Dustin Martin is the executive director of Wings of America, an organization that empowers Native American youth and their families through running. Native American runners are some of the best the world has ever seen, and Wings wants to continue that legacy. They introduce elementary and middle school youth to the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of running and help enable them to compete in high school and beyond. Whether at local races, fitness camps, or national level track meets, Wings creates community around running for Native people in a positive way.
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A member of the Navajo Nation, Dustin grew up in Gallup, New Mexico. “I had parents that always had us outside,” he recalls. “If there was free time, we were generally outside, riding mountain bikes or riding horses or just walking and seeing new places. To grow up in a place like the American Southwest where there’s so many places where you can go freely and feel safe, I got the best of that and I really appreciate that.”
Although Dustin spent so much time outdoors, his earliest memories of running aren’t of him running – they’re of his mother being out running in the morning. “Certainly I am a runner because of my mom’s example,” he says. “To hear her leave early in the morning with the dogs and just that sound of clanking leashes, and there she goes out the door. Just being aware that I feel so warm and safe in this bed, but I could – and someday I will – be out there running. I don’t remember when I internalized that or felt like I would be a runner as well, but I have that memory of listening to her leave and go out the door into the forest and admiring her because it was somewhere dark and cold, and just being in awe of the dedication that she had for the thing that she loved, which is running, and and wanting that same grit myself.”
Dustin’s mom was a high school track coach, and her students were another source of running inspiration. He remembers, “I would tag along with her to practice and watch runners that I now know were Wings runners, but at the time I didn’t know anything other than the fact that they were fast and I wanted to be like them.”
He got to travel to track meets with them, and as he says, “What 10, 11, 12-year-old wouldn’t idolize those high schoolers that they got to spend time with?” As a result, from early on his running ambitions were very much focused on competition. That served him well as he went on to an NCAA Division-1 running career at Columbia University, but eventually he got injured, and “It wasn’t fun anymore, it wasn’t enriching anymore, because it was so focused on just results.”
Fortunately for Dustin, he never got to the point so common among college athletes of confounding his self-worth with his competitive achievements. “Having the connection to running as a cultural activity and something that had worth for Native people and Native youth, always kept that in perspective for me,” he explains. He would go back to New Mexico during the summer and work for Wings of America, coordinating running and fitness camps. He admits that his college training probably suffered at times because instead of running and doing rehab, he was “playing games with Wings’ kids and going to the corners of the reservation that I’d never been to before.” But, he goes on, “that’s what saved running for me.”
Wings’ high school runners have captured more than 30 national titles since they first sponsored a men and women’s team in 1988. A Wings elite team for post-collegiate runners is being developed to help them take running beyond their college careers. But in addition to creating a competitive experience and opportunity for Native youth, Dustin wants to “ensure that we also focus on the intrinsic good of the activity and how it will help us safeguard the knowledge that our communities have related to, to the land and also to our history.”
That may be the most powerful part of Wings of America’s mission. Dustin wound up going to high school in Albuquerque. He ran for a private school, but still qualified to be on the Wings national team. He got to travel to New York City and run at the USA Cross Country Championships. “It was a great reminder to me just how closely linked my love and passion for running were to my cultural heritage and to Gallup, to Navajo land. To run with those young people, who some of them I had viciously competed against just a couple of weeks earlier in New Mexico, and for us to come together and rally around our shared pride in Native running history and our desire to perpetuate that legacy was super empowering. It humbled me and helped me realize that it was part of my roots, and that even though I was doing everything in my power to run fast and earn a college scholarship to quote unquote, get out of New Mexico, I couldn’t, and that that activity and my presence in that activity would not be the same without my cultural past.”
For Dustin, what really hits home the most is when he sees the multi-generational connections to Wings of America. ”That’s what’s so inspiring to me about Wings and why I’m so dedicated to it, because you’re seeing that if you create that intention or help create that intention in a young person, it just has waves through their entire lifetime and into the next generation. Those people serve as inspirations for their community members and also our witnesses to the change in our landscape, the change in our environment, and we need both in Indian country. We need those people to inspire, we need them to lead. But we also need people who are appreciative and cognizant of our land base and are there to serve as witnesses for changes that it may experience and undergo.”
Photo credit: Benjamin Weingart
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“Thank you” to Dustin. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the show.