One group is building trails and using trail-based activities to promote health, family, youth empowerment and a love of the outdoors on the Navajo Nation. And, yes, it’s working.

On a cold March morning some 450 trail runners are trickling toward a loose collection of canvas tents, fire bins and a few traditional Navajo huts called Hogans on the edge of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. To the east, the iconic buttes known as the Mittens rise out of the desert valley. A man in a black cowboy hat holding a microphone is welcoming the crowd in Navajo and English.

“Good morning,” the man says. “We are glad you are here on this beautiful day.”

It’s Larry Holiday, a Navajo tour guide who grew up not far from where he is standing.

The runners, adolescents to 60 somethings and beyond, wait for their start times by warming up at the fires or inside a Hogan.  Some will run 13 miles, others 32 and some even 50 miles through parts of the Diné Bikéyah, Navajo sacred lands, on the park’s dirt roads and little-known trails.

It’s all made possible by Navajo YES, The Youth Empowerment Services of the Diné Bikéyah.

Jason Bagody sets his pace for his 50-kilometer (32 miles) run throughout Monument Valley, just one of 16 events Navajo YES will host in 2019Brandon Mathis

Navajo YES

Tom Riggenbach, the Race Director and Executive Director of Navajo YES, can’t make it 20 feet without someone grabbing his attention. He briskly darts from tent to tent, meeting with officials, runners and runner’s family members, plus a few stops at his car to grab a mouthful of food.

The run is just one component of an organization that Riggenbach and others founded in 1994 to promote health and wellness on the reservation.  A teacher who landed in the Navajo Nation in 1988, Riggenbach fell in love with the landscape and the people who lived there.

“Originally we were mainly youth programs — backpacking and biking with kids, which we still do a lot of,” he says. “But now we expanded to include the race series and big trail projects in communities across the rez.”

Lemix Benally shares his excitement after his half marathon finish in Monument Valley in March.Brandon Mathis

Their mission is clear: to use the outdoors to create a path to healthy lifestyle choices and activities for some 350,000 Navajo tribal members. Socio-economic and health hurdles persist on the reservation and the way Riggenbach sees it is simple.

“If you’re a young person growing up in a community where there are trails and events going on and there’s going to be all kinds of positive things surrounding you, you’re much more apt to adopt that healthy lifestyle,” he says. “If you’re growing up in a community where there isn’t much going on, no trails or parks or healthy choices or role models for those types of things, it’s harder.”

Tom Riggenbach came to the Navajo Nation in 1988, and is now executive director of Navajo YES. While the organization was founded on youth empowerment, it’s growing to include all ages. “Look at this,” he says. “You’ve got kids cheering on their parents, grandparents. Everyone comes out for this.”Brandon Mathis

Today, with the help of staff and a network of volunteers, Navajo YES hosts several events — 16 so far for 2019 across more than 27,400 square miles of tribal land — as well as support efforts like the Navajo Trails Initiative, a grand plan to build and maintain trails and trailheads throughout the Navajo Nation. Based on community needs, some trails will be far-reaching backcountry networks, others will be tourism-based economic drivers. Some will simply be a safer route to school for children.

“We’ve got this huge trail project going for all of the different communities and we have events just trying to get people active,” Riggenbach says. “With the race series, part of it is to allow people from outside or wherever that want to experience the rez to see places that maybe they wouldn’t see, but it’s also to get local families and community members out and maybe to hang out with other folks from other communities, and to just get out and enjoy the country.”

Riggenbach says it’s also a way for young people to appreciate where they live.

“We talk to kids in Tuba City,” he says. “Where do you go hiking? ‘Flagstaff.’ Talk to kids in Teec Nos Pos: Where do you like to go? ‘Durango.’ It’s always somewhere else. We’re trying to show people there’s a lot of great stuff right under our nose, right in our own backyard. Go out and experience that.”

John Kinsel, Sr. — a Navajo Code Talk, H&S Company, 9th Marine 3rd Marine Division 1942-45 — greets Christian Gering in recognition of his podium finish at a Navajo YES race in Monument Valley in March.Brandon Mathis

Planting seeds

Competitive runner Christian Gering has matured from a rambunctious youth to elite athlete traveling the world, all because of running. He says a health movement is something important for the tribe as a whole.

“I think it’s a good thing what Navajo YES is doing because in some way it’s expressing that tribal sovereignty, and at the same time, it’s promoting health and wellness,” Gering says. “Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, has always been adamant on running and he wants to get more of his community members out here.”

More than 3,000 people live on the Navajo Nation, which spans across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Places like Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park on the Arizona/Utah border have tremendous cultural significance.Brandon Mathis

Gering too believes providing recreational options can be used to counteract many of the modern challenges on the reservation, and supports Nez’s strategy to fight them.

While Gering was on the trail, his partner Andrea Stanley of Santa Fe stood near. To her, anything to get young people outdoors is good measure.

“I think youth in general, native or non-native, need more things to do outside,” she says. “With technology we’re so influenced to stay indoors and be on our phones, so the more opportunities we can give to provide access to the outdoors, I think that (means) more people are going to be able to go outside.”

Like Riggenbach, Stanley says there is room for the entire family. The outdoors is for everyone. 

“That’s important,”  she says. “Not everyone is just going to be into trail running or mountain biking, but if you give that variety then people can find what they’re into.”

A flute player sits among one of the Mittens in Monument Valley.Brandon Mathis

Beyond giving Navajo Nation members an opportunity to adopt healthy lifestyles, Holiday says Navajo YES events help visitors learn about his culture. At the start and finish line at each race, Holiday recites a prayer in Navajo.

“We want them to see our traditions,” he says. “We have all these activities and celebrations. We enjoy it. We like to see more, see new people. New faces. People like you.”