Native-specific active lifestyle stories were created to share what’s working in Indian Country.

During the spring and summer of 2017, NB3F worked with James Bell Associates to conduct in-depth interviews with three of NB3F’s community partners (grantees): Inter Tribal Sports (CA), the STAR School (AZ), and the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project (NM).

We are honored to share the stories of three community partners that utilize the strengths of their communities to increase youth participation in physical activities. The active lifestyle stories describe (1) the evolution of the programs or initiatives, (2) the resources each program needed, and (3) the impact the programs had on their children, youth, and community. For more information about the featured community partners or their programs, please contact Michelle Gutierrez at

The third story in the series focuses on the STAR School, a public charter school serving primarily Native American students living near Flagstaff and Leupp, AZ. The STAR school opened in 2001 and currently serves a maximum of 140 students from preschool through eighth grade. STAR School is known for being the first all off-grid, solar- and wind-powered charter school in the country, and it prides itself in providing place-based, culturally responsive education.

A Children-Inspired Program

As part of its focus on healthy living, the STAR School has long participated in the Navajo-Hopi Athletic Junior High League that brings together schools in northern Arizona. When the league decided to start a pee wee division for children as young as kindergarten, the preschoolers at the STAR School took notice and expressed their interest in running. The STAR School saw an opportunity to instill a love of physical activity at the earliest age and launched the Pee Wee Running Club for preschoolers (children aged 3– 5).

The STAR School Pee Wee Running Club brings together preschoolers’ natural desire to be active with their interest in sports that are normally reserved for older kids, to teach them healthy living skills and traditional Native American practices. The club meets two to three times during the school week for about 90 minutes after classes let out. The group meets throughout the school year, except for during the winter months, when it gets too cold to run outside. Participants start with stretching, go for a 2- to 4-mile run/walk around the school, and end with a cool down and core and leg workout. The coach creates several routes around the school, of varying distances, and each meeting she picks the distance that the group will strive for. The children often run/walk in pairs or groups of four based on their speed, but the coach always tries to have them finish together, telling the runners, “Nobody came in first, nobody came in last; we all came in together.”

Culture of Running for Native Americans

Running is culturally significant to tribes in northern Arizona, and that importance is integrated into the running club in a few ways. The club has had parents come to talk with the children about the cultural significance of running to the Hopi and Navajo tribes. For the Hopi, tribal members historically ran for practical (e.g., hunting, transportation) and ceremonial reasons. Hopi people felt running “banished unhappiness, strengthened the body, and rejuvenated one’s energy.”12 The Navajo traditionally view a morning run to the east as a way to wake up the body, greet the morning sun, and get all the body’s energies ready for the day. The coaches also teach the children that running is inherent in their bodies because they are Native—that their bodies are capable of running and they are expected to run as a part of their culture.

Coaches also encourage the children to run so they are prepared for the Navajo Puberty Ceremony, a ceremony dedicated to celebrating the maturity of girls. Each morning during this four-day ceremony, the young woman who has gone through puberty runs to the east as the sun is rising, and then runs back. This practice ensures the woman will continue to be strong and active throughout adulthood. Often a group of children and sometimes adults run after the young woman, yelling encouragement to make sure she keeps running. Young women who go through the ceremony are called Kinaalda, meaning the embodiment of Changing Woman, a Navajo deity. While the ceremony is for young women, young men are also involved. As the coach explains to the boys, “When you’re chasing Kinaalda, you can’t pass her because, you know, you have to let her get her stride, and you have to learn how to breathe to keep up with this person.”

Teaching the cultural significance of running to the children aligns with the way that culture is infused into all aspects of the STAR School’s programming and curriculum. In addition to the Pee Wee Running Club, the STAR School encourages healthy living by providing and teaching about healthy food and beverages. In another program, the school has the students prepare traditional Navajo meals once a month and the staff provide food demonstrations to the families, with the goal of encouraging healthy eating. They also encourage students to eat fry bread in moderation, explaining that although fry bread was given to Navajos during the Long Walk[1] as a means of survival, it isn’t good for their bodies. The school promotes healthy beverages and cultural traditions by not providing soda on campus. When explaining to students why they don’t have soda at the school, the coordinator relates, “A long time ago, Navajos didn’t have access to soda . . . they drank water . . . they made Kool-Aid out of sumac berries . . . they just added honey to the sumac, and they drank that.”

