. Tribal members regularly challenge each other to footraces on the trails considered the veins of the villages, and running is prominent in ceremonies.
The boys on the team draw from that tradition and a desire to remain champions, as the school has done since shortly after it opened in 1987 to keep Hopis rooted in their culture and attending classes on their own land.
The team is led by coach Rick Baker, a high school and college runner known as "The Legend." His program encourages students to rack up 500 to 1,000 miles in the summer. During the cross-country season, the team meets for at least one early morning practice and daily afternoon practices during the school week, with a long run on Sundays.
Baker insists there's nothing special about his coaching. He simply wants athletes who believe in themselves and the school, and who are disciplined and dedicated.
The girls team also brings pride to the small, remote reservation with 21 championships, making them fifth in the nation for most state titles, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. They're shooting for a seventh consecutive championship this year.
"It's not just going to be an easy go in and win kind of thing," said girls coach LaVerne Lomakema. "We're going to have some competition, a lot of competition."
Crowds of Hopi fans make the more than four-hour drive to watch both teams during the state tournament, shouting a Hopi phrase that pushes the teams to dig deeper and run with passion — nahongvita.
The boys team became so confident in its ability to win at one point that championship T-shirts were printed ahead of the state meet and handed out to the runners on the winners' stage. The team acknowledged it was bad form and stopped.
In the Hopi's story of running glory, there is inspiration that comes from a Hopi man who competed at the 1908 Olympics and earned a silver medal in 1912. The federal government shipped Louis Tewanima off to boarding school, and he rose to become one of Indian Country's most famous athletes, along with fellow Carlisle Indian Industrial School classmate Jim Thorpe. Tewanima's American record in the 10,000 meter race stood for more than 55 years before being broken by Billy Mills, an Oglala Lakota.
Even though Tewanima was a celebrated athlete, he knew others on the Hopi reservation could beat him. When he returned home, Tewanima quit a 12-mile footrace he initiated against two men in their fifties at Second Mesa because they were so far ahead at the halfway point, Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert writes in an article about Tewanima and the continuity of Hopi running.
Despite Hopi High School's successes in cross-country, few of the runners have taken their skills to the collegiate level. Juwan Nuvayokva, who holds the top five times for the school in cross-country, is one of them and now serves as an assistant to Baker.
After being pushed onto the team by his mother, who was concerned he would otherwise get in trouble, Nuvayokva became a high school state champion and an All-American at Northern Arizona University. The difficulty he sees in getting other runners to strive for college is a focus on the reservation on immediate, not future, plans.
Instead of talking about college applications, he says the conversation around Hopi dinner tables focuses more on ceremonies, going to the kiva and tending to the fields. When he was approached by the cross-country coach at NAU, Nuvayokva had no idea what Ron Mann meant when he said Nuvayokva was Division I material.
"I think it was a gamble he was taking because I'm Native American, and we're known for not finishing what we start," Nuvayokva said.
Coaches from other schools see the cultural tie with Hopis and running. The elevation of the mesas on the Hopi reservation that rise thousands of feet above the surrounding desert doesn't hurt for training grounds either. The Hopi culture calls for tribal members to rise before dawn to run and in ceremonies to deliver prayers to fields and shrines on the reservation.
The school's major competitors in Division 4, made up of the school's that are least populated, have been Northland Preparatory Academy in Flagstaff and Pusch Ridge Christian Academy in Tucson. For a brief time when Hopi moved up a division, Northland Prep was the state champion in the lower division but that changed when Hopi rejoined that division.
Northland Prep's boys coach at the time, Mike Elder, thought there was a good chance the school where he now serves as athletic director could beat Hopi in 2011. He was disappointed.
"It wasn't that anybody ran badly," he said. "It was just that Hopi ran better."
While Hopi tops the state's smallest division, it ranked 16th at an early October meet in Arizona that pitted the 27 best cross country teams in the state and some out-of-state teams against each other regardless of size. Two schools with predominantly Native American populations — Page and Tuba City — were among the top five.
This regional cross-country meets start Friday, and the state cross-country meet is scheduled for Nov. 9 in Cave Creek. Baker will take his seven best runners to state if the team qualifies. Only then will he stress what they've had on their minds all season long.
"The pressure is on the present team. You don't want to be the team that breaks the streak," he says. "There's a lot of tradition riding on this."
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Online: Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert's blog: beyondthemesas.com