Running With the Wings of America


The Boston Marathon was celebrating multiple things this past Monday – 1) the 120th running of the marathon; 2) the 50th anniversary of Bobbi Gibb becoming the first female to complete the Boston Marathon; and 3)  the celebration of the Native American history associated with the Boston Marathon.  Native Americans have influenced the history of the Boston Marathon, where most famously influencing of the name “Heartbreak Hill” from the 1936 race where Narragansett Indian Ellison “Tarzan” Brown used that hill to pass his competition and go on to win the first of two Boston Marathon titles.

While the press focused more on honoring Gibbs breaking the glass ceiling, the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) honored their Native American history by holding a free, public symposium this past Friday, “Native American Running: Culture, Health, Sport”.  The BAA co-sponsored the event with Harvard University and the Peabody Museum.  The event included the 1964 Olympic 10,000m champion Billy Mills, “Born to Run” author Christopher McDougall, the ultra-marathon legend Arnulfo Quimare (who was introduced to the world in “Born to Run”),  the 1983 Boston Marathon champion Rob de Castella, and one HepsNation alumnus who is heavily involved with fellow Native Americans in the sport of running.

After we published our story about the 120th Boston Marathon on Tuesday, we received the following email from Suzanne Walmsley, a Harvard alumna and Youth and Community Engagement Director for the BAA, with more information about the Native American event and HepsNation’s affiliation with it.

“I wanted to let you know that another Heps track athlete was in action at the Boston Marathon this weekend.  Dustin Martin (Columbia ’11) led a team of Wings of America alum in the marathon.  He also participated in activities throughout the weekend celebrating Native American running traditions and Boston Marathon Champions in his role as Director of the Wings of America Program. He finished in 2:36:08.”

Wings of America is a New Mexico-based nonprofit that promotes the sport as a way to empower young Native Americans.  Martin – who is half Navajo and grew up in Albuquerque, N.M. – joined the group when he was in high school and stayed involved with the group throughout his time at Columbia as he volunteered during his summer vacations as a facilitator for the group’s fitness camps.

It just made sense for Martin to continue to give back to Wings of America and the Native American sporting community.  Without this program, Martin would not have had the opportunity to get recruited by Columbia.  In his junior year in high school, Martin competed as a member of the 2006 Wings of America running team for the USA Cross Country Championships that was held at Van Cortlandt Park, which gave the Columbia the opportunity to see him compete and ultimately recruit him for the cross country/track teams.  He joined the group as a staff member after graduating in 2011 and he is now the Program Director.martin-boston-marathon

Martin felt that last Friday’s symposium was a great way to continue the discussion of Native Americans in sport.  “It was a great honor to follow up a conversation between Billy Mills and Chief Oren Lyons in which they discussed the ways sport can be used as a vessel for opportunity, conversation, friendship and reconciliation,” Martin shared with us in an email. “Whether you’re talking about modern distance running or lacrosse, Native American people- especially Billy and Oren – have made invaluable contributions to the lore of each. Consequently, we (Natives) find ourselves occupying an unusual position of authority amongst enthusiasts of either sport. So I’m very thankful that Harvard University and the Boston Athletic Association thought to offer us a platform to share our stories and knowledge. Such opportunities provide moments of inspiration and emotion that foster understanding and cooperation between communities (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) that are often seen to be irreconcilably different.”

Martin also represented Wings of America in the race himself.  He finished 78th overall, but what meant more for him was the opportunity to run the race with six other Wings of America alumni: Sheyenne Lewis (bib number #17669), Tiffany McMaster (#22314), Caroline Sekaquaptewa (#8122), Andrew Yazzie (#108), Ronald Toledo (#9990), and Steven Ovah (#2133).  Each of these runners have been major contributors to the program, either as youth mentors or as elite-runners for the Wings of America-sponsored teams.

“It was an unforgettable experience that I was thrilled to share with friends I’ve made running over the course of nearly 15 years. Because I’m 26, it feels like that represents a lot of different “phases” of my life. From Wings-related friends and colleagues that inspired me to run as a 6th grader in Gallup, NM to teammates I had at Columbia, marathon weekend reunited me with both. The fact that it culminated in a good finish for me was just the icing on the cake. Though my debut was far from “elite”, I’m glad to say I “went to the well”.” Martin shared about his race.

Overall, Martin is optimistic about the future of Native Americans in sport and the continuing impact Wings of America will have on the First Peoples youth.  “When you start asking questions, the Wings “team” that ran at Boston really does stand as a testament to the incredible impact the organization has had in Indian Country.”

top photo courtesy of Wings of America; right photo courtesy of Suzanne Walmsley

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