Sustaining the Pee Wee Running Club

The running club relies heavily on existing resources at the school. The club is staffed by one adult and only needs land to run on, snacks, and water; however, finding a volunteer to coach the club can be challenging due to existing obligations for teachers and parents. The school is now searching to fill this position and is reaching out to former STAR students as possible coaches. During running club, the students are encouraged to stay hydrated and are fortunate to have access to well water from the Coconino Aquifer, which lies about 1,400 feet below the school. The water is treated with UV light when it is pulled from the ground, and the students love the taste of it. The club is also fortunate to exist in a close-knit community where the coaches often know the parents of children in the running club and can use those relationships to encourage and sustain participation. Also, one community member has run several marathons and often volunteers at and sponsors youth running events.

In addition to these community assets, the club receives support from partner agencies. The Indian Health Service unit in Winslow, AZ, often comes to the school to assist with fitness testing and health fairs, and provides incentives for participation, such as water bottles and pedometers. Another partner is the Navajo Coordinated Approach to School Health, which provides diabetes prevention education and activities at the school, such as promoting engaging in 150 minutes of physical activity per week. These health activities and resources, coupled with the Pee Wee Running Club, create a culture of health and wellness for children at the STAR School.

Capturing the Club’s Impact

The school has measured the success of the Pee Wee Running Club through observations and surveys. In the past, surveys have asked children about their satisfaction with the club and their eating and activity habits at home. They have found the children like the running club because it’s fun, it’s an opportunity to socialize with friends, and it’s competitive. The club receives a lot of positive feedback from children, parents, and grandparents. A former coach said she can see the results of the club when the children start losing weight or running longer and faster. She also measures the success of the program by how many “repeaters” come back each year. In the future, the school would like to supply runners with digital fitness trackers to allow them to see exactly how many miles they’ve run throughout the week or how many calories they’ve burned while running. These devices may also encourage the children to be more active at home.

Here are some ways the Pee Wee Running Club has made a difference for students at the STAR School:

  • Increasing physical activity outside of the club—The school staff have noticed that the children who participate in the running club often run and race around the playground on their own time. One staff member said, “I see them racing . . . around the playground, making their own courses. And they’re like, ‘I’m checking my breathing.’ We teach [them] how to check their pulse rates, and I still see them doing this on the playground, even off-season when we don’t have anything going on.”
  • Increasing activity among family members—Presenting running as a traditional and healthy activity motivates children to be active when they’re at home and to encourage their family members to be active with them. A former coach said she would tell the children, “Okay, it’s the weekend. Make sure you guys, at least, put a mile in with your grandma, grandpa. Try to get something, even a quarter of a mile.” Then the next week she would ask them about their activity at home, and they would tell her which family member they ran with. One girl even said she ran 8 miles with her aunt. Another staff member said a parent told her, “My daughter is encouraging me to . . . run with her. As a result, our entire family has decided to start doing these . . . 5K runs, starting out small.” And now the families are participating in longer races like marathons.
  • Improving the children’s health and confidence—A former coach feels the running club helps children lose weight. She recalled, “Once I had this little boy, he was so excited . . . because he had lost so much weight that he said, ‘My mom can pick me up now.’ And even . . . his grandma was telling me that his mom was so happy. He was so happy that he got smaller clothes instead of the big-boy clothes.” In addition, participants said the running club makes them feel “good” and teaches them to “try [their] personal best.”
  • Creating better students—When asked if she had any advice for other schools, a staff member replied, “Any kind of physical activity that is implemented by a school is going to have a positive effect on the students’ overall health . . . When they’re healthy, they pay more attention in class. When they’re healthy, they absorb more of the information that we’re giving them . . . those are the kinds of benefits that I think we do see [from] this.”


[1] In 1864, the U.S. Army forcibly removed Navajos and Mescalero Apaches from their homeland and made them march to Fort Sumner, about 300 miles away.