A new film shines a spotlight on Native American high school runners.
Written by: Erin Beresini
This piece first appeared in the September issue of Competitor Magazine.
In February 2008, New York City-based film producer Henry Lu, 40, read a story in the New York Times that would send him on a 19-month documentary filmmaking journey deep into Native American running culture.
The Times’ story discussed the high rates of poverty, suicide attempts and Type 2 Diabetes on New Mexico’s Navajo Indian reservation and how some high school students used running to cope with the disease; many of whom won athletic scholarships to universities off the reservation.
Inspired by the students’ perseverance and intrigued by their culture, Lu put together a team, including the story’s author, to follow three Native American high school seniors through their final high school cross-country and track seasons. The result of Lu’s efforts is the feature-length film, “Run to the East,” now playing at film festivals across the country. Below, Lu, who never considered himself a runner, shares what he learned about running on the reservation. Find showing information at www.runtotheeast.com.
We caught up with Lu and spoke to him about the film.
Competitor: Why does running play such a big role in Native American culture?
Henry Lu: It is very natural for Native Americans to run. They are taught to run at a very young age and don’t need much to do it, just themselves and a pair of shoes. It’s the perfect way for the athletes we followed to go out on the reservation and rethink things. It’s the easiest sport for them and also the most fulfilling because they get so much out of it and it connects them to their heritage.
Did anything surprise you while making the film?
What fascinated me was the athletes’ families. They have such tight families with such a strong sense of family support and love, even if they don’t often show it. They spend a lot of time together and there’s no place to get away unless they’re running. It made me reconsider my relationship with my own family.
Does the tight family bond also make it difficult to leave the reservation to go to college?
It is a real catch-22. One of the reasons why a lot of Native American kids don’t make it past the first few months of college is they’re used to having a lot of support. It was a really amazing thing to see that our kids continued on; now they’ve all gone past their second year of college.
What do you hope viewers will get out of watching the film?
I hope the American audience understands how inspiring these kids are and how it is for them to make it to college. And I hope the Native American audience sees that they should dream. I’d love kids on the reservations to have a dream and go for it. It doesn’t mean they have to leave, but opportunities come through education, whether it be at a tribal college or a university. These three kids had a dream and they followed it and they’re still following it.
Do you consider yourself a runner now?
I’ll be honest; I run a lot more now because of those kids. I continue to be inspired by them. I felt guilty preaching about running and how far it can get you and not running myself, so I picked it up over the past few years. That’s another thing these kids have given me.
Erin Beresini is a contributor to Competitor Magazine.