When Craig Curley takes his first strides in this weekend’s Falmouth Road Race, he’ll be doing so with the strength of his nation behind him.
A member of the Navajo Tribe, Curley grew up in Kinlichee, Arizona, a small town located in the northeast corner of the state on the Navajo Reservation.
Family came first for for Curley growing up. He spent a lot of his formative years helping his family on their sheep farm. Running was something that evolved naturally for a young Curley, simply exploring his home as a kid.
Even as a child, Curley could tell his athleticism put him in rare company, but he had trouble finding level competition. The problem he ran into was a lack of opportunity to match his growing talent.
“I knew I was talented in (athletics), I just never had the opportunity,” Curley said. “Every time I saw the Olympics they would say ‘The best is right there’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s the best there, but I always thought there’s someone out there that’s the best that’s maybe working two jobs’ or something like that.”
It’s a problem that exists for many on the reservation. Curley grew up in a time and place where many don’t have immediate access to electricity or even running water. The emphasis was placed on education and helping family, rather than sports. The lack of infrastructure made it tough to participate in any organized sports.
It’s that lack of opportunity and infrastructure on Cape Cod, that led Mashpee resident, and member of the Wampanoag Tribe, Paula Peters, to begin her involvement with the Falmouth Road Race. She put together a team to raise money for housing for members of her tribe and now is helping Curley make his mark on the race.
After getting connected, and getting Curley into the Falmouth Road Race, Peters, who has hosted runners for over a decade, decided to host Curley this week. An altruistic offer between members of two different tribes.
“For me, being able to find a place, Paula and (her husband) Mark (Harding) inviting me into their home, I’m grateful for it.” Curley said.
That welcoming attitude underscores a bond that exists between indigenous people. Regardless of what tribe a person is a member of, there’s a feeling of wanting to help each other. That feeling is shared by Curley, who said whenever he’s en route to a race in the United States and drives through a reservation, he’ll stop to buy gas to put some money into the tribe and see other members of his community.
Running is woven into the very fabric of indigenous culture, Curley said. Long before the days of cell phones and the postal service, the way different tribes communicated with each other was by sending a messenger on foot, sometimes traveling over 100 miles.
“There were always people in the community that were considered messenger runners,” Peters said. “That was a very, very honored, well-respected position in a tribe.”
Curley feels that connection when he runs. He prioritizes the connection with the earth and views it not only as a workout, but also a spiritual experience.
Even with that connection, and the rich history of running in tribal culture, Curley is one of just a few distance athletes. Instead of feeling that as a weight he has to carry on his shoulders, he opts for a different perspective.
“I think that pressure is the love,” Curley said. “For me that’s a huge motivator. All these people trusted me, and to me that’s a serious thing. So when I’m lining up, there’s nothing that can faze me.”
Curley has big dreams as an athlete. Now sponsored by the Danish apparel company ‘SAYSKY,’ Curley’s calendar is filled for the rest of year. He’ll compete in three more races, the final of which will be especially important for him as he vies for a spot on the United States National Team while competing in a cross-country event in California.
Even though he has Olympic aspirations, Curley’s dreams reach far beyond his sport, and are rooted not just in personal success, but in tribal growth.
“There’s a lot of things that need to be done, like pinning up old sheep corrals, and horse corrals, and fixing erosion. For me that’s where I see myself,” said Curley. “Getting a big tractor and getting to work.”
He envisions a revamped space to build a summer camp on the reservation. One where he not only can invite young runners to train, but also create an inclusive cultural space for tribal members of all ages to learn and connect with their heritage.
“I know some people don’t know how to pick up a barbed-wire fence when it’s broken, I can show them how to do that,” Curley said. “I can show them how to roof a house if they need to, because those basic needs are not known anymore.”
He holds his heritage close. The sheep that he once felt ashamed of as a child are now a great source of personal pride. He embraces where he grew up even as running takes him all over the world, and this weekend, takes him to the shores of Cape Cod.
Contact André Simms at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @that1guyandre.