I spoke with Dustin Martin, program director for Wings of America and co-founder of Sovereign Original Land Owners (SOLO), while he visited New York City. Dustin graduated from Columbia University in 2011 where he ran cross-country and track and started S.O.L.O. He recently returned to his home state of New Mexico to work at Wings of America, a non-profit aimed at enhancing the lives of Native American youth using running as a catalyst.
Mac: Tell me about the shirt you are wearing?
Dustin: Our “pREZerve The Peaks” tee. So above Flagstaff, Arizona we have mountains that are sacred to our people. For years there have been battles about how the land should be used. In the early 40s or 50s, the forest service repurposed the land for a ski area. Then a larger road was proposed. The road was built and Arizona Snowbowl continued to grow. There have been Natives that have vociferously opposed the development every step of the way.
Today the fight revolves around the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to allow the ski area to pump in reclaimed sewer water from Flagstaff. They plan to use it to make artificial snow on the mountain. For years now, a number of Native people from surrounding tribes have been fighting this particular project alongside other concerned non-Native activists. The 9th circuit court of appeals in San Francisco heard the case that sought to nullify the permit issued by the Forest Service. Initially a panel of 3 judges ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and the project was halted. But not long after, the full court overturned its earlier decision saying it resulted from a flawed reading of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Their ruling has been appealed twice. Both times the appeal has been denied. The last time the case was heard was last February.
Now the pipeline is being built. Many die hard opponents have been arrested in the last few months for standing in the way of “progress”—a few have literally chained themselves to the construction equipment. Though I admit I don’t have the balls to do something like that, this shirt is S.O.L.O.’s attempt to do something to make sure that people keep thinking and talking about this complicated issue. Apart from Natives’ concern about the desecration of sacred land, there are much larger questions of safety and sustainability that need to be further considered for all people’s sake. I love to ski and have skied on this mountain, but can it be right to start spewing wastewater all over its slopes because natural snow isn’t falling like skiers want it to? Why should humans feel obliged to intervene in that process? No one knows exactly how this is going to affect the surrounding ecosystem. How are unfiltered bacteria going to affect the delicate terrain? Kids playing around eating “reclaimed” snow?
Mac: Would you be okay if it was a pipeline with purified water?
Dustin: No. Humans compensating for unfavorable weather conditions can only lead to more chauvinistic policy that will deplete and destroy our country’s natural resources while promoting unsustainable growth. I think the San Francisco Peaks project sets a precedent that can only lead to more brazen displays of disrespect for our land in the name of profit.
Mac: What are your thoughts on the election?
Dustin: Natives need to realize that one administration can change everything for Native communities. More importantly, it doesn’t have to be one administration, it can be one policy change. Our dependence on Federal dollars could easily become an Achilles heel if opponents of treaty rights find their way to Washington. Unless we continue to create tribal enterprises, we’ll be vulnerable.
Mac: You spoke about creating sustainable tribal enterprises. What are your thoughts on the Indian Gaming act?
Dustin: The communities that are small and cohesive benefit the most. It’s easy for them to target a population to give back to. It makes sense. The Navajo Nation finally passed gaming after voting it down twice. Where exactly is that money going to go though? There are over 250,000 Navajos and the conversation always leads back to “where is our cut?”. I think it is sad. It’s sad that this tool was given to Natives to proliferate sovereignty and self-determination. I see it creating a lot of unnecessary greed. Since the Pueblo communities opened casinos, some have kicked out longtime community members over issues of blood quantum or because they only married into the Pueblo [rather than being born into the community]. It’s sad because that sort of exclusivity can create a lot of bickering and counterproductive energy in a small group of people.
Then again, I can’t completely demonize these businesses because many do their communities a great service by funding tribal infrastructure, health programs and non-profits. When there is a source of revenue, and you can reinvest back into the community, it makes a big difference. I just wish Natives didn’t have to be associated with the stigmas that surround casino profits. Besides gaming, Navajos have an awe-inspiring land base that we have to take advantage of beyond mining and drilling. I wish there was a bigger industry focused on Native-driven cultural and eco-tourism. The Hopis and Pueblos do a good job with their cultural centers, feast days and dances. But again, these are smaller nuclear communities.
For the Navajos, as a much larger tribe, it’s more difficult. Everyone wants to know that their voice is being heard and that things are fair. Unfortunately we operate in a system that hasn’t lent itself to transparency in the past. The conversation needs to change from “where’s my cut?” to “how am I helping responsibly represent and progress our people?”.
Mac: How do you see the next generation of Native leaders developing?
