A new documentary, Run to the East, about three American Indian high school distance runners and Wings of America participants, made its debut at The Arizona International Film Festival in Tucson on April 10. Produced by Moxie Pictures, which has represented acclaimed film directors such as Wes Anderson and Cameron Crowe, the documentary is now airing at film festivals across the country, next at the Indie Spirit Film Festival in Colorado Springs, Colorado on April 15 and 16.
The 87-minute documentary tracks three high school seniors and Wings participants: Chantel “Tails” Hunt (Navajo), Thomas Martinez (Navajo) and Dillon Shije (Zia Pueblo, NM) high school seniors competing in national track meets and vying for college scholarships. The film was inspired by a 2008 The New York Times article about Navajo youth runners overcoming the poor health conditions that afflict a disproportionate number of residents on the 27,000-acre Navajo reservation. The article also touches on their involvement in the nonprofit organization Wings of America, which educates American Indian youth against drug abuse and addiction and encourages them to succeed. Wings of America also leads a competitive group of American Indian runners from reservations around the country. “You say Wings of America to anyone in the running community—it’s synonymous with the best Native American runners,” said Eric Heins, the cross-country and distance coach at Northern Arizona University, reported the Times.
The documentary seeks to defy the “negative stereotypes of American Indians,” such as drug use, alcoholism and violence, regularly reinforced in western media, according to the film’s website. “People have stereotypes about us not being healthy and going down the wrong road as far as alcohol and drugs,” said Dillon Shije, a Navajo runner and senior at Sandia Prep High School at the time of filming, on the film’s website. “I want to prove to people that we are still here and can still be as fast.”
As the film’s website says, “Endurance running has long been a key spiritual element of Native American cultures—one through which individuals can demonstrate strength and resilience.”
Thomas Martinez, a senior at Navajo Pine High School at the time of filming, knows that perseverance. “My dad always told me, ‘Run through life.’ What he means by that is, if you run, it will get you through life,” Martinez said.