Not long after dark on a September Saturday in 1930, a young Navajo boy ran away from the Leupp Boarding School, a Bureau of Indian Affairs institution outside Flagstaff, Arizona. A watchman on horseback spent all night looking for him, crisscrossing 30 miles of desert, but found nothing. The boy’s tracks, discovered the next morning, showed that he had avoided houses and roads and instead ran over slickrock and through soft sand, threading between cactus and sage.
Congressional records about the incident—from subsequent hearings on a host of Native American issues—noted the boy’s age (six) but not his name. They state that he weathered a sandstorm, passed at least one windmill, and at some point decided to lie down between two clumps of greasewood, making him imperceptible from more than a few feet away.
Five days later, his older brother led a search party that found him dead at this spot. He was 35 miles from the school, about halfway to his home near the Navajo reservation town of Indian Wells. The cause of death was listed as exhaustion.
For most of their history, Navajos have run away from school. Though other cases didn’t end as tragically, there were dozens if not hundreds of stories over the years about Navajo kids taking off like this. Beginning in the 1880s, the U.S. government had essentially begun conscripting Native Americans into boarding schools rife with tuberculosis, pinkeye, and other infectious diseases. While some parents and tribal elders resisted the government’s agents, more often they were ignored, threatened, or jailed. It was not unheard of for children to be hog-tied and thrown into truck beds. Principals assigned manual labor and, as part of an overarching mission to strip the students of tradition and culture, forbade them from using the Navajo language.
From the 1870s to the 1950s, fewer than half of all Navajo children attended school. It wasn’t until after World War II—thanks in part to returning Navajo soldiers’ newfound hunger for education and an influx of federal money—that enrollment spiked. Still, there were always students who ran.
In the 1960s, one particularly obstinate adolescent boy fled Leupp several times over the course of two years. He disliked the marching, the bed-making rules, the strict dress code. When he was a toddler, his grandparents had taught him dagha, the Navajo tradition of waking up and running in the dark to greet the sun. He took off at night and ran by moonlight from hilltop to hilltop, watching out for the Navajo police and school officials. He crawled through smoke holes in the roofs of hogans and ate whatever food he could find.
He would run roughly 100 miles over three nights, until he reached his home on the eastern edge of the Grand Canyon. Every time he made it back, his parents fed him a bowl of mutton stew and some fry bread. When the police or a school official showed up looking for him, his parents would always tell him the same thing: “OK, go back.”
We know the name of this boy: Allen Martin. Martin is now 62 and lives in Lechee, Arizona. He remembers that, after his third or fourth escape, school officials got fed up and told his parents they didn’t want him back. He was sent to Milford High School in Utah. He got married after graduating but dropped out of college and ended up working in a coal mine. He often warned his children, “Don’t be like your father. Get educated.”