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Outside the Lines

Native Americans

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 Notah Begay
Notah Begay explains why sports are more important on the reservation than in other communities.
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This three-day online series is a companion to the ESPN Outside the Lines television special on Native Americans and sports that originally appeared Nov. 16.

Tuesday, June 3
Long Walk: Navajo ways

They were called the Code Talkers, a group of about 375 Navajo Indians recruited to help win World War II. Four months removed from Pearl Harbor, after decades of trying to suppress the peoples' language, the U.S. government decided that the Navajo tongue was its secret weapon in preserving freedom and the American Way. The men were stationed around the Pacific and Europe to relay sensitive information. For military terms that did not exist in their language, they formed analogies -- so "owl" signified observation plane and "chicken hawk" meant dive bomber.

Notah Begay was one of the first to sign up, despite a lifetime of insults. As a boy, the government had lifted him from his birthplace outside Gallup, N.M., and sent him to Arizona for schooling. Bureaucrats anglicized his name, ordered him not to speak his native language, and cut off the traditional Najavo knot in his hair. He ran away and hid. They found him, and this time forced him into the Albuquerque Indian School. He quit again, defiant, in ninth grade.

Notah Begay
By his sophomore year in high school, Begay had shown even more ability in his sport than his father, a top reservation basketball player.

Then he served his country.

"That's what my father was -- a true American," says the son, Notah Begay II. "He loved his culture, his family and his country."

So forgive the son if he looks at his own son and declares: "His sports achievement is 100 percent me." That pride, those genes, that fearlessness than allowed Begay to shoot a 59 on the Nike Tour last year and win two PGA events this year, they all flow from a Navajo legacy that defined the grandfather and was passed on to the son, who made himself into enough of an athlete that he won a basketball scholarship in 1961 to St. Joseph's College, a now-defunct Div. II school in Albuquerque.

"I know he's half Pueblo," says Notah II, who has since been divorced from the mother of his son, "but the strong method of what he needs to do with his life is Navajo. We are a very strong people, a people who were feared. Our ancestors attacked a lot of the Pueblo sites."

To make his sons tough, he wrapped boxing gloves around their hands and told them have at each other. Notah went without headgear to level the matches with Clint, two years younger.

When Notah III started school, the father told him to sit on a mound outside his house until he returned from a three-mile run. The boy cried, wanting to come with the father. The father said OK -- but I'm not stopping for you. The father says now, "I'll be darned if that little guy didn't keep up with me the whole way. That showed me the heart of a champion right there."

By the end of high school, Notah III had led his high school basketball team to back-to-back state championships in New Mexico and was the No. 2 junior golfer in the nation. His would be the lone Native American face when the Albuquerque Journal gathered its local athletes of the year for a portrait.

No, Notah may not have grown up among the Navajo, but the blood of a grandfather who died before they ever met is unmistakably there, says the father, now 58. The father remembers waking in the dark at 4 o'clock each morning as a teenager, to feed his father's race horses -- some of the finest thoroughbreds in the state. The original Notah had this ludicrous dream for a Native American on a dusty reservation, that someday he would see one of his horses race in the Kentucky Derby.

Notah Begay will have to settle for getting an heir into The Masters.

"Notah's on a different track than my father," says Notah II, "but he's still a pioneer."

Continue to page 3 of 6, or just print out the complete profile.



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