Dustin: Part of me knows it’s presumptuous to talk about the up and coming leaders of Native country in a stuffy library in NYC. But I like to think the perspective I have gained on the world by spending time outside of the Southwest has helped me recognize how wealthy and blessed my people are in so many ways that folks at home don’t always appreciate. I think that young people in Native country should take the opportunity to live and learn somewhere else, but in the end they will know where home is and where their soul feels most rewarded and comfortable.
Those that “get out” should never be made to feel guilty about their success or the opportunity they find. They’ll be less likely to go back home to share the knowledge they absorbed elsewhere. That’s the opposite of what we need. I hope that in the future, young, well-traveled Natives are able to give their local communities enough global perspective to understand how important their traditional knowledge can be for the world at large; not just their reservations. I believe there is a way to share and proliferate that knowledge without forsaking its sacredness.
Mac: Did you notice any prejudice when you went back home after graduating from Columbia?
Dustin: To a certain extent, yes. I’m half white and people notice that immediately. The great equalizer for me has always been running. People see me run, and then it is no [racial] questions asked. That’s what inspires me. We need to encourage our youth to find a passion, something that they can share with the world or their community. No one will question their identity because it’s not a question of how Native he or she is or when was the last time they lived on the reservation. Instead it’s like, “wow, I was really inspired by what I just saw, how can I get there too?”. And that’s the mentality that we move on. Rather than “what percent is he?”. Some people on reservations are more interested in questioning a young person’s pre-determined identity [clans, blood quantum, hometown, etc.] than helping them find their passion or destiny. I like to think I’m helping foster a new generation of leaders that can encourage both younger and older peers to be more open minded and inquisitive about how their culture relates and compares to that of the rest of the world.
It makes me sad when I see people deny interaction with a new and interesting person or place because of their deep-seated allegiance to where they come from. We need to create more opportunities for our Native kids to test their boundaries and then find refuge in their traditional lands and ways. I’m lucky because I’ve had every opportunity in the world to do just that. Run at a private high school, go to Columbia University, work for Wings of America. I understand that not every kid will get or want opportunities like these. That’s okay. But those with drive and ambition shouldn’t feel limited in their passion by finances or jealousy. So long as these young ones maintain a connection with their homelands, they will keep their people moving forward without neglecting the lessons of their past. That being said, they shouldn’t feel like they have to exactly echo the voice of their elders.
When I first stepped into the Wings job, I was very keen on prefacing each of our programs with a message I have heard countless times from my elders: “Running is important because it is linked to our cultural heritage. Navajo’s run because of THIS.” I found that a lot of kids these days don’t want to hear that, so spelled out, so black and white. Culture isn’t something you learn by defining it. Culture is something you learn by creating it, perpetuating it, experiencing it, those words and definitions that people spell out confine us. No one is participating in culture when we preface the conversation or activity with “We are doing this so we can be cultural”. Now I let the kids run first.
Mac: What have you got in that tube?
This is a print that I completed my last year of college. I carved the plate out of a huge block of plywood. It’s essentially a map for my interpretation of some of the images that come to light in the early stages of the Navajo creation story. It was inspired by my exposure to some of academia’s records of Navajo religion and cosmology.
From the turn of the 20th century until around the 1930s, a number of white religious and linguistic scholars collected many stories and images from Navajo hataathlii’s, or medicine men. Many of these academics operated under the assumption that the rituals they were collecting would soon be lost along with the people. In the anthropological world their work was called “salvage ethnography”. Their translations eventually became books that synthesized Navajo origin stories as linear texts with silkscreened diagrams to replace the massive sandpaintings that traditionally illustrate a ceremony. I came across tattered copies of these books in Columbia’s libraries and was entranced. After doing some research I found that these books were very old and very rare. I felt like it was my responsibility to engage with them and do something to revive the enclosed stories and images.
Traditionally, I knew that the images and stories I was working with were never supposed to be printed. I felt uneasy pressing elements of the texts to paper once more but rationalized my transgression with hope that my heart was in the right place. Though the Navajo people are far from lost, it has become difficult for young people to learn our religion in the traditional way. In the old days a hataathlii would take an apprentice and pass songs down to their student from the time they were very small until they were well into adulthood. But our modern world makes such a learning process very difficult, if not impossible. It’s important that there are other ways for Navajos to learn traditional teachings to help guide them on the path to beauty. Even the oldest songs and sandpaintings teach us that change and evolution amongst people and societies are inevitable. I take that lesson to heart. Everyday I do my best to face the challenges of tomorrow with an eye to my past AND the courage to evolve. Wings, S.O.L.O., running, art- each is a way for me to put the past in conversation with the present to create the most genuine products I know how to.