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               The Santa Clara Men’s Track Team / Photo credit: Melissa Woody

March 2014 marked Santa Clara University’s 10th consecutive year partnering with Amizade in the Navajo Nation for their Spring Break Immersion program. While the spring break program has been insightful and inspiring to many Santa Clara students, student athletes are often unable to participate due to scheduling.

In December 2014, Santa Clara decided to expand their programming and sent the men’s track team to Tuba City. Their captain, Kenny Van Tilburg, reflects on the team’s expectations for the program going in:

“It seemed to me that the guys on the team were half expecting this to be another fun trip with the team where they could bond more and maybe have some activities to do on the side. It was clear that as the trip went on, though, they quickly realized it was going to be a much deeper experience. A lot of the guys on the team have never really experienced poverty or social injustice. It was clear in their words, actions, and points of view that what we were witnessing on the reservation really affected their mindset. They now felt responsible and also felt like they were in solidarity with the Navajo people and wanted to share in their journey.”

While in Tuba City, the track team participated with the Navajo community in various ways. In addition to listening and learning about the Navajo culture, the team painted the home of an elderly community member, organized a Jingle 5K Fun Run for the community with prizes and entertainment, and even helped out with the Tuba City Annual Christmas Lights Parade.

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                         Morning runs in Tuba City /Photo credit: Melissa Woody

Running plays an important role in the Navajo community and culture and proved to be a unique and important point of connection between the track team and the Navajo community. The team’s regime of morning training runs went hand-in-hand with the Navajo tradition of waking up early to greet the new day with a run. The team rose each morning to run, joined by Amizade Site Director and avid runner, Melissa Woody. The group was also joined by Melissa’s twin sons, competitive college-level runners themselves (one of whom recently competed in the Boston Marathon) and daughter Mariah, a rising star on her middle school track team.

According to Melissa, this practice of running to the east each morning to greet the rising sun is also about asking for a healthy life, good thoughts and intentions. Running also plays a role in both Navajo male and female coming of age ceremonies.  Through running, she adds, “the group seemed to grasp the importance of self-identity, and to slow down and take in the beauty of nature and its valuable teachings.”

Kenny reflects on the powerful impact that this experience in Tuba City had on the track team: “I definitely think the biggest takeaway for all of us was the awareness that even within our own country of the United States, our history and current state of affairs easily leads to people being oppressed and marginalized for really no good reason. All of us felt responsible and slightly angry at what we heard and saw. Yet, many of us saw great qualities of the Navajo culture and noticed their close community and kind hearts. We were able to realize that even though our cultures aren’t the same, deep down we all want love and happiness and we were able to receive that.”

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               Exploring the Navajo Museum / Photo credit: Melissa Woody

For more information on our programs and partnerships in the Navajo Nation, check out our video here.